JAWS and the 2022 Hall of Fame Ballot: A.J. Pierzynski

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2022 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2022 BBWAA Candidate: A.J. Pierzynski
Player Pos Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS H HR SB AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
A.J. Pierzynski C 23.8 18.1 20.9 2,043 188 15 .280/.319/.420 94
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

For the sake of diplomacy, we’ll call A.J. Pierzynski a polarizing player, even if much of that polarization tended towards the negative end of the spectrum. “If you play against him, you hate him,” said his own manager Ozzie Guillen in 2006, the year after Pierzynski served as the starting catcher for the World Series-winning White Sox. “If you play with him, you hate him a little less.”

Pierzynski spent parts of 19 seasons in the majors provoking extreme reactions among players, fans, and everyone else, that while making two All-Star teams, helping five teams to the playoffs, and catching more games than all but eight other backstops. A November 2013 article by NESN’s Ricky Doyle, at a point just a few weeks before the defending champion Red Sox signed him as a free agent, summarized the book on Pierzynski to that point:

The most obvious risk of signing Pierzynski involves his accompanying baggage. There’s a difference between having a colorful personality and having a personality that evokes disdain, and Pierzynski’s behavior seemingly strikes a chord. According to an August 2012 article on SI.com, Pierzynski has in his career been voted by his opponents as the player they would most like to see beaned (2006), baseball’s meanest player (2011) and baseball’s most hated player (2012). Men’s Journal polled 100 MLB players on various topics in 2012, and 34 percent of respondents voted Pierzynski the most hated player in the game.

“Everyone wants a villain,” Pierzynski told SI.com’s Ben Reiter in the aforementioned profile. Reiter was able to penetrate the persona to find an introspective, intelligent and hard-working player, not to mention a devoted family man. “Look at what LeBron James has gone through the past few years. My teammates get the best kick of it,” Pierzynski continued. “When we go to Oakland, Anaheim, San Francisco, Minnesota, Cleveland, I get loud boos. Guys on my team can’t wait to see that and to hear that… Now, when those polls come out, it’d be a big upset if somebody else won.”

Pierzynski literally stepped on some toes in earning his reputation and did other things to irritate opponents. He cut across the pitchers’ mound after grounding out, was sometimes overly demonstrative when he made a big defensive play or overly vocal when an opponent got a hit, and often took his frustrations out on his own equipment, particularly his bat and helmet. But while far from universally beloved, he did win the respect of many of his teammates, and ranked among the game’s most durable catchers if not necessarily its best on either side of the ball; his 14 seasons with at least 100 games caught is tied for the fourth-highest total in history, behind only Ivan Rodriguez (17), Yadier Molina (16) and Bob Boone (15), and tied with Jason Kendall. Though the lefty swinger was a notoriously impatient hitter, his gap-to-gap power and contact skills helped to offset his 3.9% walk rate, and his reputation as a game-caller offset his low caught stealing rates and his eventual decline as a pitch framer. You don’t last as long as he did without being pretty good.

As Ted Simmons told the New York Times‘ Tyler Kepner in 2016, when he was scouting for the Braves, Pierzynski’s final team:

“People focus on a lot of things about Pierzynski. Nobody focuses on the fact that he’s a pretty smart guy. That’s what impresses me most about him, because out here, there’s no place to hide. If you’re faking it, it’s just a matter of time — and not very long — before you get smoked out as an impostor. Whatever frontal stuff there is with Pierzynski, once you wade through it, I get it now: This guy’s smart. That’s what enables him to stay this long.”

Anthony John Pierzynski was born on December 30, 1976 in Bridgehampton, New York. His grandfather played on a town team for which Carl Yastrzemski was the batboy, and his father played all sports at Bridgehampton High School and was still playing rugby as of age 55. Pierzynski’s parents moved to Orlando, Florida before his third birthday, and eventually divorced. Pierzynski, an only child, began playing baseball at age four, and took up catching at age eight, when his Little League team’s catcher didn’t show up. “He liked the status that came with carrying so much equipment, back before every child had his own bulky bag,” wrote Kepner. “And he loved being so involved in the action.”

At Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Pierzynski earned All-State honors; the warmer weather of Florida allowed him to play as many as 150 games a year during his high school years. He signed a letter of intent to play at the University of Tennessee, but when the Twins chose him in the third round of the 1994 draft, he quickly agreed to a $140,000 bonus and began his professional career in the Gulf Coast League, hitting .289/.337/.375 in 43 games, and then a sizzling .332/.373/.507 in 56 games at Rookie-level Elizabethton the following season before earning a promotion to the Midwest League. Though he never made a Top 100 Prospects list, by 1998, he split his season between Double-A New Britain and Triple-A Salt Lake City, and made a brief September cameo with the Twins. In his major league debut on September 9, 1998, he went 0-for-1 with a hit-by-pitch and a run scored against the Angels; three days later, he collected his first hit, a pinch-single off the A’s Billy Taylor. He went 3-for-10 in seven games.

Pierzynski spent his next two seasons with the same three teams as well, though his 1999 major league action was confined to May and June, when he went 6-for-22 during a nine-game stretch while sharing catching duties with regular backup Javier Valentin when starting catcher Terry Steinbach was injured. In 2000, after 1997 supplemental first-round pick Matthew LeCroy and the light-hitting Chad Moeller and Marcus Jensen all had their chances to hold down the job, Pierzynski was recalled in August and hit an impressive .307/.354/.455 in 33 games the rest of the way. On September 8, he hit is first major league homer, off the Mariners’ Paul Abbott.

The 24-year-old Pierzynski won the starting catcher job the following season, while LeCroy — who had flopped after being rushed to the majors the year before — spent most of 2001 at Triple-A Edmonton. Pierzynski hit a respectable .289/.322/.441 (98 OPS+) with seven homers and 1.8 WAR while starting 95 games and playing solid defense for a Twins team that improved from 69 wins to 85 in manager Tom Kelly’s final season.

They made the playoffs the next year under new manager Ron Gardenhire, with Pierzynski hitting .300/.334/.439 (104 OPS+) and making his first All-Star team; his 2.4 WAR was solid enough already, but by Baseball Prospectus’ Retroframing methodology for the pre-pitch tracking era, he was an additional 20.8 runs above average at stealing strikes. The Twins, who had been marked for contraction the previous November, won 94 games and the AL Central. Pierzynski went 4-for-4 in the Division Series opener against the A’s; his RBI triple off Cory Lidle provided the insurance run in the team’s 7-5 victory. He went 7-for-18 in the series, capped by a two-run homer in the ninth inning of Game 5 off Billy Koch that gave the Twins a 4-1 lead; they held on to win 5-4. But both Pierzynski and the team were largely held in check in the ALCS against the Angels; the catcher went just 1-for-13 in the first four games as the Twins fell behind three games to one, and his 3-for-3 in a Game 5 rout was too little, too late.

By the numbers, Pierzynski had the best season of his career in 2003, hitting .312/.360/.464 with new highs in OPS+ (115), home runs (11), and WAR (4.5), plus another outstanding showing in the pitch-framing department (19.7 runs). The Twins won the AL Central again, but were dispatched by the Yankees in a four-game Division Series; they scored just six runs, one of which came via Pierzynski’s solo homer in Game 3.

With Pierzynski reaching arbitration eligibility and with 2001 number one pick Joe Mauer waiting in the wings, the Twins pulled off a heist, sending the catcher to the Giants in exchange for 20-year-old lefty prospect Francisco Liriano, who had placed 83rd on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects List that spring but had missed most of the season due to a recurrent lat strain; 22-year-old lefty prospect Boof Bonser, the Giants’ 2000 first-round pick; and 29-year-old righty Joe Nathan, who had just rebounded from shoulder surgery with his first strong year as a reliever. Pierzynski made a strong first impression — not in a good way — with the Giants in a now-legendary incident during spring training. After a foul ball hit him in the groin, trainer Stan Conte came out to check on him and asked how it felt. “Like this,” Pierzynski reportedly responded, kneeing Conte in the groin. The catcher initially denied doing so but later copped to it, albeit while saying he was trying to give himself some breathing room.

Things went downhill from there. In April, several Giants teammates anonymously criticized Pierzynski’s level of preparation to a newspaper reporter, with one referring to him as “a clubhouse cancer.” His performance dipped to .272/.319/.410 (86 OPS+) with -0.3 WAR and -6.2 framing runs; given that the 91-win Giants finished one game behind the Astros in the Wild Card hunt and two behind the Dodgers in the NL West race, it’s fair to say Pierzynski was that year’s Replacement Level Killer. The Giants non-tendered him in December; the players for whom he was traded would help the Twins make three more playoff appearances over the next six years.

Pierzynski came out ahead in that deal, however. White Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson, whose children went to high school with the catcher, lobbied Sox general manager Kenny Williams to sign him. Though Pierzynski took a pay cut from $3.5 million to $2.25 million to join the White Sox, he felt at home in the loose atmosphere of Guillen’s clubhouse, and hit a modest .257/.308/.420 (90 OPS+) with a career-high 18 homers. Just as importantly, he clicked with the pitching staff, where starters Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Freddy Garcia, and Jon Garland all made at least 32 starts and threw at least 200 innings with an ERA+ better than 100. The team won 99 games and the AL Central, then went 11-1 in the postseason while beating the defending champion Red Sox, Angels, and Astros, capped by a World Series sweep. Pierzynski hit .262/.340/.571 with three homers and nine RBI in the postseason, with a 3-for-3, two-homer, four-RBI performance in the Division Series opener setting the tone.

Though Pierzynski went hitless in Game 2 of the ALCS, he was at the center of a bizarre and controversial play that turned the series. Batting with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth of a 1-1 game, he swung and missed at a Kelvim Escobar pitch, and home plate umpire Doug Eddings signaled him out. Catcher Josh Paul gloved the ball before it hit the dirt, but Pierzynski, believing Paul had dropped the pitch, ran to first base safely as the Angels walked off the field, ready for the game to go into extra innings. Nobody called him out; even Eddings believed that Paul had dropped the third strike.

“I thought for sure the ball hit the ground,” Pierzynski said afterwards. “I watched the replay 50 times and I still don’t know. The third strike is in the dirt, you run. I didn’t hear him say out, Josh didn’t tag me.”

Pierzynski effectively had stolen first base, and after he was replaced by pinch-runner Pablo Ozuna, Joe Crede brought home the game-winning run with a walk-off double. The win evened the series at a game apiece, and the White Sox never looked back. Pierznski caught every inning that postseason save for the four extra innings in Game 3, after he was removed in a ninth-inning double switch. The White Sox’s championship was their first since 1917, ending an 88-year drought.

After the season, the White Sox rewarded Pierzynski with a three-year, $15 million extension. He hit for a modest 94 OPS+ with 2.1 WAR but made his second All-Star team thanks in part to the notoriety brought about by a May 20, 2006 brawl in a nationally televised game with the Cubs. Tagging up on a fly ball to left field in the second inning, he barreled into Cubs catcher Michael Barrett, who was blocking the plate before he had the ball; the throw hit Pierzynski on one hop. Safe at home, he emphatically slapped the plate, and when he got up, Barrett responded by bear-hugging Pierzynski and then punching him in the jaw. Benches cleared.

Barrett received a 10-game suspension for his part in the brawl, while Pierzynski, who was ejected, was fined just $2,000, an amount that was reduced to $250 on appeal. Via the White Sox’s “Punch A.J.” campaign, fans selected him for the All-Star Game via the Final Vote.

The White Sox won 90 games that year but only managed a third-place finish. They returned to the postseason just once over the final seven years (2006-12) Pierzynski spent on the South Side, winning the AL Central in 2008 but losing a four-game Division Series to the Rays. Pierzynski, who stuck around via a three-year, $18.35 million extension signed in October 2007, and then a two-year, $8 million deal signed as a free agent in December ’10, hit .280/.317/.423 for a 94 OPS+ during that span while averaging 14 homers and 1.5 WAR. During that run, he caught Buehrle’s April 18, 2007 no-hitter against the Rangers, and Philip Humber’s April 21, 2012 perfect game against the Mariners (backup Ramon Castro caught Buerhle’s 2009 perfect game).

Statistically, the best of Pierzynski’s seasons with the White Sox was his final one, when at the age of 35 he hit .278/.326/.501, setting career highs in slugging percentage, OPS+ (120) and homers (27). The team let him depart in free agency nonetheless, and he signed a one-year, $7.5 million deal with the Rangers. He hit a lopsided .272/.297/.425 (95 OPS+) with 17 homers but also a 76-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio; the team lost a Game-163 tiebreaker to the Rays for the second AL Wild Card spot. He wound up in Boston on a one-year, $8.25 million deal but his stay with the defending champions was a short one. Hitting for just a 76 OPS+ for a team off to a 39-51 start, he was designated for assignment just before the All-Star break. The move was reportedly a reaction to the complaints of several teammates who cited his seeming indifference to the team’s struggles as a negative influence in the clubhouse; by releasing him, the team was able to promote prospect Christian Vazquez. Pierzynski caught on with the Cardinals, who had just lost Molina to torn ligaments in his right thumb. Pierzynski spent about seven weeks sharing catching duties with Tony Cruz, and caught two games during the NLCS against the Giants when an oblique strain knocked Molina out.

Pierzynski spent his final two seasons with the rebuilding Braves, hitting a solid .300/.339/430 (112 OPS+) with nine homers and 1.4 WAR at age 38 in 2015, but lost his job to Tyler Flowers the following year as he slipped well below replacement level. On April 27, 2016, he collected his 2,000th hit via a single off the Red Sox’s Steven Wright. He’s one of just 10 players with at least 1,000 games caught and 2,000 hits.

In March 2017, Fox Sports Network announced that it was hiring Pierzynski as a full-time analyst, having previously employed him in that capacity during four of the previous six postseasons.

Pierzynski ended his career ranked eighth on the all-time list for games caught, with 1,936, though Molina has since surpassed him, bumping him to ninth. He’ll never get into Cooperstown on that stat alone, but between that ranking and his 14th-place spot among all players in games played since 2001, he certainly left his stamp on baseball in this millennium.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Okay, if AJ Pierzynski gets a Hall of Fame writeup then Nick Markakis absolutely has to get a writeup when it’s his turn on the ballot, right? I want everything from Nick Markakis’s best hit streak to how he learned to hit growing up. It would be Jay’s magnum opus.

kick me in the GO NATS
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kick me in the GO NATS

No kidding.

Left of Centerfield
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Left of Centerfield

I think the big question is who gets the better write-up: Nick Markakis or Eric Hosmer?

Dmjn53
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Dmjn53

Not sure Hosmer gets on a ballot

hughduffy
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hughduffy

There are some great stories involving Nick Markakis. Like the time he made it known that he would kick John Hart’s ass if he EVER treated the manager the way he treated Brian Snitker after the Braves loss on August 23, 2017. Markakis made a comment about the importance of “treating people like human beings.” At the end of the 2017 season, Snitker and Markakis stayed, Hart and Coppolella were out, and the Braves went on another division winning streak.
Then there was Nick’s response to the Astros scandal. “Every single guy over there needs a beating.”
Ok, two stories. For a guy who didn’t talk much, I did keep hearing about him being a leader in the clubhouse, so…
He does hold the MLB record for outfielders with 398 consecutive games without an error.

carter
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carter

That is an impressive error streak!