The U Files #30: The Charge of the Battery

The biggest (positive) trade the Mets have ever made was completed in May 1998, bringing in megaslugger Mike Piazza from his transient stay in Florida. Last year, the Mets pulled an early season deal to haul in some relief help. The common link here is (in addition to being early trades) that both are under scrutiny for perceived failures in 2002. Piazza has been accused of driving in too few runs, and Scott Strickland of letting in too many.

Mike Piazza is without doubt the best 62nd round pick ever. After more than one thousand players in the draft were selected ahead of Mike, he won the NL Rookie of the Year award in 1993 and hasn't stopped mashing since. He has put together a career of historic proportions, cementing his reputation as the best hitting catcher ever. He is one of the few catchers to be regarded as one of the most feared hitters in the game.

However, in the present, he has two widely known failings. One, he is a catcher. Two, he is in his thirties. Taken together, they spell a recipe for declining performance. Fans have been watching Piazza closely for signs of impending doom. In the last three years, fans and the media have detected signs of such. In particular, it has been noted that his batting average has fallen and he posted his first two seasons of below 100 RBI in years. The cries have grown increasingly loud that Piazza must soon switch to another position. How much of this is hype and how much is deserved?

Here I will post Piazza's stats over the last five years and then detail my interpretation of the data.









































































First, his AB have decreased from 556 and 561 in 1997 and 1998, to 534 in 1999, to 482, 503, and 478 in 2000-2002. This can be taken as a sign that the physical strain of catching is taking a heavier toll on his body. This is a bad thing in itself, and also bad since it has taken our most potent bat out of the lineup more often.

His batting average has indeed fallen; his .280 average last year was his first sub .300 BA in a full year. The league batting average (league numbers adjusted to Shea Stadium) has also fallen, but by a much smaller degree. His OPS has fallen quite a bit over the last three years. However, the league OPS has also fallen, and by a larger degree than the league batting average. His OPS relative to the league, measured in OPS+, hasn't fallen by the degree his drop in pure OPS would indicate. His career OPS+ is 155 (this can loosely be taken to mean he's been 55 percent better than a league average batter), and in 2000 and 2001 his OPS+ wasn't far from this mark. In 2002, his OPS+ was fifteen points off his career mark.

Isolated Power is a measure of pure power hitting. It is calculated by extra bases (total bases minus hits) divided by AB, or equivalently by SLG minus BA. His career isolated power is .255, and he has been over this mark in each of the last four years. His 2002 isolated power (.264) is down from his previous three years. Strikeout to walk ratio is a measure of patience. Piazza has always been a low-strikeout, high-walk hitter, as is reflected by rather low k/bb ratios. His patience has improved a bit as his career went on (and his isolated power has risen), his career mark being 1.439. His 2002 mark is the highest (meaning less patience) of the last five years, but not by a great degree.

His decrease in Runs Created reflects all of the factors above. It is a measure of total production, a measure invented by Bill James and refined since (a simple way to estimate RC is to take OBP*SLG*AB). Runs Created is an estimate of the number of runs a batter contributed to his team; adding up RC for every batter closely matches team runs scored. It is based on hits, walks, total bases, and other components, and is not influenced by team effects like RBI and Runs Scored are. As it is not a rate stat, it has been affected by his decrease in AB, and it does not reflect the change in his rate of production. His RC per AB (RC turned into a rate stat) over the last five years is .223, .207, .243, .219, .192. This more or less tracks his OPS. That his Runs Created has fallen below 100 is a function of his declining productivity and his decrease in AB.

Piazza's pure production numbers have indeed fallen, but so has the production of the entire league. The biggest contributor to his decline is the decline of his batting average. His rate of production is still in the elite category. However, his decrease in AB compounds his decrease in productivity. So, while Piazza is still a productive hitter, moving him to a less strenuous position is an idea that has merit if it can increase his AB and the fewer nagging injuries reflects on his production. His overall offensive skills should decline with age anyway, but a switch to an easier position may alleviate the effect compared to what it would be as a catcher.

Scott Strickland is a 27 year old reliever acquired from the Montreal Expos early in the 2002 season. He pitched 18 innings in 1999, 48 in 2000, and 81.1 in 2001, than 68.2 innings in 2002, mostly for the Mets. His ERA has been lower than the league average in each of his years. In Montreal he was a superb pitcher, posting ERA+ numbers of 154 and 144. He posted ERA of 3.00 and 3.21. In 2002, he posted an ERA of 3.54, an ERA+ of 111. He was not as good as he had been, but not as bad as some fans think.

High strikeout rates have been a constant in Strickland's short career. His k rate has never dipped below 9.00 per nine innings (which it was in 2000). In the last two years his rates were 9.41 and 9.04. His walk and home run rates have not been so consistent. Though fans remember Strickland for the home runs he gave up last year, he did not allow a high home run rate, and his rate was about the same as it was the previous year. In 2001 and 02 his home run rates were one per 9.04 innings and one per 9.81 innings. This is up from one per 16 innings in 2000. His walk rates have increased, from 3.00 to 4.54 to 4.33.

Strickland has always had trouble pitching to lefties, but last year he was worse than ever in a full season. In limited time in 1999, he surrendered an OPS of 1.406 to the lefthanders. In three full years, he has been tagged to OPS of .838, .822, and .926. He has also been used against lefties too much. The percent of batters he faces that are left-handed has never dipped below 30. In his three full years, the percentages have been 35.0, 38.7, and 36.8. If used as a righty specialist, he could probably post an ERA below 3. If he is to reach a similar potential as a set-up man, he must make some adjustment in his game against lefties.

A changeup, suggested by many, likely won't be possible. This is one of the first pitches coaches teach young pitchers. He's probably already tried to master a change without success. Perhaps a splitter would be possible, but this is a tough pitch to master.

In fact, Strickland may have been due for a slight fall. Not many relievers are consistently 50 percent above average (and many relievers are rather inconsistent). His strikeout and walk rates were only slightly worse in 2002 than in 2001, and his home run rate slightly better. His ERA was a bit lower than it should have been in 2001. He was a bit lucky, meaning he gave up fewer hits than should have been expected given his k rate. His batting average against on balls in play was .267, a bit lower than the normal .280. In 2002 it returned to .283.

Piazza and Strickland may both have to make changes in their game to achieve maximum effectiveness. Strickland suffered flashy play syndrome. He gave up a number of very memorable home runs, but otherwise was quite effective. He may be expected to produce something between his 2001 and 2002 seasons. Piazza is still a batter the Mets should be able to count on, unless some catastrophic sudden decline befalls him. It may behoove him to move to another position in a year.

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