No matter what your preferred model was for predicting the outcome of the National League East this year, what seemed clear is that most really envisioned a dogfight between the Mets, Braves, and defending World Series champions Nationals. With a new skipper and reigning Cy Young and Rookie of the Year winners, there was plenty of Orange and Blue excitement on the way. With all that potential excitement, there was another amazin’ thing that this summer was going to bring as well: the retirement of Jerry Koosman’s number 36. No player of significance had donned this jersey since Koosman.
Last year, the Mets seemed to make an about face with respect to recognizing the history of the team, with much of the bally-hoo surrounding the long past due recognition of Tom Seaver with the renaming of the street address of CitiField and announcement of a statue that many fans have clamored for. Additionally, it was made known that the threshold for retiring numbers was lowering for players, which had been essentially linked to going to Cooperstown in a Mets cap. Right away one can envision 8 being retired in honor of Gary Carter, with a short string of numbers having been talked about like 16, 17, and certainly 5 for recently retired Captain David Wright.
But 2020 was “supposed to be the summer of Jerry” borrowing from a classic episode of Seinfeld. Koosman sits in the long shadows of Seaver and Gooden, but he was arguably the best left-handed starter in Mets history, racking up 37 bWAR in 12 seasons as a Met (career 57 bWAR), with only two of those seasons possessing an ERA+ less than 100. Retiring 36 is long overdue.
The highlight of Koosman’s tenure in New York was the 1969 World Series, winning Games 2 and 5, while pitching 17 2/3 innings and only allowing a total of 7 hits. One of the most iconic images in Mets history is a leaping Koosman embraced by Jerry Grote after his complete game win to seal the ’69 Championship. That game is easily available to watch from many sources and familiar ground to most Mets fans, especially in the over 50 age group! But what about Game 2, a game most people barely recall?
Game 2 never gets the respect it deserves; quite frankly it was as important, if not more important than Game 5. Tom Seaver had lost Game 1, setting the tone for what could have been a quick slide out against the mighty 109-win Orioles. Reviewing Koosman’s performance in Game 2 interested me, so after finding a cruddy video, my goal was to chart this the best way I could given the limited, fuzzy, black-and-white video. His 8 2/3 inning (26 outs) start was absolutely tremendous.
Koosman threw 102 pitches for his 26 outs, yielding an incredible 3.92 pitches per out, or about 12 pitches per inning. In six of the eight full innings Koosman pitched he threw 10 or few pitches. The game was different then to be sure. He pitched to contact, relying on superb defense from Ed Charles, Bud Harrelson, and Ron Swoboda in particular. Fifteen of the 26 outs were fly balls or line drives, seven outs came on ground balls, and he had 4 Ks. Of his 102 pitches he threw 61 for strikes (including those pitches leading to outs), utilizing the zone up, in, and away; he definitely was not afraid to pitch in, perhaps spurred on by an aggressive Grote calling the shots. He threw the fastball up and down changing planes along with changing arm slot. He set up on the first-base side of the rubber.
Koosman used about an even split between breaking pitches (mostly curve balls from what could be seen or heard from the announcers) and fastballs. Facing 31 batters, he led off 15 fastball first pitches and pitching backwards 16 times. His use of the whole zone, change in setting up batters, change of speeds, and a wicked breaking ball kept a roster of hitting monsters off guard and out of sync the whole game. He only let up 11 foul balls for the whole game. The Orioles mustered one run from five runners in the game on two singles and three walks. Batters 30 and 31 were walks, so really it was more like two singles and a walk. He posted a no-hitter through six innings. The Orioles never had fewer than three hits in a home game in 1969. The only thing one could say is what an amazing gutsy performance from the 25 year old, and one that changed the entire momentum of the World Series, bringing home an unlikely road split to New York for Games 3 through 5.
In modern times, Koosman almost certainly would have been selected MVP given his Game 5 effort, despite the hitting heroics of Donn Clendenon. Koosman was a fabulous Met and ranks high in the pantheon of players in our history. Retiring 36 in his honor is so the right thing to do. Here is to hoping that the Mets put this off another year so that next season the ceremony can be done with all the pomp he deserves.