Passing Judgment: Mike Piazza belongs in the Hall of Fame

Before I delve into this article, I need to be up front and honest about my subjective bias on this topic.  My favorite baseball player ever is Gary Carter thanks mostly to the fact that the very first baseball game I ever watched was Opening Day in 1985.  On that day, Carter made his Mets debut and hit a game-winning homerun in extra innings.  At that moment, I became a Mets fan, Gary Carter became my favorite player, and I knew I wanted to become a catcher.  After Carter retired, I began rooting for a young catcher on the Mets named Todd Hundley.  I even met him in a hotel in Pittsburgh years before he exploded with 41 homeruns in 1996. 

But while rooting for Hundley and the Mets, I took notice of another young catcher who was taking the league by storm.  Mike Piazza of the Dodgers could hit in a way I had never seen before, especially by a catcher.  As I was progressing through Little League and into high school, I prided myself on being a good hitting catcher.  I hit for a very high average, got a lot of extra base hits, and had a keen eye at the plate.  I wanted to hit like Mike Piazza, so much so that I got a Piazza jersey on the Dodgers in 1994.

Needless to say, I was beyond ecstatic when the Mets acquired Piazza in 1998.  He instantly turned the Mets into a credible contender and provided a stable presence in the middle of their lineup that had been sorely missing.  Piazza was a free agent after the 1998 season, but the Mets locked him up for seven years all but assuring several more magical moments in New York.

There was never a doubt in my mind that Mike Piazza would end up in the Hall of Fame someday.  The only question I ever asked was whether he would be wearing a Dodgers or Mets hat on his plaque.  However, Piazza played during the infamous steroid era which has or will likely ruin the Hall of Fame candidacies of many of Piazza’s peers including Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro.  While it is essentially proven or a foregone conclusion that these players did in fact use performance-enhancing drugs, there has never been anything besides a couple rumors about Piazza’s alleged use.

Presently, the only “evidence” against Piazza is part of a chapter in “The Rocket That Fell To Earth” which was recently published by Jeff Pearlman about Roger Clemens.  In that chapter, unnamed sources claimed that Piazza told several trusted reporters “off the record” that he did indulge in performance-enhancing drugs in limited doses.  Additionally, former first baseman Reggie Jefferson opined that Piazza clearly used PED’s and everybody in the game knew it.

However, this is all just wild speculation and mere conjecture.  Piazza never failed a drug test and was not mentioned in the Mitchell Report.  His statistics never showed any dramatic uptick or downturn that was not consistent with his ordinary production.  When his production really started tailing off after 2002, it made perfect sense given he was a 34-year old catcher with mounting injuries and less playing time.  But from his first full season in 1993 through 2002, he was remarkably consistent in terms of his offensive statistics in batting average, power, and runs produced.

The question is whether the baseball writers will simply lump Piazza in with the other known cheaters and keep him out on his first year of eligibility.  I think this would be a mistake.  If you compare Piazza to other catchers already in the Hall of Fame, there is no question that he belongs there right now.  Of Piazza’s 427 career homeruns, 396 of them came while he was playing catcher.  This surpassed Johnny Bench’s 389 homeruns making Piazza the greatest homerun-hitting catcher in baseball history.

Additionally, Piazza’s career batting average was .308 which is third all-time behind Mickey Cochrane’s .320 and Bill Dickey’s .313.  His slugging percentage of .545 blows away the current leader in Roy Campanella who had a .500 slugging percentage as a catcher.  His 1,335 runs batted in would only trail Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench.  His 2,127 hits would only trail Berra and Carlton Fisk. 

Piazza was also a 12-time All-Star and won 10 Silver Slugger awards.  He finished near the top of MVP voting several times despite never winning one.  He was also the 1993 National League Rookie of the Year.  Piazza had some major defining moments in his career including hitting a game-winning homerun in the first game played in New York after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  He single-handedly helped bring New York back with one swing of the bat.

Granted, Piazza was not a great defensive catcher.  No one is going to compare Piazza with the other Hall of Fame catchers from a defensive perspective.  But isn’t it possible to be inducted if a player simply dominated one facet of his game at a particular position?  Ozzie Smith is in the Hall of Fame solely because of his defensive prowess at shortstop.  His offensive numbers are in no way shape or form Hall of Fame worthy.  So if he was elected for that reason, then Piazza’s offensive domination at the catcher position should carry as much weight.

I also acknowledge that Piazza never won an MVP award, never led the league in a meaningful category, never won a World Series, and never achieved a major milestone such as 500 homeruns or 3,000 hits.  I also recognize that he played during an era where offensive numbers were inflated and affected by external forces. 

But despite all of that, there is no tangible proof implicating Mike Piazza for any wrongdoing.  He never failed any drug tests, he was not named in the Mitchell Report, he was not summoned to Congress and asked to testify, he was not accused of lying to Congress or investigators.  Piazza dominated the league from the time he was 24 years old and maintained consistent numbers across the board over a period of time commensurate with the career lifespan of an everyday starting catcher.  And not just any catcher.  Piazza became baseball’s greatest hitting catcher of all-time combining the most homeruns at the position with a career batting average well over .300.  That is truly worthy of induction into the esteemed and prestigious Hall of Fame.

 

 

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