Mike Piazza – no asterisk needed

I READ a Mets
fan’s blog
today which linked to an article about Mike Piazza and
whether he had used
performance enhancing drugs.

Mike was the reason I got
into baseball, into the Mets, so the thought of him being tarnished
with this brush just killed me.

It is so heart-wrenching to
even contemplate the idea of all of the heroes you grew up with being
corrupt. Yeah he’s Italian, but he’s also as much of a stereotypical
All-American as you could hope to find.

For me, I can’t bring
myself to think he was one of those guys. The kind of person who
needs an asterisk next to their name.

When Major League
Baseball started testing for performance-enhancing substances in
2004, Mike was 35 years old.

The common consensus was that he
was never more than an average defensive catcher – Mets fans won’t
argue this point. But at 35 years of age, his best days of swinging
for the fences with his trademark blond Mizuno bat were also behind
him,

But it got me thinking – Assuming Mike was on the juice,
which I maybe naively but categorically believe he wasn’t, how
did his statistics differ?

Lies, damned lies and statistics

piazza.jpg

When does age really start to have an
effect on a player’s performance? When does age catch up with you?
For some players, you hit your peak at 26 and it is all downhill from
there. For others, maturity comes a little later, while at the other
end of the spectrum a rookie’s hype at age 18 is never realised at
all.

If someone’s performance drops off in their mid-30s, is
it because they have stopped using steroids, or is in just inevitable
that performance will see a noticeable drop off?

For example,
between 2004 and 2006, Mike hit 61 home runs in 1,252 ABs – an
average of one every 20 ABs.

This can be compared with when he
was in his prime between 1995 and 1997 when he hit 108 homers in
1,537 ABs (one per 14ABs).

But is it really fair to use the
mid-90s as a fair baseline? The 95-97 seasons were the third, fourth
and fifth full seasons of his career and a time when he received a
pair of second place votes as MVP and started three consecutive All
Star Games.

How about comparing the two pre-testing years of
Major League Baseball (2002 and 2003) with the first two seasons of
drug testing (2004 and 2005).

Firstly, it does need to be
recognised that 2003 was a blip in his career because of injury – it
represented the first time in 11 full seasons that he was not
selected to the All Star Team or pick up the Silver Slugger
award.

But even still, his BA took a plunge, his power numbers
were down and his rbi stats took a 40 per cent nosedive. How much of
this was injury and age and how much was it down to a lack of drugs,
assuming he was ever on them in the first place?

Mike’s
batting average was in almost constant decline from 2000, although it
wasn’t until 2004 when it finally fell in line with the league
average and his OBP saw its worst ever three years in the final three
of his career.

Comparison

I want to compare Mike
to another famous catcher – Hall of Fame backstop Johnny Bench – and
Chipper Jones at the height and twilight of their careers.

Bench
peaked earlier than Piazza or Jones, hitting 112 homes runs during
his three-year peak between the ages of 22 and 24, while Chipper was
more similar to Piazza, coming into his prime in his late 20s.

Here
is the 3-year averages for each man in his prime: Piazza aged 27-29
playing between 1996 and 1998; Chipper Jones (also when he was aged
27-29) playing in the 1999-2001 campaign; and Johnny Bench in
1970-72.

  • Piazza: 36HR, 107rbi, 34 per cent extra base hits

  • Bench: 37HR, 111rbi, 43 per cent extra base hits
  • Jones: 40HR,
    108rbi, 44 per cent extra base hits


And here are the averages
for the last three years for each of them…

  • Piazza: 16 HR,
    58rbi, 37 per cent extra base hits

  • Bench: 11 HR, 39 rbi, 26 per
    cent extra base hits

  • Jones 26HR, 88rbi, 38 per cent extra base hits


So,
some notes.

Piazza went from a perennial All Star and Silver
Slugger recipient on the verge of an MVP award between the ages of 26
and 28 to a guy seven years later who had seen his average home run
total drop by 56 per cent and his rbi figure drop around 40 per
cent.

To put it into perspective, Johnny Bench saw his HR
tally and rbi numbers drop by more than two-thirds and he also hit
around one-third less extra base hits than in his prime. He was
league MVP twice in 1970 and ’72. He did only play 52 games though in
1981 when he had played twice that many the previous year.

Finally,
Jones’ HR average has dropped by one-third, his rbi total has dropped
by more than 20 per year year and the percentage of extra-base hits
has gone from 44 to 36.
Remember though, he is still playing, so
expect these averages to drop further. That is, unless he
out-performs his 2006 campaign. He has dropped from being an MVP and
regular Silver Slugger to cracking the top 10 MVP ballot just once in
the last three years.

So what does this prove? That Piazza
took steroids? That Chipper Jones is on performance enhancing drugs?
Of course not.

This is based not on physical evidence, inside
information or chemical tests. After all, it is only a look at some
selective statistics.

And statistics, as we all know, can
prove anything we want. For me, they scream ‘not guilty‘. We love you
Mike and we always will. No asterisk needed.

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4 comments

  1. juliasrants

    I too read that blog today – and I think we all need to be careful that we aren’t creating a “witch-hunt” when looking for players who might or might not have used steroids. Yes, Pandora’s Box has been open – but PLEASE – we all need to be careful not to spread rumors. I’m with you though – I’m not sure I believe that Mike used them.

    Julia
    http://werbiefitz.mlblogs.com/

  2. popejonash

    I completely agree with Julia. I don’t think it’s right to speculate on who may or may not have used steroids, I was just hoping to show that there are other reasons for a marked decline in counting statistics. The truth is, I probably woudn’t even have written the article if it wasn’t about Mike – I have 100 per cent faith in him and his ability and I think it was just literally age that caught up with him. He peaked in his prime as could be expected and then he tailed off. It’s happened with great hitters before him and it will happen with great hitters who follow. Unfortunately now, we’re living in a sceptical era of mistrust and doubt when achievements are criticised and overly-examined rather than praised for what they really are. Don’t tarnish Mike’s legacy of the greatest hitting catcher with tales of acne. He always served his fans well. We owe him the same.Ash

  3. shaz1600@hotmail.com

    While I wrestled with the title (the wrestling of titles also being an excellent reason for Not Writing) the book itself had stubbornly and – it must be said – ungratefully refused to write itself. It lies buried somewhere in those boxes of paper, breathing, waiting for me to unearth it. I don’t need a word processor; I need a pitchfork. I need a secretary. I need – a coffee, that’s what I need. So off I go.

    ——————————————————
    ccna

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