On the Offensive

Mike Piazza, the all-time home run leader among catchers, debuts on Hall of Fame ballot

December 19, 2012
2013 BBWAA Hall of Fame Candidate Mike Piazza (NBHOF Library)

As a baseball underdog, it doesn’t get much more challenging than being a 62nd round draft choice.

But in just 25 years, Mike Piazza has gone from the 1,390th player chosen in the 1988 MLB Draft to the doorstep of Cooperstown.

Along the way, Piazza firmly established himself as one of the greatest hitting catchers in the history of the game.

“You can’t take anything for granted in this game,” Piazza said. “The minute you think you have this game licked, it’s gonna come up and bite you.”

Piazza is one of 37 players on the 2013 Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot for the Class of 2013 at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Piazza is making his debut on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot.

BBWAA members who have at least 10 years of tenure with the organization can vote in the election, and the results will be announced Jan. 9. Any candidate who receives at least 75 percent of all BBWAA votes cast will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2013. The Induction Ceremony will be held July 28 in Cooperstown.

Born Sept. 4, 1968 in Norristown, Pa., Piazza had baseball connections from the start. His father, Vince, grew up in the same Norristown neighborhood as Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda. After attending the University of Miami and Miami-Dade Community College, Piazza was taken in the 62nd round by the Dodgers – on the recommendation of Lasorda – in 1988. A first baseman in college, Piazza moved to catcher with the Dodgers.

After a couple tough years in the minors – including a season in which he briefly quit the game – Piazza established himself as a top prospect by hitting 52 home runs combined during the 1991 and 1992 seasons. He was called up to the Dodgers at the end of the 1992 season, then exploded on the national scene in 1993 with 35 home runs, 112 RBI and a .318 batting average en route to a unanimous selection as the National League’s Rookie of the Year.

Between 1993 and 1997, Piazza averaged better than 33 homers and 105 RBI per season – along with a .337 batting average – despite two shortened seasons due to the 1994-95 strike. In 1997, Piazza recorded 201 hits – the first player whose primary position was catcher to record 200 hits in a single season.

Defensively, Piazza proved to be one of the game’s most durable catchers – leading the league in putouts four times and assists twice.

“I’ve ready some very fair views on my defense – that I’m not really to the point of being astounding or lighting any eyes up,” Piazza said. “But I’m proud of my defensive accomplishments. It’s something I’ve worked very hard at.

“The bottom line is to hit home runs, drive in runs.”

But after failing to come to agreement with the Dodgers on a long-term contract, Piazza was traded to the Florida Marlins with Todd Zeile on May 14, 1998 for five players, including Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, Charles Johnson and Gary Sheffield.

Eight days later, the Marlins – in the midst of a team restructuring following their 1997 World Series title – traded Piazza to the New York Mets for prospects Geoff Goetz, Preston Wilson and Ed Yarnall.

Piazza finished that fractured season with 32 homers, 111 RBI and a .328 batting average, then led the Mets to playoff berths in both 1999 and 2000 – advancing to the World Series in the latter season. The Mets lost the World Series despite Piazza’s two home runs and four RBI.

Piazza topped the 30-homer and 90-RBI marks in both 2001 and 2002 before the wear and tear of catching began to take its toll on his legs. He played three more seasons with the Mets and one apiece with the Padres and A’s, retiring following the 2007 season with 427 home runs – including a major league record 396 as a catcher.

Piazza drove in 1,335 runs – fourth among catchers all-time behind Yogi Berra, Ted Simmons and Johnny Bench – and posted a .308 career batting average. He was named to 12 All-Star Games (winning the 1996 All-Star Game MVP), captured 10 Silver Slugger Awards at catcher and finished in the top five of the NL MVP voting four times, including back-to-back second-place finishes in 1996 and 1997.

“He’s certainly the best hitting catcher of our era,” said 300-game winner Tom Glavine, who was Piazza’s teammate with the Mets from 2003-05. “And arguably the best hitting catcher of all time.”

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum