Kevin just sent in his unofficial ballot earlier today. (Hey, if this blog lasts until 2016, we’re in the BBWAA, right?) One of the comments he made, for a moment, infuriated me — he called Mike Piazza the best catcher of our generation, over Pudge. I was going to flame the ever-loving shit out of his comments section, but I am older and/or wiser, so I decided to check the numbers. (All of these from baseball-reference. Piazza/Pudge.)
Total WAR for career: Piazza, 65.7 oWAR, 1 dWAR. Pudge, 53.8 oWAR, 29.7 dWAR. Edge: Pudge. I’m honestly surprised Piazza’s dWAR was even positive, although I do contend he was better defensively than many.
Counting stats: Piazza, 2127 H, 427 HR. Pudge, 2844 H, 311 HR, 127 SB (!!). Edge: Piazza. The only reason it looks closer is because Pudge played for five more seasons and about 2300 more PAs.
Career slash stats: Piazza, .308/.355/.545, OPS+ of 143. Pudge, .296/.334/.464, OPS+ of 106. Edge: Piazza. The OBP difference is pretty surprising, and while Piazza was always more feared, we have to consider that Pudge had the better offense around him. If we look at Pudge’s best season — 1999, for which he won the MVP — he had Palmeiro, Juan Gone, a still very serviceable Lee Stevens, and Rusty Greer in the one season he was actually healthy. The 1997 Dodgers had Raul Mondesi, Eric Karros, and Todd Zeile. Which club would you rather hit for? To be fair to Pudge, his last few years in the bigs absolutely torched his career rates. I think the slash stats, apart from SLG, would be much closer if they played the same number of games.
K-rate: Pop quiz, who struck out more times, on average, in a season? Answer: THEY’RE EXACTLY THE SAME, 94 Ks per season. The biggest hole in Pudge’s game, by far, was plate discipline, as he rarely walked and struck out like a power hitter. Ks aren’t bad, in and of themselves, but Pudge didn’t draw walks. Part of this is the “fear factor” Piazza had built in with his freakish power, of course, but Pudge needed to lay off the bad pitches just a little bit more.
Hardware: Piazza, Rookie of the Year, 14 All-Stars, 12 Silver Sluggers, top 10 MVP 11 times. Pudge, 4th in Rookie of the Year (won by Chuck Knoblauch), 13 All-Stars, 7 Silver Sluggers, 13 Gold Gloves, 1 MVP (1999) and 3 other top 10 finishes (all at #10), 2003 NLCS MVP, 1 World Series ring. Edge: Push. Both have very full awards cabinets, mostly deserved. Piazza finished second twice, to Ken Caminiti and Larry Walker. You could award both to Piazza and I’d have no real problem with it, although steroids aside, Caminiti deserved the 1996 MVP and Walker was every bit as good a hitter in 1997 with better defense and baserunning.
The 1999 MVP that Pudge won bares further inspection. If I had a vote, I would have voted for Pedro, who was just stupidly good that season, but the BBWAA has always been shaky with voting for pitchers for MVP unless it’s a clear runaway (like Justin Verlander in 2011). Manny Ramirez was a better hitter, but a terrible defender. So, it comes down to Robbie Alomar or Pudge. Pudge had a better overall season hitting, with a touch more power and a lot less discipline than Robbie, with more ABs. Both were outstanding fielders, although C is more important than 2B.
My ballot, if I voted that year, would have gone Pedro, Nomar (seriously, the dude played out of his fucking mind that year), Pudge, Alomar, Palmeiro, Manny, Jeter. There’s a bit of Indians homerism there, sure, but that Pudge won the award doesn’t cost me any sleep. It was a damn good year in the AL.
Although I like to pretend the 2003 World Series didn’t happen, it did, and the only silver lining was that Pudge got the ring he deserved.
Postseason: .255/.314/.392 for Pudge, .242/.301/.458 for Piazza. Edge: Pudge. The Marlins don’t win in 2003 without Pudge. The Mets lost in 2000 in spite of Piazza, not because of him, but both players were well under career averages in the post season.
Conclusion: I had a lot of fun with this one, revisiting my younger days when I was obsessed about baseball instead of merely really, really fond of it. In my first ever fantasy baseball season in 1998 or 1999, I had Pudge and Kerry Wood. Instant championship. Both are, in my opinion, first ballot Hall of Famers in a just universe. Piazza was a preternaturally gifted hitter who stood around at catcher and didn’t make too much of an ass of himself. Pudge was a preternaturally gifted catcher who was slightly above average with the bat, and at his peak, much better than average.
So who was better? Honestly, I have to say Piazza, but by the tiniest shred of a nose. Pudge played too long. If Pudge retired in 2006 or 2007, it would have tipped the balance back to Pudge. But he didn’t.
Of course, if I had my way, I have Pudge behind the plate and Piazza at DH and I laugh all the way to the bank. You know, the bank where they award World Series titles.