The Mets and 86 wins: 1976 and 2019

The Mets won 86 games last season, a solid total and one that leaves the fans optimistic for even better things in 2020. You have to go back 43 years to find the last – and only other – time that the Mets won exactly 86 games, back to the Bicentennial year of 1976. The year we painted fire hydrants red, white and blue, the year that Bruce Jenner won the gold medal and broke the record in the men’s decathlon and the year we elected Jimmy Carter as president. Yeah, it was an odd time.

The 1976 Mets had a rookie manager in Joe Frazier. And while it was his first year at the helm of an MLB club, he had managed in the minors forever. After starting out with the Astros, he joined the Mets in 1968 and went on to win championships with Visalia, Memphis, Victoria and Tidewater. He seemed like a great choice to lead the team.

But it ended up not being such a great fit. After years of managing teenagers and guys in their early 20s, Frazier inherited a roster filled with guys on the wrong side of 30. Five of the 10 hitters with the most PA on the ’76 team were over 30 as well as three of the five starting pitchers. The 86-win season of 1976 was not a rookie manager leading young guys on an inspired run. Instead, it was the last hurrah of several guys from the 1969 and 1973 World Series teams.

Jerry Grote had a 110 OPS+ and a 2.0 fWAR in his age-33 season. He would play just 125 games the rest of his career and was traded to the Dodgers the following year in a mid-season deal. Ed Kranepool put up a 121 OPS+ as the team’s starting first baseman in his age-31 season. He was out of baseball at the end of the decade. Bud Harrelson put up a 92 OPS+ – the best mark of his career as a starter – in his age-32 season. He would play one more year with the Mets (where he put up a 34 OPS+) and then bounced around for three more seasons as a part-time guy before he called it a career.

But the story of the ’76 team was its pitching. The Mets led the league with a 3.32 runs allowed per game, led by the big three of Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman, who combined to go 52-31. The 1975 Mets were done in by the lack of a reliable fourth starter, so in the offseason they brought in 1968 World Series hero Mickey Lolich. While the Mets did need a fourth starter, they couldn’t afford to give up offense to get one. And they traded Rusty Staub in order to get Lolich, which didn’t sit well with the fans at the time, as Staub was a fan favorite. It didn’t help that Lolich went 8-13 and seemed, well in the non-PC days of ’76, we always prefaced his name with the word fat.

But in hindsight Lolich was pretty good as a fourth starter, giving the team 192.2 innings at a 3.22 ERA. He was just what the ’75 team needed. It just didn’t lead to a lot of wins with the below-average offense of the ’76 squad. Craig Swan gave the team a pretty solid fifth starter, as he put up a 3.54 ERA in 23 games.

The story of the 1976 season should have been Dave Kingman, who was having a monster year before hurting his thumb in a fielding mishap. He was on a pace to challenge for the single-season home run record before getting hurt. At the All-Star break, Kingman had 30 HR and 69 RBIs, which were excellent totals for any player in that era and mind-boggling coming from a guy on the perpetually power-devoid Mets. He finished with 37 HR, which established a franchise record.

It all fell apart for the Mets in 1977, which started a string of seven consecutive seasons where they played nearly as bad, and in some cases worse, than the expansion Mets. They traded their two main stars in Seaver and Kingman, the older guys mostly fell off a cliff and the younger guys mostly failed to develop.

Perhaps we should have seen the decline from the older guys coming. But the failure of the 20-somethings to develop into something more was certainly puzzling. Bruce Boisclair put up a 113 OPS+ in 320 PA at age 23. He had a similar season in 1977 and then never approached that mark again. John Milner put up a 137 OPS+ at age 26 but never duplicated, much less exceeded, that production again. Mike Vail, 24, was hurt for a large chunk of the ’76 season and never followed up on the promise of his 1975 campaign. Nino Espinosa (22) and Rick Baldwin (23) were good in short samples in ’76 but neither fulfilled his potential. Even the success stories from the youngsters on this team – Matlack, Lee Mazzilli, John Stearns and Swan – didn’t really have lengthy careers at a high level.

We saw the 86-win 1976 team fall apart immediately, as seemingly everything imaginable went wrong. Sure, some of the wounds were self-inflicted and others we should have seen coming. But to decline 22 wins from ’76 to ’77 was shocking. It made the 14-win drop from 1990 to 1991 look tame.

The 2020 Mets are unlikely to trade Jacob deGrom and Pete Alonso. And hopefully the 20-somethings from the 2019 squad age better than their 1976 counterparts. Right now it’s unfathomable to think of the 2020 Mets finishing with 64 wins. Let me tell you, none of the fans in December, 1976 thought it was going to happen in 1977, either.

6 comments for “The Mets and 86 wins: 1976 and 2019

  1. Mike Walczak
    December 3, 2019 at 1:01 pm

    Thanks for bring up the memories. Besides the pitchers and Kingman, my favorite player was Felix Millan. I remember him as being steady and getting on base. I also remember that Felix had this little infielders glove that looked like a kids glove.

    Joe Torre was also on the team. Torre hit .306.

    The Mets had a good bullpen. Skip Lockwood and Bob Apodaca and Ken Sanders combined for 25 saves, all with ERA’s below 2.88.

    76 was a big year for Jerry Koosman in leading the team with 21 wins. I remember 76 being a ‘bad” year for Seaver with a 14-11 record. How could that happen to Tom Seaver. We were spoiled with his greatness.

    Ah yes, Mickey Lolich. At age 35, he was fat and threw around his gut. After trading my other favorite Met, Rusty Staub, I hated Lolich. All I saw was his losses. Looking back years later, Mickey had an excellent ERA of 3.22. I am sorry Mickey, I apologize for hating you as a child. You pitched well.

    • December 3, 2019 at 1:22 pm

      Got to watch your words about Felix Millan – he’s the favorite player of one of our new writers, Mark M.

  2. Pete from NJ
    December 3, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    Great throw back essay. Yes I was going reminisce about our guys on the team, especially Kingman’s power numbers while not even mentioning the enviable pitching staff.

    So when I referenced the roster two big surprises hit. The first one that I didn’t recall Joe Torre being on the team. The second was the shocker: Pythagorean record was 91-71.

    Just an added thought was the older roster. The leftover veterans from the 68-73 hey days would never survived on the roster by pricing themselves above payroll. 1976 fans didn’t need a course in cost accounting to follow the game. I’m not making a value judgement but innocence has a place for the young fans in our group.

    • December 3, 2019 at 1:52 pm

      Nice nugget about the Pythagorean Record!

      My first two thoughts are the bullpen and RISP in this case. It wasn’t the bullpen, as the relievers were one of the top groups in the league. RISP was just a few points below average in OPS. But they were 10th in a 12-team league in PA with RISP. They had over 400 fewer PA in this split than the Reds.

    • Mike Walczak
      December 3, 2019 at 4:10 pm

      I also remember when Kingman dove for the line drive and busted up his thumb. What a disappointment. His prolific home run pace in the first half was really fun to watch. Kingman wasn’t a very good fielder. At 6’6″, he was gawky.

      • Bob P
        December 3, 2019 at 6:56 pm

        I can still hear Bob Murphy referring to him as David Arthur Kingman.

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