This article was written by Chuck Rosciam
This article was published in the Fall 2012 Baseball Research Journal
On September 12, 1992, in the fifth inning of a game between the Dodgers and the Giants at Dodger Stadium, Michael Joseph Piazza hit his first major league home run and his road to the catcher career home-run record began.[fn]All game details obtained from Retrosheet and the author’s own databases.[/fn]
This first four-bagger was a hard shot to right center with men on second and third and Los Angeles leading 3–0. The count was 1–0 and San Francisco’s pitcher, Steve Reed, served up Piazza’s first dinger. He would subsequently serve up three more to Piazza in years to come. It was also the first of 51 three-run home runs that he would hit, but the only home run that he would hit in his initial major league season.
In his 16-year career, Piazza would hit 30 home runs (or more) in a season nine times, including eight consecutive years—1995 through 2002—and would have likely had 10 straight seasons were it not for the strike-shortened 1994 (24). In all, he had 427 career home runs with 396 of them as a catcher.[fn]All “home run, only while catching” data provided by SABR member David Vincent.[/fn] Both are all-time catcher records.
In the course of his career, Piazza would pass all of the Hall-of-Fame catchers on the home-run list, including Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Carlton Fisk, and Gary Carter. Through the 2011 season, he ranked 43rd among all players in career home runs, ahead of some well-known non-catcher Hall-of-Fame sluggers such as Duke Snider, Al Kaline, Jim Rice, Tony Perez, Orlando Cepeda, and Joe DiMaggio.[fn]Non-catcher home run data from Baseball-Reference.com and Sean Lahman’s downloadable database.[/fn]
Table 1 shows career home-run tallies for Hall-of-Fame backstops, plus some notable non-HOF catchers, and the date Piazza passed each.
Table 1: Catcher Career Home Runs
Table 2 shows home runs while catching (as compared to playing any other position) by backstops and the dates that Piazza surpassed each.[fn]Position-related home run data provided by SABR member David Vincent.[/fn]
Table 2: Career Homers While Catching
|Ray Schalk (HOF)||11||06/15/93|
|Roger Bresnahan (HOF)||14||06/20/93|
|Buck Ewing (HOF)||35||10/03/93|
|Mickey Cochrane (HOF)||117||08/06/96|
|Ernie Lombardi (HOF)||182||07/29/98|
|Bill Dickey (HOF)||200||05/09/99|
|Gabby Hartnett (HOF)||232||09/19/99|
|Roy Campanella (HOF)||239||04/14/00|
|Gary Carter (HOF)||298||08/19/01|
|Yogi Berra (HOF)||305||09/30/01|
|Johnny Bench (HOF)||327||08/17/02|
|Carlton Fisk (HOF)||351||05/05/04|
*HRc is a home run while catching.
Piazza’s nine years of 30 or more home runs is more than double any other catcher. Johnny Bench, Roy Campanella, and Mickey Tettleton only managed it four times each. Where did Piazza get his swing and power? He was the second of five sons of Vince and Veronica Piazza. His father built a backyard batting cage at the family home in Valley Forge that was used all year long: Mike used to shovel snow out of the cage so that he could practice. One summer when Piazza was just 15 years old, Ted Williams was at a Pennsylvania card show and Vince invited him to look at his son batting.[fn]Wayne Coffey, “Hometown Hero Mets’s Piazza Has Become Favorite Son of Phoenixville, PA,” New York Daily News, June 7, 1998.[/fn] Williams watched Mike’s swing and remarked, “If this kid is swinging this well now and he’s only 15, I guarantee you that he will hit in the major leagues.”[fn]Maryann Hudon, “Coming Into His Own: Mike Piazza Isn’t Really Lasorda’s Godson, but He Has Become a Real Big Leaguer,” Los Angeles Times, May 23, 1993.[/fn] Williams told Mike that good mechanics were just 50 percent of hitting and advised him about blocking out distractions and concentrating only on hitting.[fn]Jason Diamon,”Piazza Has Valentine Dreaming of October,” The New York Times, February 22, 1999.[/fn]
Table 3: Piazza Homers Season by Season
Piazza’s 35 home-run season in 1993 made him an easy selection as the National League Rookie of the Year. In 1996 the fans selected him as a starter in the All-Star Game and he didn’t disappoint; he hit a home run in that summer classic and was named the Most Valuable Player. Piazza is tied for third all-time amongst catchers with Johnny Bench who had 10 selections (nine by fans and one by managers). Ivan Rodriguez leads all backstops with 12, followed by Yogi Berra with 11.
Piazza’s 40 homers in 1997 and 1999 are the fifth most by a catcher. Johnny Bench holds the record with 45 in 1970, followed by Javy Lopez’s 43 in 2003, Roy Campanella’s 41 in 1953, and Todd Hundley’s 41 in 1996. Furthermore, his 201 hits in 1997 were the second most by a catcher in major league history right behind Joe Torre’s 203 in 1970. His .362 average that year tied Bill Dickey (.362 for the 1936 Yankees) for second best all time (Jack Clements holds the record with .394 set in 1898); in 2009 Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins broke Dickey and Piazza’s second-place record with .365.
In January 2005, Piazza married Alicia Rickter, a Baywatch actress and Playboy’s Miss October 1995, in Miami in a candlelight church ceremony. In attendance among the more than a hundred guests were his best friend and fellow player, Eric Karros, plus Ivan Rodriguez, another probable Hall of Fame backstop.[fn]“Piazza goes off market,” USA Today (AP), January 30, 2005.[/fn] Later that year, he would pass Johnny Bench’s career home run total of 389.
His most productive month was June. However, he was equally proficient before and after the All-Star break, having whacked 233 before and 194 after the midseason pause.
Table 4: Piazza Homers by Month
Mike had 36 two-home-run games and one threehomer game on June 29, 1996 at Colorado’s Coors Field. He hit 219 solo home runs, 143 two-run shots, 51 three-run homers, and 14 grand slams, ranking him 15th (tied) in this category among all players and number one amongst catchers.[fn]Grand slam information provided by SABR member David Vincent.[/fn] The nearest catchers to Piazza in slams are Johnny Bench and Gary Carter with 11 each. Yogi Berra, Ted Simmons, and Jorge Posada each had nine. He is tied with Mark McGwire and ahead of such notable players as Joe DiMaggio (13) and Barry Bonds (11). In 1998 he led the majors with four grand slams, his fourth slam and first as a Met came against the Diamondbacks’ Andy Benes on August 22 at Shea Stadium.[fn]Retrosheet.org.[/fn]
His first grand slam came on June 6, 1994, in the second inning against the Marlins, with Mark Gardner on the mound and Florida ahead 2–0. It was Piazza’s 48th home run and his 224th game of his major league career. He hit three slams against the Rockies in his career (two at Coors Field and one at Dodger Stadium).
The 14 slams were scattered throughout the stands: four in left, four in left-center, two in center, two in right-center and two in right field. He clubbed six at home and eight on the road.
As a pinch-hitter he hit five homers and as a designated hitter, 18. He also had seven walk-off home runs, two in 1996, and one each in 1995, 1999, 2001, 2003, and 2004. Three of these end-of-game hits came against the San Diego Padres, and one each against the Astros, Expos, Giants, and Phillies.
He hit 195 of his 427 home runs at home and 232 away, with 105 coming at Shea Stadium and 92 at Dodger Stadium, seven of those as a visitor. His five favorite opponent parks were Olympic Stadium (19), Coors Field (17), Veteran’s Stadium (16), Three Rivers Stadium (15), and Turner Field (14). Piazza is also in a select group of just a few players to hit a major league home run at Tokyo Dome in Japan.[fn]David Vincent, Home Run’s Most Wanted (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, Inc., 2009).[/fn] In 2000 he tied the single-season major league record of putting the ball over the fence in 18 different parks.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
He was an equal-opportunity slugger, having hit a home run against all 30 major league teams (counting Montreal and Washington as one team). His top-seven list reads as follows: Philadelphia (44), Atlanta (38), Colorado (34), Montreal/Washington (28), and 27 each against Pittsburgh, San Diego, and San Francisco. He spread his homers across his teams with 177 for the Dodgers, 220 with the Mets, 22 with the Padres, and eight with the A’s. His five-game stint in 1998 with the Marlins generated no home runs.
His favorite victims (pitchers) were Tom Glavine, Pedro Martinez, and Jason Schmidt, against whom he slugged six each. In all he homered against 280 different pitchers. Two were victims of five home runs (Jeff Suppan and Tim Worrell), 10 hurlers were bit four times each, 22 saw the ball sail out three times off Piazza’s bat, 50 endured just two, and 193 were lucky enough to toss just one home-run ball to him.
Where did Piazza park his home runs? Left field accounted for 136 of the 427. Left center parked 75 of them, and dead center saw 78 of them land there. Right-center had 57 and right field had 81.
Of the six “milestone” home runs (1st, 100th, 200th, 300th, 400th and last) we’ve covered the first, so now on to the other five:
- #100: Dodgers vs. the Reds at Riverfront Stadium on Tuesday, May 7, 1996, a ninth inning solo shot that tied the score at 1–1. Closer Jeff Brantley was on the mound and the count was 1–2. It was the 422nd game of his major league career. Although Piazza’s shot tied the game, Cincinnati would come back in the bottom of the 12th to win the game, 3–2.
- #200: Mets vs. the Astros at the Astrodome on Wednesday, September 16, 1998, a ninth inning shot with two men on and New York losing 2–0. Billy Wagner was tossing for Houston and the count was 2–2 when Mike sent the ball to deep right-center field in his 832nd career game. The Mets would go on to win the game, 4–3.
- #300: Mets vs. the Red Sox in an interleague game, Piazza’s 1,195th major league game, at Shea Stadium on Friday, July 13, 2001. Bottom of the ninth with Boston leading 3–0 with Derek Lowe on the mound. The count was 0–1 with the bases empty and Piazza parked the ball in left-center field. That was the only run that the Mets could muster and the Red Sox won the game, 3–1.
- #400: Padres vs. the Diamondbacks at Petco Park on Wednesday, April 26, 2006. Bottom of the ninth with Arizona leading 3–1 and Jose Valverde on the mound. The count was even at 2–2 and Piazza sent one over the left-center wall for a solo home run. The Diamondbacks held onto their lead to win 3–2. This was Piazza’s 1,718th major league game.
- #427: Athletics vs. the Red Sox at Fenway Park on September 26, 2007, fifth inning with Oakland trailing 5–4 and Jon Lester on the mound. On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, with the count 1–2, he hit a hard shot to left field that tied the score. Boston would ultimately win the game, 11–6. This was Piazza’s 1,909th game and the only hit that day in five at-bats. It was not his last game; he would go on to play three more against the Angels.
Table 5 details the breakdown of homers by Piazza’s slot in the batting order.[fn]A table listing all 427 of Piazza’s home runs with pertinent fields is shown at the appendix to this article on SABR.org.[/fn]
Table 5: Piazza Homers by Batting Order
Piazza spread his homers across all innings with 133 of them in the top of the game (innings 1–3), the middle innings were his favorite with 167, and the late innings (7–9) saw 122. He also had five in extra innings.
He sent 91 first pitches into the stands, accounting for 21.3% of his career homer total. His worst pitch count was 3–0 where he hit only two. Table 6 shows how many homers he had in each of the 12 pitchcount situations.
Table 6: Piazza Homers by Ball/Strike Count
The number of outs on the scoreboard didn’t seem to matter to Piazza as he had an almost even distribution of home runs from this perspective, 143 with no outs, 136 with one, and 148 with two. It also seems as though it didn’t matter whether his team was ahead, behind or tied. He hit 155 when his teams were ahead, 115 with the score tied, and 157 when behind. In late innings (seventh or later) with his team tied or down by three runs or fewer, Piazza hit 59 (14%) of his dingers. Table 7 shows the number of home runs in each inning and the score differential (0 = score tied and minus means number of runs behind).
Table 7: Piazza Homers in Late Innings by Score
Piazza had a number of streaks in his 16-year career. He hit a home run on four consecutive days beginning June 25 through June 28, 1994. In one twogame stretch against the Phillies (August 26–27, 1995) he banged out two home runs in each game, tallying three RBIs the first day and seven the next. He had two long hitting streaks: 24 games from May 25, 1999 to June 22, 1999 with eight home runs in the mix, and 21 games from June 7, 2000 to July 3, 2000 with 10 home runs.
Mike was born September 4, 1968 in Norriston, Pennsylvania. What did he do to celebrate his birthday? In 1998 he hit a two-run shot against the Braves. In 2000 he hit a solo home run against the Reds, and in 2002 against the Marlins he hit one with a man on. Piazza hit 39 home runs in his home state, 18 in Philadelphia and 21 in Pittsburgh, not counting the one in the 1996 All Star Game at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
There is a myth that if one plays long enough, one is bound to break a home-run record of some type. A simple ratio dispels this myth: career plate appearances per home run (PA/HR). Piazza leads all catchers in this category as shown in Table 8.
Table 8: Catcher Career PA per HR
|Roy Campanella (HOF)||242||19.90|
|Johnny Bench (HOF)||389||22.30|
|Yogi Berra (HOF)||358||23.35|
|Carlton Fisk (HOF)||376||26.20|
|Gary Carter (HOF)||324||27.84|
|Gabby Hartnett (HOF)||236||30.92|
|Ernie Lombardi (HOF)||190||33.43|
|Bill Dickey (HOF)||202||34.97|
Table 9 lists a few select players of the 50 with over 400 home runs and shows the company that Piazza keeps in the PA/HR category. Through 2011 Pizza ranked 15th all-time.[fn]Data and ranking extracted from Baseball-Reference.com for all 50 players with career home runs over 400.[/fn]
Table 9: Career Ranking (PA/HR) for Select Players
The 427 home runs during his 1,912 regular-season games were not the only ones. He had one in the Division Series, three in the League Championship Series, and two in World Series competition. On top of that he had two homers in All-Star Game action.[fn]Postseason data obtained from MLB.com.[/fn]
The question is, “Are 427 career home runs enough to be elected into the Hall of Fame?” Piazza’s stats were so impressive 1993–2002 that many adherents of the game couldn’t comprehend how impressive he was. The decade from his debut to the start of his physical decline comprise 10 offensive years by a catcher never seen before. He had 10 consecutive years with an OPS over 900. Hall-of-Famer Mickey Cochrane only had six such years; Bill Dickey, Carlton Fisk, and Gabby Hartnett had five each.
A “300–400–500” season (with a batting average of .300+, an on-base percentage of .400+, and a slugging average of .500+) is a benchmark of outstanding offense. Bill Dickey had four such seasons, Gabby Hartnett, four. Mike Piazza is tied with Mickey Cochrane with three 300–400–500 seasons.
Using Bill James’ Win Shares (WS) as a measure and counting the number of seasons with 20 or more WS, Piazza had nine years tied with Gary Carter, Mickey Cochrane, and Bill Dickey. Only Yogi Berra (11) and Johnny Bench (10) had more 20+ WS seasons. Piazza holds the single-season WS record for catchers, with 39 in 1997. Berra’s high was 34 in 1954 (one of his three MVP years); Campanella had 33 twice (1951 and 1953, both MVP years).[fn]Bill James, Win Shares, (Northbrook, IL: Stats, Inc., 2002); Bill James,
Bill James Handbook, 2002–2012 editions (Northbrook, IL: Stats, Inc., 2002–2012).[/fn]
Piazza should have been MVP in 1997 with a .362/.431/.638 line while playing for the Dodgers in a stadium that depressed offense by seven percent.
The winner that year was Larry Walker, playing for the Rockies in Coors Field, a park that inflated offense by 20 percent. This was the second time that Piazza finished second in the MVP voting (in 1996 he was runner-up to Ken Caminiti).
Although a batter really doesn’t have much control over RBIs, Piazza has the second longest streak with 15 consecutive games with at least one RBI (2000 Mets); the record is held by Ray Grimes (1922 Cubs) with 17 straight games.[fn]Baseball-Reference.com.[/fn]
Whatever one could say about this 62nd-round pick (1,390th player taken overall) of the 1988 amateur draft with his 34.5-inch, 31.6-ounce bat, he is baseball’s greatest home run-hitting catcher.[fn]Amateur draft data obtained from MLB.com.[/fn] Not only did he launch warheads, but he brought something special to the game. His game-winning home run against the Braves in the first sporting event held in New York after 9/11 lifted the morale of the city, if not the country. His smile, mustache, and mullet will likely be immortalized in bronze in Cooperstown in 2013.[fn]Thanks and gratitude to Cliff Blau for his fact-checking expertise and labors.[/fn]
CHUCK ROSCIAM, a retired Navy captain with 43 years of active service and an amateur catcher for more than forty years, is the creator of www.baseballcatchers.com, a source for many sportswriters. His baseball writing has previously appeared in the “Baseball Research Journal” and “The National Pastime”.