Monday, January 17, 2011

M.U.M.'s The Word (Most Underrated Mets): Jon Matlack

In 1966, the Mets had the #1 draft pick in the June Amateur Draft. A certain Reginald Martinez Jackson was there for the taking as the first pick, but instead the Mets chose Steve Chilcott, a left-handed hitting high school catcher from California. Jackson was taken as the second pick by the Kansas City Athletics. 27 years and 563 home runs later, Reggie Jackson was inducted into the Hall of Fame, while the Mets were left wondering what might have been.

One year after drafting Chilcott, who never played a game in the major leagues (Chilcott and Brien Taylor are the only #1 overall picks to retire from baseball without ever making it to the major leagues), the Mets had the #4 pick in the amateur draft. At the time, Chilcott was wallowing in the minor leagues, while Reggie Jackson had already made it to the majors.

Going into the 1967 draft, the Mets' focus was on pitching. Eight of their first 12 picks in the '67 amateur draft were pitchers, including their first round pick. That year, the Mets did not waste their high draft pick on a player who fizzled out in the minor leagues, for 1967 was the year the Mets drafted Jon Matlack.

Jonathan Trumpbour Matlack, despite the high draft pick, took some time to get to the major leagues. The Mets did not feel the need to rush him, being that he was all of 17 years old on draft day.

During the Miracle Mets season of 1969, the 19-year-old Matlack was pitching at AAA-Tidewater, just one step away from the major leagues. But the Mets had a strong pitching staff, with Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Don Cardwell, Jim McAndrew and Nolan Ryan all spending time in the starting rotation. Because of the surplus of quality starting pitching at the major league level, Matlack spent the entire 1969 and 1970 seasons at Tidewater as well as the majority of the 1971 season.

Matlack didn't have a spectacular three-year stay in Triple-A, going 37-25, with a 4.09 ERA. However, when Jerry Koosman was placed on the disabled list on July 6, 1971, a spot in the rotation opened up. The time had finally come for the Mets' first round draft pick from 1967 to make the jump to the big leagues.

While Koosman was recuperating on the DL, Matlack made five starts. Unfortunately, his first major league victory did not come so easily, as Matlack was charged with three losses and two no-decisions during his first stint in the major leagues. Koosman returned from the disabled list on August 14 and Matlack was sent back to Tidewater. He was brought back up to the Mets in September, making one relief appearance and one start, where he gave up one run in eight innings of work. However, Matlack did not receive any run support in his final effort, settling for the no-decision in a game the Mets eventually won 2-1. Although Matlack finished with an 0-3 record for the Mets in 1971, he retained his rookie status for 1972, a season that would firmly entrench him in the starting rotation.

When Nolan Ryan was traded to the California Angels on December 10, 1971 in the infamous Jim Fregosi deal, it opened up a spot in the starting rotation. Jon Matlack was now in the big leagues for good and he took full advantage of the opportunity, going 6-0 in his first nine games (eight starts), with a 1.95 ERA. Matlack's sixth victory was a complete game three-hit shutout against the Phillies, defeating Steve Carlton, who went on to win 27 games and the Cy Young Award in 1972.

Carlton was not the only pitcher from that game who won a major award for his outstanding performance in 1972. His opponent took home an award as well, as Jon Matlack became the second Mets player to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award (Tom Seaver was the first in 1967). Matlack finished the season with a 15-10 record and a 2.32 ERA, good for fourth in the National League.

The 1972 season also ended with Matlack playing an important part in baseball history, as he gave up Roberto Clemente's 3,000th hit on September 30. It would be the last hit in Clemente's storied career, as he was tragically killed in a plane crash while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

When 1973 began, Matlack was no longer the rookie in the rotation. He was now the #3 pitcher on the staff after Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, the leaders of the 1969 World Champion Mets. Unfortunately, the Mets had not returned to the postseason since 1969. All that changed when the Mets started to believe.

The 1973 Mets were going nowhere fast. After three consecutive third place, 83-win seasons, the Mets appeared headed towards familiar territory - last place. That's exactly where the Mets found themselves on August 30, after a 10-inning, 1-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. Although the Mets were struggling to find their identity and their place in the standings, their poor record was not the fault of Jon Matlack, as the sophomore pitcher had a strong stretch of starts from May to August. Over a period of 18 starts, Matlack held hitters to a .217 batting average and a .300 slugging percentage. The end result for the 18-start stretch was a 2.73 ERA. However, the Mets could not capitalize on Matlack's extended streak of excellence, losing 11 of those 18 starts. But after August 30, everything changed for Matlack and the Mets.

Once Tug McGraw uttered his famous "Ya Gotta Believe" rallying cry, the Mets were nothing but a team that believed. They won 21 of their final 29 games, overtaking every team in the NL East before winning the division on the final day of the season. Matlack was brilliant over his last five starts, holding hitters to a .186 batting average and registering a 1.77 ERA. Despite the fact that his won-loss record was 14-16, Matlack finished the year with a 3.20 ERA and his first (and only) season with 200 or more strikeouts. The Mets were on to the playoffs for the second time in franchise history and this time, Jon Matlack was going to be a part of it.

Matlack was only in his second full season in the major leagues, but you would never know it by how he pitched in the postseason. After the Mets had lost the first game of the NLCS against the Cincinnati Reds, Matlack was called upon to even the series, a tough task for any pitcher against the vaunted hitters of the Big Red Machine, let alone a 23-year-old making his first playoff appearance. Matlack responded by pitching one of the greatest games in Mets postseason history, shutting out the Reds on two hits, while striking out nine. Matlack's performance kept the Mets from falling behind 2-0 in the best-of-five series and served as the catalyst for the Mets' eventual series win.

Seriously, didn't anyone have color TVs back in 1973?

The Mets' opponent in the 1973 World Series was the Oakland A's, led by slugger Reggie Jackson. (Hey, didn't we talk about him about a million paragraphs ago?) Matlack, who had already started 35 games (34 regular season, 1 postseason) was called upon to start Game 1. In doing so, he became only the fourth pitcher in major league history to start a World Series opener with a losing record (14-16) during the regular season. The other pitchers to accomplish this rare feat were Alvin Crowder (9-11 with the 1934 Detroit Tigers), Denny Galehouse (9-10 with the 1944 St. Louis Browns) and Don Drysdale (13-16 with the 1966 Los Angeles Dodgers). Matlack pitched well, but took the loss as the Mets' bats remained silent in the 2-1 defeat.

Matlack came back on only three days rest to start Game 4 and pitched beautifully, holding the A's to one unearned run and three hits over eight innings of work. The Mets also won Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead in the World Series. That's when the decision to start Seaver and Matlack on short rest came back to bite manager Yogi Berra and all those who believed in the 1973 Mets.

Although George Stone had an unexpectedly good season (12-3, 2.80 ERA), he was bypassed for Seaver and Matlack in the final two games. When Seaver lost a tightly contested Game 6, Matlack was tabbed as the Game 7 starter. The World Series finale would be his 38th start of the season, and the wear and tear of the long season on his young arm showed, as he gave up four third-inning runs to the A's. The Mets were never able to recover from the early deficit, losing the game and the World Series to Oakland by the final score of 5-2.

If anything, the postseason experience made Matlack a stronger pitcher. In one season, he experienced the highest of highs (his stellar playoff debut against the Reds) and the lowest of lows (losing the seventh game of the World Series). He was now battle tested and ready to move on to the 1974 season, which was one of the most perplexing seasons for any pitcher in franchise history.

If you look at Matlack's numbers from 1974, you'd think he was a top contender for the Cy Young Award. He finished the season with a 2.41 ERA, 14 complete games, 195 strikeouts, allowed only eight home runs in 265.1 innings and led the major leagues with seven shutouts. Why did Matlack not receive any Cy Young love in 1974? Perhaps it was his 13-15 record that season.

How could someone who had such a brilliant season on the mound do so poorly in the won-loss department? Simply stated, the Mets offense in 1974 was offensive. As a team, the Mets batted .235 in 1974, hitting only 96 home runs and scoring 572 runs (an average of 3.1 runs per game). If the 2010 Mets drove you crazy with their 12 walk-off losses, imagine what it was like in 1974, when the Mets set a franchise record with 14 walk-off losses (10 of them in extra innings).

Speaking of extra innings, the Mets were 4-16 in extra inning games in 1974 and 17-36 in one-run games. Is it no wonder that Matlack couldn't win more games? Either the team couldn't score when he was pitching, or the bullpen blew the game for him once he left the mound. Nowhere was this more evident than during the last two months of the season.

From August 3 to October 2, Matlack made 13 starts for the Mets. He pitched complete games in more than half of those starts (seven), had an excellent strikeout to walk ratio (79 K, 31 BB) and registered an ERA of 1.86 (22 earned runs in 13 starts). Of course, the Mets lost nine of those 13 games, scoring three runs or less in ten of them.

It's actually a wonder that Matlack won as many games as he did in 1974. In winning 13 games, he had to be nearly perfect. He pitched 11 complete games in those 13 victories, and had a stunning ERA and WHIP (0.95 ERA, 0.74 WHIP). The only reward for such a stellar season was his first All-Star Game selection, an honor bestowed upon him again in 1975 and 1976.

In those two All-Star seasons (1975 and 1976), Matlack did much better in the win column, combining to go 33-22 over the two campaigns. In 1976, Matlack won a career-high 17 games, led the National League with six complete games and had a 2.95 ERA. The Mets also recovered in the standings, finishing 86-76, which at the time, was the second-most wins in franchise history.

Uh oh. We're about to begin the paragraph about 1977, meaning the smiles in the photo above are about to turn into frowns.

Going into the 1977 season, Jon Matlack had won 75 games and sported a 2.88 career ERA. He was part of a spectacular starting rotation that featured Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. But everything changed in that fateful season. The Mets started the season poorly. After a Memorial Day doubleheader sweep at the hands of the Montreal Expos, the Mets' record stood at 15-30, which was good enough for last place in the NL East, 14 games behind the first place Chicago Cubs. Following the losses, the Mets fired manager Joe Frazier and replaced him with first baseman Joe Torre. It would not be the only change the Mets underwent in 1977.

Two weeks after the firing of Joe Frazier, the Mets traded away "The Franchise", as Tom Seaver was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. On the same day, slugging first baseman/outfielder Dave Kingman was traded to the San Diego Padres. From that day forward, June 15, 1977 would always be known as "The Midnight Massacre". Seaver was not the only member of the 1969 World Champions to be traded in 1977, as his batterymate Jerry Grote was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 31.

Jon Matlack, already a veteran at age 27, was spared from all the in-season transactions, but his performance on the mound suffered. His 7-15 record and 4.21 ERA was easily the worst of his career. As a result, Matlack was traded to the Texas Rangers on December 8, 1977, in a four-team deal that also involved the Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves. There was a future Hall of Famer involved in the deal (Bert Blyleven), but unfortunately, the man known to Studious Metsimus readers for his love of flatulence was sent from the Rangers to the Pirates.

This photo will never stink.

The players that became Mets in the deal were Willie MontaƱez, Tom Grieve and Ken Henderson. Neither player did particularly well or played much with the Mets, but Matlack rebounded from his awful 1977 season with the Mets to win 15 games for the Rangers in 1978. He also posted career-bests in 1978 with a 2.27 ERA and 18 complete games.

Matlack's 1978 season was his last good year in the major leagues, as injuries cut his once-promising career short. From 1979-1983, Matlack was able to win only 28 games for the Rangers, finishing his career as part of Texas' bullpen. Matlack was only 33 when he retired after being released by the Rangers on October 31, 1983.

Although Matlack only pitched six full seasons for the Mets, his name appears all over the franchise's all-time leaderboard. He's in the top ten all-time in wins (82, 7th), starting pitchers' ERA (3.03, 3rd), WHIP (1.19, 10th), innings pitched (1,448, 6th), strikeouts (1,023, 8th), complete games (65, 4th) and shutouts (26, tied for 2nd).

Surprisingly, despite the fact that he last played for the Mets in 1977 and his name still remains plastered all over the club's all-time pitching leaders, Matlack has not been enshrined into the Mets Hall of Fame. Surprisingly enough, for a team that has always prided itself on pitching, only four of its pitchers have been inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame, three of whom were Matlack's teammates. Tom Seaver was inducted in 1988. He was followed by Jerry Koosman the following year, Tug McGraw in 1993 and Dwight Gooden in 2010.

Thanks to Corbis Images for this sweet photo of the Mets' Big Three (Jon Matlack, Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman).

Perhaps someday Matlack will join Seaver, Koosman, McGraw and Gooden with a plaque of his own in the Mets Hall of Fame. For the short period of time that he was a Met, he established himself as one of the best pitchers in franchise history. It's been 34 years since Matlack pitched his last game in a Mets uniform. If the Mets can't agree that he belongs in their Hall of Fame, perhaps at least their fans can agree with me that Matlack is one of the most underrated Mets of all-time.

Whenever one thinks of the competitive Mets teams from the early-to-mid '70s, it should not just be the combination of Seaver and Koosman that comes to mind. Matlack was just as instrumental as "The Franchise" and "The Kooz" to the success of those teams. Who knows just how high he would have ranked on the Mets' all-time pitching leaderboards had they not given up on him (and everybody else) after his first subpar season in 1977?

1 comment: said...

Matlack gets his due. Great series, Ed.
I think the Mets do a good job with their Hall of Fame--during the decades when they induct anyone at all--by inducting only the best. Matlack's probably just on the outside of that debate, but he's right there with Darling, Leiter, Cone, and El Sid.
One more note, Matlack got the All-Star win in Milwaukee in 1975 and shared the game's MVP with Cub Bill Madlock. I still think the voters got the two names confused or had one too many suds in the Beer City and didn't care who got the trophy.