Monday, January 3, 2011

M.U.M.'s The Word (Most Underrated Mets): John Olerud

Greetings, Earthlings! Welcome to the first installment of M.U.M.'s The Word, a feature that will focus on the most underrated Mets players over the years. In this inaugural episode, we will turn the spotlight on a man who was only a Met for three seasons, but was instrumental in the team's return to respectability in the late '90s. Ladies and Gentle-Mets, today's Most Underrated Met is John Olerud.

Underrated first baseman John Olerud

In 1996, the Mets had a triumvirate of stars in centerfielder Lance Johnson (.333 batting average, 50 stolen bases and a franchise record 227 hits and 21 triples), leftfielder Bernard Gilkey (.317, 30 HR, 117 RBI, 108 runs scored and a franchise record 44 doubles) and catcher Todd Hundley (41 HR, which at the time set the major league record for home runs by a catcher as well as the Mets single season home run record). Despite the trio's phenomenal success at the plate, the Mets struggled in the win column, finishing fourth in the NL East with a 71-91 record, leading to the dismissal of Dallas Green as Mets manager in August and the beginning of the Bobby Valentine era.

The Mets began the 1996 season with fan-favorite Rico Brogna at first base, but injuries limited him to 55 games. Butch Huskey took over for Brogna on an interim basis and performed well (.278, 15 HR, 60 RBI), but Huskey was a third baseman/outfielder. Entering the 1997 season, the Mets wanted a dependable sure-handed first baseman who was not susceptible to injuries like Rico Brogna. Enter John Olerud.

On November 27, 1996, the Mets traded Rico Brogna to the Philadelphia Phillies. They were now on the lookout for his permanent replacement. When the Toronto Blue Jays dangled John Olerud in front of the Mets and all they asked for in return was Robert Person, a starting pitcher who won a total of five games for the Mets in 1995 and 1996, the Mets jumped at the opportunity.

Olerud had won two World Series rings as a member of the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993. His 1993 season saw him flirt with a .400 batting average for most of the season, before a late-season slump caused him to "settle" for a .363 mark, which was still good enough to win the American League batting title.

His next three seasons were a bit of a disappointment, as Olerud could not regain the batting stroke that made him one of the top hitters in the American League during his magical '93 season.

In 1993, Olerud led the league with 54 doubles and also set career highs with 24 HR and 107 RBI. However, from 1994-1996, despite having a respectable .287 average, Olerud's extra-base hit and RBI figures dropped dramatically. He averaged 29 doubles, 13 HR and 61 RBI per season over the three-year span, numbers which were not only well below his breakout 1993 figures, but were also far below the numbers expected from a corner infielder.

At the same time, Carlos Delgado was starting to break out in Toronto. Delgado had just come off his first full season as a Blue Jay in 1996. His 25 HR, 92 RBI season dwarfed Olerud's pedestrian numbers, making John expendable.

Once the Mets showed interest and offered Robert Person to the Blue Jays, the former AL batting champion switched leagues hoping the change in scenery would revitalize his career. Not only did the deal bring Olerud's production back from the dead, it did the same for the Mets in the NL East standings.

The 1997 Mets were not expected to do much in the NL East. Finishing at .500 would have sufficed for a team that had suffered through six consecutive seasons with a losing record. But then things started clicking in Bobby Valentine's first full season at the helm with John Olerud at the center of the Mets' rebirth.

After three consecutive subpar seasons in Toronto, Olerud found his batting stroke in Flushing. He produced the second 100+ RBI season of his career by driving in 102 runs. Also, his 34 doubles and 22 homers were the most he had produced since, you guessed it, 1993. In addition, his keen batting eye led to a .400 on-base percentage. Combine that with steady defense at first base, and you can see how his presence in the lineup and on the field led to the Mets' resurgence in the standings. The Mets finished the 1997 season with an 88-74 record, remaining in contention for the wild card until the last week of the season before eventually falling short by four games to the Florida Marlins, who went on to win the World Series.

Now that the Mets had established themselves as contenders in the National League, it was up to Olerud to continue his renaissance into 1998. What happened in his second season as a Met was far more than anyone could have expected.

In 1998, the Mets acquired Mike Piazza in a trade with the Florida Marlins (who had traded for the All-Star catcher a week earlier). The acquisition of one of the game's premier sluggers to serve as protection for John Olerud in the lineup elevated the first baseman's game to another level.

Prior to Piazza's first game as a Met on May 23, 1998, the Mets had played 44 games. In those 44 games, Olerud was hitting a lofty .345, but had only banged out 12 extra-base hits (seven doubles, five home runs), scored 19 runs and picked up 23 RBI. Those were all good numbers, but once Piazza was inserted behind Olerud in the batting order, John's numbers became otherworldly.

In his first seven games after the trade for Piazza, Olerud hit .500 and reached base in 18 of his 32 plate appearances (.563 OBP). He scored eight runs, drove in six and roped five doubles. The Olerud from 1993 was back and the Mets were more than happy to see him.

With Mike Piazza firmly entrenched in the middle of the Mets lineup, the hits just kept on coming for Olerud. John nearly registered the first 200 hit, 100 walk season in Mets history, falling just short with 197 hits and 96 walks. Still, the 197 hits were the second most hits in franchise history and the 96 walks were one short of the team record held by Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry. At the end of the season, Olerud had racked up 36 doubles, 22 HR and 93 RBI. Of course, those numbers were nothing compared to these two numbers: .354 and .447.

The first number represented Olerud's batting average, which became (and still is) the Mets' all-time single season record. Olerud would have led the league in hitting if not for Larry Walker's .363 average for the Colorado Rockies. The second number was Olerud's on-base percentage for the year, also a still-standing Mets record and second in the league to Mark McGwire's .470 OBP. Of course, McGwire drew a ton of walks in 1998 to pad that on-base percentage. Seventy steroid-assisted home runs will tend to do that to a person's OBP.

Unfortunately, the 1998 season ended in disappointment for the Mets, as they lost a one-game lead in the wild card race by dropping their final five games of the season. Of course, Olerud was one of the few bright spots on the Mets during this season-ending slump, reaching base in 12 of his 22 plate appearances over those five games.

The Mets had something to prove in 1999. With the help of John Olerud, the Mets returned to contention in 1997. They failed to improve in 1998, falling short of the postseason on the final day of the regular season, despite a record-setting season by Olerud. The Mets' first baseman had already been quite successful in his first two years on the team. From an individual standpoint, Olerud had nothing left to prove. All that was left was for him to lead the team into the postseason.

The names might have been missing from the backs of the Mets' jerseys in 1999, but the mojo was risin' at Shea Stadium that year. Robin Ventura was added to the team and Edgardo Alfonzo was coming into his own. Both players had career years in 1999. Mike Piazza was his usual self, but this time he had a full season (and a new seven year, $91 million contract) in which to be that usual self. New acquisitions Rickey Henderson (signed as a free agent) and Roger Cedeño (acquired in the Todd Hundley trade) gave the Mets a speed combo at the top of the order they hadn't had since the days of Mookie, Lenny and Wally.

With the addition of these players, it was easy to overlook John Olerud. Then again, he never wanted the spotlight to be on him. Olerud just wanted to come in, do his job and help the Mets win as many games as he could. He saved his most clutch performances for his final season in New York.

On September 29, 1999, with the Mets in the midst of a seven-game losing streak that dropped them out of the wild card lead, John Olerud put on his cape and became Captain Clutch. The Mets were facing the NL East Champion Braves at Shea Stadium and their nemesis, Greg Maddux.

Is Greg Maddux about to throw a pitch or is he looking over his shoulder as he's running away from John Olerud?

The all-time leader in victories against the Mets (Maddux retired with a 35-19 record against New York in his career), Greg Maddux took the mound on that fateful night with the Mets trying desperately to stay alive in the wild card race. The Mets had already fallen behind 2-1 as they entered the fourth inning. But in that fourth inning, the Mets scored two runs on six hits to take a 3-2 lead on their arch-rivals. They had the bases loaded, nobody out and their first baseman coming up to bat. Captain Clutch had entered the building and no one, not even the nefarious Mr. Maddux, could stand a chance. With one swing of the bat, the Mets had an unscheduled Fireworks Night, capped by a John Olerud cherry bomb. The grand slam by Olerud gave the Mets a 7-2 lead, knocked Maddux out of the game under a sea of sarcastic tomahawk chops, and propelled the Mets back onto the wild card track.

The Mets started to win again after the Olerud grand slam, but they still needed to pull out a win against the Pittsburgh Pirates on the last day of the regular season to guarantee that Game No. 162 would not be the last game of the season for the Mets as it had been during the final week collapse of the previous year.

As he did in the previous two seasons, John Olerud always found a way to get on base. He delivered his share of hits but also knew how to draw a walk. In 1999, he became the first (and to this date, the only) Met in franchise history to draw 100 walks. He shattered the previous record of 97 by drawing 125 bases on balls. His biggest walk came in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game No. 162.

After Melvin Mora and Edgardo Alfonzo delivered one-out singles, the stage was set for Olerud to deliver the game-winning hit. Unfortunately, the Pirates had other ideas. They walked the slow-footed Olerud intentionally to load up the bases for Mike Piazza. Despite the fact that a ground ball by Olerud would have surely led to an inning-ending double play, the Pirates decided they had a better chance to get Mike Piazza to do the same. This was not the end-of-his-career, let's-move-him-to-first-base Mike Piazza. This was the in-his-prime Mike Piazza, who was finishing up a season in which he hit .303, with 40 HR and 124 RBI. John Olerud was intentionally walked to get to an offensive behemoth. As Aretha Franklin would say, that's what I call R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

You know what happened after that. Brad Clontz was called in to face Piazza, threw one pitch, gave a souvenir to a fan sitting in the loge level and Mora joyously scampered home with the winning run to set up the winner-take-all Game No. 163 against the Cincinnati Reds the following night, which the Mets won to earn them their first trip to the playoffs since 1988.

Upon reaching the big stage of the playoffs for the first time as a Met, Olerud continued to be a marquee player under the bright lights. The Mets played a total of ten games in the NLDS and the NLCS that year. Over those ten games, Olerud was an absolute beast. He hit .349 (15-for-43) over those ten games and reached base an astounding 20 times (15 hits, five walks).

Most people remember Edgardo Alfonzo as being the star of the first game of the NLDS. After all, he hit two homers in that game, including the go-ahead ninth inning grand slam off Bobby Chouinard. However, John Olerud played a big role in that game as well. His third inning two-run homer against Randy Johnson (a rare lefty vs. lefty shot against the Big Unit) gave the Mets a 3-0 lead. He also added two other hits in that game to help the Mets to the 8-4 series-opening victory.

After the Diamondbacks tied the series with a Game 2 victory, Olerud came up in big again in Game 3. His two-run single in the sixth inning was part of a six-run rally by the Mets, blowing the game wide open in the eventual 9-2 victory. It was his second run-scoring hit of the game, as his RBI single in the third inning had given the Mets a 2-0 lead.

It was then on to Game 4, with the Mets trying to close out the series at home. But the Diamondbacks were not going to go away easily. Arizona took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning, six outs away from forcing a fifth and deciding game to be played in their ballpark. The Mets did not want to have to fly to Arizona for Game 5, especially knowing that they would be facing Randy Johnson again.

The eighth inning began with a walk to Edgardo Alfonzo. Up stepped John Olerud to the plate. He delivered a long fly ball to right, which rightfielder Tony Womack (who had just been moved from second base prior to the start of the eighth inning) dropped for a two-base error. The Mets tied the game on a Roger Cedeño sacrifice fly and the game went into extra innings.

After Arizona failed to score in the top of the tenth inning, Todd Pratt (filling in for the injured Mike Piazza) became a household name with his walk-off home run over Steve "I'm no Endy Chavez" Finley's outstretched glove. It was on to the NLCS against the hated Braves for John Olerud and the Mets.

The photo may be small, but the moment was certainly big.

The Mets started out slowly against the Braves, losing three tight games to Atlanta. The team could have rolled over and played dead, but Olerud wasn't about to let them fade away. He took his game up a notch over the next three games, trying desperately to lead the Mets to an historic NLCS comeback. In those three games, Olerud reached base seven times (six hits, one walk). He banged out two home runs, drove in six runs and scored four more.

In Game 4, after Brian Jordan and Ryan Klesko had hit back-to-back home runs to give the Braves a 2-1 lead, it was John Olerud who played the hero by lashing a two-out, two-run single to center off fellow lefty and Public Enemy #1 John Rocker, scoring Roger Cedeño with the tying run and Melvin Mora with the go-ahead run. Olerud was responsible for all three runs the Mets scored in the game, as in his previous at-bat, he had homered off John Smoltz to break the scoreless tie.

Following his Game 4 heroics, John Olerud started off with a bang in Game 5. His two-run homer off Greg Maddux in the first inning (the same Maddux responsible for giving up Olerud's season-changing grand slam on September 29) gave the Mets an early 2-0 lead. Those were the only runs the Mets would score until the 15th rain-soaked inning.

Chicks may dig the longball, but apparently so did John Olerud.

With the Braves up 3-2, the Mets were trying to save their season in the bottom of the 15th. After Shawon Dunston led off the inning with an epic 12-pitch at-bat that ended when he singled up the middle, Matt Franco walked (Dunston had already stolen second base before the walk to Franco). Edgardo Alfonzo laid down a sacrifice bunt to move both runners into scoring position for John Olerud. Braves manager Bobby Cox ordered pitcher Kevin McGlinchy to intentionally walk Olerud to load up the bases in an attempt to set up a potential inning-ending double play.

However, this also left the Braves with no room for error. They had no place to put Todd Pratt, who was the next batter up, and were hoping for a strikeout or a double play. They got neither, as McGlinchy walked Pratt to bring home the tying run, then gave up the Grand Slam Single to Robin Ventura that would have scored Olerud had Todd Pratt heeded Ventura's wish to keep running.

Todd Pratt's heave-ho of Robin Ventura after his Grand Slam Single denied John Olerud (bottom of photo) an opportunity to score yet another run in the 1999 NLCS.

The hard-fought series shifted to Atlanta for Game 6. However, the Mets did not fill up their tanks for the trip, running out of gas in the 11th inning when Kenny Rogers gambled on a 3-2 pitch to Andruw Jones and ended up walking in the pennant-winning run.

Of course, Olerud did his part to help the Mets get to extra innings after the team was down by five runs at one point. His sixth inning single and subsequent run scored was a key part of the Mets' three-run sixth inning. With the Mets down 7-4 in the seventh inning, Olerud laced an RBI single, scoring Rickey Henderson and bringing up Mike Piazza as the potential tying run. Naturally, Piazza homered to temporarily tie the game at 7, but the bullpen could not continue the momentum the hitters generated for them.

After the 1999 season ended, Olerud became a free agent. Instead of returning to the Mets, he opted to sign a three-year, $20 million deal with his hometown Seattle Mariners. From 2000-2002, Olerud continued to be the star player he was on the Mets. He hit for a high average (.296), was among the league leaders in on-base percentage (.399), drove in a ton of runs (300 RBI over the three years, an average of 100 per season) and continued to be among the league leaders in doubles (116 two-base hits from 2000-2002).

He also brought along the glove that helped him become the anchor of the best infield ever, according to Sports Illustrated. As a member of the Mariners, Olerud won three Gold Glove awards for defensive excellence.

In the 11 seasons that have passed since Olerud's departure to the Pacific Northwest, the Mets have used 46 men at first base, hoping that current first baseman Ike Davis will finally bring stability to the position.

Wherever John Olerud played, postseason success was sure to follow. He was a member of two World Series-winning teams (1992, 1993 Blue Jays) and made the playoffs eight times with five different teams (1991-93 Blue Jays, 1999 Mets, 2000-01 Mariners, 2004 Yankees, 2005 Red Sox).

John Olerud also has a rare distinction in the major leagues. As slow as he was, Olerud always seemed to have his share of "leg hits", most of them doubles. However, he is one of only two players in major league history (the other being Bob Watson) to have hit for the cycle in both leagues. He picked up a single, double, triple and home run for the Mets in 1997, then repeated the feat in 2001 for Seattle. What's odd about this accomplishment? Olerud only hit 13 triples over his 17-year career, but two of them came in games where he hit for the cycle.

The Toronto Blue Jays thought John Olerud was washed up when they traded him to the Mets prior to the 1997 season. Olerud had not performed at the level Toronto expected of him after he set the bar so high during his memorable 1993 season. Then something changed once the first baseman came to New York. Just as he helped bring the Mets back from the depths of the National League, he did the same thing to his career, revitalizing it to the point where he is now on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Olerud finished his career with a .295 career batting average and a .398 career on-base percentage. He also racked up 2,239 base hits, including a whopping 500 doubles (one of only 50 players ever to achieve that figure).

Despite the fact that Olerud never hit more than 24 home runs in a single season, he still managed to hit 255 career longballs. Over his 17-year career, which included two All-Star Game selections, Olerud scored 1,139 runs and drove in 1,230 more. As mentioned before, Olerud was not only a threat at the plate, but was also a stalwart defensive player, as evidenced by his three Gold Gloves.

Those numbers, although good, might not be enough to earn Olerud his way into Cooperstown. They might not even be enough to get him the necessary 5% of the votes needed to remain on the Hall of Fame ballot. But his three years as a member of the New York Mets will always be Hall of Fame-worthy in the eyes of Mets fans.

John Olerud's sweet swing at sweet Shea.

Olerud's .315 career batting average and .425 career on-base percentage as a Met are the highest marks in franchise history. In fact, before Olerud, no Met had ever compiled a .425 OBP in a single season. Olerud averaged that over three years! Perhaps even more surprising is that John Olerud has the franchise record for highest career OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) with his .926 mark. He is directly ahead of three genuine power hitters (Mike Piazza, David Wright, Darryl Strawberry) despite the fact that Olerud wasn't considered a power hitter himself.

In the eyes of Mets fans, John Olerud might have been the best first baseman (and perhaps the most clutch player) since Keith Hernandez. His stay in New York may have been abbreviated, but the memories of the first baseman who always wore a batting helmet on the field will always remain strong. John Olerud was never the star of the team and he was never in your face. However, he was the rock for some very good late '90s teams, and always seemed to come up with a big performance when the team needed it the most. John Olerud was truly an underrated Met and his time with the team will always be remembered as one of the most successful periods in franchise history.

1 comment:

G-Fafif said...

That insight on walking Olerud to get to Piazza -- open base or not -- is deep. Who walks anybody to get Mike Piazza in the prime of his career? Then again, John Olerud was not just anybody, as you have detailed brilliantly.

Love John Olerud. Love's debut. Great work!