Mike Piazza, the best offensive catcher in baseball history, isn’t in the Hall of Fame. And nobody can really explain why.
Yes, you will hear phrases like “stain of the steroid era” and “cloud of suspicion.” But these are the facts: Piazza was never suspended for performance-enhancing drug use. His name did not appear in the Mitchell Report, and it hasn’t surfaced in any subsequent PED revelation.
All we have is rumor, conjecture and innuendo. So far, that’s been enough to keep him out of Cooperstown. Now, with the 2016 class set to be announced on Wednesday, it’s high time this capricious waiting game comes to an end.
This is Piazza’s fourth go-round on the Hall of Fame ballot. His vote total has climbed each year, starting at 57.8 percent in 2013 and reaching 69.9 percent last year. The threshold for enshrinement is 75 percent.
So, it’s looking good for Piazza. The reluctance to let him in, on the other hand, does not look good for the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voters.
DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/Associated Press/Associated Press
Piazza has seen his HOF vote total rise each year but has yet to get the 75 percent required for enshrinement.
First, let’s just get the unimpeachable stats out of the way. In his 16-year career, Piazza hit more home runs (427) and posted a higher OPS (.922) than any qualified catcher in history. He won National League Rookie of the Year honors in 1993, made 12 All-Star teams and finished among the top 10 in MVP voting seven times.
He defense gets mixed reviews, though in 2013 Max Marchi of Baseball Prospectus made the case for Piazza as the ninth-best pitch-framer of all-time.
What’s undeniable is that his bat stands above even greats like Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk and Yogi Berra.
On the numbers alone, Piazza is a first-ballot shoo-in. Instead, he’s been tossed on the heap with tainted sluggers like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. The difference is that McGwire admitted to using PEDs, and there is ample evidence that Bonds and Sosa did as well.
With Piazza, there’s only guilt by association. He was a big, strong guy who hit a lot of homers during a time when other players were using PEDs.
ANDRES LEIGHTON/Associated Press
Piazza is the all-time leader among qualified catchers in home runs and OPS.
Last January, Bill Madden of the New York Daily News admitted as much when explaining why he snubbed Piazza.
“I decided to withhold my vote on Piazza,” Madden wrote, “the reason being I did not want to vote somebody into the Hall of Fame who I would then find out two or three years later had, in fact, been a steroids cheat.”
With that logic, why vote for anyone? Even the seemingly cleanest player could turn out to be a PED user in retrospect. Better keep them all out, just in case. Don’t want any egg on your face.
Does Piazza belong in the HOF?
As I’ve made clear in the past, I think great players from the steroid era, like Bonds and Roger Clemens, belong in the Hall. To me, it’s a museum commemorating the most transcendent talents in baseball history, not a reward for good behavior.
But even if you think PED use disqualifies a player from enshrinement, you have to draw a line somewhere. Did the player test positive for a banned substance? Is there documentation and strong circumstantial evidence suggesting he did? Fine, leave him off your ballot.
But if all you have is a sneaking feeling—or, in the case of Murray Chass, the fact that you noticed acne on Piazza’s back—you are unfairly playing judge, jury and executioner.
BBWAA voters can do what they please, of course. This is an entirely subjective process. But we don’t have to like it.
JOHN BAZEMORE/Associated Press/Associated Press
Piazza has never admitted to PED use and wasn’t named in the Mitchell Report.
Did Piazza use PEDs? It’s certainly possible. He did admit to using androstenedione early in his career, according to a 2002 New York Times report by Rafael Hermoso and Tyler Kepner. At the time, though, “andro” was a legal substance; MLB didn’t ban it until 2004.
Piazza also told Hermoso and Kepner that he never used steroids because, “I hit the ball as far in high school as I do now.”
Whether you believe him or not, he’s never deviated from that statement. And no hard evidence has emerged to refute it.
Was Piazza a 62nd-round pick who came out of nowhere to become an offensive force? Yes. Did he hit the bejeezus out of baseballs during the 1990s and early 2000s, a time when PEDs permeated the game? Yes, again. Did he have pimples on his back? Apparently.
Is that enough to keep the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history out of the Hall of Fame?
Here’s hoping the answer, finally, is “no.”
All statistics courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.