Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Piazza's Defense: The Anti-Jeter? 

Jeremy Heit points me to a great article over at Rich's Weekend Baseball Beat about Mike Piazza. Rich crunches some numbers and concludes that Piazza is the best hitting catcher ever. However, due to "questionable defense," which "is an important component when it comes to judging catchers," Rich does not feel "comfortable anointing the 10-time All-Star as unequivocally the best ever." That's a fair point and a belief held by most. But how can so many people, sabermagicians included, look to all sorts of offensive numbers to formulate conclusions while at the same time simply rely on what I feel is a myth about Piazza's defense?

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Piazza's been robbed of Gold Glove awards all these years but it seems to me, using my concededly biased blue and orange eye, that Piazza does an adequate job behind the dish. If you have been reading my little blog I'm sure you know that I'm a far cry from a bona fide, certified stat geek. However, I did my obligatory Moneyball reading so I feel qualified to pull some numbers out of my ass every so often if they support my point (that's the lawyer in me coming out). I think my point is supported once you start looking at a few numbers. In 2002, his last full year catching and without missing significant amount of time due to injury, Piazza did a good job not allowing many passed balls (8, only two more than Pudge Rodriguez). As for game calling, in the last three years Piazza's catcher's ERA, how ever much stock you want to put in that, has been lower than the Mets' overall team pitching ERA. Mets manager Art Howe attributed the Mets pitching staff's strong finish to Piazza's return from injury last year. Again, put as much weight in that as you think it warrants. In 2001 Piazza had a .991 fielding percentage, which placed him just about in the middle of the pack in relation to other MLB catchers, although this takes quite a hit in 2002 when he finishes second to last.

Despite the fact that Piazza's fielding numbers are not that bad, he still gets a blanket label as a poor defensive catcher, or worse than he really is, because 1) a catcher's throwing arm on stolen base attempts is overly glorified in a catcher's defensive game; and 2) because Piazza's arm is not that good, people think that the rest of his defense and game calling ability is bad. If that's the case, is Piazza the anti-Jeter when it comes to defense? Jeter looks pretty good out there with our eyes but once you look at some of the more advanced stats we see our eyes are playing tricks on us. Piazza, on the other hand, looks bad out there when he's bouncing balls to second base trying to throw out runners but overall, is he really that bad?

So my question is, is Mike Piazza's defense such a detriment that he can't be given the title of the overall, unqualified, best catcher ever? My answer is no, it's not that bad but then again what do I know. Like I've said in the past I'm JSSTLHTUB (Just Some Schmuck That Learned How To Use Blogger).
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