Monday, February 14, 2011

M.U.M.'s The Word (Most Underrated Mets): David Cone

In 1987, the Mets entered the season as defending World Series champions. They won the title in 1986 with a strong pitching staff that combined youth and veteran leadership. Despite their success on the mound, the Mets were still looking for more pitching prior to the 1987 season.

Kansas City had a hometown kid in their minor league system who had once been a top pitching prospect (16-3, 2.08 ERA in 1982), but fell out of favor when he developed control problems. The former "can't miss" prospect was a "can miss", as far as the strike zone was concerned, walking a combined 207 minor league batters in 1984 and 1985. As a result, the Royals had no problems trading him to the Mets (along with Chris Jelic) in 1987 for backup catcher Ed Hearn, minor league pitcher Mauro Gozzo and spot-starter Rick Anderson. The trade ended up being one of the best in Mets history, for it brought David Cone to New York.

The kid from Kansas City took a bite out of the Big Apple and never looked back.

Two weeks after being traded from Kansas City to New York, David Cone was on the Shea Stadium mound for the first time, coming out of the bullpen to face the Atlanta Braves. Unfortunately, his Shea Stadium debut was not a pleasant one, as Cone gave up the go-ahead run in the ninth inning and took the loss. Cone would go on to pitch in nine more games (six starts) in April and May before breaking his pinky on May 27 in San Francisco. The injury occurred when Cone (a right-handed pitcher, but a left-handed batter) was hit by a wayward Atlee Hammaker pitch as he was squaring around to bunt. As a result, Cone was placed on the disabled list and did not return until mid-August.

Upon returning to the big leagues on August 15, Cone looked like a new pitcher. Prior to his stint on the disabled list, Cone was 2-2 with a 4.60 ERA. But once he returned, he gave the injury-depleted pitching staff a big boost. In 11 games (seven starts), Cone held opposing batters to a .215 batting average and had a sparkling 2.92 ERA. Unfortunately, Cone's record during this stretch was only 3-4 because the Mets failed to provide him with any run support, scoring two runs or less in five of the seven starts.

Cone's rookie year was good, but not great. He went 5-6, with a 3.71 ERA in 21 games (13 starts). Still, he picked up valuable experience pitching in the heat of a pennant race in September, and did not wilt under the pressure. That experience would come in handy in 1988, when Cone blossomed into an unlikely star.

David Cone began the 1988 season in the Mets bullpen, making seven appearances in April. In his first six relief appearances, it was all or nothing for David, as he pitched 13 innings, striking out 12 batters and walking 11 more. But in his final April appearance, manager Davey Johnson stretched Cone out a little, allowing him to pitch 4 1/3 innings against the Cincinnati Reds. It was his best appearance of the young season, as Cone only allowed two baserunners (one hit, one walk) and struck out five. It also prepared Cone for his return to the starting rotation, which he did four days later when he faced the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium.

On May 3, 1988, David Cone faced the same team that he made his Mets debut against just one year earlier. In that start, he took the loss against Atlanta. This time, the end result would be much different, as Cone notched the first shutout of his career, blanking the Braves on eight hits. Cone's first start of the 1988 campaign would set the tone for what was to come for the rest of the season.

After shutting out the Braves, Cone won every game he started in the month of May, going 5-0 with a microscopic 0.72 ERA. For his efforts, Cone was named the National League Pitcher of the Month for May. Two months later, he earned his first All-Star selection, retiring future Hall of Famers Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor and Wade Boggs in order in his one inning of work.

As the Mets were pulling away from the rest of the competition in the NL East, Cone was establishing himself as the ace of the staff. Whereas some pitchers coast to the finish line, Cone was accelerating towards it. From August 23 to the end of the season, Cone won all eight of his starts. More importantly, the wildness that had plagued him since his days in the Royals' farm system was no longer an issue, as Cone walked a total of 14 batters over his final eight appearances.

For the season, Cone finished 20-3, with a 2.22 ERA and 213 strikeouts. His .870 winning percentage led the National League and was the highest in Mets history for pitchers with 20 or more decisions, surpassing Dwight Gooden's .857 mark from 1985. Although his performance was certainly worthy of the Cy Young Award, that honor went to Orel Hershiser, who bulldogged his way to the award by pitching 59 consecutive scoreless innings to end the season. Cone finished third in the voting, behind Hershiser and Danny Jackson of the Cincinnati Reds.

After finishing ahead of David Cone in the 1988 NL Cy Young Award vote, Danny Jackson went 52-74 with a 4.52 ERA over the rest of his career. Insert "you may have won the battle, but I will win the war" here.

In the 1988 NLCS, the Mets faced the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team they had defeated in 10 of 11 regular season matchups. On paper, the Mets were the clear favorite, although the Dodgers had Orel S. Hershiser (the "S" stands for "shutout") as their Game 1 starter. Speaking of paper, David Cone decided to use one, the New York Daily News, to share his thoughts on the series in a daily column. His venture into being a sports columnist turned out to be misguided.

After the Mets rallied for three runs in the ninth inning to defeat the Dodgers in Game 1, Cone shared his opinion on the state of the Dodgers in his column, when he said:

''I'll tell you a secret: As soon as we got Orel out of the game, we knew we'd beat the Dodgers. Knew it even after Jay Howell had struck out HoJo. We saw Howell throwing curveball after curveball and we were thinking: This is the Dodgers' idea of a stopper? Our idea is Randy, a guy who can blow you away with his heat. Seeing Howell and his curveball reminded us of a high school pitcher.''

Naturally, the Dodgers took umbrage to Cone's remarks, calling them "classless" and "stupid". Of course, this gave them all the motivation they needed when they faced Cone in Game 2.

In 28 starts during the regular season, Cone gave up as many as five earned runs in a game only once (June 29 vs. Pittsburgh in a game eventually won by the Mets 8-7). Game 2 would be his second such start, as he allowed five runs in only two innings of work. Cone faced 14 batters and allowed eight of them to reach base (five hits, two walks, one hit batsman). The Mets would go on to the lose the game 6-3, and returned to Shea Stadium with the series deadlocked at one game apiece.

In the aftermath of the game, Cone decided that it would be best to make his statements on the mound rather than in a newspaper column. The day before the series resumed in New York, Cone "retired" from his sports writing gig, saying:

''This is my first - and I'm announcing today - my last attempt at tabloid journalism. I apologize to my family for embarrassing them. And I apologize to my teammates.''

The Mets were able to recover from the loss in Game 2 by defeating the Dodgers, 8-4, in Game 3. After his short outing at Dodger Stadium, Cone came out of the bullpen to pitch the ninth inning, retiring the Dodgers in order.

The quick recovery in Game 3 was short-lived, as the Mets lost Game 4 (no thanks to Mike Scioscia and Kirk Gibson) and Game 5, facing elimination as they returned to Dodger Stadium for Game 6. It was time for David Cone to prove that he was the dominant pitcher who won 20 games during the regular season and not the helpless mortal who showed up in Game 2.

The Mets pounced on Dodgers' starter Tim Leary early, scoring a run in the first and adding another in the third. After Kevin McReynolds hit a two-run homer in the fifth inning, the Mets led 4-0 and Cone was on cruise control, retiring 12 consecutive batters, before giving up back-to-back singles with two outs in the ninth. At 116 pitches, manager Davey Johnson could have elected to bring in Randy Myers from the bullpen. After all, it was Cone who said in his newspaper column that Myers could blow anyone away with his fastball. But Johnson decided to let Cone finish what he started and he did just that, retiring pinch-hitter Mike Davis on a fly ball to left field.

David Cone had exorcised his Game 2 demons, helping the Mets reach Game 7 against Orel Hershiser. Unfortunately, Cone's victory in Game 6 would not lead to the team's fourth World Series berth, as Ron Darling struggled, retiring only three batters while giving up six runs. The offense also failed to produce, as Hershiser stymied the Mets, shutting them out for the National League pennant.

Despite the unexpected ending to the 1988 season, the year can still be remembered for the breakthrough of David Cone from reliever/spot starter to the ace of a formidable staff.

David Cone will huff and he'll puff and he'll blow your hitters away.

The 1989 and 1990 Mets failed to return to the postseason, finishing second in the NL East to the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates, respectively. Although David Cone did not return to the lofty perch he reached in 1988, he remained one of the best pitchers in the National League, combining to go 28-18, with a 3.38 ERA over the two seasons. In 1990, he led the National League with 233 strikeouts. His 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings and his 3.58 K/BB ratio also paced the NL. On a team filled with underachievers, Cone raised the bar and helped keep the Mets in contention until the season's final days.

By the time 1991 rolled around, most of the players from the 1986 and 1988 division winners had left the team. Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Wally Backman, Mookie Wilson, Lenny Dykstra and Darryl Strawberry were no longer taking the field for the Mets, being replaced by the likes of Mackey Sasser, Dave Magadan, Gregg Jefferies, Keith Miller, Daryl Boston and Hubie Brooks. The pitching staff was bolstered by the acquisition of former Cy Young Award winner Frank Viola, but the heart and soul those '80s teams had disappeared.

The 1991 Mets came into the season with a fearsome threesome at the top of their rotation. With 53 victories and 638 strikeouts between them in 1990, Frank Viola (20-12, 2.67 ERA, 182 Ks), Dwight Gooden (19-7, 3.83 ERA, 223 Ks) and David Cone (14-10, 3.23 ERA, 233 Ks) were counted on to lead the Mets back to the postseason. However, other than Howard Johnson, who had a career year with 38 HR, 117 RBI and 108 runs scored, the offense sputtered, with no Met hitting more than 16 homers, driving in more than 74 runs or scoring more than 65. The team's .244 batting average was the lowest since 1983, which was the last time the Mets finished with a losing record, that is, until 1991.

The inept offense took its toll on the pitching staff, especially during a particularly horrid stretch in July and August when the Mets lost 23 out of 27 contests. During that 4-23 stretch, the Mets scored two runs or less 16 times, losing all 16. Dwight Gooden's season was cut short in late August by a shoulder injury while Frank Viola was a shadow of his former self, leading the major leagues in hits allowed (259). David Cone could have packed it in just like the Mets did in the final two months of the 1991 season, but he only became stronger as the season went on.

From August 21 to the end of the season, Cone made ten starts. In 72 innings, he recorded 86 strikeouts and opposing batters hit .196 against him. During that period, Cone also had an exceptional 2.63 ERA. Of course, since the offense had gone south for the summer, the Mets lost six of those ten starts. One of the starts they did win was the final game of the season, which was perhaps Cone's most memorable effort in a Mets uniform.

Cone took the mound at Veterans Stadium on the final day of the 1991 season, needing a win to avoid finishing the year with a losing record. If the Mets weren't going to hit for Cone, he wasn't going to let the Phillies hit him. Over the first six innings, Cone struck out 15 batters. Almost miraculously, the Mets put on their hitting shoes that afternoon, scoring three runs in the first inning and adding single runs in each odd-numbered inning after that.

By the time the Phillies came to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Mets had a commanding 7-0 lead and Cone had struck out 17 batters. although he had thrown 126 pitches to do so. But interim manager Mike Cubbage wasn't about to take Cone out when his next start wasn't scheduled for another six months. Cone struck out Kim Batiste and Mickey Morandini to tie the National League record for strikeouts in a nine-inning game. Now only one K away from setting a new NL record and tying Roger Clemens' major league record, Cone faced Wes Chamberlain, whom he had fanned in each of his three previous plate appearances, but the Phillies' leftfielder smoked a ground rule double to extend the inning, bringing up aging veteran Dale Murphy. The former All-Star was prone to striking out, leading the National League in whiffs three times (1978, 1980, 1985). However, on a 2-1 pitch, Murphy grounded out to shortstop Jeff Gardner, preserving the shutout, but keeping Cone from baseball immortality.

With his Closing Day victory, Cone finished the 1991 season with a 14-14 record and a 3.29 ERA. For the second consecutive season, Cone led the league in strikeouts, finishing with 241. But all this took a backseat to the news that Cone had allegedly raped a woman the night before his season-ending victory. Soon after, the police dropped the case, as the alleged victim's claims were deemed baseless.

In 1992, the Mets put together a team that (yet again) on paper, looked like a contender. They added manager Jeff Torborg, who had won the AL Manager of the Year Award for the White Sox in 1990. They also brought in sluggers Eddie Murray and Bobby Bonilla, along with two-time Cy Young Award winner Bret Saberhagen. None of these acquisitions fared well for the Mets, nicknamed "The Worst Team Money Could Buy". But the one Met who continued to perform exceptionally well was David Cone.

The 1992 Mets were around the .500 mark for much of the first half of the season. At the All-Star Break, they were 42-46 and in fourth place in the NL East. For all the former All-Stars brought in to help the team, it was David Cone who was the Mets' sole All-Star Game representative. His stats at the halfway mark (9-4, 2.56 ERA, 154 Ks) were far and away the best on the staff and they continued to get better after the break, as Cone won his first four second-half starts to improve to 13-4. However, the Mets were still below .500 at 51-53 and were going nowhere fast despite having the highest payroll in baseball.

Prior to the 1992 season, David Cone was awarded the highest arbitration amount in history, when he won a $4.25 million salary for the '92 campaign. That left the Mets in a bind because Cone was due to become a free agent at year's end and his stellar season was sure to command a hefty pay increase. Therefore, to avoid having to pay Cone during the off-season, the Mets chose to trade him to the Toronto Blue Jays on August 27 for Jeff Kent and Ryan Thompson. Although he played the final five weeks of the 1992 season in the American League, Cone still led the National League with five shutouts (tied with Tom Glavine) and finished one strikeout behind John Smoltz for the National League lead.

Jeff Kent burst everyone's bubble as a Met, but apparently, not his own. (Photo by Brad Mangin)

Kent and Thompson never became stars for the Mets, although Kent did have quite a career after leaving New York, building a Hall of Fame-caliber career with the San Francisco Giants. Cone, on the other hand, blossomed after he Shea'd goodbye. He won a World Series ring in 1992 as a Blue Jay, then took home the Cy Young Award as a Kansas City Royal in the strike-shortened 1994 season. He won four more World Series rings as a member of that other New York team in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 2000, becoming a 20-game winner for the second time in 1998 and throwing a perfect game in 1999.

After playing the 2001 season in Boston, Cone was not signed by a major league team in 2002. Not believing his career to be done, Cone signed an incentive-laden deal with the Mets in February 2003. At the time, Cone needed seven wins to reach 200 for his career and the Mets, fresh off a 2002 season in which they went 75-86, were the only team willing to give him the opportunity to reach that plateau. Nothing was guaranteed for Cone as he entered Spring Training, as he was fighting for a job with players who were almost half his age. But as time went by, Cone was performing as well, if not better, than pitchers already guaranteed spots in the rotation. By the end of Spring Training, Cone had not only made the team, but he was penciled in as the Mets' fourth starter, making his return to Shea Stadium on April 4, 2003.

It had been over a decade since Cone last started for the Mets, but as he faced off against the Montreal Expos, it appeared as if nothing had changed. On a cold and windy night at Shea, Cone froze the Expos' hitters, pitching five scoreless innings, allowing only two hits, walking three and striking out five. It was vintage David Cone at Shea Stadium that night, and career win No. 194 was reminiscent of his previous 80 wins in a Mets uniform.

However, Cone's first start of the 2003 season would also produce the final win of his highly successful career. In his next start, also against the Expos, but this time at Montreal's home away from home in Puerto Rico, Cone struggled mightily. After keeping the Expos scoreless over the first two innings, Cone was rocked for seven runs in the third, with the crushing blow coming on a grand slam by Brad Wilkerson. Cone would lose that game as well as his next start in Pittsburgh, although he pitched better against the Pirates, allowing three runs in five innings of work.

On April 22, Cone would make his final start for the Mets, pitching two innings against the Houston Astros, before leaving the game with an injured left hip, for which he was placed on the disabled list the following day. Cone returned to the Mets on May 28, pitching two innings of relief against the Phillies, but his arthritic hip would not allow him to pitch again, as Cone announced his retirement two days later.

Cone only pitched five full seasons (1987-1991) and parts of two others (1992, 2003) in a Mets uniform. Despite having a relatively short career as a Met, Cone is all over the franchise's all-time pitching leaderboard, finishing in the top ten in all of the following categories:

  • Wins: 81 (8th)
  • ERA: 3.13 (9th)
  • Win-Loss Percentage: .614 (5th)
  • WHIP: 1.192 (9th)
  • Hits/9 IP: 7.524 (5th)
  • Strikeouts/9 IP: 8.722 (1st)
  • Innings Pitched: 1,209.1 (10th)
  • Starts: 169 (10th)
  • Strikeouts: 1,172 (5th)
  • Complete Games: 34 (7th)
  • Shutouts: 15 (5th)
  • Strikeouts/BB: 2.719 (7th)

Cone struck out 10 or more batters in a game 33 times in 169 starts as a Met, which explains why he is the club's all-time leader in strikeouts per nine innings, despite the fact that the Mets have employed some of the best strikeout pitchers of all-time, such as Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and some guy whose last name was Ryan.

Speaking of Seaver and Gooden, upon further inspection of the Mets' all-time leaderboard, Cone ranks in the top three for right-handed pitchers in ERA, hits per nine innings pitched, strikeouts per nine innings pitched, total strikeouts and shutouts. The other two pitchers in the top three in almost all of those categories are Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden.

Had David Cone been a Met for more than six years, perhaps he'd be on this stage alongside legendary right-handers Dwight Gooden and Tom Seaver. (Photo by Michael G. Baron)

It would not be a stretch to say that David Cone is the third-best right-handed starting pitcher in franchise history. Nolan Ryan didn't have his best years until after he left New York, Ron Darling had too many ups and downs in the latter part of his Mets career and Rick Reed didn't pitch long enough to be taken into consideration. Bobby Jones, although very underrated, only had one exceptional year and one memorable post-season appearance for the Mets, although he's among the franchise's all-time winningest pitchers.

When David Cone was traded to New York before the 1987 season, the trade didn't make much noise in the tabloids. Almost a quarter century later, it remains one of the best trades in franchise history. The Mets gave up three players who had very little, if any, major league experience and got back a pitcher who went on to become one of the best and most beloved players in franchise history.

It's odd to call such a great pitcher underrated, but just ask any Mets fan on the street who the best right-handed starting pitchers are in team history. You'll hear some Tom Seavers and some Dwight Goodens in their responses, but see how many people say David Cone. Even they would be surprised at just how great Cone was once he left his hometown to come to the bright lights of the big city.

Note: M.U.M.'s The Word is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting some of the best Mets players of all-time who never got the recognition they deserved because they weren't the biggest names on the teams they played for. For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 3, 2011: John Olerud
January 10, 2011: Sid Fernandez
January 17, 2011: Jon Matlack
January 24, 2011: Kevin McReynolds
January 31, 2011: Bobby Jones
February 7, 2011: John Stearns

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