Monday, March 7, 2011

M.U.M.'s The Word (Most Underrated Mets): Ron Taylor

In the early years of the Mets, there weren't many games for a reliever to save. From 1962-1965, the Mets never had a season in which they collected more than 15 saves as a team. In fact, over those first four campaigns, Willard Hunter's five saves in 1964 represented the highest single season save total in the young franchise's history. They would be the only five saves of his career.

In 1966, after four consecutive seasons with 100 or more losses, the Mets started to show signs that they were breaking out of their expansion team doldrums. The team won 66 games and finally had one of its own save more than five games. However, their "closer" was actually one of their starting pitchers, as Jack Hamilton saved 13 games and made 13 starts (how unlucky of him).

Hamilton was traded to the California Angels the following June, after recording only one save in 16 relief appearances during the first two months of the 1967 season. The Mets had a promising rookie on the 1967 staff by the name of Tom Seaver, so they needed a dependable reliever to protect leads in games that Seaver did not complete. After Hamilton's trade to the Angels, they purchased Hal Reniff from the Yankees and used him as their closer. Reniff started out well, saving four games in July, but failed miserably over his final 18 appearances. In those 18 games, Reniff went 0-3 with a 6.55 ERA, allowing a whopping 54 baserunners (33 hits, 21 walks) over his final 22 innings.

Meanwhile, another reliever whom the Mets acquired prior to the 1967 season was having the best season of his career. After picking up two early saves in April, an injury kept him out of service until late May. Upon returning, manager Wes Westrum put him back in the bullpen, where he proceeded to have the best stretch of any relief pitcher in the Mets' six-year history. From June 13 to the end of the season, he won four games, saved five and registered a 1.26 ERA in 38 appearances. Although the Mets regressed somewhat in 1967, finishing with a 61-101 record, they could now say that they had their first bonafide closer in Ron Taylor.

Before becoming a medical doctor, Ron Taylor operated on opposing hitters from the Shea Stadium mound.

After a successful first season with the Mets in 1967, new manager Gil Hodges used Taylor more often in ninth inning situations in 1968 (Taylor finished 44 of the 58 games he appeared in). With Jerry Koosman joining Seaver in the rotation, the Mets now had more late-inning leads to protect. Prior to the 1968 season, only one Met had compiled a 10-save season (Jack Hamilton in 1966). That all changed in 1968, when both Ron Taylor (13 saves, 2.70 ERA) and Cal Koonce (11 saves, 2.42 ERA) reached double digits. The Mets now had a two-man show in the rotation as well as in the bullpen and the team avoided 90 losses for the first time, finishing with a 73-89 record. Pitching wins championships, and the Mets were strengthening themselves in that department. All that was left was the championship.

In 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong proclaimed that the lunar landing was "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind". That same year, the Mets' strong arms were taking a giant leap forward in the National League, shooting for the moon and reaching the stars. The Mets shocked the baseball world by winning 100 regular season games and the first National League East division crown. Once again, Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman led the staff, combining for 42 victories. However, the 1969 team wasn't just "Seaver and Kooz, then the others we'll lose", as they appeared to be in 1968. This time, the rotation had a third successful pitcher, as rookie Gary Gentry entered the mix, winning 13 games.

However, not every Mets pitcher had a successful season in 1969. After a brilliant year in 1968, Cal Koonce struggled in the bullpen. With a 4.99 ERA, Koonce was rarely given the ball while the Mets were making their run at the division title, appearing in only ten of the team's final 65 games. In his stead, Tug McGraw (he of the 4-19 career record and one save prior to 1969), became the new co-closer on the Mets. Over the final two months of the season, the Tugger was virtually unhittable. In 18 appearances, the lefty won four games, saved seven and held opposing hitters to a .188 batting average. His barely-there 0.50 ERA over the final two months helped the Mets cruise to the NL East title.

Despite McGraw's rise in 1969, he didn't lead the Mets in saves. Once again, it was the dependable righty, Ron Taylor, who paced the team in that category. As he did in 1968, Taylor finished 44 games (in 59 appearances) and picked up 13 saves. He also won nine games and had his third consecutive sub-3.00 ERA, finishing the year at 2.72. As in the case of Tug McGraw, Taylor also saved his best for last. Over the final two months of the regular season, the veteran right-hander won four games, saved four and registered a 1.80 ERA.

Although the lefty-righty combo of McGraw and Taylor was virtually unhittable in the latter part of the 1969 season, manager Gil Hodges chose to use the young lefty only once in the postseason. McGraw's three innings of shutout ball in Game 2 of the NLCS against the Braves would be the only time Tug would take the mound in the playoffs. Instead, Hodges chose to rely on the 31-year-old Taylor, who had valuable postseason experience from pitching in two World Series games for the 1964 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. In that World Series, Taylor pitched 4 2/3 hitless innings, allowing only one walk. The Cardinals won both games in which Taylor appeared on their way to winning the championship.

The decision by Hodges to rely more on his playoff-tested veteran ended up being one of the most important moves of the postseason, as Taylor rewarded his manager's faith in him with four crucial performances.

Both Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman had inauspicious postseason debuts against the Braves in the NLCS, with Seaver giving up five runs over seven innings in Game 1 and Koosman being hammered for six runs over 4 2/3 innings in Game 2. With the Braves' bats smoldering against the two aces of the staff, it was Ron Taylor who silenced Atlanta's high-powered offense.

After the Mets rallied to score five runs in the eighth inning of Game 1, Taylor pitched the final two innings, holding the Braves scoreless to preserve the Mets' first-ever playoff victory. In Game 2, the Mets were cruising through the first 4½ innings, taking a 9-1 lead into the bottom of the fifth. But after giving up a three-run homer to Hank Aaron and a two-run single to Clete Boyer, Koosman was removed from the game in favor of Ron Taylor. Once again, Taylor quelled the Braves' bats, holding them to one hit over 1 1/3 scoreless innings. The Mets went on to sweep the Braves in the NLCS, advancing to their first World Series against the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles.

Once again, Tom Seaver struggled in a playoff series opener, allowing four runs over five innings of work in Game 1 of the Fall Classic. With the Mets down by three runs in the seventh inning, Gil Hodges brought in Ron Taylor to hold the Orioles at bay in the hopes that the Mets would start a rally against Orioles' starter Mike Cuellar. Taylor did his part, pitching two hitless innings, allowing one walk and striking out three. The Mets, however, were not able to mount a rally against Cuellar over the final two innings and they dropped the Series opener. It would be the only game the Mets would lose in the postseason.

In Game 2, Jerry Koosman and Dave McNally were locked up in a pitchers' duel over the first eight innings, with each pitcher allowing one run. With two outs in the top of the ninth, the Mets finally broke through against McNally, stringing together three singles off the Orioles' lefty to take a 2-1 lead. After retiring the first two Orioles in the bottom of the ninth, Koosman started to lose his control, walking Frank Robinson and Boog Powell. With two outs and the tying and winning runs on base, the Mets could not afford to let the game get away from them. Losing the first two games to the 109-win Orioles would almost certainly spell doom for the Mets in the World Series. Therefore, manager Gil Hodges removed Koosman from the game and brought in Ron Taylor to get the final out. In what was perhaps the turning point of the World Series, Taylor induced Brooks Robinson (who had hit .500 in the ALCS against the Twins) to ground out to third baseman Ed Charles, ending the rally and the game.

Taylor's services were not needed for the final three games of the World Series, as Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan combined to shut out the Orioles in Game 3, which was followed by back-to-back complete game victories for Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman in Games 4 and 5, respectively.

When the Mets needed Taylor the most, he came through, stopping the bleeding on four occasions during the Amazins' October run to the championship. For the postseason, Taylor pitched 5 2/3 innings, allowing no runs on three hits, walking one and striking out seven. He was the winning pitcher in Game 2 of the NLCS and recorded a crucial save in Game 2 of the World Series.

Wait a minute! I don't see the Seattle Pilots on this trophy!

The Mets came back to Earth in 1970, finishing with a mediocre 83-79 record (although that still represented the second-best record in franchise history). Despite the team's drop-off in the win column, Ron Taylor didn't suffer a similar drop-off in the save column. For the third consecutive season, Taylor recorded 13 saves. However, most of his saves occurred during the first half of the season. Through July 18, Taylor had been as good as he had been over his first three years in New York, posting a 2.84 ERA to go with 11 saves. However, the Mets struggled for most of the second half of the season, going 27-33 over their final 60 games. As the team stopped winning, the save opportunities were not there for Taylor. That, combined with the continued emergence of Tug McGraw, led to only four save chances for Taylor, who blew two of them en route to his first season with the Mets with an ERA over 3.00 (Taylor finished at 3.93).

In 1971, the Mets went with youth over experience in the bullpen, as 25-year-old Danny Frisella (8-5, 1.99 ERA, 12 saves) and 26-year-old Tug McGraw (11-4, 1.70 ERA, eight saves) were now the co-closers, while Ron Taylor was relegated to a mop-up and middle relief role. For the season, Taylor went 2-2 and picked up only two saves. If not for the quirkiness of the save rule in 1971, Taylor would only have finished with one save, but since he pitched the ninth inning of a 20-6 Mets win over Atlanta (the first time the Mets had ever scored as many as 20 runs in a game), the save rule at the time allowed Taylor to be given credit for the save, despite the Mets having a two touchdown lead over the Braves.

Taylor's "save" against the Braves would be his last one in a Mets uniform, as he was purchased by the Montreal Expos shortly after the completion of the 1971 World Series. Taylor never played for Montreal, but did spend the final year of his career in San Diego, pitching in four games, before retiring from baseball to enroll in medical school.

From saving games to saving lives, Dr. Ron Taylor has had quite a professional career.

Dr. Ron Taylor was the Mets' first "closer" to be used exclusively in the bullpen. In five years with the Mets, Taylor appeared in 269 games, all in relief. (Although Tug McGraw was most known for being a reliever, he started 36 games in nine seasons with the Mets, including 12 starts in 1966.) The 269 appearances were the most in franchise history until he was surpassed by McGraw in 1973.

At the time of his retirement, Taylor was the club's all-time saves leader with 49. Taylor was also one of the stingiest pitchers in Mets history when it came to allowing men on base. In 361 career innings as a Met, Taylor's WHIP was 1.14. Only three pitchers in franchise history who have pitched as many innings posted a lower WHIP - Tom Seaver, Bret Saberhagen and Sid Fernandez, who combined for 325 wins in 25½ seasons as Mets.

Had Taylor pitched more innings as a Met, he would be all over the franchise leaderboard. Only four Mets have posted a career ERA lower than Taylor's 3.04 (Tom Seaver, Jesse Orosco, Johan Santana, Jon Matlack). Nine Mets have allowed an average of eight hits or less per nine innings. With enough innings, Taylor would have been the tenth (he finished at exactly 8.00 H/9IP). Only Bret Saberhagen, Rick Reed, Ed Lynch and Frank Viola walked fewer batters per nine innings than Taylor's 2.3 BB/9IP. Also, if you needed someone to keep the ball in the ballpark, Taylor was your man. He allowed a mere 24 HR over his 361 innings of work, an average of 0.598 HR/9IP. The only Mets to fare better were Dwight Gooden (0.510 HR/9IP) and Jon Matlack (0.572 HR/9IP).

Baseball was played differently in the late '60s and early '70s. Teams did not have specialists in their bullpen. Even those who pitched primarily in the late innings always found a way to sneak in a start or two. Ron Taylor was not a typical pitcher for that era of baseball. He pitched exclusively out of the bullpen and registered three consecutive seasons with double-digit saves at a time when starting pitchers were left in the game to protect their own leads rather than giving way to a closer.

On a team with young pitching stars such as Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Nolan Ryan and Tug McGraw, it was the established veteran who bailed them out of numerous difficult situations during the 1969 postseason. Ron Taylor may not have been the best reliever in Mets history, but he was certainly one of the most important. The Mets didn't need a closer in 1969; they needed a stopper. Ron Taylor was that stopper, and by taking care of the Braves and Orioles' potent offenses during that magical October, the Mets ended up atop the baseball world. At a time when no one expected the Mets to win, Ron Taylor was truly just what the doctor ordered.

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
February 14, 2011: David Cone
February 21, 2011: Rusty Staub

February 28, 2011: Rick Reed


G-Fafif said...

I adore this choice. Great work, once again.

Ed Leyro (and Joey Beartran) said...

I had a feeling you'd like my first venture covering a Miracle Met for this series. Before Ron Taylor, I hadn't focused on a '69 Met or a relief pitcher. He became was the obvious choice to take care of both oversights. Thanks for your support!