As was seemingly usual during the rebuilding period that the Braves went through in the middle of the 2010s, A.J. Pierzynski was one of many big name veterans who donned the “A” cap for a little while. Pierzynski spent two seasons (2015 and 2016) with the Braves with expectations on the floor as far as his performance was concerned. He had spent the past two seasons before his arrival in Atlanta scuffling mightily following the end of his illustrious run with the Chicago White Sox, so there was really no reason to expect a lot from Pierzynski going into the 2015 campaign.
That 2015 season ended up being a surprising return to form for the then-38-year-old catcher, as he finished with a slashline of .300/.339/.430, an Isolated Power number of .130 and a wRC+ of 111. For comparison’s sake, A.J. Pierzynski’s 111 wRC+ in 2015 was second only to Freddie Freeman’s 132 when it came to Braves regulars that season and it was the sixth-best mark in all of baseball among catchers who had at least 400 plate appearances that year. 2015 was basically Pierzynski’s career as a batter summed up into one tidy year — a season where you could just sit back and marvel at what a guy pushing 40 was capable of doing.
When it comes to hitting as a catcher, A.J. Pierzynski is part of an extremely exclusive and pretty elite club. Only 10 catchers (meaning, players who spent the majority of their career as a backstop) in Major League Baseball have racked up 2,000 hits and Pierzynski is one of those catchers. He did it in a Braves uniform in his final season as a major leaguer in 2016, which put him in the company of catchers like Johnny Bench, Ivan Rodriguez, Yogi Berra, and Carlton Fisk. 2016 as a whole may have been an underwhelming final year for Pierzynski’s career, but at least he was able to mark it with this memorable milestone moment.
Now, if Hall of Fame merit was determined solely by what you can do at the plate, then A.J. Pierzynski may have been a pretty solid pick for Cooperstown. Again, very few catchers in the history of the game have the batting résumé that Pierzynski does and his Similarity Scores place him in the neighborhood of two catchers who are currently in the Hall of Fame and one catcher who will likely saunter into the Hall of Fame with little-to-no issues at all. So why haven’t we heard more about Pierzynski’s chances of getting a plaque at some point in the future?
Basically, it’s his defense. While A.J. Pierzynski was a good pitch framer and ahead of the curve when it came to that facet of catching, he just wasn’t really good when it came to the other facets. He had a run in his career where he wasn’t really all that good at throwing out baserunners when they were attempting to steal and he was also a bit lackadaisical when it came to passed balls. Pierzynski finished in the top 10 of the AL five times when it came to passed balls — to the point where he was in that top 10 for four straight seasons from 2004-to-2007 and led the AL in that ‘07 campaign.
As a result, defensive metrics were never really kind to Pierzynski, with Baseball Prospectus’s Fielding Runs Above Average metric being the meanest of them all. According to BP, A.J. finished his career with a FRAA of -31.7. Meanwhile, Yadier Molina is in a completely different galaxy when it comes to his defensive abilities, as he currently has a career FRAA of 252.8. So while Pierzynski’s batting numbers have him at least comparable to some of the best catchers to pick up a bat, he lags considerably behind his batting contemporaries when it comes to the actual art of catching.
Still, Pierzynski must be given some credit for his pitch framing. He got decent enough at that skill during a time in baseball where it wasn’t widely utilized by other catchers across the game and that’s part of the reason why he developed a reputation as an effective catcher while he was playing. He was one of the first to really turn it into way to snatch strikes away and while this part of his game did decline as he got older, you can tell from the clip below that he was willing to dip way down into comically low depths in order to try to turn a ball into a strike.
When it comes to A.J. Pierzynski’s impact on the culture of baseball, he went down as one of those players who was pretty easy to hate if he played against your team and was a guilty pleasure to root for if he played for your team. His first season with the Chicago White Sox coincided with his efforts helping to break the 87-year World Series drought for that team (including the infamous moment where he “stole” first base in the ninth inning of Game 2 of that year’s ALCS), and then he followed it up in 2006 with the incident that turned him into a hero on the South Side and a villain on the North Side.
Pierzynski’s hard-nosed style of play and incessant chirping led to him eventually being voted as the most hated player in all of baseball according to his peers. He was able to turn his chattiness and his mercuriality into a gig as a TV analyst for FOX Sports while his career was still going on and he eventually moved from the studio to the booth once he retired from the game. Personally, I enjoy his commentary and going from a motormouth chirper on the field to getting paid to talk about baseball on TV was an extremely smart move on his part. He may have been hated as a player but it’s hard to argue against his wit.
I’d imagine that if you were to ask any catcher playing professional baseball right now if they would take A.J. Pierzynski’s career and how it turned out, every single one of them would take it at the drop of a dime. That’s with the caveat that a career such as his may be very good but not nearly great or transcendent enough to make it to the Hall of Fame, though. To let you know just how dire it is when it comes to Pierzynski’s chances of getting in, you have to take an extra click just to find him on Ryan Thibodaux’s ballot tracker and he only recently got his first vote during this cycle from former Texas Rangers beat writer TR Sullivan. If you want to see Sullivan’s reasoning behind voting for the polarizing catcher, you can check it out here, but even in this piece Sullivan admits that Pierzynski is likely going to be one-and-done when it comes to his Cooperstown chances.
Still, that’s nothing to be ashamed of for A.J. Pierzynski. Getting onto the ballot is a pretty solid achievement in and of itself and getting a vote nowadays is apparently a large feat as well. A.J. Pierzynski did extremely well for himself while he was a player and us Braves fans even got a taste of his good ol’ days when he turned back the clock and put in a good season at the plate during his first season in Atlanta. He may not turn the heads of Hall of Fame voters but A.J. Pierzynski was never really out here trying to impress the masses, now was he?