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.