PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Mike Piazza plans to meet with the Mets’ catching tandem, Travis d’Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki, before Sunday’s game, the last of his three-day camp visit to First Data Field. But he provided an early peek at the script when asked Saturday for his thoughts on the pair, and the Hall of Famer believes it’s time for the Mets’ two backstops to raise the bar.
“They’re very solid guys,” Piazza said. “They take care of themselves, they work hard. But there’s nothing wrong with looking at Travis and Kevin and challenging them to get better this year, to play better, to improve their performance.
“You can’t be afraid to put yourself out there and say, ‘I want to play better this year.’ That doesn’t mean you haven’t been playing hard before. But there’s a difference between playing hard and playing better and getting results. I’m expecting more out of them and I think a team like this — especially with [manager Mickey Callaway’s] philosophy on pitching — there’s nothing with challenging yourself to take the next step.”
Sandy Alderson chose to stay the course at the position this winter, despite the availability of free-agent Jonathan Lucroy, who has yet to sign. But it’s unclear how long the general manager’s patience will hold out. D’Arnaud, entering his sixth season at age 29, has a career slash line of .245/.306/.406 over 393 games. Plawecki, who turns 27 on Monday, is at .222/.304/.310 over 158 games, and he didn’t disagree with Piazza’s assessment. Toward the end of last season, when Plawecki was getting steady playing time, he batted .307 over his final 27 games, with four doubles, two homers and an .885 OPS.
“I definitely know I’m a better player than I’ve shown so far,” said Plawecki, who had three RBIs Saturday in the Mets’ 10-5 loss to the Cardinals. “The type of player I was in September is the type of player I’ve been my whole life. Obviously there’s a lot of growing pains coming up and over the last three to four years dealing with the kinks in my swing.”
Piazza can’t really put himself in either of their cleats. He was one of the most feared hitters of his era, and arguably the greatest offensive catcher in history, batting .308 with 427 home runs and a .922 OPS. But Piazza can appreciate the importance of their jobs to the 2018 success of the Mets, and when Callaway asked him Saturday how he balanced his catching responsibility with his plate duties, the answer involved always being mindful of his pitchers.
“I had a staff that would kick my butt if I went out there and after grounding into a double play, wasn’t focused on calling the game,” Piazza said. “With an organization that’s very focused on pitching, catching is the second most important job. So you’ve got to have cohesiveness. You have to have the same philosophy. It’s very important. So we’re kind of harping on that.”
Piazza is bullish on his former team, saying that he likes the “energy” he’s seen during this weekend stay at camp and the leadership of Callaway, describing him as a “big personality” and a “very detailed guy.” One piece of advice Piazza did want to stress to the next generation of Mets is to communicate more with each other, to discuss the finer points of the game, something that he feels has been lost in the last decade since he’s retirement.
“I don’t want to date myself, but when I was in the minor leagues there were no cellphones, no Facebook, no Twitter,” Piazza said. “And after the game we got a couple cases of beer and just talked about the game. I want to reintroduce that philosophy. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but in baseball, the education is talking, and talking to your teammates.
“Even though with all this metadata they have today, it’s still baseball. As much as those things are really cool, I wanted to tell the guys, you’re a team. You have to bleed together, you have to breathe together.”
Piazza goes by the title of guest instructor at Mets camp, but in his other life, he holds a much higher rank as the majority owner of the third-division Italian soccer club, Reggiana. When asked if he’d like to have an ownership stake in an Major Leagie Baseball team someday — like Derek Jeter — Piazza wouldn’t rule it out, despite admitting the overwhelming demands of running his Italian club. He took a leap on that investment, citing a new favorite expression, “If it’s not broke, break it,” which made him open his eyes to new, unfamiliar challenges.
“I never say never,” Piazza said, “ because I want to be acceptable to change and step out of my comfort zone. That’s what I did going to Italy, and trying to run a business over there. I think I can’t predict what will happen after this because I’m so focused on this project, but it’s given me a unique education.”