Statistically speaking, when you get all advanced metricky, Mike Piazza’s best seasons were his youthful ones spent with the Dodgers. He produced the best season ever by bWAR for a catcher (narrowly passing Johnny Bench 8.7 to 8.6) and he owns two of the top 13. Both of those were in Los Angeles, in 1997 and 1993 respectively, as he redefined the definition of a catcher from a broken kneed, game manager to an offensive force. He’s one of only five men to hit 40 or more homers playing primarily as a backstop (Piazza and Bench both did it twice), and he owns three of the top 10, five of the top 12, and nine of the top 27 seasons (think about him owning 1/3 of those) ever for homers by a catcher. Not all of those were with the Dodgers. His best three and part of a fourth by bWAR were, though.
I’m not arguing he was better then. I’m not arguing much of anything. I’m just stating a fact. Clearing my throat.
Looking back over the numbers from the years now called the Steroid Era, or the Selig Era as Joe Posnanski does, is similar to scanning the statistics after a season of MVP Baseball set to Rookie. Those 150 stolen bases and 40 straight starts of 15+ strikeouts sure seemed like an accomplishment at the time—you won a trophy after all—but in retrospect, maybe six players breaking Maris’ home run record was a bit much. Well, maybe not. Maybe it jumped the shark when you did it by August.
In that regard, leading into a discussion of Mike Piazza’s best years by presenting his offensive bona fides is akin to offering the savvy sommelier a watered down bottle of Sine Qua Non. Things sure look okay at first glance, but when you dig a little deeper, it’s difficult to swallow and keep down. When Bench led the Majors in homers in 1970 with 45, six players topped 40 home runs that year.1 When Piazza hit 40 home runs in 1997, he was tied for eighth with four others and there were 12 men who hit 40+. Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey, Jr. each hit over 50 with Larry Walker at 49. What the hell do I make of those numbers? They’re so cartoonish it’s impossible to use those as the foundation of an argument. But I’m not arguing anything. I’m just chatting with friends.
In 1972, Bench was the only player to reach 40 home runs. 1999 was the year after the famed home run record chase between McGwire and Sammy Sosa, after McGwire hit 70 home runs, but it still saw McGwire and Sosa top 60 (65 and 63 respectively) and 13 men hit 40 or more with another seven within three of the goal.
At the time I was amazed. Now I’m just amazed that an entire decade of my baseball watching life is a statistical anomaly.
All of this is important only in the sense that yesterday the Hall of Fame voting came and went and Piazza missed the cut. Again. He was close. His overall percentage rose from 62.2 last year to 69.9. He missed election by a scant 28 votes, and if history tells us anything it’s that he’ll likely be elected very soon.
I don’t know how I feel about any of that. I guess I’m upset. Technically Piazza’s best years were his earliest with the Dodgers, but the ones I remember most fondly are the years spent with the Mets. Mike Piazza helped the Mets make the playoffs for the first time since 1988 and the World Series for the first time since 1986. The 1990s were always something of dark time in Flushing for the Mets, and Piazza was part of a team that actually made baseball fun to watch again. No team could every supplant that ’86 squad as my all-time favorite team, but that ’99 team ranks right up there as one of my favorites. I could watch highlights of Turk Wendell and John Olerud all day if my wife let me.
So, I lead in with numbers because a paragraph of rain drop gifs for tears just wouldn’t send the right message.
I imagine a lot of voters are like me and aren’t quite sure what to make of the years where everyone grew to unimaginable proportions with numbers to match. Still, though, after all these years, I wonder if Roger Clemens throwing the bat at Piazza was the first indicator of roid rage or his undeniable douchebaggery:
You’re right. Douchebaggery of course.
I remember in 2001 watching the Mets play the Orioles at Camden Yards. At the time, I couldn’t believe how large both Piazza and Benny Agbayani were. Two of the largest human beings I’d ever seen in person. I felt awful for Josh Towers, the O’s starting pitcher. In comparison, he looked tiny like a high school freshmen. Piazza crushed a homer to center in that game, giving me something to cheer about. I left Camden that night thinking two things: Steve Trachsel really isn’t that awful, and Selig needs to make these fields bigger because the players are outgrowing the dimensions.
In my mind, Piazza easily passes the duck test. If he looks like a HOFer then he’s probably a HOFer. I don’t even consider Piazza’s candidacy open for any serious debate. He was amazing and deserves to be in. That he’s now missed election three years running is so absurd that it defies all logic except that entire era is absurd. Luis Gonzalez, a man who weighed about 200 pounds, jacked 57 home runs in 2001, which is three more than Mickey Mantle’s best season and three shy of Babe Ruth’s. So, yeah, it’s difficult to be that outraged over the HOF results when nothing at all makes sense.
I guess I’m not upset. I’m disappointed. Others aren’t going to see Piazza how I do, and that’s fine. I look at the numbers, and I see memories rather than columns and rows. I’m not disappointed with the voters because they did what they did and probably had a good reason for it…unless they voted for Aaron Boone to get in.
I’m disappointed because I can’t summon any level of anger or indignation. Not even an inkling. A part of my baseball watching life has to be discussed almost apologetically, with a sigh and a sad shake of my head, and when an oversight like Piazza missing the cutoff happens again I just shrug and say, “Sure, I understand.”
Whatever. I guess there’s always next year.
- There were only 24 teams then, so take that into consideration as well. This isn’t a discussion of who was the greatest catcher of all-time, so I’m not going to dive too deeply into these numbers. ↩