Thursday, June 02, 2005

Buster Olney on Mike Piazza


Went to Shea Stadium on Tuesday night and spent the first few innings astonished by the play of Mike Piazza.

Some day, he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, probably on the first ballot; he's got my vote. Sometime later this year, or maybe early next year, he'll hammer his 400th home run. The Mets probably wouldn't have made the playoffs in 1999 without him, or reached The Subway Series in 2000, for that matter. His legacy is secure.

And, in 2005, there may not be a player who has less life in his actions – in how he moves, in the energy he projects – than the Mets' catcher.

He walks everywhere. After drawing a base on balls in his second at-bat, he walked to first base, and when Cliff Floyd hit an inning-ending chopper toward second baseman Craig Counsell, Piazza barely jogged to second – and then slowed to a walk and then stopped, as Counsell threw to first. Had Counsell juggled the ball and botched the play at first, he could have thrown to second for a force play.

Piazza walks out to his position; he walks back to the dugout. Not in a steady amble, either; it's a slow my-knees-are-killing-me or oh-man-do-I-have-to-catch-another-inning stroll. Some hitters stride purposefully toward the plate as they are announced, like they can't wait to hit. On Tuesday night, it was as if Piazza dragged his bat to the batter's box.

Watch Boston's Jason Varitek catch, and you will see how much he works at deceiving the hitters on pitch location, shifting at the last second, moving his glove, as the target, from the inside corner to the outside corner just as the pitcher starts his delivery. He bounces back and forth, and even if he weren't fully engaged – he is, by the way – the pitcher would think he is, simply by his actions and body language.

During the last decade, the Yankees' Joe Girardi and Jorge Posada would be in full sprint up the first base line on ground balls, bouncing in full gear up the line behind the base runners, just in case the throw to first got away. Gregg Zaun of the Toronto Blue Jays might be the most active catcher in the game, doing everything at full speed.

Piazza is at the opposite end of the movement spectrum. Whether there are runners on base or not, he will give the signal for the hitter and then shift his body once to set his target. And stay there. For one second. Two. Three seconds. Sometimes more. If there are no runners on base and the hitter has any kind of peripheral vision, he would have every opportunity to see where Piazza is setting up.

And if there are runners on base – particularly a runner at second – they are afforded eons to signal the pitch location to the hitter. Piazza shifts his body over the outside corner, lifts his glove, and never moves, for what must seem like an eternity to the baserunners; they've got enough time to place a cell phone call to hitters.

You wonder if the stiffness in his movement affects the rest of his play. Early in Tuesday's game, there was a chopper in front of home plate, and Piazza moved after the ball, lurching a bit, and he seemed totally off-balance as he grabbed the ball; in that instant, he was required to go from a statue behind the plate to full-speed, and he bounced the ball to second base, for an error.

Most of the best-throwing catchers don't necessarily have the best pure arm, but the best feet; they move quickly, setting themselves and putting their bodies quickly in the best possible position to unload the ball. Watch Ivan Rodriguez do this, or the Astros' Brad Ausmus. Piazza is really struggling throwing – he's cut down only 10.9 percent of base stealers, the lowest mark in his career – and you wonder if that has more to do with his feet than with his arm. It can't help that he never actually practices throwing during games anywhere close to full speed; at the end of the pitcher's warm-ups, he just kind of tosses the ball to second, rather than going at 85 percent, just to prepare himself.

It's probably the wear and tear of catching for almost two decades; Piazza is 36 and playing baseball's most brutal position. Maybe years of playing amid stardom and expectations in New York have worn him out. He just doesn't look like he's having any fun whatsoever.

Maybe he deserves a pass. Maybe he doesn't. The Mets are trying to win and change the direction of the franchise, and Piazza's body language and energy could not be worse. It would be interesting to hear from readers as to what standard they hold stars to late in their careers.

Piazza's been a great player for a long time. No matter the case, he's finishing his time with the Mets in slow motion.

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