The top 10 Mets teams in defensive runs saved

The Mets historical performance defensively has been, in a word, bad. As we have examined the best and worst fielders in Mets history, it was evident identifying bad players was a little easier than identifying outstanding players. At second base, the answer was largely “no one.” It is never easy to explain *why* the Mets have ignored fielding all these years. Perhaps a little inferiority complex to the offense of the Bronx Bombers. Part of that is related to signing and playing old veterans.

Fielding is a younger person’s game. The aging curve starts earlier and peaks earlier than the offensive curve. You come into the league at your fastest, but still haven’t learned all the nuances, and generally, you peak your second or third year in the league – call it 24-25, and then you begin a decline, some of it faster than others depending on how reliant a player has been on speed. Leg or arm injuries hasten the decline a bit more than on offense where running and throwing are more important. It is all more intuitive than one might expect.

As we look at the ten best defensive teams the Mets have fielded, they get dominated by youth, and some pitching, but the link to pitching is not as strong as one would assume. They are absolutely linked, but as strikeouts become more prevalent, defense is marginally less important. As opponents’ slugging increases, defense becomes marginally more important. It mostly comes out in the wash. Any Mets fan guessing at the best defensive teams would get about half of the seasons correct. When a team plays well, they win.

The countdown begins.

10 – 2005, ~10 defensive runs saved.
First, yes, it is shocking that the tenth best season, out of 68, is a mere 10 runs above average. It highlights how poorly the Mets have selected players for their defensive prowess. This +10 does represent a significant improvement over the average Mets team. This was the early years of David Wrght (age 22) and Jose Reyes (age 22) but they were not the anchors of the team defensively. Carlos Beltran (age 28) and Cliff Floyd (age 32) were the strong performers, bringing the Mets team to the positive side of the ledger. Floyd’s contribution was mostly due to his arm, in preventing additional bases, and throwing our runners. Floyd had 15 assists from left field.

9 – 1976, ~11 defensive runs saved
This Mets team really was the last hurrah for several Met fan favorites. The Mets dumped everyone after 45 games into 1977, but these players really had gelled into a decent core. None of these guys were outstanding, but they hovered in the average range, and one or two new faces, Roy Staiger and Mike Phillips in the infield, and Jerry Grote giving way to the much younger John Stearns propped up the older players. The core of the last few years, Ed Kranepool, Felix Millan, Bud Harrelson, and Wayne Garrett had played well, but age was taking its toll, and Garrett was shipped off to Montreal with Del Unser.

8 – 1995, ~13 defensive runs saved
This strike season was not a great one for the Mets. Sure they finished second in the NL East, but had a losing record. This was a new beginning for the Mets, with younger players playing throughout the lineup, with no player particularly strong defensively, except Edgardo Alfonzo, but no player really sinking the defense except Jose Vizcaino. It was a pool of average performances, with a set of slightly above average performances from Ryan Thompson, Chris Jones, Jeff Kent, and Carl Everett.

7 – 1999, ~18 defensive runs saved
There is a pattern emerging, and it will become more evident as we climb into the top five. When a team signs players, or promotes young players that can play defense, the team has good defensive seasons, and often good overall seasons. The 1999 team included one of the top fielding first basemen in history, and he did more than just field groundballs well. John Olerud was smooth and prevented throwing errors from the infield at a remarkable rate throughout his career. Alfonzo had matured, 25 years old now, and was an incredibly good defender. The Mets had added Robin Ventura, whose defensive performance arguably put him on a WAR scale with the league MVPs that season, and of course, Rey Ordonez anchoring it all. This infield defense was airtight. These four were worth 80 runs saved! That should make you wince at the outfielders’ performance. Just a shift in personnel – getting Darryl Hamilton earlier. The Mets won 97 games, and a wild card slot, but that outfield defense was just terrible.

6 – 2007, ~24 defensive runs saved
This Met team was riding the crest of the Wright-Reyes-Beltran defense from a couple of years earlier. Carlos Delgado was playing adequately, and the outfield platoons were performing around average. The only blemish defensively was Shawn Green. Green was on his last legs, and had Lastings Milledge performed as his projections suggested, 2007 may have turned out differently.

As we head into the top five defensive Mets teams, take a note of the total runs saved, and how different they look.

5 – 1997, ~45 defensive runs saved
This team saved nearly twice as many as the previous teams. The core of the 1999 team was in place with Ordonez, Alfonzo and Olerud were playing well. At second base, we all recall the husk of Carlos Baerga, but for this season, he was putting an average defensive performance on the field. The pitching staff was a good groundball staff, and the infield kept the Mets in games and the playoff hunt heading down the home stretch.

4 – 1970, ~47 defensive runs saved
The 1970 team had solid defensive players in their prime. Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, Grote, Harrelson, Garrett. Art Shamsky playing great defense. Agee as an anchor in center field everyone else performing just above average really drives a team to a solid defensive performance. This team and the 1997 team epitomize what a couple of good fielders and no sinkholes can do for a team. The 1970 team could have done better with fewer sinkholes at the plate, as Harrelson, Grote and Ken Boswell had managed hitting much at all.

3 – 1996, ~47 defensive runs saved
The 1996 team is the very peak of the Rey Ordonez Mets. The Mets had also brought in Bernard Gilkey and Lance Johnson, both of whom were good fielders, and with Alex Ochoa and Everett coming along the defensive learning curve, the outfield shone. With Ordonez and Alfonzo anchoring the infield, the Mets needed a little more help from the corners. Butch Huskey and Tim Bogar were not enough to keep those holes from being costly. As we saw with the addition of Olerud, a good first baseman can cure a lot of infield ills.

2 – 2006, ~52 defensive runs saved
Defense can push teams to championships. The 2006 Mets were a solid hitting team, and a good pitching team, and an excellent fielding team. Wright, Reyes, Delgado, Beltran, Floyd, and the additional playing time for Endy Chavez, and addition of Jose Valentin. This was an excellent defensive tam all around, and Chavez provided the Mets with arguably the greatest catch in team history. This was the best team in the NL, despite how it all ended.

1 – 1969, ~53 defensive runs saved
The best defensive team in Mets history was one of the youngest as well. The defensive innings went to players 26 and under. We’ve mentioned the players as they were all part of the 1970 team as well. Jones had his best defensive season, Agee Grote and Harrelson were at the top of their games defensively. Only four players performed below average, and all were just barely below. It was a great team all around.

A few quick notes – the 1986 team was about the 11th best, but nearly all of that was Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, with a little Rafael Santana. 2008-2010 were solid teams. But on the whole, after 68 years, the Mets team *average* a defensive performance of -15 runs saved. So all of these teams outperformed Met-spectations by another win and a half.

George Foster left left field

The 1986 team is now a cherished memory among New York Met fans.  Many players on that roster still rank high on any all-time favorite Mets list.  There was one player who was released though who caused some controversy prior to his departure.
That player was none other than George Foster; he wore number 15 and played left field.  By late July though, he was left out.
Foster came to the team with much ballyhoo at the start of the 1982 season.  Flyers went out; he was featured on the cover of the yearbook that season (along with George Bamberger).  He came to the Mets after starring for the Cincinnati Reds.  
He didn’t hit a ton that year (13 HRs, 70 RBIs, and a .247 batting average).  But the next year, in 1983, Foster’s performance improved (28 HRs, 90 RBIs, and a .241 batting average). He was likewise productive in both 1984 and 1985 but he was never the monster force the Mets thought they had acquired.
In 1986, his performance and playing time continued to diminish and by late July, he was a part-time player.  The Mets were winning and their team was solid.  They didn’t need Foster to contribute offensively; they had other players who were performing. 
Then in early August, while the Mets were out-of-town on a road trip, the news broke that Foster was being released.  Prior to his release, Foster had told a newspaper:
“I’m not saying it’s a racial thing. But that seems to be the case in sports these days. When a ball club can, they replace a George Foster or a Mookie Wilson with a more popular white player.
“I think the Mets would rather promote a Gary Carter or a Keith Hernandez to the fans so parents who want to can point to them as role models for their children, rather than a Darryl Strawberry or a Dwight Gooden or a George Foster.”
At a subsequent team meeting, Foster told his teammates that his remarks were being taken out of context.  Davey Johnson, though, was uncomfortable with Foster keeping his spot on the roster and had already replaced him as a starter with rookie, Kevin Mitchell. Then, Frank Cashen announced he had placed Foster on waivers. 
Foster later clarified his remarks, saying:
“I never said race had anything to do with who plays – me or Dykstra or Mazzilli or Mitchell,” he said. “I even prefaced my remarks by saying I didn’t want it to be racial. How could it be construed as such when Kevin Mitchell isn’t white?”
“I was talking from a business standpoint about promoting players, marketing players. You can take it from a business or economic standpoint: What product will sell to the public? What section of people will it attract to the ballpark?”
For his part, Johnson explained his actions as follows:
“Normally, I wouldn’t comment on something a player is quoted as saying,” Johnson said. “But this is an affront to me. He was alluding to my integrity as a baseball manager. I cannot have anybody on the club who questions my motives.”
Johnson continued, “George is a fine man, a good man, and he’s been a great ballplayer. But it hurts me. He put me into a corner. 
The only thing I can think of is he’s had a great career and I’ve had the unfortunate task of sitting him down near the end of his career.
“In the four years he’s been here, he’s been streaky,” Johnson added. “This year, with the emergence of Kevin Mitchell,
 I couldn’t afford the luxury of waiting for George. My job is to put the best nine players out there.”
Bill Robinson, the team’s first base coach, said:
“I’m black, and I’m sensitive to racial issues, if I thought there was any racial overtone to anything on this club, I’d quit or I’d strongly object. I don’t think this will offend the black players. Dwight Gooden is one of the country’s most popular athletes. So is Darryl Strawberry, and Mookie Wilson is a favorite with the public.”
Some of Foster’s teammates spoke out on Foster’s behalf.   Strawberry said:
“I’m disappointed the way the organization handled it. A guy who had a career like that deserved to wait till the end of
the season. Who knows, maybe I’m next.”
Wilson said:
“I would have to say he was misquoted. George was one of the great ones.”
In the end, Foster would sign with the Chicago White Sox and go onto play a handful of games for them before being released again. Foster’s performance and demeanor never earned him the same level of appreciation individually that the 1986 team earned as a whole. Despite that, the team voted to award Foster a World Series ring and a three-quarters share of the championship money.  Foster was also on hand for the final game at Shea Stadium in 2008. 

The best and worst hitters against Seaver, Koosman and Matlack

Back in the day we were constantly told how journeyman Tom Hutton did great against Tom Seaver. And Hutton did begin his career against Seaver off strong, going 9-22 against him in his first three years. But by the end of his career, things had turned the opposite way. In his last 11 trips to the plate against Seaver, Hutton was 0-10 with a sacrifice fly. Hutton’s lifetime numbers against Seaver are much better than his overall numbers. Yet, he doesn’t crack the top 50 in best lifetime OPS against Seaver among guys with at least 10 PA against the Hall of Fame pitcher.

So, let’s take a look at some best and worst performances against some of the all-time great Mets pitchers. We’ll break it down with a minimum of 10 then a minimum of 50 PA, with the best and worst against him at those levels. The worst will ignore how pitchers did against other pitchers.

10 PA
Best – Dickie Thon (1.917 OPS)
Best HOF – Cal Ripken Jr. (1.488 OPS)
Worst – Rob Wilfong, Rich Dauer, Rance Mulliniks (0.000 OPS)
Worst HOF – Eddie Murray (.254 OPS)

Thon went 4-9 with 2 2B and 2 HR against Seaver. He also walked twice and did not strike out. Ripken had eight hits against Seaver, with five of those going for extra bases. Of course, Ripken was in his prime when he faced Seaver, while the pitcher was in his age 39-41 seasons in these head-to-head matchups. The trio without a hit against Seaver went a combined 0-41 with 7 Ks, all by Mulliniks. Murray was 3-25, with 1 BB and 11 Ks.

50 PA
Best – Rick Monday (1.247 OPS)
Best HOF – Willie McCovey (.961 OPS)
Worst – Dal Maxvill (.262 OPS)
Worst HOF – Gary Carter (.502 OPS)

It’s kind of remarkable the success Monday had against Seaver. Not that Monday wasn’t a fine ballplayer but somehow he had 11 HR in 86 ABs against Seaver, which helped him to a .791 SLG mark. Monday’s success was even more impressive when you factor in that he struck out 29 times against Seaver. Meanwhile, McCovey did most of his damage in the 1968 and 1969 seasons. In those two years he was 9-18 with 2 3B and 3 HR. For the rest of his career, McCovey was 10-53 (.189) against Seaver. Maxvil was 4-46 with 20 Ks while Carter was glad to see Seaver go to the AL, as he was just 12-64 with one extra-base hit against his future Cooperstown teammate.

Jerry Koosman
10 PA
Best – Gary Roenicke (1.857 OPS)
Best HOF – Frank Robinson (1.400 OPS)
Worst – Tom Nieto, Oscar Gamble, Vince Coleman (0.000 OPS)
Worst HOF – Carlton Fisk (.205 OPS)

Roenicke went 10-18 with 7 XBH, including 3 HR. Robinson didn’t have a great AVG but made his hits count, as both times he got a hit they were solo homers. Koosman’s trio of hitters that he completely blanked had more star power than Seaver’s threesome. Nieto, Gamble and Coleman went a combined 0-38 with 6 Ks. And no one was happier when the White Sox acquired Koosman from the Twins than Fisk, who was 1-14 with an HBP in his career against his future batterymate.

50 PA
Best – Dave Winfield (1.274 OPS)
Best HOF – Winfield
Worst – Hal McRae (.376 OPS)
Worst HOF – Lou Brock (.415 OPS)

Koosman was happy to go to the AL, where he would no longer have to face Winfield, who went 21-49 (.429) against him as a Padre. After a two-year break, they were in the same league again after Winfield signed with the Yankees as a free agent. While Winfield did not enjoy the same success against Koosman as he did earlier, two of his four hits as a Yankee went for home runs. Meanwhile, McRae was 0-8 against Koosman as a member of the Reds. He got a hit the first time he faced Koosman as a Royal but he still ended up 6-54 (.111) lifetime against his nemesis. Brock started his career 0-9 with 5 Ks against Koosman. It didn’t get much better, as the lefty-hitting Brock finished up 15-91 (.165) against the lefty Koosman.

Jon Matlack
10 PA
Best – Sixto Lezcano (1.975 OPS)
Best HOF – Ripken (1.375 OPS)
Worst – Dave Revering, Jose Pagan, Dan Driessen (0.000 OPS)
Worst HOF – McCovey (.220 OPS)

Lezcano only faced Matlack in two seasons – 1978 and 1980. Matlack should be glad he missed him in ’79, as Lezcano went 4-8 with 3 XBH in his career. Matlack was on his last legs when he faced Ripken, who went 3-8 with 2 BB against him. Matlack’s trio of hitless wonders went 0-38 with 11 Ks. Driessen’s totals are even more hurtful, as he went 0-3 with a K in the ‘73 NLCS. With the platoon advantage against McCovey, Matlack held him to a single and a walk in 14 trips to the plate.

50 PA
Best – Bob Bailey (.991 OPS)
Best HOF – Ted Simmons (.968 OPS)
Worst – Willie Davis (.377 OPS)
Worst HOF – Johnny Bench (.491 OPS)

Bailey went 14-44 with 8 BB against Matlack, with 6 XBH. It’s too bad when the Mets were trying desperately to get a 3B that they didn’t get Bailey – he and Wayne Garrett would have made a terrific platoon. It’s with great satisfaction to say Simmons name as a Hall of Famer – almost as much as Simmons himself had when he saw Matlack on the hill. He went 20-53 (.377) against Matlack, including a .396 AVG as a member of the Cardinals. Against teams in which he had at least 300 PA in his career, Davis did his best work against the Mets. But Matlack was the exception, as he couldn’t buy a hit against him, reaching base just eight times in 52 trips to the plate. Bench was 4-10 against Matlack in ’73, one of the two good years he had against him. But in the NLCS, he was 0-4 with a K. Lifetime, Bench was 11-55 with 2 XBH – both doubles – against Matlack.

Who’s the greatest Mets hitter: Darryl Strawberry or David Wright?

Ever since David Wright retired, there has been a feeling that he is the best Mets position player of all time. Looking at Baseball-Reference’s Mets team page, Wright is #1 in At-Bats, WAR, oWAR, Hits, Singles, Doubles, Runs, RBIs, Total Bases, Walks, Extra Base Hits, Runs Created, Sacrifice Flies, Times on Base, Double Plays Grounded Into, Outs Made, Base-Out Runs Added (RE24), Wins Probability Added (WPA), Situational Wins Added (WPA/LI), and Base-Out Wins Added (REW). That’s 20 categories. Wright is in the top-10 in fifteen other offensive categories. The only three categories he isn’t represented in are AB/SO, AB/HR, and Sacrifice Hits (Dwight Gooden and Jerry Koosman both lead with 85). This is quite a collection of achievement, but Wright also has almost 900 more plate appearances than the #2 player on the list, Ed Kranepool. So, is Wright the best or has he been able to maximize his production due to more opportunity?

For this exercise, 3,500 plate appearances were the minimum to give at least a six year sample size. This will take out all short-term success stories (John Olerud’s three years were 2018 PA’s .315/.425/.501/.926 with a 142 OPS+, or Lance Johnson’s two years that were 1023 PA’s .326/.369/.458/.827 with 121 OPS+ and 65 SB) and some other one year wonders. Since production is the key WAR seems to be the best measure, but we will focus on oWAR because defensive statistics can be skewed by judgment. For example, Keith Hernandez is viewed as a barely average first baseman by the dWAR of both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. Hernandez was regarded in his playing days among the best fielding, if not the absolute best fielding first baseman of all time. To boot, Mike Piazza has a higher dWAR on FanGraphs than Hernandez.

So, let’s put up some numbers:

Player Plate Appearances Fangraphs’ oWAR PA/Unit Baseball Reference’s oWAR PA/Unit
David Wright 6872 297.6 23.1 51.9 132.4
Darryl Strawberry 4549 231.2 19.7 35.1 129.6
Jose Reyes 5931 84.5 70.2 31.8 186.5
Carlos Beltran 3640 160.1 22.7 27.9 130.5
Edgardo Alfonzo 4449 99 44.9 25.6 173.8
Mike Piazza 3941 155 25.4 30.8 128
Keith Hernandez 3684 132.9 27.7 20.5 179.7
Howard Johnson 4591 129.3 35.5 30.3 151.5

Upon seeing these numbers, something jumped out at me: Strawberry was better than I realized! In fact, Strawberry was an all-star with the Mets every year except for his rookie year and his offensive numbers through his age 30 season were on par with Reggie Jackson’s production through age 30 according to Baseball-Reference. It’s the remaining eight years of only 1189 not good plate appearances that soil Strawberry’s torrid possible Hall of Fame pace. [As an aside, now we know what Jackson as a Met would have brought to the team if they had drafted him over Steven Chilcott.]

But according to our analysis, Beltran and Piazza are certainly in the conversation of the best position player. In trying to find a happy medium by averaging each player’s placement in the two systems, Beltran averages 2.5 place averaging the two methods; Piazza averages 2.5 place; Wright averages 3.5 place; and Strawberry averages 1.5 place, making Strawberry the winner in the lifetime Mets most productive player.

However, this is too juicy to just let go there. So, let’s give Wright the due of his earlier years so we can compare the same age related production:

Player Plate Appearances   Fangraphs’ oWAR PA/Unit   Baseball Reference’s oWAR PA/Unit
David Wright’s first 8 years 4783   224.7 21.3   37.8 126.5
Darryl Strawberry (8 years) 4549   231.2 19.7   35.1 129.6

Now it appears to be a fairer fight although it can be argued that Wright had a better offensive lineup around him giving him better production. Strawberry still looks better according to FanGraphs but falls short according to Baseball Reference. As position players do need to play defense and we are looking for tie-breakers, Wright had two gold gloves but Strawberry was twice the #1 MLB defensive run saver for right fielders and that must be held highly against any gold glove voting. Still tied.

Let’s see how we can break this tie, using some metrics.

Total Bases: Wright 264 Strawberry 254
TB per 162 games: Wright 309 Strawberry 296
OPS+: Wright 134 Strawberry 145

Power-Speed #:
Wright: four times in top ten in MLB in these years.
Strawberry: seven times in top ten in MLB in these years and twice #1

Win Probability Added:
Wright: Three times in top ten MLB while two times in Situational WAP.
Strawberry: Three times in top ten MLB – #1 once – while four times in Situational WPA.

The numbers are pretty close, but even in this tightened window for Wright based on the OPS+ and a few other telling metrics, the winner for best ever Mets position player in this writer’s opinion still goes to Strawberry.

Strawberry recently said that he should have never left the Mets, and he is right. He could have been the first to receive the attention and affection Wright received.

The star-crossed Mets career of Pat Zachry

Recently Rob left a comment on the site repeating a thing that’s been said by many people over the years – that the Mets traded Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman and the only player of note that they received in return was Jesse Orosco. For a brief time it looked like Steve Henderson was going to be worthwhile but it turned out that his early success came in years with fewer than 400 PA and with a BABIP in the .350s.

Which leaves us with Pat Zachry.

The advanced numbers are not kind to Zachry, never having him with more than a 1.4 fWAR in his time in Queens. That was due to an incredibly poor strikeout-walk ratio, even once you factor in the lower strikeout totals of the late 70s and early 80s. In 1978, the year Zachry put up that 1.4 fWAR, he had a 1.30 K/BB ratio. Seaver had a 2.54 mark in the category while Matlack had a 3.08 ratio, good for third in the majors among qualified hurlers.

Of course, 1978 also illustrates another thing that plagued Zachry in his time with the Mets – injuries. He was the team’s representative in the All-Star game and he amassed 10 Wins by the time the Mets had played 81 games, so he was on pace for a 20-win season. But he struggled in a game against the Reds, the team that drafted him and brought him to the majors, and in disgust he went to kick a batting helmet. In typical late 70s Mets fashion, he missed the helmet, got his spikes caught in the steps and ended up with a hairline fracture in his foot which caused him to miss the remainder of the season.

The following season started off great for Zachry. He won his first two games but soon found himself sidelined with an elbow injury. While rehabbing in the minors, he suffered an Achilles injury which kept him out even longer. Zachry made four more starts that season – winning three of them – before finally shutting things down and having surgery on his elbow.

His 1980 season was delayed in starting but he pitched fine once he returned, even if his W-L record didn’t reflect it. Neither of the following two seasons were very good, with 1982 being particularly bad, as he ended up making more relief appearances than starts. It wasn’t what either party expected when Zachry was given a lucrative five-year contract prior to the 1981 season.

The Mets traded him to the Dodgers for Jorge Orta, who himself was dealt before Spring Training. That deal kept Zachry from being on the 1983 team which was the season that Seaver returned to the Mets. Zachry had a solid year in ’83, albeit almost exclusively as a reliever. But he was unable to duplicate his success the following year and his MLB career was over after 10 games with the Phillies in 1985.

Those late 70s-early 80s Mets didn’t have much so that anyone who showed any promise at all in any way was looked at fondly. There was Craig Swan and the ERA title. There was Lee Mazzilli with his matinee looks, tight pants and basket catches. There was Joel Youngblood and his ability to play every position. There was Frank Taveras and his push bunts. Shoot, there was even Doug Flynn and his Gold Glove Award.

And there was Zachry, too, those times he was healthy enough to be on the field. From when the Mets first acquired him in 1977 through his first 18 games of 1980, Zachry was 34-28 with a 3.14 ERA. Those numbers may not sound like much, but the Mets were 217-311 in that time frame. Zachry had a .548 winning percentage for a team that had a .411 winning percentage. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Seaver going 16-13 (.552) in 1967 for a team that lost 101 games and had a .377 winning percentage. Without Zachry, the Mets in that span had a .393 winning percentage. Over a 162-game season, that’s a 64-98 team.

Fate was not kind to Zachry, as he went from The Big Red Machine to arguably the worst team in baseball at the time. And much like with Ryan before him, Zachry was a Texan who never felt completely at home in New York. My first introduction to Waco was from the back of Zachry’s Topps cards, as that was listed as his hometown. And speaking of Topps, check out the cards for Zachry in 1978 and 1979. The former has him clean shaven, looking like the guy who would get picked to go undercover in a high school sting because he looked like he could almost pass for a teenager. And the next year he has a full beard, looking like a guy who the clerk in the liquor store always monitors once he walks in the place, unsure if he’s going to try to lift a bottle or rob the joint.

And if his baseball career wasn’t tragic enough, in late 2016 Zachry was driving and got into a car accident. His wife, a passenger in the car, was killed in the single-vehicle crash.

The MLB universe is littered with stories of guys who got injured and were never the same afterwards. The Mets are no different. For everyone like Koosman, who was able to bounce back from his injury problems to have a long and productive career, there are multiple guys who never reached their promise. And Zachry was certainly one of those. A healthy Zachry wouldn’t have been worth trading Seaver for but also would have ended up being more than a mere footnote in team history.

Gregg Jefferies and the all-time worst fielding Mets by position

It is always interesting and exciting to hear about the best fielders. Rarely do we get a good look at the terribly bad fielders. Derek Jeter is always mentioned as a terrible fielder and having the worst negative performance of any fielder.  This has some bias toward the good hitters, like Jeter.  In looking at the worst fielders the Mets have ever jogged out there, it is important to standardize based on chances, while keeping an eye on small samples. Pitchers and catchers aren’t included in this because we’re going to examine batted balls, and pitchers and catchers have very few chances to field those, and no one likes to hear anything disparaging about Mike Piazza’s time behind the dish.

Data from prior to 1988 is limited to Retrosheet data, while the most recent 30 years we have RED (STATS zone data-based), UZR and DRS (last 18 years).

Standardizing chances to 400 levels the playing field, as middle fielders – shortstop, second base and center field – get close to 500 chances, but the corners get between 250 and 400.  This keeps Darryl Strawberry from immediately being the worst, simply because he played the most innings in right field for the Mets.

First base is the position which gets the fewest ground balls to field, which makes it difficult to really damage the team defensively.  That does not mean the Mets have not tried.  We all remember the ill-advised idea of moving Piazza out from behind the plate to first, to improve his defense.  It did not work.  Marv Throneberry was nicknamed “Mr. Strangeglove” for his reputation as a poor fielder, but he only spent 800 innings at first for the Mets. It will not surprise many to learn Dave Kingman caused the most damage at first base for the Mets at -22 runs, but he played more innings than our “winner”.  Mo Vaughn coughed up 20 runs, and did it in fewer innings, at a pace of -12 runs per 400 chances.  Vaughn was such a bad fielder; he defines the limit – what’s the worst you can be and still be allowed to play.

At second base, when looking for a good fielder, there really were not many choices, and they were not particularly good.  For the “skillet” award, the Mets have several to choose from. Luis Castillo was not good, Roberto Alomar was bad, but the worst two really battled it out.  Daniel Murphy just missed being the worst fielding second baseman for the Mets.  The honor goes our favorite wunderkind, Gregg Jefferies.  Jefferies was a very bright spot in 1988, but simply could not find a position to play competently, and that spells doom in the NL.  Jefferies, once he left the Mets, moved to first base and left field.

Third base has long been a hole for the Mets.  In the team’s first 20 years, 46 Mets played third base for at least 10 games. In the 80s broadcasts, this was a constant note every time a new hope took his position at the hot corner. Hubie Brooks, Howard Johnson, Dave Magadan, Gregg Jefferies, Bobby Bonilla. The ensuing 20 years, 1982-2001, a mere 33 different Mets played 10 or more games at third. And in the last 18, since David Wright stepped on the field, only 25 Mets managed the feat.  That is 120 players with ten games at third. The Phillies, *since 1883* have only had 169 different players, with just 76 during the Mets’ existence (Pirates 79, Cards 81, Cubs 93, to round out the old NL East).  With so many players cycling through the position, only a few can accumulate any innings to really stand out as a poor fielder.

Fortunately (?), the Mets happened to put one of the worst defensive players across all positions all years at third base for nearly 2000 innings.  No, not Bonilla – he was not bad. Not Howard Johnson, who was quite bad. In second place for the worst third baseman over 1000 innings and per 400 chances is Jefferies, but that would be too cruel.  The worst fielder for the Mets at third base, costing nearly 20 runs per season’s worth of chances is Ty Wigginton. Wigginton was kind of this Ron Cey looking character, who could seemingly hit a little, but was just too slow on defense.

Shortstop has had none of the same issues. Only 80 players have been at short for 10 games for the Mets since 1962. The names have been reasonably stable for a few seasons.  As for poor fielding, the Mets have had surprisingly good fielding at shortstop, and if they did not, the Mets have not kept playing them at short.  Somewhere there is an odd mindset in the Mets front office about how important the shortstop glove is as compared to second or third base. There is only one shortstop with double digit performance underwater.  Asdrubal Cabrera was not good, but at least he could hit.  The other shortstops in the below average area – Jose Vizcaino, Wilmer Flores, Ruben Tejada, Rafael Santana – were all in the “close enough to average” category.

Left field has always been a merry-go-round for baseball teams. Where can we get the biggest bat doing the least amount of damage in the outfield? The Mets acquired 40-year-old Rickey Henderson for the 2000 pennant chase, and he was bad.  Unbelievably bad. But a good deal of his poor runs saved is tied to a weak arm, rather than a pure inability to get to fly balls.  Benny Agbayani has the worst run of chasing down flies, followed closely by Roger Cedeno.  Cedeno was also terrible in right field and center. This is a real toss-up for this – Henderson had just over 1,000 innings and spilled 20 runs all over the field, where Agbayani just lacked the ability to close and make catches at -17 runs per season.

In center field, the Mets have done a good job of keeping the bad players out of there. It is easy to picture Howard Johnson flailing away, but he only had 700 innings in center.  Mookie Wilson struggled too, mostly due to a weak arm. The interesting part is here is where the old-timers get to represent the Mets. One of my favorite players as a kid landed right at the top of poor center fielders.  Lee Mazzilli was a bad center fielder when he was young, which is an unusual thing to pull off.  Youth has speed and reaction times, and yet, Mazzilli was still not particularly good. He was not as bad as other positions, only losing ten runs per 400 chances, which, given the other positional performances was not too bad.

Right field was patrolled by many a Met fans favorite, Le Grand Orange. Rusty Staub was a nimble, round fielder, with a quick throw, and his assist numbers often lead people to think of him as a good fielder.  Misplays to the outfield often present assist opportunities as runners try to take the extra base.  Staub was not adept at flagging down balls, and did not catch flies well, losing about 20 runs to the league average a season.  Fortunately, the Mets opted to play another first baseman out of position in right field.  Another bat who the Mets felt could “hold his own” in right.  Lucas Duda could not. Duda cost the Mets over 25 runs per 400 chances in right, making him the worst fielder the Mets have allowed to play for over a thousand innings. At least Staub fans do not have to hear “he was the worst fielding right fielder the Mets ever had.”

In summary:

1B – Vaughn

2B – Jefferies

3B – Wigginton

SS – Cabrera

LF – Henderson/Agbayani

CF – Mazzilli

RF – Duda

The 1962 Mets were bad, but were not the worst ever

The very first Mets season, 1962, was a dreadful one. That team, which lost 120 games, is sometimes cited as the worst team ever in modern baseball history. But there is a case to be made for a different team to be the worst, specifically the 1945 Philadelphia NL franchise, which actually used the nickname “Blue Jays,” that year, instead of Phillies.

The ‘62 club set a record with all those losses, and they finished 60 ½ games behind the pennant winning Giants. They even finished 18 games behind the 9th place Cubs. The Mets scored 617 runs (ninth in the league, ahead of only Houston) and gave up a league worst 948 runs, which is a run differential of minus 331. The staff ERA was stratospheric 5.04. The team was charged with a total of 210 errors.

As to the ‘45 Philadelphias, their record was 46-108, 52 games behind the pennant winning Cubs, and 15 games behind seventh place Cincinnati. Their run differential was minus 317. The Phils managed to rack up 234 errors in a shorter 154 game season.

The discerning reader will note that the Blue Jays were not quite as bad as the Mets in most of the statistical categories, so why rank them lower? The answer is that although the teams played only 17 years apart, there was a world of difference in the level of play between 1945 and 1962.

MLB suffered a gradual attrition of players during the war years, with 1945 being the nadir. That was the year that one-armed Pete Gray played 77 games for the AL St. Louis Browns, and managed to bat .218. There were some great NL players in 1945 that were in military service. The entire Cardinal outfield, Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter and the excellent Terry Moore were in the military, as well as fourth outfielder Harry Walker. The heart of the Braves rotation, Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain (“pray for rain”) had been inducted, Spahn in particular was a much decorated battle veteran in the European theater. There were numerous other players, stars, prospects and depth pieces that were not available due to the war.

There was another significant group of excellent players that were not playing in MLB, since this was two years before the color line was broken. Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Jackie Robinson and many others were all playing in the Negro Leagues. The result was that play in 1945 was well below par of other years in the modern era, at least since the deadball era if not earlier.

As to 1962, It actually was a banner year for level of play in the NL. Pitchers like Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson had great years, even the 41 year old Spahn was going strong (3.04 ERA). As to position players Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, and Eddie Matthews were all in their prime years, and even 41 year old Musial could play well with a .330 BA and a .500 SLG in 135 games.

Although most of the individual Mets were not very good, Frank Thomas was an exception. He played 156 games and pounded 34 homers with a SLG figure of .496. In addition 38 year old Gil Hodges was a part-timer who slugged .472, and a 17 year old bonus player named Ed Kranepool had a cup of coffee at the end of the season. Hodges, as the manager, and Kranepool, as a useful platoon first basemen, were both important cogs in that amazing ‘69 team that won the World Series. The Phils, despite having been in the NL from before the beginning of World Series play, had to wait until 1980 for their first WS win.

The bottom line is that both the ‘62 Mets and the ‘45 Philadelphias were bad teams, but the huge gulf in the level of competition from 1945 NL to 1962 NL meant that the Philadelphia team, and not the Mets, have the dubious distinction of being the worst team of the modern era.

The Mets and the first five years of free agency

There are three main ways to improve your team. You can draft amateurs; you can trade for players and you can sign free agents. The Mets of the late 70s were terrible because they weren’t good in any of these three areas. The farm system that once cranked out players slowed to a trickle once Whitey Herzog left. The trades were so bad that there was an article published here that wished that the club had gone a dozen years without making a deal. And then the team was thrown a lifeline with the advent of free agency and chose, essentially, to ignore it.

Those who decry the cheapness of the Wilpons are better off not knowing the history of M. Donald Grant and Linda de Roulet. The first free agent class became available following the 1976 season. A star-studded class that included major talents like Don Baylor, Rollie Fingers and Reggie Jackson and the Mets signed … nobody. Technically, that’s not true. Baseball-Reference lists the Mets signing Ray Sadecki from that free agent class. But Sadecki was a free agent because he was released, rather than a guy who played the ’76 season without a contract. Sadecki appeared in four games and had a 6.00 ERA before being released by the Mets in early May of 1977.

When free agency first started, they had what was termed a “re entry draft,” where clubs would draft players that they were interested in signing. It was a ploy by the owners to limit the market for the players but it didn’t really work the way they intended. My hope was to look at the players the Mets drafted, but a quick online search did not give that information. If you can find it – please leave a link in the comments section.

Anyway, the Mets fell from 86 wins in ’76 to 64 wins in ’77. While the team’s fortunes didn’t look particularly rosy, there were enough interesting guys on the right side of 30 that an impact free agent or two wouldn’t have been the worst thing to acquire. Steve Henderson (25), Lee Mazzilli (23) and John Stearns (26) wasn’t a bad start. The second free agent class included Lyman Bostock, Rich Gossage, Larry Hisle and Richie Zisk. Who did the Mets pick up? The Mets made their big splash with Elliott Maddox (who hadn’t played a full season since 1974) and Tom Hausman.

The 1978 Mets went 66-96 and there didn’t seem to be any help on the way from the minors or the trade front. The third free agent class didn’t have the star power of the first two classes but did include Pete Rose. My recollection is that the Mets drafted Rose and had him in for a pitch but didn’t offer him anything close to what he ended up getting with the Phillies. Instead the Mets signed … nobody from the class.

In 1979, the Mets were once again lousy, with a 63-99 record. At least the farm system was contributing something, as Neil Allen, Jeff Reardon and Mike Scott all made their debuts. But here was a team screaming out for offense. Available free agent hitters included Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Bob Watson. Sure, all of these guys were older than you would have preferred but they would have been nice upgrades from the hopeless Doug Flynn and the barely better Willie Montanez that held down their positions for the Mets in ’79. But once again the Mets avoided the high end of the free agent market, singing just Rob Andrews, who never played a game in either the majors or minors for the Mets.

Stop me if you heard this before but the 1980 Mets were once again lousy, posting a 67-95 record. Still needing desperately to add offense, this year’s free agent class included Ron LeFlore, Darrell Porter and Dave Winfield. The Mets made their biggest splash into free agency yet, signing Mike Cubbage, Dave Roberts and Rusty Staub. Cubbage totaled all of 90 PA for the Mets but that looked bold compared to the 15.1 innings that Roberts gave the club. Staub did well, putting up a 147 OPS+, albeit in only 186 PA.

In the first five years of free agency, the biggest signings by the Mets were an injury-reclamation project in Maddox and a part-time player in Staub. Their combined record in those five years was 301-450 (.401). They were refusing to be players in the free agent market, their drafting was nothing to get excited about and their trades didn’t move the needle any, either.

In 1980, the Mets got new ownership and they started to draft better and actively looked to make big trades. But they still weren’t major players in the free agent market. It wasn’t until signing Vince Coleman in 1991 that they signed a significant free agent. Coleman didn’t work out but the Mets did end up with some short-term wins with name free agents throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. But it wasn’t until signing Carlos Beltran that the Mets hit it big with a free agent. For a process that began in 1976, it sure took awhile for Beltran and 2005 to arrive.

Free agency is far from a guaranteed thing and everyone can point to multiple signings throughout the years that blew up on the acquiring team. But if you’re going to ignore free agency completely, you better hit it big with your draft picks and your trades. The Mets of the mid 1980s showed how that could work. Unfortunately, the Mets of the late 70s-early 80s showed what happened when you essentially ignored all three paths to success.

The 1962 Mets: What George Weiss should have done

In 1958, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants made their debuts in California, leaving behind a gaping hole in the hearts and mind of baseball fans in New York City. This massive wound that was left in their perspective fanbases lead to a new baseball franchise coming into existence in 1962, the New York Metropolitans, very quickly shortened to Mets.

Prior to the Mets stepping oton the field for the first time in 1962 came the 1961 expansion draft and offseason. This particular draft later became notorious for the lack of quality players that were made available to the perspective clubs and for how the draft had been set up to line the pockets of the other National League owners while allowing the pre-existing teams to clear roster spaces. The draft was set up prior to the cut off date to protect players from the Rule 5 draft. This meant that the 40-man rosters from 1961 were still in tact and National League teams had not set about moving on from players that the teams had no intention of moving forward with in 1961. Basically, the Mets and Houston Colt 45’s were paying the other National League teams for players that those teams, for the most part, had no intention of holding on to.

It’s startling how well this worked out for the eight pre-existing National League teams. In total, the other National League franchises were given 1.55 million dollars for a group of players that many of them would have released anyway. The other eight clubs made 136 players available, 17 from each of their 40-man rosters and the two expansion franchises were required to select at least three players from each team, two in the regular part of the expansion draft and one in the premium part. Each club could also take an additional player from each team in the main part of the draft at a slightly lower expense. The New York and Houston franchises actually refused to draft a total of 11 more players because of how expensive the whole thing had become, preferring to spend that money on their minor league systems. In all, the two franchises selected 45 players, leaving 91 with their old teams. Of those 91, only 42 of them remained on their teams’ 40-man rosters beyond the Rule 5 cut off date in October. The Braves and Dodgers were the worst offenders in all of this. The Braves only retained one of the 17 players they made available, while the Dodgers retained three, one of which, Charlie Neal, they traded to the Mets before the season started. The whole mess was a total sham, a way for the other teams to make a lot of money (which 1.55 million dollars was in 1961) and help their rosters in the process.

Did all of this mean the Mets had to lose 120 games in 1962? Not at all. Houston lost 96 games, but also laid the groundwork for what it hoped would be a decent group of players that could be boosted by spending money on the farm system. The Mets did the opposite. Their team president, George Weiss, decided to acquire “name players” to help get people to the stadium. His hope was that would allow him time to build a farm system that would get the Mets to long term respectability. Because of that, he drafted players that were clearly over the hill in Gus Bell, Gil Hodges and Hobie Landrith, all because they were either known in New York or well known from other cities. He would also later purchased Richie Ashburn (who would play his last season in 1962), Gene Woodling (also in his final season in the major leagues), Johnny Antonelli (who wouldn’t make the team) and Clem Labine (who would pitch four extremely unsuccessful innings for the Mets in 1962) for the same reason. That also lead to trades for Charlie Neal and Frank Thomas, who had solid years, but were too old to be any part of the future.

What Weiss’ moves in the draft and prior to the start of the season lead to was one of the worst teams in baseball history and an organization that would overturn the roster repeatedly for the next 6 years, until finally developing some players in 1967 and 1968 that lead to the Miracle Mets of 1969.

Could this have been different? Absolutely. The Mets could have both brought in name players, drafted some raw prospects and some major league ready younger talent, that could have helped in 1962 and built a better bridge that might have made the team more competitive much sooner.

First off, Weiss did not draft a lot of pitching, which is surprising, drafted three catchers and two players who could only play first base. It was a roster that didn’t really fit together and had to cobble together arms later on. Could this have been different? Definitely. For instance, why the Mets didn’t draft Eddie Fisher (from the Giants) and Jim Brewer (from the Cubs), makes very little sense. Neither had much success in the major leagues to that point and Fisher was a knuckleballer, but both were in their mid-twenties, had major league experience and had been highly thought of prospects in their organizations. Instead of Fisher, the Mets drafted Ray Daviault, a 27 year old relief pitcher who had never pitched in the major leagues. The Mets could have still taken the two Cubs they selected, Ed Bouchee and Sammy Drake, then taken Brewer in the supplementary round. Instead they took Sherman Jones from the Reds in that round, a pitcher who had been on the World Series roster, but had been virtually a relief pitcher for two years and was older than Brewer (who had started in the minor leagues, with success, in 1961). This isn’t even mentioning Orlando Pena, who was made available by the Reds, was only a year older than Jones and had actually had success in the Major Leagues prior to 1961. Robin Roberts was also made available by the Phillies. He had an awful year in 1961, but he was the kind of name player that seemed to be the type Weiss was drawn to. Instead, the Mets took Choo Choo Coleman, a catcher who hit .128 in 1961 for the Phillies and journeyman outfielder Bobby Gene Smith. Imagine how much more successful the pitching staff would have been if those four players were selected and there wasn’t really a good reason not to do it.

Additionally, the Mets had opportunities to take risks on intriguing young players that might not have contributed in 1962, but would have potentially been something to build a farm system on. Ray Culp, Dick Allen, Dick Dietz and Vic Davalillo were all available in the draft and were not selected by either club. Allen and Dietz were in the low minors, but both players had absolutely annihilated the competition at that level and should have been worth the $100,000 total that the Mets would have had to shell out to get them. Culp had come off a bad minor league season, but he was a hard throwing young arm that needed to work on his control, as most young pitchers do. Davalillo had begun the transition from pitcher to outfielder due to his ability at the plate, his speed and the fact that his arm would be better used from centerfield instead of as a relief pitcher.

Of those four, only Davalillo would have probably seen time in the major leagues in 1962, and Dietz was the farthest one from making his major league debut, but all would have made impacts and appeared well in advance of 1968, when the Mets first became competitive. Their presence might have made the team not only more competitive, but more willing to spend energy on creating a stable major league roster with less of the yearly turnover that became the Mets trademark.

Yes, it’s easy to do this in retrospect, but really take a close look at the expansion draft of the 1962, the players available and whatever data you can look up. It’s hard to argue that these players shouldn’t have been in the Mets organization in 1962 and beyond when you look at what Weiss chose to do instead.

Mets’ all-time best defensive fielders by runs saved

Recently there was some chatter about who the best Met defensive players have been.  Marv Throneberry or Keith HernandezBud Harrelson or Rey Ordonez, and so on.  Anecdotally, there are a couple of Mets with tremendous defensive reputations, and Gold Gloves, but were they deserving, given what we have learned from advanced metrics?  Let us look.

First, there are limitations. Advanced metrics data – specifically where the ball was hit – trajectory, speed, etc. only began in the mid-1980s, when Bill James, created Project Scoresheet out of his Baseball Abstracts, where volunteers scored games and mailed them in and a database was created. In 1987, STATS, with John Dewan at the helm, developed Zone Rating, as a business – not volunteers.  This made the system robust, with quality control, and improved upon the Project Scoresheet system.  Prior to 1987, Sean Smith developed Total Zone, relying on Retrosheet data to calculate runs saved.  That means data from pre-STATS era have larger error bars, and are generally less reliable, simply due to a lack of available information.  It is still valuable, and critical to understanding the previous eras. For this article, we will be looking at several metrics and trying to find a happy medium. This will include RED (STATS-based), DRS from SIS, TZ (found on Baseball-Reference, and a sprinkle of cross-reference of UZR. These stats are used to make up the SDI, SABR’s defensive index used to provide guidance and votes for the Gold Gloves since 2014.

When we consider the best defensive players, there is always the question of position.  Keith Hernandez was a fantastic first baseman.  What we have learned in the development of sabermetrics is the value of position, relative to other positions.  How many available first basemen are there? Roughly, the rest of the team.  How many competent shortstops? A much narrower field.  So, when we talk about the best fielders, there is always the question of whether Rey Ordonez would have been a better first baseman than Keith Hernandez would have been at shortstop.  That is WAR’s view – because the replacement defensively at first base is a much poorer fielder than the replacement at shortstop.

For this piece, we are considering runs saved, rather than positional adjustments. That value is a different discussion of “better fielder”.  Pitchers and catchers, as Johnny Bench was not a Met, will be relegated to another discussion.

There are several positions where it is easy to identify the best fielders.  Keith Hernandez is the best fielding first baseman in Mets history – possibly in all of MLB.  John Olerud was a tremendous first baseman, and had he played with the Mets for six seasons, may have challenged Hernandez. Olerud was certainly among the best his three years in New York.  Rey Ordonez is the best fielding shortstop in Mets history.  The only other shortstop to accumulate close to as many runs saved is Bud Harrelson, and he played twice as many years.

The rest of the positions are far less obvious.  At second base, people will instinctively say Edgardo Alfonzo, who was particularly good, but spent much more time at third base, playing even better.  That is, of course, how the defensive spectrum works.  You may be tempted to name a famous signee, or developed player, like Roberto Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Daniel Murphy, or Jeff Kent.  These second basemen played long careers, but not so much with the Mets, and with the Mets, they were all bad, except Kent, who made it to average, as a second baseman.  There are only 14 players with 1000 innings at second base for the Mets, and the one who prevented the most runs is a converted good shortstop, Jose Valentin.  Valentin was a Gold Glove caliber shortstop with the White Sox a decade earlier but was still a good glove man with the Mets.

At third base, there is an obvious answer. It is not David Wright. Wright did have a Gold Glove-worthy season and won a couple more that he did not deserve with the Mets.  Alfonzo was excellent at third base. Robin Ventura is one of the best fielding third basemen of all time, and his tenure with the Mets is the top performance at the position.

On the infield, Ordonez leads the way as the best defender. Hernandez is up there, Alfonzo is for his performance at multiple positions, and Ventura.  Whatever the case, the Mets have not thought too much about the importance of defense on the infield.

The outfield is a little trickier. The Mets have been blessed with two “utility” outfielders who have been more than defensive substitutions.  They played all three defensive positions and been recognized as defensive studs.  Every Mets fan loves Endy Chavez for one of the greatest catches in history.  He was routinely fantastic as a defender, across all the various metrics, and one of the Mets top three outfielders.  Likewise, Juan Lagares, who is a bit more of a defensive substitute, but has garnered lots of innings due to injuries to the regulars and has taken full advantage.  He was stellar from his first year and maintained his performance even with irregular playing time.  Additionally, the Mets had Carlos Beltran patrol center field, in his prime, and he was excellent.  Beltran was a great center fielder, who never really adjusted to right field.

You might say it is not right to only address the outfield with three center fielders. Fair. The next best outfielder is Angel Pagan, but that does not get us anywhere.  From a purely positional aspect, the best left fielder is Bernard Gilkey, with honorable mention to Michael Conforto.  Conforto would have supplanted Gilkey if he had been left in left.  Right field has had lots of turnover.  Darryl Strawberrry’s 9,000 innings were played sometimes good and sometimes bad, better with his arm than with his fly catching.  Curtis Granderson played a good right field, since he was a center fielder, that is to be expected. Since Strawberry’s departure, right field has been a disaster. Ryan Church started strong, but a concussion derailed him.

In summary, the best outfielders are center fielders, and we can give a nod to Gilkey for hanging close.

Where does that leave the list? The numbers for Juan Lagares vary quite a bit, but consensus is, despite his part-time efforts, he is the most consistent outfielder and has saved the most runs, followed by Ordonez and Hernandez.

All in all, the Mets have undervalued defense, and it has hurt them a great deal. With any luck, they will look for well-rounded players who can catch as well as hit.

Revisiting the Frisella/Gentry for Millan/Stone deal

Everyone knows that the Mets have made some awful trades in their tenure. What’s surprising is that one that certainly should have been awful turned out slightly positive for them. In early November of 1972, the Mets sent Danny Frisella and Gary Gentry, two 26 year olds, to the Braves for Felix Millan and George Stone.

Millan, a three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove Award winner, was the main piece for the Mets. After watching four players – Ken Boswell, Ted Martinez, Wayne Garrett and Lute Barnes – give below-average performances both offensively and defensively in ’72 at second base, Millan was expected to solidify the position both ways, while also providing a textbook number-two hitter for the lineup.

The only problem with that thinking is that Millan had been in steady decline.

In his first full season in the majors, Millan put up a 2.7 fWAR. He recorded a 2.3 mark the next two seasons. In 1971 that number dropped to 1.2 and in his final season with the Braves, Millan put up a (-0.5) fWAR. Boswell, the Mets’ primary second baseman, had a 1.5 fWAR in ’71 and a (-0.1) mark in ’72. Essentially, he had given the Mets the exact same level of production they would have received from Millan had Millan been on the club the previous two years.

Stone was the same age as the two pitchers the Mets gave up but injuries and ineffectiveness had impacted his ’71 and ’72 seasons, the latter of which he posted a (-0.2) fWAR. And to top it off, the thing most Mets fans knew/remembered about Stone is that he threw the pitch that broke Rusty Staub’s wrist, which ruined the Mets’ ’72 season.

Gentry had great stuff but there were questions about his attitude. There were times he showed up teammates in the field and there were quotes that the Arizona native didn’t particularly love New York. And to top it all off, there were arm problems that weren’t exactly handled right, leading both Gentry and the Mets to question what was really going on.

After logging 124.2 innings in the majors in 1967 & 1968, Frisella spent most of the championship year of 1969 in the minors. But while there he added a forkball to his repertoire, which helped him supplant Ron Taylor as the team’s top righty reliever. But Frisella had a down year in ’72, too, as his ERA went from 1.99 to 3.34. There were rumors of arm problems with Frisella that year, too.

Did the Mets look at it as trading two guys with arm problems to solidify 2B, along with getting a lottery ticket in return? That’s probably the most-favorable viewing of the trade you could make. Blogs didn’t exist in late 1972 and newspapers were much more likely to give just straight reporting. But here are two quotes, one from each side, expressing the trade at the time it happened:

In an AP story that appeared in the Rome News-Tribune, Braves Player Personnel Director Eddie Robinson said, “The Braves were in dire need of pitching strength. It appears this was the best deal for us. We hate to let a player like Millan go. But let me stress, we are giving up quality to quality.”

Meanwhile, Mets manager Yogi Berra told the New York Times this about the deal:

“You got to give up something in order to get something good.

“Now we’ve got a second baseman who can play second base every day. Milian can fit right into the batting order. He’s a good No. 2 hitter. He doesn’t strike out very often, and he’s a good man to play hit and run. He’ll steady the infield.”

Was this merely two guys doing PR spin about a trade? Perhaps, but when you think of Berra, being a PR whiz is hardly the first thing that jumps to mind. It seems more likely that this is how both clubs felt about the deal, that neither felt they hoodwinked the other. Instead, it was a win-win deal for both clubs.

We can debate the results of the deal from the Mets’ side but we can say without hesitation that the Braves did not win the trade. Arm troubles continued to plague Gentry, who totaled just 113.1 IP over two-plus years with Atlanta before being released early in 1975. The Mets scooped up Gentry, hoping he could make it back to the majors. But he tore the flexor muscle in his right elbow in his first tune-up appearance in the minors and never pitched again.

The Gentry story is sad enough. But it was much worse with Frisella. He bombed in two seasons in Atlanta and then bounced around after that. However, it looked like he had found a home in Milwaukee and was set to be the team’s closer in 1977. But Frisella died in a dune buggy accident on New Year’s Day in ’77.

Meanwhile, Millan had the best year of his career in 1973 and Stone was a vital member of the rotation that year, too. Mets fans who were around then still curse Berra for not starting Stone in Game 6 of the World Series. But after that glorious start, things didn’t work out too well for either player. Stone suffered a rotator cuff injury in 1974 and he retired in 1976. Millan followed up his 3.0 fWAR season in ’73 with a (-0.3) year and the final four years of his MLB career saw an 87 OPS+ and a combined 3.0 fWAR – the same total he gave in ’73 alone. And even Millan was not immune to the injury curse that struck the others in this deal. In 1977, he entered a game as a defensive replacement and got into a brawl when Pirates catcher Ed Ott barreled into him to break up a double play. Millan, never known for having a temper, felt this was a dirty play by Ott and came up and punched the guy who just ran him over. Ott retaliated with a move straight out of WWE, picking Millan up and body slamming him into the ground. Millan left on a stretcher and ended up with a broken collarbone and a dislocated shoulder. He never played another game in the majors.

You frequently find this deal on lists of the best Mets trades ever made. And the Mets ended up with the better end of things, without a doubt. But you have to judge a trade by two methods – what was thought at the time of the deal and what the final results ended up being. If this same trade happened in 2020, media and fans alike would have been disappointed when it was made. It ended up being great in 1973 and then not so hot afterwards. Could the Mets have gotten a better return if they offered Frisella and Gentry to every other club in the league, instead of being focused on getting Millan? My opinion is yes, they could have. Much like trading Justin Dunn and Jarred Kelenic because they were focused on getting Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz – the Mets could have gotten a better return by being open to other players.

The other thing about this trade is it shows the Mets’ cavalier attitude towards pitching. When you’re pumping out quality pitching prospects at a tremendous rate, it’s easy (and to a point, necessary) to trade it away. But in addition to Gentry and Frisella, the Mets dealt away Steve Renko, Nolan Ryan, Jim Bibby, Buzz Capra and Tug McGraw. It would have been a lot more fun to see those guys on the Mets than some of the starters (and relievers) who were sent out in their place.

Finally, we’ve all made the Angel of Death joke about former Mets trainer Ray Ramirez. But where is the venom directed at the medical team of the 70s? Clearly, they didn’t have surgical techniques that we have now available then. But they misdiagnosed Gentry and thought McGraw would never be able to pitch at a high level again, too. Those are some pretty high-end gaffes.

More than a footnote: The underappreciated Steve Trachsel

Steve Trachsel allowed 348 home runs in his 16-year career in Major League Baseball. But the one he allowed to Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals on September 8, 1998 cemented his spot as a footnote in baseball history. The right-hander served Big Mac an 88 MPH fastball and with a quick, short stroke the hulking first baseman swatted it 341 feet, clearing the left field wall at Busch Stadium to set a new MLB record with his 62nd home run of the season.

“[The pitch] wasn’t going to be a strike,” Trachsel said to reporters after the historic blast. “When he hit it, I thought it was either going to be a foul ball or a double.”

Trachsel placed fourth in the 1994 National League Rookie of the Year ballot, was an NL All-Star in 1996 with the Chicago Cubs, and out-dueled Pedro Martinez 1-0 on May 6, 2000, handing the eventual AL Cy Young Award winner only his fifth loss since September 19, 1998. He was much more than the slow-working, sometimes homer-prone, soft-tossing righty that he is remembered for being.

Drafted by the Cubs in the 8th round of the 1991 MLB Draft out of Long Beach State, he was considered a polished righty with good-but-not-great stuff. Chicago was very aggressive in promoting him through their minor-league system, jumping him to High-A Winston-Salem after only two professional starts, and having him spend his first full season with the Double-A Charlotte Knights in 1992.

As a 22-year-old in 1993, Trachsel spent most of the season with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs before a brief September cup of coffee. The strike-shortened 1994 season was his first full year in the majors, and he was solid in 22 starts, going 9-7 with a 3.21 ERA and slightly better than league average strikeout and walk rates. He spent the first seven seasons of his MLB career with the Cubs, going 60-68 with a 99 ERA+, almost exactly league average. He achieved those results in a roller coaster way, posting 2.9 bWAR-or-better three times (’94, ’96, ’98) and 0.9-or-worse three times (’95, ’97, ’99).

However, Trachsel picked a bad time to have what was the worst season of his career in 1999. As a 28-year-old he went 8-18 to lead the NL in losses, paired with a career-worst 5.56 ERA. His record, which weighed more heavily on a pitcher’s perception 20 years ago, wasn’t helped by the fact that he had the third-worst run support in the NL. He hit free agency and eventually caught on with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on a one year, $1 million deal, a huge paycut from the $5.25 million he made with the Cubs in ‘99.

The highlight of his Devil Rays tenure was that day when he locked horns with Pedro Martinez at Fenway Park. Pedro was still on his two-year stretch of dominance where he was undoubtedly the best pitcher in baseball, and both hurlers threw complete games, with Tampa Bay winning 1-0 behind a career-high 11 strikeouts from Trachsel and a Greg Vaughn RBI single.

He accumulated 1.9 bWAR in 23 games with Tampa Bay, but had just a 6-10 record and 4.58 ERA to show for it. That said, a 4.58 ERA in the AL East in 2000 was still good for a 108 ERA+, so it’s not as bad as it might look by comparison to the lower run-scoring environment we are in now. The Devil Rays were spiraling toward another 90-loss season and dealt Trachsel to their division rival Toronto Blue Jays at the July 31deadline along with left-handed reliever (and future Met) Mark Guthrie in exchange for infielder Brent Abernathy.

Toronto had lost four straight games to fall to 55-52, but was in the thick of the AL East Divisional race as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox both failed to create separation at the top. Trachsel’s acquisition was part of a flurry of moves made by Blue Jays General Manager Gord Ash to solidify the team for the home stretch. Trachsel joined a rotation that included veteran southpaw David Wells, and talented youngsters Kelvim Escobar, Chris Carpenter, Esteban Loaiza and Roy Halladay. He went just 2-5 in 11 starts with the Blue Jays, sporting a 5.29 ERA (96 ERA+) as Toronto settled for a third-place finish in the division, 4.5 games behind the 87-74 Yankees. Once again, Trachsel was headed for free agency.

At this point the Mets needed starting pitching help. Mike Hampton had signed with the Colorado Rockies, and Bobby J. Jones (the righty) was on the way out of town as well. The Mets tried and failed to sign free agents Mike Mussina, Denny Neagle and Darren Dreifort. At the Baseball Winter Meetings in Dallas, Texas, Mets GM Steve Phillips convinced Kevin Appier and Trachsel that the New York school system was satisfactory and signed both veterans, the latter to a two-year, $7 million deal.

Murray Chass of The New York Times was among those who questioned the wisdom of signing a career sub-.500 pitcher to a team fresh off the World Series. Phillips defended the signing to the press, citing a lack of run support, “His record over the last couple years is something most people raise an eyebrow to. In our view, there’s information behind the numbers. His record really is a product of the run support he’s received over the last couple seasons.” And it is true that Trachsel had the 7th-worst support in the AL in 2000 and the 6th-worst in baseball from 1996-2000, according to Chass’ article.

“If you make 35 starts and pitch every fifth day, your record is going to reflect your team’s won-lost record,” Trachsel said in his own defense. And it is true that he had pitched for bad teams for essentially his entire career.

During the back-end of his career with the Mets, Steve Trachsel rewarded Phillips’ faith and wrote himself into the team record books. From 2000-2009, no New York Mets pitcher had more wins than Trachsel’s 66, only Tom Glavine made more starts (164 to 160) or threw more innings (1005.1 to 956.1) than he, and only Al Leiter struck out more batters (770 to 580). Trachsel is tied with Jacob deGrom for 10th all-time in franchise history in wins, and more dubiously 10th all-time in franchise history in bases on balls.

A Rocky Start

It’s impossible to talk about the mostly disappointing era of Mets baseball in the 00s without mentioning Trachsel’s contributions to the team. Already an eight-year MLB veteran by the time he joined the Mets the southern Californian began that season much in the same way the team did – terribly.

On May 17, the San Diego Padres roughed him up for seven runs in 2.1 innings at Shea Stadium in an eventual 15-3 route in which Trachsel infamously became the first pitcher in Mets history to allow four home runs in one inning.[1] The defeat dropped Trachsel to 1-6 on the season with an unsightly 8.24 ERA, and the Mets to 15-25. Mets brass made the difficult decision following that start to demote the veteran to Triple-A Norfolk.

“I was pretty shocked. And I’m disappointed. It’s not the route I wanted to take,” Trachsel said at the time of the demotion. “I thought they’d make me skip a start or move to the bullpen. But they have precedent on their side that this had worked.”

The precedent that Trachsel is referring to is that of Jones whom the Mets sent down to Triple-A in 2000 after early-season struggles. Jones returned looking more like his old self and went on to famously throw a one-hitter against the San Francisco Giants in Game 4 of the 2000 NLDS. The Mets hoped Trachsel would find the same “Norfolk Magic” as Jones the year prior.

Trachsel made a loud statement in his second start with Norfolk on May 30, 2001. In Game 1 of a doubleheader against the Ottawa Lynx he threw a seven-inning no-hitter in a 3-0 Norfolk win. After three starts with the Tides, the Mets brought him back up. As Bobby Valentine had reportedly asked, he scrapped his ineffective cutter and worked on not tipping his split-finger fastball. The results – an 0-3 record and a 4.50 ERA – in his first four starts back were not eye-popping, but his peripherals improved and he was keeping the ball in the park.

Beginning with a June 29th start against the Atlanta Braves in which he went 7.0 innings and allowed only one unearned run, Trachsel was arguably the Mets’ best starting pitcher down the stretch of the season. In his final 16 games, he went 10-4 with a 3.07 ERA, while opponents could only muster a .211/.264/.371 slash line against him. His season culminated with a complete game, two-hit shutout on October 3 against Pittsburgh.

He was one of several bright spots down the stretch for that 2001 ball club. The team, coming off of a World Series appearance that was expected to compete for a playoff spot once again, finished just 82-80, in third place looking up at Philadelphia and division champions Atlanta. The Mets went on an inspiring run in August and September, before one of the more soul-crushing losses in franchise history ended the team’s playoff hopes on Saturday, September 29.[2]

Post-2001: The Unlikely Anchor

The Mets made dramatic changes to their roster heading into 2002. Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Roger Cedeno and Jeromy Burnitz were brought in to add punch to the lineup, which had hopes of being a new Murderer’s Row. It was a spectacular flop as the Mets finished 13th in the NL in runs scored, and the trio of Alomar, Cedeno, and Burnitz all posted wRC+ marks of 91 or worse.

The pitching staff was as big of a disaster as the lineup with Pedro Astacio, Jeff D’Amico and Shawn Estes all underperformed expectations, but Trachsel was a huge bright spot. He went 11-11 with a 3.37 ERA, which was the best mark on the club. His 4.14 FIP was only bested by Leiter’s 3.87 mark among starters. His 2.5 bWAR was the second-best on the staff behind Leiter, and fourth-best on the team behind Mike Piazza (4.3) and Edgardo Alfonzo (4.2).

The Mets suffered an embarrassing 12-game losing streak in August and finished last in the NL East, 26.5 games out of first place. That performance cost Bobby Valentine his job as Mets manager, and following another last place finish in 2003, Phillips was out as well.

As in 2002, Trachsel was a bright spot on the 2003 Mets. The team found out that Art Howe’s managerial skills weren’t responsible for the Moneyball-era Oakland Athletics making the playoffs. Piazza missed most of the season with a torn groin muscle, and the two big offseason acquisitions – Glavine and Cliff Floyd – got off to rough starts in Flushing. But the hope of what was to come was strong as the Mets rookies Jae Weong Seo, Aaron Heilman, Ty Wigginton, Jason Phillips and Jose Reyes gave fans something to be excited about.

But the best player on the 2003 Mets was Trachsel, who produced a career-best 4.4 bWAR. He won a career-high 16 games and logged 200.0 innings for the sixth time in his career. The highlight of the season for the now 32-year-old righty was on August 18 when he faced the Colorado Rockies at Shea. In an 8-0 win, Trachsel held the Rockies to just one hit in a complete game shutout, striking out three and not walking a batter.

The lone hit in the game for the Rockies came when Colorado pitcher Chin-Hui Tsao doubled over Timo Perez’ head in the sixth inning – after Trachsel had retired the first 17 batters. Tsao’s hit was historic, as he became the first Taiwanese-born player to record a hit in a MLB game. The only other Rockies baserunner in the game was Greg Norton, who reached on a throwing error in the ninth inning.

“Based on the balls that were hit off me, I’m surprised I only gave up one hit,” Trachsel told reporters after the game. “Jay Payton hit three rockets and went 0-for-3. There’s no way to explain it.”

The 2004 season was similar, with the 6-foot-3 righty logging over 200.0 innings of slightly better than league average baseball. Things got off to a rocky start in 2005, though, as injuries and disagreements with new manager Willie Randolph marred his season.

In spring training, Trachsel was having back pain, and an MRI showed that he had a herniated disk which kept him out of action for the first half of the season. By the time he returned to MLB action in August the Mets were making a push to insert themselves into the playoff conversation, but the team wasn’t quite ready for prime time. They finished seven games behind the Braves in the NL East and six games behind the Houston Astros in the NL Wild Card.

There were questions with Trachsel’s return about whether or not he deserved a spot in the rotation with Seo pitching well. He got a shot to start on August 26 at San Francisco, and held the Giants to only two hits in 8.0 innings in a 1-0 Mets win that moved the team within a game and a half of the wild card. Still, Randolph decided to skip Trachsel’s next turn through the rotation, leading him to tell the press, “I guess I should have thrown a no-hitter.”

The Last Act: Finally in the Playoffs

Trachsel’s last year with the Mets was 2006, and though he stayed healthy, signs of his decline were on full display. His peripherals (4.3 K/9, 4.3 BB/9) were both sub-par, and his 15-8 record masked a 4.97 ERA (88 ERA+). But still, he was 35-years-old and for the first time in his career was on a team that had made the playoffs.

The pitching matchup in Game 3 of the 2006 NLDS between the Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers was Steve Trachsel against Greg Maddux. Two crafty righties who began their careers on the North Side of Chicago, and whose best years were beyond them. Both were destined to live on in baseball history – Maddux in Cooperstown and Trachsel in the footnotes of McGwire’s record – but neither fared well.

Trachsel allowed two runs in 3.1 innings while the Mets touched up Maddux for four runs in 4.0 innings. New York won the game 9-5 to sweep Los Angeles in the best-of-five series and set up an NLCS date with St. Louis. He next pitched in what would be the last game of his Mets career – October 14, 2006, Game 3 of the NLCS at Busch Stadium. The Mets bullpen had just blown a late lead in Game 2 (thanks to Scott Spezio and So Taguchi), and the series was tied at 1-1.

His opponent on the mound that night was Jeff Suppan, who would eventually become the NLCS MVP. Trachsel only faced 12 batters, walking five of them and allowing five runs before being pulled from the game without recording an out in the second inning. Suppan and Josh Kinney combined to shut out the Mets in a 5-0 Cardinals victory. His performance was so poor that Randolph decided to start the enigmatic and unpredictable Oliver Perez in Game 7 instead of Trachsel.

That turned out to be a good decision as Perez was great, even though the Mets ultimately lost the game and the series. It was also a somewhat fitting way to book-end Trachsel’s Mets tenure, which began with him being sent to the minor leagues and ended with him being replaced in the playoff rotation. In between those sour first and last impressions was a lot of good.

He was never a pitcher who was going to be among the very best in the game – you can count junkballing righties who were in modern times on one hand – but he was a dependable, better-than-league-average starter for the Mets for a half-dozen years. A modern-day Craig Swan, he was the best pitcher on some very bad teams. While he wasn’t the most fun guy to watch because of his lack of electric stuff and deliberate pace in between pitches, he was a reliable starter every fifth day. Trachsel was sanity and stability in an era of Mets baseball which featured little of either.

He caught on with the Baltimore Orioles in 2007, and was traded at the August 31 waiver deadline to the Cubs, and saw his peripherals continue to decline. He struck out just 3.2 batters per nine and walked 4.3 per nine. He re-signed with Baltimore as a free agent after the season, but was designated for assignment and released after 10 appearances and an 8.39 ERA in 2008, ending his career.

Since retiring from baseball, Trachsel has returned home to his native California, and entered the wine business. Always a wine enthusiast, he used to bond with Mike Piazza over bottles of wine and would sometimes conduct wine tastings on the Mets team plane. Now, he is an “independent wine and spirits professional” in the Greater San Diego Area, according to his LinkedIn profile. A nice second-act for an underappreciated Met.

[1] In the top of the third inning, San Diego got home runs from Alex Arias, Rickey Henderson, Ryan Klesko and Bubba Trammell.
[2] With the Mets leading Atlanta 5-1 heading into the bottom of the ninth at Turner Field, the Braves rallied for seven runs against Armando Benitez and John Franco to win 8-5. Franco had been pitching for weeks with a sore elbow and allowed a walk-off grand slam to Brian Jordan on a grooved 0-2 pitch. The loss dropped the Mets to four games back of the Braves with six to play.