A point of commonality for the two Mets championship seasons of 1969 and 1986 was that both teams possessed an excellent pitching coach, Rube Walker for the ‘69 squad and Mel Stottlemyre in ‘86.

Walker was a baseball lifer, his playing career was mostly as a backup catcher, first for the Cubs, then for the Dodgers. He was not much of a force with the bat, but he was an excellent defensive catcher. He was well above average in throwing out prospective base-stealers, he blocked errant pitches well, and he was a superb handler of pitchers. When he was released during the 1958 season, star Dodger pitchers Johnny Podres and Don Drysdale both lamented losing him. Walker was very popular with his Dodger teammates, and his close friendship with Gil Hodges was to prove very important in his future.

Walker managed in the minors for a few years, then in 1965 Hodges, by then manager of the Washington Senators, was able to convince the front-office to hire Walker as the pitching coach. It was, and is, unusual but not unheard of for an ex-catcher to be a big league pitching coach. The Senators continued to improve, and for the 1968 season Hodges was brought to New York to manage the Mets. He imported several members of the coaching staff from Washington, including Walker.

Walker put a big emphasis on conditioning for his pitchers, especially a regimen of running as he felt strong legs were a key to winning pitching. This of course played into Tom Seaver’s drop and drive pitching style. Walker fine-tuned the repertoire of young Jerry Koosman by placing more emphasis on the curve ball over the slider. Koosman went on to have a great World Series in 1969 and become one of the Mets all-time pitching greats.

The Mets 1967 team ERA (pre-Walker) was 3.73, and improved to 2.72 the following year under Walker. Then of course came 1969 and the World Series win. Walker was a strong believer in not overworking his pitchers, and he and Hodges pioneered an innovation that likely played a big part in championship success.

The innovation was the five-man starting pitching rotation. Five-man rotations had been used before, but usually rarely and briefly and in special circumstances. In the second half of 1969, the Mets went to the five-man rotation consisting of Seaver, Koosman, Gary Gentry, Don Cardwell and Jim McAndrew. The Chicago Cubs’ four starters were running on fumes by late in the year and the Mets surged past them and went all the way.

Walker was the Mets pitching coach all the way through 1981. Seaver summed up Walker’s impact by saying “He was a pitcher’s pitching coach.”

Stottlemyre took a different route to his success with the Mets. He was a major league pitcher, and a very good one, with a career from 1964-1974 entirely with the Yankees. He was excellent with a lifetime ERA of 2.97. His playing days ended with rotator cuff shoulder surgery, which ended many a pitcher’s tenure in those days. Stottlemyre missed out on the big MLB paydays that arrived in the free-agent era.

It was not unusual for a star pitcher like Stottlemyre to become a pitching coach in those days. It is kind of rare now, since pitchers can bank tidy sums during their playing years and not have to endure the grind of being a pitching coach. Mike Maddux is a pitching coach. His brother, Hall of Famer Greg, is not a pitching coach.

Stottlemyre coached the Mets pitching staff from 1984 to 1993. The Mets’ team ERA in his first year was 3.60, and had dropped to 3.11 in the title winning 1986 season. This was the pitching rotation of Dwight Gooden, Bob Ojeda, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez and Rick Aguilera. Gooden was not quite as dominant as he was in ‘85, but his 1986 record of 17-6 with a 2.84 ERA was awfully good. Gooden later said of coach Stottlemyre, “Everything I accomplished in the game was because of him.” Darling called him “A wonderful pitching coach and father figure to the young pitchers on our Mets teams in the 1980s.”

Walker and Stottlemyre came from different backgrounds and had different approaches to coaching pitchers, but both had considerable positive influence on the pitching staffs of the only two Mets World Series winning teams.

2 comments on “Remembering pitching coaches Rube Walker and Mel Stottlemyre

  • Brian Joura

    I don’t mean to take anything away from Rube Walker. But that 1967 team had Jack Fisher make 30 starts with a 4.81 ERA, Bob Shaw make 13 starts with a 4.48 ERA, Bill Denehy make 8 starts with a 5.82 ERA, Dennis Bennett with 6 starts and a 5.18 ERA and Tug McGraw with 4 starts and a 7.79 ERA. Not one of those five pitchers made a start in 1968, with four of them not even on the team and McGraw in the pen.

    You take away these 61 awful starts and replace them with 34 by Jerry Koosman (2.08), 23 by Dick Selma (2.94) and 12 by Jim McAndrew (2.28) and there’s your improvement.

    I think you can make a better case for the improvement being GM/manager than pitching coach. Also, we have to take run environment into account. 1967 NL ERA was 3.38 while in 1968 it was 2.99

    We can never really quantify the impact of coaches. Koosman and Selma were on the 1967 squad, too, and maybe Walker deserves credit for their improvement. But there’s an awful lot of addition by subtraction here, and a healthy dose of a better pitching environment, too.

    • John Fox

      Fair point. I was mostly stressing his contributions to the ’69 team. I did realize the average ERA differential was so large between ’67 and ’68, I knew those were the last 2 years of the so-called modern deadball era.

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