Mike Piazza, Hall of 'Framer'

Mike Piazza, who will be called to Cooperstown on Sunday, wasn't just a home run hitter. He was one of the great pitch-framing catchers of his time. Getty Images

You probably know about Mike Piazza's biggest home runs: the two for the Los Angeles Dodgers that knocked the San Francisco Giants out of the division title race on the final day in 1993; the three-run homer to cap a New York Mets rally from seven runs down against the Atlanta Braves in June 2000; and, of course, the home run for New York City, which beat the Braves on Sept. 21, 2001, the first game in New York after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But what was the soon-to-be Hall of Fame catcher's best moment behind the plate?

The answer to the question is "strike three called!" -- a moment that illustrates Piazza's excellence in another area, pitch framing.

Piazza's pitch-framing masterpiece came in Game 2 of the 2000 NLDS between the Mets and Giants. The Giants had taken Game 1 at home and rallied from 4-1 down to tie Game 2 on Armando Benitez. The Mets took a one-run lead into the bottom of the 10th, but the Giants threatened. They had the tying run on first with two outs and the winning run at the plate in the form of Barry Bonds, who squared off against Mets reliever John Franco.

Franco fell behind 3-1, then threw a fastball a little bit off the outside corner at the knees. Piazza caught it cleanly, moved it up a little bit and got a strike call as Bonds' head recoiled and the home crowd moaned.

On 3-2, Franco came inside and Bonds took a big cut, fouling it back. So Franco went with a changeup on his next effort, and the pitch was clearly inside. Bonds was ready to toss his bat and walk to first, only to be stunned when umpire Gary Cederstrom called it a game-ending third strike. Piazza had caught the pitch and brought it over, making it look, from the umpire's view, as if it had nipped the inside corner.

Bonds mumbled something at Cederstrom as the Mets came out of the dugout and ran to Franco. But Franco knew who was most responsible for the strikeout. He gave Piazza a fist-bump before punching him with his left hand, square in the chest protector.

"It was a ball," then-Mets manager Bobby Valentine said in a conversation 16 years later. "There was no doubt about it. There was a little sleight of hand there. [Piazza] moved it quickly. That was what he was capable of doing. He took pride in it."

When people think of Piazza the catcher, they tend to rate him poorly because he had a weak throwing arm. But recent re-evaluations of catcher defense based on publicly available data have shown that he excelled at pitch framing, getting his pitchers extra strikes on close calls.

Piazza ranked among the top seven catchers in Baseball Prospectus' framing runs metric -- a stat based on comparing called-strike rates against expected rates -- in each of his first five seasons, and eight times in his first 10 seasons. He led the league in the stat in 1996 with the Dodgers and ranked third in 2001 with the Mets. He has the 13th-most framing runs among the more than 1,100 catchers who have played in the majors since 1988.

Piazza perked up when the subject was brought up during his Hall of Fame conference call last week.

"I really enjoyed becoming a student of catching," he said. "I love to watch others. A couple that come to mind were Damon Berryhill. I used to love the way he caught the ball. And Charlie O'Brien, who caught for the Mets, Braves and Blue Jays. I love the way he used to catch the ball, almost like an egg.

"I came up with a veteran staff [with the Dodgers] -- Orel Hershiser, Ramon Martinez, Bob Ojeda. And so I knew if I was not catching the ball well, they would let me know about it. I knew I had to be solid back there and that I really had to become a good framer."

Former Dodgers batterymate Ismael Valdez can vouch for Piazza's work. He pitched 12 years in the majors but had his best seasons from 1994 to 1997, when he threw to Piazza. His strikeout-to-walk rate was 3.1-to-1 when Piazza caught him, 1.9-to-1 when others did.

"He was athletic, a strong guy, and a workaholic," Valdez said. "He said, 'If you want me to move outside, inside, whatever, I will do whatever it takes for you to have success.' And he did."

Valentine believes Piazza's success as a pitch framer (and pitch blocker, another area in which he excelled) was the product of two things. The first was physical strength.

"His hands were really strong," Valentine said. "We had a couple of guys whose pitches tended to take the glove out of the strike zone -- Al Leiter with his slider/cutter and Armando Benitez with his forkball. Mike was able to not only keep his glove in the zone, but he could bring the ball back. [With Benitez] he was able to keep the ball up when it was breaking down at 92 to 93 miles per hour."

The second was an incredible eye.

"You have to be able to see the pitch early, as a great hitter does, so that you can anticipate where the pitch is going to be and bring it back," Valentine said. "It's the art of pitch recognition. A hitter sees the ball and tries to put the barrel of the bat where he perceives the ball to be. A catcher has to see the pitch early so he can get to the place he needs to be to make the pitch framed. I think it's the same skill."

Piazza has taken the lessons he learned and paid them forward. He said when he talks to young aspiring catchers, he'll tell them to catch with care, that the ball is coming in very fast and that their job is simple: "Let the ball close the glove."

Closure for Piazza's career comes on Sunday with a Hall of Fame induction speech in Cooperstown. Those on hand likely will cheer the mentions of his home run-hitting accolades. But his other skills should be recognized, too.

"I always thought [his pitch framing] was an amazing feat that went unnoticed," Valentine said. "It should be known. It should be part of his legacy."