By the time the Mets traded for Mike Piazza, he was a known commodity. National League All-Star in each of his five full Major League seasons, with the Los Angeles Dodgers. A career .331 hitter. Over 30 home runs four times. And, he was 29 years old and in his prime, not some over-the-hill veteran who the Mets were hoping had something left. Provided that they signed him to a long-term deal after the ’98 season, Piazza had a chance to be an anchor in the middle of the Mets lineup for years to come.
Like most Mets fans, I was excited about Piazza’s arrival. The Mets hadn’t had an offensive superstar since Darryl Strawberry departed after the 1990 season, an exit that was followed by several years of mediocrity and a failure to develop – or acquire – an impact run producer. But, after a 1997 campaign in which the Mets surprised much of baseball by contending for a playoff berth until the season’s final weeks, the 1998 season had a chance to be even more fruitful. And, there was a great chance Piazza could be one of the final pieces of the puzzle.
I was at Piazza’s second game in a Mets uniform, against the Milwaukee Brewers at Shea Stadium, and, from then on, I watched him closely. Early in his Mets tenure, he was getting his hits but something seemed off. Sure, Piazza had some outstanding games – a four-hit game in Florida, a two-homer game against the Phillies – but he struggled to drive in runs consistently. I noticed Piazza got most of his hits with no one on base. Through his first 72 games with the Mets, Piazza was hitting a robust .328, but with just 36 runs batted in, a paltry total for someone widely regarded as one of the top run producers in the National League. I’d never watched Piazza on a regular basis before he came to New York, but I could tell something was missing from his game, even though I couldn’t put my finger on it.
A little over a week before I was due to leave home to start my sophomore year of college, I went to Shea to watch the Mets play a twi-night doubleheader against the Colorado Rockies. Piazza started the first game, which the Mets won, but didn’t start the nightcap. In game two, the Rockies jumped on the Mets early and had a 3-1 lead. In the bottom of the seventh, the Mets managed to load the bases with two out when Piazza was called upon to pinch-hit. A rousing cheer went up when Piazza’s name was heard over the public address system, and we were hopeful that our hero would come through in a big spot. Which he did, hitting a bases-clearing double that put the Mets ahead in a game they would go onto win. I was happy with the double, but I was even happier with where the double went; Piazza hit the ball into the right-centerfield gap. That’s it! I thought. That’s what was missing! Piazza, a righthanded hitter, had been pulling everything to leftfield, occasionally dunking a single into rightfield or centerfield, usually when he was behind in the count. But, this was Piazza’s first hard-hit ball to the opposite field. He’s figured it out! I thought.
I was right. That double against the Rockies was the start of a strong finish for Piazza, who drove in 40 runs over the Mets’ final 37 games, while hitting an otherworldly .394 with 25 of his 50 hits going for extra bases. During that torrid stretch, Piazza routinely drove balls to right and right-center with authority. I paid a lot of attention to Piazza’s hands; early in his Mets tenure, Piazza seemed jumpy, half-swinging and check-swinging on breaking balls out of the strike zone away. During his hot streak, Piazza’s hands barely moved unless he was offering at the pitch, and he almost never swung at breaking balls that dropped out of the strike zone; he’s seeing the ball really well, I thought.
I celebrated in my dorm room when the news broke that October that the Mets signed Piazza to a seven-year contract worth $91 million. And, over those next seven years I continued to study Piazza. By simply watching his hands and where he hit balls, I could tell whether he was swinging the bat well or in a slump. If I saw Piazza come up with men on base and struggle to check his swing on a first-pitch slider in the dirt, I knew he wasn’t going to come through with a hit. When Piazza would get a fastball in on his hands and foul it straight back – followed by a toothy grimace, because Piazza knew he just missed a pitch he could drive – I knew he was locked in.
Piazza wasn’t the only player I watched closely; I started noticing the tendencies of other Mets players as well. I knew starting pitcher Al Leiter was going to have a difficult day when his delivery ended with his left foot still close to the ground, rather than up in the air, because he wasn’t finishing and following through properly on his pitches. Closer John Franco almost always threw his changeup when he was in a tough spot, but it didn’t matter, because his ball moved so much, most hitters struggled to make good contact. Robin Ventura played closer to the line than most other third basemen because shortstop Rey Ordoñez covered so much ground, allowing Ventura to cover less ground and making the Mets a better defensive team. I started going to a lot more Mets games, which helped with my observations; I could now see beyond what the television broadcast was showing me. After coming home from Mets games, I would watch the highlights on the 11 o’clock news, so I could see if that slider that Brian McRae hit for a home run really did catch too much of the plate. I was watching baseball from a completely different perspective that made me feel like an insider and feel more empowered. I knew that, if I watched closely enough, I’d know why certain players succeeded where others had failed, why positive results could be expected from one player or team and not from another.
My baseball education continued unabated, accelerating when I started working as a minor league baseball radio play-by-play broadcaster. Now, I had the opportunity to talk to players, coaches and scouts about the game, furthering my knowledge of the sport and giving me a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t work for players. I learned that the most effective way to learn about a player was to watch him every day and that statistics – no matter how numerous or detailed – could help paint a picture of a player, but watching him with a trained eye is the best way to understand past results and predict future results. And, even with a boatload of statistical analysis and detailed scouting, the brightest baseball minds are often still wrong about players and make mistakes and poor guesses about their futures all the time. No matter how much learning and studying one does, baseball is an inexact science and it’s impossible to have all of the answers. But, that’s what makes the game fun.
Good thing the Mets traded for Mike Piazza.Follow @raford3