25 Best Hitters of the Free Agent Era: #16 – Mike Piazza

We continue our countdown of the 25 Best Hitters of the Free Agent Era.  The rest of the posts can be found here.

Mike Piazza tallied up many impressive statistics during his fantastic career.  The most impressive number of all may not have even occurred on the field.  In 1988, Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round by the Dodgers in the MLB June Amateur Draft out of Miami-Dade College.  Yes, you read that right, the 62nd round. 1,389 players were drafted before him.  Almost 30 years later, in 2016, Piazza would find his plaque among baseball’s immortals in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The most offensive catcher of our era, Piazza’s numbers at the dish are awesome.  After breaking in for a cup of coffee in 1992, he took the baseball world by storm in 1993.  He assaulted pitching in his rookie season, batting .318, homering 35 times, and knocking in 112 runs.  Boasting an OPS of .932 (.561 slugging and .370 OBP) and an OPS+ of 153.  With a WAR of 7.4, he walked away with Rookie of the Year honors receiving all 28 1st place votes.

Not much changed over the course of Piazza’s career after that.  Sure he changed teams a few times, spending his 16 seasons between the Dodgers, Mets, Padres, and A’s.  He went on to bat over .300 the next eight seasons after his rookie campaign, including .346 in 1995 and .362 in 1997.  The ’97 season marked the first time in baseball history a player registered 200 hits in a season as a catcher.

Piazza was not just a hitter but a slugger.  In ’97 and ’99 he tallied 40 bombs, and in seven other seasons he racked up totals in the 30’s.  He slugged over .600 three times, anchoring a career total of .545.

He never struck out more than 93 times in any season.  You may be tempted to say “Well yeah – he’s a catcher, they don’t play as many games.”  Normally, you’d be correct.  But, not Mike.  He registered 528 or more plate appearances in nine different seasons, a true workhorse behind the plate.

His best season came with the Dodgers in 1997, when he batted a staggering .362 with on on-base percentage of .431 and a slugging of .638.  Some quick math gives you the resulting OPS of 1.024!  And was this with less at-bats than the average position player? Negative, ghost rider.  Piazza played in 152 games that year with 633 PA.  Oh, by the way, yes he also hit 40 homers and drove in 124 runs, two numbers he would duplicate with Mets in 1999.

When he finally called it a career after the 2007 season with Oakland, Mike Piazza’s statistics are staggering.  Limited by his duties as a catcher, and fighting through multiple injuries, he still managed to rack up 427 homers.  396 of these were as a catcher, an all-time record.   He also sits at the summit with a .545 slugging percentage, easily the high water mark for catchers in history (min 5,000 PA).  His ratios are outstanding, batting .308 and getting on base 37.7% of the time.

It’s hard to put Mike higher on this list despite these gaudy numbers.  Being a catcher, his overall hit totals are limited.   He barely topped the 2,000 hit total with 2,127.  With only 7,745 career plate appearances, easily the lowest on our top-25, his averages have to come with a grain of baseline chalk.  But still, how about this for a 162 game average: .308 / .377 / .545, 36 HR, 113 RBI, 64 BB against 94 K’s, a wRC+ of 140 and a WAR of 5.4.

Mike Piazza was a fearsome slugger who pummeled baseballs his entire career, despite his primary responsibilities of being a backstop.  Had he played another position, we might be talking about 600 home runs and a top-10 finish in the top-25 hitters of the free agent era.

There are a lot of highlights I could’ve chosen for Mike Piazza.  Of course, there’s the bat-throwing incident with Roger Clemens, but I especially like this home run from 1997. Jon Miller calls this homer “majestic,” and that pretty much sums it up.  Just listen to the crack of the bat, look at the pitcher’s reaction, see how far the ball sails. I thought this was a great representation of Piazza’s career in one swing.

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