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Mike Piazza - The Greatest Hitting Catcher

Adapted from Fielder’s Choice: Baseball’s Best Shortstops (Baseball Concepts:2003)
By Michael Hoban, Ph.D.

When the season is over, how do you decide which player had the best hitting season? On-base percentage (OBP) is receiving an ever-growing acceptance among followers of baseball as an important part of judging good hitting. This is partly due to the conviction that batting average (BA) does not tell us very much about a player’s ability to hit. And a growing number of close followers of the game realize that combining OBP with slugging average (SLG) gives a still better idea of a player’s overall hitting ability. OPS is the name given to the metric that results from adding OBP with SLG.

There is no question that OPS (which is essentially a two-dimensional look at hitting) gives a better picture of hitting than any of the one-dimensional statistics mentioned above. But should we stop with just a two-dimensional metric? Or should we attempt to take the next logical step and combine OPS with the third aspect of hitting to give us an even more inclusive idea of who were the best hitters?

OPS just does not go far enough. It ignores the third important dimension of hitting – a player’s total run production for the season dependent on his playing time. OPS is essentially a rate statistic and does not take playing time into account. So, a player who plays in only 80 games in a season can have a better OPS than a player who plays in 160 games – but this does not mean that the first player was a “better hitter” for the season than the second.

Let’s look at two examples of this.

During the 2002 season, Manny Ramirez had the third best OPS in the majors with 1.097 while Vladimir Guerrero was eighth with 1.010. But Manny played in only 120 games while Vlad played in 161. Isn’t it possible that Guerrero was a better hitter in 2002 than Ramirez?

In the 2000 season, Mark McGwire had the best OPS in baseball (1.229). However, McGwire played in only 89 games that season and was by no means a better hitter for the season than Frank Thomas who had an OPS of 1.061 but played in 159 games. After all, the better hitter is the one who contributes more to his team with his bat.

So, the question becomes - Why not take the next step? Why not add the third dimension to OPS and come up with a more inclusive metric? What is needed is to combine OPS with another valid measure that includes the other dimension of batting production and takes playing time into account. Such a measure is Runs Created (RC). And even the simplest RC formula is a decent approximation of the number of runs that a player helped to create for his team – and, as such, is one of the most valuable pieces of information about how good an offensive season a player really had.

So, for example, Ramirez had a higher OPS than Guerrero in 2002. But Guerrero (because of his playing time) had 154 runs created compared to 124 for Ramirez. This certainly seems to suggest that Guerrero was the better hitter in 2002.

And Mark McGwire in 2000 only had 83 runs created (because he played in so few games) while Frank Thomas had 158 runs created. I doubt that anyone would say that McGwire had a better hitting season than Thomas.

In my batting proficiency (BP) metric, I have combined OPS and Runs Created in a balanced manner and then translated the outcome into a “batting-average-type number” – so that ordinary fans might identify with it more easily. Therefore, a BP for a season of 300 means that the player had a very good offensive season while 400 is extremely difficult to attain.

And, using BP, we can say that Vladimir Guerrero batted 344 in 2002 compared to Manny Ramirez’ 321. So, Guerrero was the more proficient batter in 2002. And, in 2000, Frank Thomas was the more proficient batter with a BP of 337 compared to 288 for Mark McGwire.

Batting proficiency combines the three most important dimensions of hitting:

1.      the ability to get on base,

2.      the ability to hit with power, and

3.      the ability to contribute to the team’s run production

and then translates the outcome into a number that the average fan is familiar with. In addition, BP is adjusted for season and for league.

RC (batting production)   +   OPS (batting efficiency)   =   BP (batting proficiency)

The full formula looks like this:   BP  =  (7RC + 1000OPS)/5.75  x  .705/L-OPS  where L-OPS stands for the league OPS for that season.

In this age of “more sophisticated” baseball measures, BP is still a relatively simple concept and supplies the best answer to what a fan really wants to know when he/she asks: Who was the best hitter during the past season? Batting proficiency tells us which player helped his team the most during the season with his bat. It does this by including the following elements:

a)   it accounts for hitting efficiency (OBP and SLG)

b)   it accounts for overall batting production (number of runs created)

c)   it reflects playing time for the season

d)   it adjusts for the season in which the player performed

e)      it is meaningful to the average fan (a similar number range as the batting average)

By combining the three dimensions of hitting: on-base percentage (OBP), slugging average (SLG) and runs created (RC), batting proficiency comes up with a new number which reflects offensive production for the season in a more complete way (including playing time). And the result is translated into a number that resembles the batting average in that 300 represents “a very good season” while 400 represents “a fantastic offensive season.” (Only ten players have ever had a 400 BP season.)

After looking at all the great players of the 20th century, I have concluded that these are the most proficient hitters. Here are their CPT scores (Career Proficiency Total).

 



1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.
11.
12.
13.
14.
15.
 
 
Babe Ruth
Ted Williams
Lou Gehrig
Rogers Hornsby
Stan Musial
Barry Bonds
Jimmie Foxx
Ty Cobb
Willie Mays
Hank Aaron
Mickey Mantle
Tris Speaker
Frank Robinson
Mel Ott
Honus Wagner

BPR
 
427
387
385
371
364
364
363
357
343
339
341
337
325
323
325

.01(RC)
 
27
23
23
20
26
21
21
25
23
26
19
22
21
21
19

CPT
 
454
410
408
391
390
385
384
382
366
365
360
359
346
344
344


BPR (batting proficiency rating) is the average of the player’s batting proficiency for his ten best seasons – his peak years. .01(RC) represents 1% of the player’s career runs created – his longevity factor. So, the CPT (career proficiency total) is a combination of the player’s peak performance and his career batting achievements.

As you can see, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams are the most proficient hitters in history. And, at the end of the 2002 season, Barry Bonds was the sixth most proficient career hitter. Since Bonds is the only one who is still active, he is the only one with a chance to move higher on the list.

Only sixty players in baseball history have managed a CPT of 300. Honus Wagner is the only shortstop in that group and Mike Piazza (at exactly 300) is the only catcher. This means, of course, that just as Babe Ruth is the most proficient hitter ever and Wagner is the best hitting shortstop – then Piazza is the greatest hitting catcher of all time.

 

Mike Piazza – The Most Proficient Hitting Catcher of All Time

If Mike Piazza is the best hitting catcher ever, the question now arises: who was the second best hitting catcher? Was it Johnny Bench or Yogi Berra or someone else?

For this analysis, I looked at the ten catchers who are mentioned most often when discussions of the “best hitting catchers” are held. They are: Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Gary Carter, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Carlton Fisk, Gabby Hartnett, Mike Piazza and Ted Simmons. I also included the still-active Ivan Rodriguez for comparative purposes. Here is the ranking for these catchers according to their batting proficiency. Hall of Famers are in dark print.

 

 
 
Mike Piazza
Johnny Bench
Ted Simmons
Yogi Berra
Mickey Cochrane
Gary Carter
Bill Dickey
Carlton Fisk
Gabby Hartnett

Ivan Rodriguez
Roy Campanella

BPR
 
289
265
262
252
254
251
247
243
243
233
232

.01(RC)
 
11
13
13
13
10
12
12
13
12
9
8

CPT
 
300
278
275
265
264
263
259
256
255
242
240

As noted above, BPR (batting proficiency rating) is the average of the player’s ten best seasons – his peak years. .01(RC) represents 1% of the player’s career runs created – his longevity factor. So, the CPT (career proficiency total) is a combination of the player’s peak performance and his career batting achievements. (All numbers from baseball-reference.com.)

As an example of how the BP formula (given above) works, take a look at Piazza’s 2000 season. He had 117 runs created that year and an OPS of 1.012. Therefore,

BP  =  7(117) + 1000(1.012)  =  819 + 1012  =  1831/5.75  =  318.43 (unadjusted)

So, Piazza had an unadjusted BP of 318 in 2000.  In order to adjust for season and league,

318.43  x  .705/.770  =   292  (where .770 is the National League OPS for 2000)

Therefore, Mike had a batting proficiency of 292 in 2000.

As you can see from the numbers above, Mike Piazza is already the best hitting catcher in baseball history and his CPT score can get better since he is still active. At the end of 2002, his BPR (his ten best BP seasons) was 289 and he had 1142 runs created.

I should comment that Roy Campanella’s CPT score may not give adequate recognition to his hitting ability. He is one of the few players in the Hall of Fame who played in the majors for only ten seasons. That was due in part to being excluded by the color barrier when he was young and to an auto accident which ended his career. And, of course, the BPR is based on a player’s ten best seasons. For Campy, that means that all his seasons are counted - whereas for other players their poorest seasons are not counted. So, even though he was considered a solid hitter during his career and had a few really good hitting seasons, his CPT score is the lowest in this group.

These scores raise at least one other interesting question about the batting proficiency approach. You may wonder how a player like Bill Dickey who played for seventeen seasons and had a career .313 batting average can have a CPT (career proficiency total) of only 259. And this is a fair question because it illustrates the essential problem with the batting average and the need for a more comprehensive measure like batting proficiency.

During his ten best seasons, Dickey had a very respectable OPS of .903. But there were two main reasons why his CPT is relatively low. The first is that he played an average of only 122 games per season during his ten best seasons and so his average runs-created for those seasons was just 89. The second reason was that he played during the 1930s when the average OPS in the American League was very high – so his BPR was adjusted from 266 to 247.

This example illustrates rather well why a more comprehensive approach to analyzing hitting is needed. A casual fan looking at Bill Dickey’s .313 career batting average compared to Johnny Bench’s .267 average might conclude that Dickey was the much better hitter. But, as we can see from the analysis above, Johnny Bench was a more proficient hitter than Bill Dickey.




Michael Hoban, Ph.D.
Prof of Mathematics, Monmouth University, NJ
Prof Emeritus, City U of NY
mhoban@monmouth.edu


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