The path Mike Piazza took from a high school first baseman who garnered little interest from colleges to Hall of Famer was an improbable one. Is his story one that could even happen today? Would Mike Piazza even make the major leagues, let alone become the best hitting catcher of all time?
At this point, I doubt the 47-year-old has the knees to catch everyday.
But seriously, I think it’s a valid question when we look at which players are given which opportunities and how much time prospects have to prove themselves.
Piazza was famously selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft as a favor to manager Tommy Lasorda. Since then the draft has been reduced down to 50 rounds and once again in 2012 to only 40 rounds. That’s over 600 more players drafted in 1988 than today. I have to think it’s pretty safe to assume that Piazza would have been one of those players to fall by the wayside.
So to start out, his career in baseball would have to follow another path than what it did whether that involved a return to Miami-Dade Community College, hooking up with a team in an independent league, or going the route of an undrafted free agent.
After Piazza was selected by the Dodgers, Lasorda convinced scouting director Ben Wade to convert him to catcher to give him the best shot at success in the organization. Piazza even volunteered to go to the Dodgers’ Dominican Republic training academy for three months knowing he would get a crash course on the position. Even now it’s a little surprising how much time and money were invested into converting the overlooked Piazza into a catcher.
Position changes are not uncommon, but Los Angeles selected seven (four of which they signed) other catchers in the 1988 draft prior to Piazza. In a short two years, Piazza was behind only 15th round selection Lance Rice among his fellow draftees by the time assignments were handed out for the 1990 season. But as is typically the case, two other catchers who were drafted a year later were also ahead of Piazza on the minor league depth chart. Roles and placement in a organization’s system have as much to do with expectation and sunk costs as performance.
Nowadays, it seems there are only so many chances a late or undrafted free agent will get before a team gives up or cuts him loose. One has to only look at the Baseball Reference pages of late-round catchers taken by the Dodgers (Andrew Edge, JJ Ethel, and Austin Cowen) in recent years to see that to be true. But if they keep them around, these are the players that litter teams’ phantom disabled lists in the lower minors. They’re the guys that are kept around “just in case” but spend most of their time inactive with an injury that doesn’t really exist.
In Piazza’s case, his first two seasons were a mixed bag. As a 20-year-old at Low-A Salem, Piazza slashed .268/.318/.444 with 11 doubles and eight home runs while also striking out 51 times in 214 plate appearances. The next year at High-A Vero Beach, his walk rate continued to fall (only 11 bases on balls in 285 plate appearances) while he maintained his 23.9% strikeout rate and his isolated power dipped from .177 to .140.
The numbers were not headed in the right direction for Piazza and this is usually the time a 62nd round draft pick would find himself facing a demotion or caddying in a backup role for the team’s hot, new prospect.
But instead, the Dodgers sent Piazza to Bakersfield in 1991 where he started to put things together offensively while serving as the team’s primary catcher. Piazza clubbed 29 home runs, doubled 27 times, and improved his eye at the plate as he cut down on his strikeouts and amplified his walks. In retrospect, that year and the following season where he slashed a combined .350/.413/.587 changed Piazza’s life and put him on the fast track to Chavez Ravine.
All of this doesn’t even touch on Piazza’s biggest question mark as a baseball player, his defensive issues and most specifically his throwing. A lot of in-depth analysis has shown Piazza has graded out as an average catcher as far as blocking balls and even framing. In his career behind the plate, pitchers had a 3.80 ERA when Piazza was catching which was over half a run better than those same pitchers in the same year to different backstops. But Piazza was also perhaps one of the worst throwing catchers of all-time as he threw out only 23 percent of attempted base-stealers.
Although throwing is much less important than anecdotally thought in the past, in 2016 it might still be enough to limit Piazza’s chances in the major leagues behind the plate. So given all the odds that Piazza faced to even get to The Show, in all likelihood he would be forced back to first base or as a liability in left field (see Schwarber, Kyle). MLB teams obviously can’t ignore the offensive production of a hitter like Piazza, but they also can’t have his weak-armed reputation do little to control the opposition’s running game.
So, would Piazza even make the major leagues today?
Frankly, I’m a little shocked he even made it in the early Nineties. If it wasn’t for the friendship between his father and Tommy Lasorda, Piazza wouldn’t have even been drafted in the first place. I highly doubt an organization would have cared enough to convert him to catcher and Lasorda acting as Piazza’s guardian angel also probably kept the wolves at bay the first few professional seasons when Piazza struggled.
It was an opportunity Piazza would justify all the way to Cooperstown.Next post: Off-Season Therapy: A Baseball Movie Guide
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