Saying Nice Things About A.J. Pierzynski

A.J. Pierzynski has played baseball for a very long time. He’s one of the few players to predate not only the PITCHf/x era (2007-present), but also the Baseball Info Solutions era (2002-present). He’s one of just six active players who played in the 1990s — the others are Carlos Beltran, Adrian Beltre, Bartolo Colon, David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez. They are all well celebrated and beloved players. Pierzynski does not fit in that group.

If you’re familiar with Pierzynski, you likely know that his opponents generally have not been all that fond of him. A Google search for “A.J. Pierzynski hate” turns up plenty of results. Rather than focus on that, I thought it would be fun to find some nice to things to say about Pierzynski.

Let’s start by breaking down just how rare it is for a player to tally 2,000 hits, as Pierzynski did earlier this week. In our career leaderboards, there are 3,688 position players who are “qualified” hitters. Of them, only 280 players have reached 2,000 hits, Pierzynski representing the 280th. That’s 7.6% of all qualified players. That’s pretty fantastic, no? It’s not every day you can say you were in such a rare category. But that’s just the qualified players. If we expand the list to anyone who’s had a plate appearance, the total is 10,042, and it’s still just the same 280 to have recorded at least 2,000 hits. That puts him in the top 2.8%. Now, you probably wouldn’t call Pierzynski one of the players in the top 3% overall — and rightfully so — but this is still a pretty great achievement.

It looks all the more remarkable when you consider what position he plays. Pierzynski catches, and he doesn’t do much of anything else. He has played 1,887 games as a catcher, and started all but 100 of them. He also has started at designated hitter 32 times. In total, he’s caught during 94.7% of his career games as a catcher. There are only 85 catchers in the game’s history who have caught at least 1,000 games while also playing 90% or more of their games at catcher. Of them, Pierzynski has the recorded the fourth-highest total of games played, and the third-most hits.

It’s not just the longevity that’s impressive, but also the consistency. For 13 consecutive seasons, from 2001 through 2013, Pierzynski he started at catcher in at least 100 games. He did it again in 2015, and came very close in 2014. That season, split between the Red Sox and Cardinals, he caught in 87 games, and squeezed into 102 games overall.

If we use that 100-games-played mark as a threshold — with at least 75% of them at catcher — we find Pierzynski in rarefied air:

Most Seasons With 100+ GP, 75% or more at Catcher
Name Yrs From To Age
Ivan Rodriguez 17 1992 2010 20-38
A.J. Pierzynski 15 2001 2015 24-38
Bob Boone 15 1973 1989 25-41
Brad Ausmus 14 1994 2007 25-38
Jason Kendall 14 1996 2010 22-36
Carlton Fisk 14 1972 1991 24-43
Ernie Lombardi 14 1932 1945 24-37
Benito Santiago 13 1987 2003 22-38
Gary Carter 13 1977 1991 23-37
Terry Steinbach 13 1987 1999 25-37
Jim Sundberg 13 1974 1986 23-35
Johnny Bench 13 1968 1980 20-32
Al Lopez 13 1930 1944 21-35
Bill Dickey 13 1929 1941 22-34
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference Play Index

Only two other players have done what Pierzynski has done, and only a handful of others have come close.

Returning to the 2,000-hits threshold, it should now not come as a surprise that not that many catchers have rapped out 2,000 hits in their career. The answer is different depending on your threshold, but using the standard Baseball-Reference Play Index threshold of at least 50% games played at the position, Pierzynski is just one of nine catchers to hit the mark:

Catchers With 2,000 Career Hits, 50% or more at Catcher
Player H From To G PA
Ivan Rodriguez 2844 1991 2011 2543 10270
Ted Simmons 2472 1968 1988 2456 9685
Carlton Fisk 2356 1969 1993 2499 9853
Jason Kendall 2195 1996 2010 2085 8702
Yogi Berra 2150 1946 1965 2120 8359
Mike Piazza 2127 1992 2007 1912 7745
Gary Carter 2092 1974 1992 2295 9019
Johnny Bench 2048 1967 1983 2158 8674
A.J. Pierzynski 2000 1998 2016 1992 7611
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference Play Index

If you lower the threshold of games played at catcher to 40%, Joe Torre — who caught in 903 of his 2,209 career games (40.9%) — sneaks onto the list as its 10th memeber. Either way, it’s some pretty select company.

So, yeah, Pierzynski has been playing for a long time, and amassed some impressive regular season bulk. But he’s not some hump that just shows up every day and puts in his work. He has shined at times, as well, and never moreso than in the postseason. The general argument we make about players is that they more or less replicate their regular-season performances in the postseason, but Pierzynski has consistently been better under October’s brightest lights.

For his career, he has hit .282/.321/.423. Not too shabby, especially for a catcher. It grades out to a 93 wRC+. And you wouldn’t really want to cap that at a certain year before now, since one of his best seasons hitting-wise was last season — his 112 wRC+ last season is tied for the second-best mark of his career. But in the postseason, those numbers have inflated to .292/.367/.500, across 121 postseason plate appearances. In three of his eight postseason series — 2002 American League Division Series vs. Oakland, 2005 ALDS vs. Boston and 2008 ALDS vs. Tampa Bay — he ran a .500 OBP or better. Short series, etc., etc., but that’s still impressive. In two of those three series, he was the only starter on his team to pull that off, and in the third only one teammate did. In the postseason, Pierzynski found a way to up his game, and that’s rare.

For his career, Pierzynski has compiled 23.5 WAR. That ranks 69th out of 569 qualified catchers — good, but not as impressive. With a good 2016 season, he might crack the top 60. It hasn’t started well, of course. Following Thursday’s action, he is hitting .212/.281/.231, for a 43 wRC+. And certainly if he stays in Atlanta he won’t be seeing any postseason action this season. But that’s OK. He’s done plenty of things on the baseball diamond that others haven’t, or done the same things for longer than others have. A.J. Pierzynski might not be many people’s favorite catcher, but he’s had a damn fine career.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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6 years ago

“It hasn’t started well, of course. Following Thursday’s action, he is hitting .212/.281/.231, for a 43 wRC+.”

In other words, your typical 2016 Atlanta Brave