21 May 2008

Mike Piazza Hangs Up Tools of Ignorance

I did some research about four years ago when Mike Piazza broke the all-time record for homers by a catcher, in which I estimated that Ivan Rodriguez, not Mike Piazza, and not Johnny Bench, was probably the most valuable catcher of all time. I'm not a fan of Pudge, and I haven't been since he came up with the Rangers, so I wasn't happy with those results, but that was where they led.

In light of Mike Piazza's retirement from baseball, I thought I would look at that work again and see where he ends up. What follows is an edited version of that column:

In May of 2004, Mike Piazza broke the all-time record for career home runs by a catcher, when he hit #352. That homer surpassed Carlton Fisk's mark, which he set a decade or more ago, but which took him about 800 more games to do than Piazza, so clearly Piazza's the superior hitter of the two. For that matter, Piazza is easily the greatest hitting catcher ever, by virtually any measure you can conjure. Shysterball mentions that his career OPS (on-base plus Slugging percentage) was 15 points higher than his closest serious competition.

Piazza polarizes baseball fans. Lots of purists, old-schoolers especially, think that a catcher must catch, first, and any offense you get out of him is secondary, gravy, as it were. This is why Moe Berg and Bill Bergen had careers. For that matter, this is why Brad Ausmus and The Flailing Molina Brothers have careers.

Seamheads like me will tell you that you can't possibly do enough with the glove, regardless of your position, to make up for being a terrible hitter, and that likewise an average hitter can't do enough defensively to catch up to the overall value of a great hitter.

Four years ago, Rob Neyer argued that the ten best catchers were, all things considered, in order:

                      Games  Caught  OPS+
1. Johnny Bench 2158 1742 127
2. Yogi Berra 2120 1699 126
3. Carlton Fisk 2499 2226 116
4. Bill Dickey 1789 1708 128
5. Gabby Hartnett 1990 1793 126
6. Roy Campanella 1215 1183 123
7. Mike Piazza 1699 1629 142
8. Mickey Cochrane 1482 1451 127
9. Gary Carter 2296 2056 116
10. Ivan Rodriguez 2190 2099 111

You can see fairly easily that one of these guys stands out significantly, and it's Piazza. The question Neyer wrestled with, then, as now, is whether or not Piazza's defensive liabilities take away enough from his hitting to knock him all the way down to #7 on the all-time list.

If you look at Bill James' rankings in his most recent Baseball Abstract, he has Yogi first, then Bench, then Roy Campanella, then Cochrane and Piazza at #5, and Pudge all the way down at 13th. But James' rankings are simultaneously more comprehensive and more subjective than what I'm doing here. James used career Win Shares, WS/season, peak value, and other metrics in the numerical valuations, but he also admits to a subjective element, including postseason contributions, leadership, clutch performances, etc. Also, Pudge was only about halfway through his career when that book came out in 2000, and I'm sure James would put him in the top 5 or so, at least, by now. None of that has any real bearing on my statistical approach, I just thought you might like to see what someone smarter than me thinks. Or, thought, eight years ago.

In Rob Neyer's column in 2004, he mentioned that he would have been happy to take Fisk down a peg or two, and Piazza up a peg or two, if he were inclined to investigate the matter more, which he wasn't at the time. Subsequent responses to emails from his readers dealt more with the lack of Josh Gibson on the list (no, I don't know where he belongs either, but would be interested to hear arguments about him one way or the other) and the difficulty of comparing offense across leagues and eras. Nobody, apparently, wrote in to rally for Piazza's ranking to be higher, and evidently lots of people think that I-Rod belongs a lot higher, if not at the very top. I don't happen to be one of those, or at least I wasn't before I did a little research.

I had planned to try to give Mike Piazza a little more support than he seems to have gotten, and to support Neyer's contention that I-Rod is overrated, but now I'm not so sure. Let me tell you what I did and you can tell me if I'm all wet, OK?

I used Baseball Prospectus DT Cards for the ten players on the list (Josh Gibson is omitted from the discussion, of course). I used their WARP3 numbers, which stands for Wins Above Replacement Position, and includes hitting, pitching and fielding contributions, adjusted for all time. I then (roughly, I admit) prorated those ten players' numbers for the games in their careers they actually caught(GAC). This isn't perfect, but it assures us that players like Yogi don't get extra credit for prolonging their careers by playing the outfield.

I then divided the wins into the games as catcher, and prorated this over 162 games, to level the playing field and to get the numbers into a useful range. And do you know what I found? Of course you don't, or you wouldn't still be reading.

Name                WARP   GAC  WARP/162GAC
10. Ivan Rodriguez 122 2099 9.45
7. Mike Piazza 94 1629 9.37
8. Mickey Cochrane 82 1451 9.16
4. Bill Dickey 96 1708 9.11
1. Johnny Bench 95 1743 8.83
6. Roy Campanella 63 1183 8.63
9. Gary Carter 107 2056 8.43
2. Yogi Berra 88 1699 8.39
5. Gabby Hartnett 87 1793 7.86
3. Carlton Fisk 100 2226 7.28

Four years ago, I found that Ivan Rodriguez appeared to be the best catcher ever. At the time, he had a rate of 9.83 Wins per 162 games at Catcher, which was far above anyone else. Mike Piazza was second, though, not seventh, with a rate of 9.37 W/162.

Well, four years have passed, and interestingly enough, Piazza's rate hasn't changed at all, even though his OPS has come down 14 points, from 156 to 142, and his WARP has gone up from 80 to 95. That's mostly because he's been a part-time player the last four years, and has only caught an additional 200 games. His worst year with the bat was also the only year that he only used the bat, 2007, when he was a lackluster DH with the Oakland A's.

As for Rodriguez, his OPS has come down a bit, from 113 to 111, but he's caught about 400 more games and continues to be a very good defensive catcher, at least according to the metrics used by Baseball Prospectus. Though his rate of Wins above Replacement per season has dropped, as you would expect for an aging player, he still leads the pack in that area, and of course he's now got more WARP in his career than any catcher in history.

I don't even like Ivan Rodriguez. I think he's overrated, both on offense and defense, and arrogant and self-absorbed. But if Baseball Prospectus is right about him, then "pound for pound" as they say on boxing, he's the best.

But, Piazza, despite his uninspired defensive reputation, is a very close second.

Those two are followed by Cochrane, Dickey and then Bench all the way down at #5! Campanella and Carter follow, and then Berra at #8. (As a Yankee fan, I had hoped that Berra would do better, but what can you do?) Hartnett and Fisk round out the top ten.

I don't really know if this means anything or not, but from looking at the DT cards, I can see how Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez gain so much ground. Piazza's offense is SO much better than anyone else's that he can't help but jump way up in the rankings. He's got almost exactly the same number of equivalent runs (EQR) as Bench, but Bench needed about 900 more outs to amass those! As a fielder, Bench was as good as Piazza is bad, with +166 fielding runs above average vs. negative 143 for Piazza. This helps Bench, but you just can't make up for such a tremendous difference in offense with your glove, I think.

This is the same reason that Rico Brogna wasn't as good a firstbaseman as Jason Giambi, or that Pokey Reese is not as good a secondbaseman as Alfonso Soriano. Granted, there's a lot more to the defensive requirements at catcher than there is at first base, but if the methods Baseball Prospectus uses to measure defense and offense are at all reliable, then, we've got to take the numbers seriously, and the numbers say that Piazza has thus far been worth approximately the same number of wins as a catcher, as Bench for his career, in about 100 fewer games as a catcher. Put simply, the bat makes up for the glove.

I-Rod isn't as good a hitter as Bench was, but his defense (amazingly, to me) actually rates better! He's +204 fielding runs above average, and has caught about 350 more games than the First Pudge. Rodriguez has had six seasons of at least +20 Fielding RAA, whereas Bench had only two, at exactly 20, and his overall defensive numbers are hurt by the fact that he was a bad firstbaseman, a bad thirdbaseman and a bad outfielder, but even factoring that out probably doesn't give hime more than a win or two over the course of his career.

Like I said, I don't even like Rodriguez. I originally did this study hoping to prove that Mike Piazza'a offense makes him the Greatest Catcher Ever, despite his defense, but it didn't happen. I found what I found, and even though I didn't necessarily like the result, I've got to be honest with you about it.

Regardless of that, Piazza rates, "pound for pound" as the second greatest catcher in history, right behind Ivan the Terrible at Taking Pitches, and should easily be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when his time comes. If Pudge keeps playing but his defense slips, he could drop down further and that rate of Wins per season as a catcher would fall below the mark that Piazza is now sporting, and with which he's retiring.

But Pudge is still a semi-regular catcher only because he's still a good catcher, if not much of a hitter anymore. Right now he's hitting .264/.307/.386 with one homer and 16 RBIs in 37 games. Last season he became the first player in the American League in over 60 years to qualify for the batting title without walking at least ten times. He's not a good hitter anymore. But just as Piazza's bat made up for his glove, Rodriguez' glove makes up for his bat. When Piazza's bat went south on him, he had no other skills to offer, and had to retire, and eventually, the same will happen to Pudge with his defense.

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