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The 62nd Round Superstar: Mike Piazza

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Mike Piazza
Mike Piazza
Harry How, Getty Images

The 62nd Round Superstar: Mike Piazza

We already looked at Derek Jeter today, so let's stay with the New York theme and look at the career of another baseball icon, Mike Piazza. Piazza is in the news of course due to his new book, but he isn't just a superstar that I want to write about to generate traffic.

Like Jeter, Piazza was a very interesting prospect, too, and a good subject for a Prospect Retrospective.

Mike Piazza grew up playing high school baseball in Pennsylvania. His father Vince was a wealthy businessman, and a close friend of Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. Mike graduated from high school in 1986. He was talented enough that Hall of Famer Ted Williams, after seeing Piazza hit in a batting cage, predicted that he would succeed in the majors. Nonetheless, Piazza attracted little interest from professional teams.

He went to Miami-Dade Junior College in Florida to play college ball, where he played first base. Major league teams still weren't interested, seeing him as too limited defensively to thrive professionally, but the Dodgers drafted him in the 62nd round in 1988 as a favor to Tommy. At Lasorda's insistence, Piazza moved behind the plate, spending three months at the Dodgers' Dominican academy learning to catch. He showed so-so receiving skills, but Lasorda knew it would increase his chance to advance up the ladder if he could prove even adequate defensively.

Piazza was assigned to Salem in the Northwest League for 1989, where he hit .268/.318/.444 with 13 walks and 51 strikeouts in 198 at-bats. He didn't thrive in the Northwest League, but he showed enough with the bat (+10 percent OPS) to keep from getting released even though some in the organization resented his connection with Lasorda. At this point his power potential would have made him a Grade C prospect.

Moved up to Vero Beach in the Florida State League for 1990, Piazza hit .250/.281/.390 in 88 games, struggling with the strike zone (11 walks, 68 strikeouts in 285 at-bats) but showing further power potential with 20 doubles. He remained rough defensively and his production was just slightly better than league average; again he would rate as a Grade C type.

That began to change in 1991. Piazza hit .277/.344/.540 with 29 homers, 47 walks, and 83 strikeouts in 448 at-bats for Bakersfield in the California League. The hitting environment was friendlier than the difficult FSL, but his plate discipline was legitimately better and he bumped his OPS up to +22 percent. Defense was still an issue and he wasn't rated among the league's top prospects by Baseball America, but he showed enough with the stick to earn Cal League All-Star honors, and was recognized as the Number Ten prospect in the Dodgers system by BA entering '92. Nowadays I'd probably give a guy like that a Grade B-, as a player who had shown significant improvement with the bat but who needed to show that the improvement would stick at higher levels.

It did. Piazza tore apart the Texas League to open 1992, hitting .377/.441/.658 for San Antonio in 31 games. Promoted to Triple-A, he slugged .341/.405/.564 with 16 homers in 94 games, then finished with a .232/.284/.319 mark in 21 games (69 at-bats) for the Dodgers. Overall, he hit .350/.413/.587 with 23 homers, 50 walks, and just 75 strikeouts in 472 at-bats in the minors that year. His glove wasn't great, but it was good enough for him to stick behind the plate if he kept hitting like that. Note also the very low strikeout rate for a power hitter. BA ranked him the best prospect in the Dodgers system. I would likely given him a Grade A or maybe a strong A-.

Piazza hit .318/.370/.561 with 35 homers for the Dodgers in 1993 (OPS+153), earning All Star and Rookie of the Year honors. And he kept hitting after that, hitting over .300 for 10 years in a row, leading the NL in OPS twice, earning All-Star honors 12 times. His best season according to WAR was 1997, with a 9.4 mark along with a .362/.431/.638 line.

Overall, for the Dodgers, Marlins, Mets, Padres, and Athletics, Piazza hit .308/.377/.545 with 427 homers, OPS +143, career WAR 66.8.

Among catchers, Piazza ranks seventh all-time in WAR. The top ten list: Johnny Bench (81.6), Carlton Fisk (74.4), Ivan Rodriguez (74.1), Gary Carter (72.5), Yogi Berra (71.4), Joe Torre (70.9), Piazza, Bill Dickey (63.7), Ted Simmons (61.2), and Gabby Hartnett (56.0). Piazza's WAR would be higher if not for his defense, which deteriorated over the years a great deal. He was however the best-hitting catcher of all-time, with his 141 wRC+ the best-ever for a player who spent the majority of his career behind the plate.

Piazza's Bill James Sim Score list:

Johnny Bench
Yogi Berra
Gary Carter
Carlton Fisk
Gabby Hartnett
Bill Dickey
Jorge Posada
Duke Snider
Juan Gonzalez
Lance Parrish

All the catchers on that list were Hall of Famers except Parrish, who was a very solid player, and recently-retired Posada, who has an argument.

Looking at his career from a prospect standpoint, Piazza was an above-average hitter in rookie ball, adequate in his second season, then broke out in the Cal League as a 22-year-old when he developed a better feel for the strike zone. While Piazza's final outcome as a HoF type was extreme, his minor league development was hardly unprecedented; many players take steps forward at that age, especially when they get a better grasp of the strike zone.

Piazza hit 31 doubles and 14 homers in his first 145 professional games. He was hardly punchless in the low minors. He just needed to mature.

As you know, Piazza was denied election to the Hall of Fame on his first try, his candidacy undermined (like most of the great stars of the 90s and early 00s) by PED rumors and assumptions about too much back acne. He admitted to using androstenedione, but he used it before andro was placed on the list of banned substances by MLB, so I don't see how that particular substance can be held against him.

He denies other PED use. I don't know whether he's telling the truth or not. We also have no way to know how much usage of Andro or anything else boosted Piazza's performance.

You could arbitrarily knock 20% off of Piazza's career numbers as a "unproven rumor of PED-use penalty" and he'd still rank among the All-Time great catchers.