Almost every life is defined by a break (could be a good one or a bad one) and Jerry Koosman’s is no different. What makes him stand out is the multiple breaks he received on his way to the majors. And then perhaps as payment, a few bad breaks that perhaps kept him from reaching the Hall of Fame. But along the way, Koosman became a beloved Met, one who had his uniform retired in 2021.

Koosman had a curious route to the majors. He grew up on a farm in Minnesota but by the time he was a teenager, he was a well-known locally for being a pitcher. And then, somehow, he went to a college without a baseball team. He transferred to a school in North Dakota but couldn’t pitch immediately, which left his future in doubt. And then all doubt was eliminated when he was drafted into the army.

First was basic training and then his first assignment, where he was stationed at Grafton, Ill. But there was no chance to pitch there, so Koosman asked for help to get transferred to a place where he could also play baseball. And that was his dentist, who just happened to be a big shot in the Minnesota National Guard.

The transfer did not come immediately. While waiting, Koosman took the officer’s candidate test and passed. While waiting for his new orders to come through, his dentist got him the transfer to El Paso, Texas, where he could play baseball. If the dentist hadn’t gotten the transfer, Koosman was going to become a helicopter pilot and likely would have been in the Vietnam War.

In another piece of good luck, Koosman’s catcher at Fort Bliss was the son of an usher at Shea Stadium. The catcher told his dad about Koosman and the dad told Joe McDonald, who at the time was a member of the Mets’ minor league staff. The Mets had a scout see Koosman pitch and eventually the club signed him in August of 1964.

It wasn’t a good year for Koosman in his first year of professional ball. But then fortune smiled on him again, although it probably didn’t seem like good luck at the time. Koosman got into an automobile accident while driving to Spring Training. He called the Mets, who wired him money so he could get to camp. And the money he owed the club was a factor in them keeping him around, figuring that he would pay them back and then they would release him.

But instead of being released, Koosman went 16-8 at two levels in 1966. The next year he won 11 games with a 2.43 ERA at AAA and made his Major League debut. And in 1968, Koosman won 19 games and finished second in the Rookie of the Year vote, behind Johnny Bench.

He followed that up with a 17-win season in 1969, one that finished with a 2-0 record in the World Series. Koosman gave up just one run and got two outs in the ninth inning before being relieved after two walks. Ron Taylor retired Brooks Robinson for the final out, giving Koosman the win.

In Game 5, Koosman gave up two homers and three runs in the third inning but pitched a complete game, as the Mets won the World Series with a 5-3 victory. Despite winning two games and pitching 17.2 innings, Koosman did not win World Series MVP, an honor that went to Donn Clendenon, instead. Clendenon had three homers and a 1.509 OPS, making him a worthy choice.

But then the fortune that followed him throughout his rise to the majors abandoned him. In June of 1970, Koosman was hit in the mouth by a ball hit by Gary Gentry and had his jaw wired shut for six weeks. He had a 2.57 ERA before getting hit in the mouth. After missing three weeks, Koosman had a 3.41 ERA the rest of the season. And the pitcher who had a 6.72 K/9 ratio in 1969 (the 22nd-best mark in the majors) had just a 4.52 K/9 after returning from the disabled list.

Koosman also missed starts in 1970 with forearm tightness.

His strikeout rate continued to fall in 1971, as he had a 4.09 K/9 before landing on the DL for five weeks thanks to a tear in a muscle in his upper back. And 1972 got off to a terrible start, with the death of manager Gil Hodges. Three starts into the season, Koosman had a 10.45 ERA. His next appearance came out of the pen. After a scoreless outing in relief, Koosman started his next game and again was rocked, this time by the lowly Padres.

That led to an extended bullpen stay, where his next seven appearances happened. But Koosman got right in the pen and returned to the rotation on June 10th. He remained a starter for the rest of the year and pitched better than his 9-9 record would indicate. Koosman had a 3.80 ERA but just a 2.68 FIP. He also saw the return of his strikeouts, as he fanned 123 in 135 innings.

At age 26 in 1969, Koosman had a 5.4 fWAR. At age 31 in 1974, he had a 5.1 fWAR. But because of injuries and the death of his beloved manager, Koosman did not reach those elite seasons for four years in the prime of his career. Koosman finished his career with 62.6 fWAR. What if he had posted an additional 10 units of WAR in the early 1970s? It’s not far fetched, given what he did in 1969 and 1974.

Koosman continued to put up good numbers, as he won 21 games and had a 4.9 fWAR in 1976. The next year saw him go from a 20-game winner to a 20-game loser. But that had more to do with his teammates that Koosman’s actual pitching, as he had a 3.49 ERA and a 4.6 fWAR.

The following year saw a bit of a drop from Koosman, as he had a 3.75 ERA and a 3.2 fWAR. The Mets had traded Tom Seaver during the 1977 season and they dealt Koosman following 1978. Rejuvenated by returning home to Minnesota, Koosman won 20 games and posted a 5.5 fWAR at the age of 36. He pitched six additional years, putting up 16 fWAR in the process, including a 4.7 year in 1984 with the Phillies at age 41.

We think of Koosman as a Mets legend. It’s too bad about the speed bumps that happened to him in the early 1970s or else everyone else might look at Koosman differently. Juan Marichal had 243 wins and a 61.2 fWAR and wound up in the Hall of Fame. If Koosman could have added 20 more wins in those down seasons, how would he have been viewed?

One of the big ifs in Mets history is how the team would have fared in 1972 if Rusty Staub hadn’t gotten hurt. That’s the year that Koosman got sent to the bullpen but came back sharp. As good of a postseason pitcher he had been in 1969 and 1973, imagine if he got another shot in 1972? People rarely think of Koosman as a great postseason player. But that’s due to having just two shots in his prime. Another chance in 1972 might have helped his Hall of Fame chances, too.

6 comments on “The good fortune and speed bumps for Jerry Koosman

  • John Fox

    Koosman was definitely a great big-game pitcher, and not just in the postseason. I remember seeing him in person pitch at Shea Stadium in 1969, outdueling Ferguson Jenkins of the Cubs in a game the Mets came from behind to win, the day before Tom Seaver pitched his near-perfect game.

  • Brian Joura

    It’s hard to imagine Koosman doing anything else besides being an MLB pitcher. Flying helicopters in Vietnam?!? We’re grateful for his dentist!

  • Dan Capwell

    Traded for Jesse Orosco. The guy on the mound for the first WS championship for the guy on the mound for the second (and hopefully not last) WS championship!

  • NYM6986

    Always seemed to live in the shadow of Tom Seaver and outside of NY never got the credit for how good he was. They have referred to Sid Fernandez as the best lefty the Mets ever had and among other things point to his ‘86 WS relief appearance. I’ll stick with Koos and his regular season play and of course his ‘69 WS heroics. Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

  • TexasGusCC

    Nice writeup, I hadn’t known much of this. The pitcher for my first ever game in 1977, Koosman beat Ken Forsch 4-1. I never realized how much of a joker he was until Ralph Kiner had him in with Tom Seaver one time, and Seaver would tell stories about the torture Koos put him through while Koosman was sitting next to him still messing with him. Seemingly to opposite to the uptight perfectionist Seaver in personality but similar in results.

  • T.J.

    Great write up….loved Koos…as a lefty kid, emulated that high kick as much as possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 100 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video, document, spreadsheet, interactive, text, archive, code, other. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop file here