Monday, March 14, 2011

M.U.M.'s The Word (Most Underrated Mets): Turk Wendell

Quick. Name a middle reliever for the Mets. Any middle reliever. You probably won't have an immediate answer for that one. Had I asked for a starting pitcher, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden or Johan Santana might have instantaneously rolled off your tongue. Had I asked for a closer, I might have heard Tug McGraw, Jesse Orosco or Francisco Rodriguez within a second of asking the question. Middle relief? "Let me get back to you on that one" and "Uhhhh" might have been the most popular choices.

Middle relief is perhaps the most unglorified position in the major leagues. Similar to an offensive lineman in football and a defenseman in hockey, middle relievers do their jobs while the players at the more high-profile positions get all the accolades.

One such middle reliever pitched for the Mets for three full seasons and parts of two others. Although his time in New York was relatively short, his contributions to the team and his outgoing, sometimes quirky personality endeared him to Mets fans long after he played his final game at Shea Stadium. His given name was Steven, but Mets fans will always remember him as Turk.

No one wanted the ball more than Turk Wendell during his days with the Mets.

Steven John Wendell, better known as Turk, was traded by the Cubs to the Mets during the 1997 season. At the time of the deal, the Mets were competing for the National League wild card, but were leading the major leagues with 22 blown saves. The Cubs, with the second worst record in the National League, had fallen out of contention almost from the time "Play Ball" was uttered on Opening Day. In the deal, the Mets acquired Wendell and Mel Rojas (who had saved 66 games over the previous two seasons) to bolster their bullpen. They also received Brian McRae, who had played brilliantly in 1996 (.276, 17 HR, 37 SB, 111 runs scored), but had underachieved in 1997. The cost for this trade was fan-favorite Lance Johnson, the spark plug who shattered the single-season club records for hits (227) and triples (21) in 1996.

But needs were needs, and the Mets thought the addition of two quality arms for the bullpen would offset the loss of their best centerfielder and leadoff hitter since Mookie Wilson and Lenny Dykstra shared those duties a decade earlier. Mel Rojas didn't bring the goods, finishing his Mets career with a 5.76 ERA over 73 games before being ostracized by the fans and eventually the front office. Turk Wendell, on the other hand, performed better than anyone could have expected.

It didn't start out well for Turk as a Met. In 13 games after the trade, he gave up runs in eight of them. Over the final two months of the 1997 season, Wendell's ERA was 4.96. However, the Mets still hadn't found a role for Turk, as he mostly pitched in games the Mets were already losing.

Although the Mets allowed Turk to pitch in closer games in 1998, his performance on the field over the first two months of the season remained unchanged from his late 1997 showing. Through games of May 20, Wendell had pitched in 13 games and his ERA was a bloated 6.89. At the same time, the Mets were also underperforming with a 22-20 record. Wendell, who would have pitched in every game if he was allowed to do so, was sent to the bench, not pitching again until June. But once he returned, he was a new man.

From June 1 to August 31, a three-month span, Wendell was virtually unhittable. In 37 appearances, Turk pitched 41 innings, allowing only 26 hits. Opposing batters hit only .181 against him over those three months. In addition, Wendell held the opposition scoreless in 34 of the 37 appearances, resulting in a 1.10 ERA. But Turk was at his best when he was cleaning up other pitchers' messes.

From June 20 to August 28, Wendell allowed an inherited baserunner to score once. Once. Only 10% of the runners he inherited came around to score, which was a major reason why the Mets were leading in the wild card race in September. In that month of September, it seemed as if Turk Wendell was always on the mound. While the Mets were struggling to hold on to their wild card lead, Wendell pitched in 11 of the team's final 12 games, including nine straight from September 14 to September 23. During those final two weeks, Wendell was at his best. He allowed only eight hits in 15 2/3 innings, holding opposing hitters to a .151 batting average, .170 slugging percentage and .224 on-base percentage. His ERA was 1.15 and he stranded all five baserunners he inherited.

The Mets eventually fell short of the playoffs in 1998, but Wendell finally had a role. He was now the main right-handed reliever in a tremendous set-up crew, with Dennis Cook (8-4, 2.38 ERA in 1998) providing the left-handed relief. If 1998 was the year Turk Wendell "arrived" as a Met, 1999 was the year he set up permanent residence in the hearts of Mets fans.

In 1999, the Mets were poised to make the playoffs after falling just short of their goal in 1998. They had arguably the best offense in team history, featuring speed (Rickey Henderson and Roger CedeƱo stole 37 and 66 bases, respectively), power (Edgardo Alfonzo, John Olerud, Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura combined for 143 doubles, 118 HR and 448 RBI) and a team-record .279 batting average, which included five regulars hitting over .300 and one falling just short (John Olerud hit .298, but walked a franchise record 125 times).

The Mets needed that offense to make up for their lack of quality starting pitching. Nine pitchers made at least one start for the Mets in 1999 and not a single one of them finished the season with an ERA under 4.00 (see list below):

  • Al Leiter (32 starts, 4.23 ERA)
  • Orel Hershiser (32 starts, 4.58 ERA)
  • Masato Yoshii (29 starts, 4.40 ERA)
  • Rick Reed (26 starts, 4.58 ERA)
  • Octavio Dotel (14 starts, 5.38 ERA)
  • Kenny Rogers (12 starts, 4.03 ERA)
  • Bobby Jones (9 starts, 5.61 ERA)
  • Jason Isringhausen (5 starts, 6.41 ERA)
  • Allen Watson (4 starts, 4.08 ERA)

With so many starters giving up their share of runs, it was incumbent upon the relief squad to keep opponents off the scoreboard. After all, the Mets couldn't win every game by the score of 8-7. Fortunately for the Mets, they had the best foursome in baseball in their bullpen. The quartet of Turk Wendell, Dennis Cook, Armando Benitez and John Franco turned most games into six-inning affairs. If the starter could keep the game close going into the late innings, the Mets were confident that their bullpen would keep the opposition off the scoreboard long enough for the hitters to tack on a few insurance runs. Although the Mets had four dependable relievers who could pitch in any situation, the one who was called upon the most was Turk Wendell.

In 1999, Turk Wendell became the first pitcher in franchise history to appear in 80 games, breaking the old mark of 76, which was set by sidearmer Jeff Innis in 1992 (Armando Benitez also surpassed Innis' mark by appearing in 77 games). Wendell began the '99 season on fire, picking up a win, a save and nine holds through May 15. His 1.57 ERA was also tops on the team. Wendell then suffered through a rough period over the next few weeks that saw his ERA climb by almost two runs.

After the Mets lost to the Yankees on June 5 for their eighth consecutive defeat, the team dipped below .500 at 27-28. As a result of their poor play, the team fired just about every coach they could find, sparing manager Bobby Valentine. Out were pitching coach Bob Apodaca, bullpen coach Randy Niemann and hitting coach Tom Robson. Despite being allowed to remain as manager, Bobby Valentine knew that if he didn't right the ship, he would be next on the chopping block.

''In the next 55 games, if we're not better, I shouldn't be the manager. I'd (like) a sustained run; something like 40 and 15 would be good.''

Over the next two months, the Mets proved their manager's words to be prophetic, as they won 40 of their next 55 games to jump back into contention. One of the main reasons why the Mets went on such a hot streak was because Turk Wendell overcame his struggles and once again became a stopper in the mid-to-late innings.

Turk pitched in 27 games during the team's 40-15 stretch, striking out more batters (27) than he allowed hits (24). His ERA over the two month period was 2.08, as he picked up a win, two saves and eight holds. In addition to his own low ERA, he helped keep his teammates' ERA down as well, allowing only three of 13 inherited baserunners to score. Twice in a span of nine days, Turk came into a game with the bases loaded and one out. Naturally, he got out of both jams without allowing any of those runners to score.

Despite all of Turk's heroics, the Mets still found themselves two games out of the wild card lead with three games left to play. Basically, the Mets needed to sweep the Pittsburgh Pirates and hope for help elsewhere. The Mets did exactly what they needed to do at Shea Stadium, and Turk Wendell played a major part in their season-ending sweep.

On October 1, Turk came into the game in the eighth inning to face Pirates' cleanup hitter Kevin Young. With the tying and go-ahead runs on base, Wendell struck out the Pirates' main power threat. Although the Pirates eventually sent the game into extra innings with a run-scoring infield hit off John Franco, the Mets would prevail on Robin Ventura's walk-off single in the 11th inning. Wendell was not needed in the middle game of the series, as Rick Reed dominated the Bucs with a three-hit shutout. But Turk was definitely needed in the season finale, and he responded with one of his most memorable performances.

Before a packed house at Shea, the Mets were tied with the Cincinnati Reds for the wild card lead. A win would guarantee that the Mets would be playing more baseball in 1999 and would also erase the disappointment felt by Mets fans following the team's season-ending five-game losing streak the previous year that left them one game short of ending their decade-long playoff drought. Fans came to celebrate, but what they got was an unexpected pitchers' duel between Orel Hershiser and Kris Benson.

Through six innings, both teams had managed to put one run on the board. With the season on the line, the Mets gave the ball to Turk Wendell to start the seventh inning. After a season in which Wendell became the most-used reliever in franchise history, it was in this, his 80th appearance of the season, that he would have to be at his sharpest. With the weight of the season on his shoulders, Wendell delivered. He retired the first eight batters he faced, before giving up a two-out single to Kevin Young in the ninth inning. Armando Benitez relieved Wendell after Young's single, and was able to get out of the inning, although not before allowing Young to steal second and issuing a walk to Warren Morris.

The Mets went on to win the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, when Melvin Mora scampered home after Brad Clontz uncorked a wild pitch with the bases loaded. Although Benitez was given credit for the victory, the true "winner" for the game was Turk Wendell. Without his clutch performance, barely working up a sweat in his 34-pitch outing (25 strikes, 9 balls), the Mets would not have been in a position to win the game in their final at-bat. It was perhaps the best relief appearance in a crucial game since Sid Fernandez's effort in Game 7 of the 1986 World Series.

The next day, Al Leiter pitched a two-hit shutout against the Reds in Cincinnati to clinch the wild card, sending the Mets to Arizona for their first postseason game since 1988. Once again, Turk Wendell would be front-and-center for the Mets, getting the win in Game 1 of the NLDS after Edgardo Alfonzo's ninth-inning grand slam off Bobby Chouinard gave the Mets the lead. Wendell would also pitch a scoreless inning in the Mets' Game 3 victory over the Diamondbacks. After Todd Pratt's series-ending home run in Game 4, it was on to Atlanta for the NLCS, where Wendell would pitch in all but one game.

After giving up a run in Game 1 of the NLCS, Wendell kept the Mets close in Game 2 with 1 2/3 scoreless innings of work. The Mets were never able to mount a rally in the second game, losing to the Braves by the score of 4-3. Wendell didn't pitch in the Mets' Game 3 loss, but found himself on the mound in Game 4 in one of the key spots of the series. The Braves had just taken a 2-1 lead on back-to-back homers by Brian Jordan and Ryan Klesko. The consecutive blasts ruined what had been a dominant pitching performance by Rick Reed, who had faced the minimum 21 batters through the first seven innings. Reed was taken out of the game by manager Bobby Valentine and Turk Wendell was brought in to prevent more balls from flying over LaGuardia's airspace. Wendell proceeded to retire the next three batters, including the final two on groundouts, keeping the Braves' lead at one run. The Mets went on to take the lead in the bottom of the eighth inning, allowing Wendell to pick up the victory and keeping the Mets alive to see another day.

Game 5 of the NLCS will forever be known as the game in which Robin Ventura shocked the Braves with his 15th-inning "Grand Slam Single", but before Ventura could come through with his heroics, Turk Wendell played a key role in the game. With the game tied at 2 in the seventh inning, Orel Hershiser hit Bret Boone with a pitch. The Braves replaced Boone with the speedy Otis Nixon and sent notorious Met killer Chipper Jones to the plate. Jones had always done well against the Mets, but never more so than in his 1999 MVP campaign. In 12 regular season games against the Mets, Jones hit .400, with 7 HR and 16 RBI. Not too many Mets pitchers had had success against Jones in 1999, but one did. Turk Wendell.

Chipper Jones had two official at-bats against Wendell during the 1999 regular season, going 0-for-2 against Turk with a strikeout. So who did Bobby V turn to when Chipper Jones came up to bat in the seventh inning with the go-ahead run on base? You guessed it. Turk Wendell came hopping in from the bullpen to face "Larry" and made the Mets fans in attendance "chipper" with excitement when he struck out Jones. Although Jones was the only batter Wendell faced (he was removed in the middle of subsequent batter Brian Jordan's at-bat), his short outing kept the Braves at bay and helped set up the drama that unfolded eight innings later.

Unfortunately, the Mets could not ride the momentum of their Games 4 and 5 victories into Atlanta, as the Braves took Game 6 when Kenny Rogers (one of the many starting pitchers for the Mets with an ERA over 4.00 in 1999) came into the game in relief and allowed a bases-loaded walk to Andruw Jones in the bottom of the 11th inning. Turk Wendell tried his hardest to keep the Mets in the game, pitching a 1-2-3 fifth inning, before loading up the bases (including an intentional walk) with two outs in the sixth. Unlike Wendell, who was a master at not allowing inherited runners to score, the same could not be said for Dennis Cook, as the lefty relieved Wendell in the sixth inning and promptly gave up a two-run single to pinch-hitter Jose Hernandez.

The Mets fell short of the World Series in 1999, but the taste of October baseball made them hungry for more. Nothing short of a World Series appearance in 2000 would be acceptable for the Mets. For the team to advance to the Fall Classic in 2000, every player had to step up their game, and that included Turk Wendell. Could he improve in 2000? Oh yes. And he took the rest of the team with him.

Turk Wendell went 8-6 in 2000, with a 3.59 ERA, but that didn't tell the whole story. In 77 appearances, Turk pitched 82 2/3 innings, allowing only 60 hits. For the season, opposing batters hit only .206 against him, but at Shea Stadium, Wendell was completely unhittable. In 39 appearances at Shea, batters hit a measly .161 against Turk. Wendell went 5-2 at home, with a 1.99 ERA. As a result, the Mets cruised to their second consecutive wild card berth, finishing only one game behind the Braves in the NL East.

Compared to the 1999 Division Series and League Championship Series, the 2000 NLDS and NLCS was a breeze for the Mets. The Mets won seven of the nine games they played in the National League playoffs, with Wendell pitching in four of them. As he did in the 15-inning game in the 1999 NLCS, Wendell played a key early role in the 13-inning third game of the 2000 NLDS against the San Francisco Giants.

Turk Wendell was hunting for a pennant in 2000 and would stare down anyone who got in his way.

With the Mets trailing 2-1 in the seventh inning, Dennis Cook allowed a runner to reach third base with two outs. Not wanting to fall behind by more than one run, Bobby Valentine brought in his favorite IRS representative (Inherited Runners Stranded), Turk Wendell, to put out the fire caused by his defective Cook. Wendell got out of the jam by striking out Jeff Kent on three pitches. It would mark the second consecutive season that Wendell recorded a crucial strikeout against the season's eventual MVP winner, as Kent took home the 2000 NL MVP Award, a year after Chipper Jones did the same. Unlike his 1999 appearance against the Braves, this time Wendell was allowed to stay in the game for another inning, striking out two more batters in a scoreless eighth inning. The Mets would go on to win the game in the 13th inning on Benny Agbayani's walk-off home run against Aaron Fultz.

Wendell was not only great in Game 3 against the Giants; he was outstanding throughout the National League playoffs. In his four appearances against the Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals, Wendell allowed only one hit, walking two (one intentionally) and striking out seven in only 3 1/3 innings. He also picked up the win in Game 2 of the NLCS against the Cards. After the Mets defeated the Cardinals in Game 5, they were on to World Series for the first time since 1986, but this time, Turk wasn't as infallible as he had been in the National League playoffs.

Game 1 of the 2000 World Series against the Yankees might be known more for Timo Perez being thrown out at home after incorrectly assuming that Todd Zeile's double was going to leave the ballpark and for Armando Benitez's blown save in the ninth inning, but despite those game-changing moments, it was Turk Wendell who was on the mound when former Met Jose Vizcaino picked up the game-winning single in the bottom of the 12th inning. It would be the only blemish for Wendell in 13 postseason appearances for the Mets in 1999 and 2000.

Dang it, Timo! Had you not dilly-dallied around the bases, perhaps you could have spared Turk Wendell from suffering his only postseason loss with the Mets!

Wendell would get some modicum of revenge in Game 3 of the World Series, entering the game in the seventh inning with the score tied at 2. He struck out the first two batters he faced, including Vizcaino, before walking Derek Jeter and being replaced on the mound by Dennis Cook. Jeter was eventually stranded at second base and the Mets went on to win the game when Benny Agbayani and Bubba Trammell drove in the tying and go-ahead runs in the eighth inning. Wendell would not get called upon to pitch again in 2000, as the Mets lost Games 4 and 5 of the World Series to the Yankees.

With the Mets improving from year to year, it was not unreasonable to believe that they would return to the playoffs in 2001. However, the Mets underachieved with a capital "U", finding themselves 13½ games out of first place on August 17 with a 54-68 record. By then, general manager Steve Phillips had already decided to dismantle his high-salaried team. One of the casualties of the fire sale was Turk Wendell.

On July 27, the Mets traded the popular reliever, along with his bullpen mate, Dennis Cook, to the Philadelphia Phillies. In return, the Phillies sent minor leaguer Adam Walker and journeyman pitcher Bruce Chen to the Mets. Walker never made it to the major leagues, retiring after playing his final game for the Brooklyn Cyclones in 2003. Chen won a total of three games for the Mets, and has been racking up frequent flyer miles since his exodus from New York in 2002, pitching for the Expos, Reds, Astros, Red Sox, Orioles, Rangers and Royals.

Since the trades of Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook in 2001, the Mets have failed to put together a set-up crew similar to the one they employed during their late '90s, early '00s renaissance. In 2007, the Mets collapsed because they did not have dependable relievers who could bridge the gap between the starting pitchers and closer Billy Wagner. Had they been able to trot out a pitcher as effective as Turk Wendell was at keeping inherited runners from scoring, perhaps the Phillies' NL East dynasty would never have occurred as early as it did.

And what about those inherited runners? How did Turk do over his career as a Met? As this simple chart shows, he was among the best at stranding runners:

  • 1998: 26 inherited runners, 10 scored (62% left stranded)
  • 1999: 46 inherited runners, 12 scored (74% left stranded)
  • 2000: 40 inherited runners, 6 scored (85% left stranded)
  • 2001: 33 inherited runners, 10 scored (70% left stranded)
Note: In 13 appearances as a Met in 1997, Wendell did not come into a game with men on base.

If the double play is a pitcher's best friend, then Turk Wendell was a close second. From 1997-2001, Wendell allowed only 38 runners to score out of the 145 he inherited. That's an astounding 74% of inherited runners left stranded. By not allowing the men who were already on base to score, Wendell's teammates were able to keep their ERA down, but more importantly for the Mets, Wendell was able to keep the team in more ballgames, which contributed to more victories.

Need more proof on how clutch Turk Wendell was? From 1997-2001, Turk was brought into games a total of 46 times with at least two men on base. In 31 of those 46 games (more than two-thirds of the time), Turk did not allow any of those runners to score. In fact, in the Mets' pennant-winning season of 2000, Wendell was called upon to pitch 12 times with a minimum of two men on base. In 10 of those 12 games, he allowed none of the inherited runners to score and in the other two games, only one of those runners scored. There was never an instance during the 2000 season in which Turk Wendell came into a game and allowed multiple inherited runners to score.

When looking at MVP candidates for the Mets' 1999 and 2000 playoff teams, it's easy to look at an everyday player (Mike Piazza, Edgardo Alfonzo, Robin Ventura) or a starting pitcher (Al Leiter, Rick Reed, Mike Hampton). They're the ones who get the game-winning hits or pitch brilliantly over seven or eight innings. But the glue that kept those teams together was the middle relief corps and one man in particular did his job as effectively as any of the big hitters or front of the line starters did.

As a middle reliever, Turk Wendell was never going to pile up lofty win and save totals. In three full seasons (1998-2000) and parts of two others (1997, 2001), Wendell only won 22 games and notched 10 saves. But when you look beyond the wins, beyond the saves, beyond the tangible numbers you can find on any stat sheet, you'll notice that Turk Wendell was among the best middle relievers in baseball during his entire stay in New York.

If there was a runner on third base with less than two outs, it was Turk Wendell time. If there were multiple runners on base, Turk would leave them stranded. If an MVP candidate came up in a tight spot in the playoffs, Wendell wouldn't back down from the challenge.

Yes, Turk Wendell was a little - how shall we say this politely - different. Even his idiosyncrasies had idiosyncrasies. He'd brush his teeth between every inning. He ate licorice like there was no tomorrow. He'd never step on the foul line, preferring to hop over it as he was walking to and from the pitcher's mound. He would never catch a ball thrown at him by an umpire. He would wave to the centerfielder before each inning and not throw a pitch until he received a wave back. He was quite fond of the number "9", wearing uniform No. 99 and asking the Mets for a $9,999,999.99 contract after the 2000 season (too bad it wasn't after the '99 season).

Turk Wendell's contract demands made one particular vampire happy.

Despite being labeled an eccentric, he was also one of the most humble and caring human beings to ever put on a Mets uniform. Although he never wanted recognition for his volunteer and charity work, Wendell was honored with a Good Guy Award (presented by the New York Press Photographers Association) in 2000. He has also been an ardent supporter of American troops overseas, visiting Iraq and Afghanistan on multiple occasions.

Turk Wendell played for such a short time in New York, but worked his way into the hearts of many Mets fans. He was a key piece for the only Mets teams to make back-to-back playoff appearances. Yet despite his exceptional body of work for the Mets, Turk is still forgotten whenever people recall the best players of the Bobby Valentine era.

He was the only Met pitcher to win three postseason games during their two-year playoff run in 1999 and 2000, going 3-1 with a 2.84 ERA in 13 appearances. In five of those 13 appearances, he came into the game with men on base. Only once did he allow a baserunner to score (out of eight runners).

Simply stated, Turk Wendell is undoubtedly the most underrated middle reliever in Mets history, if not one of the most underrated players to wear the orange and blue (and sometimes black). The Mets finished with a winning record in each of the five seasons that Wendell suited up for them, and that's not a coincidence. Other players might have received the glory and the accolades for being part of one of the most successful eras in franchise history, but that's fine with Turk Wendell. He was just happy to be one of the guys.

Special note: There are two M.U.M. pieces left in the series, but I wanted to thank one particular reader for her invaluable assistance, especially for this piece, which was our "reader's choice" post. She gave me a
sharp lead with her guided choice. Thank you for your continued readership and for your support, loyalty and generous contributions to Studious Metsimus over the years! You know who you are!

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
March 7, 2011: Ron Taylor

2 comments: said...

Great stuff on Turk. I loved how the stadium erupted when he did the "rosin slam" on the mound. He is the only middle reliever whose numbered T-shirt I saw on sale at Modell's. He even turned Stevie boy's first trade in 1997 into a keeper because he was the only player involved in the deal who thrived in his new home. Phillips would have traded the world for a middle reliever and he got a lot of stinkers. Even two of his better relievers acquired--Cook and Benitez--were neither reliable nor as fun as Turk. And he could get McGwire out at will. Plus when his arm inevitably fell off, it was on the Phillies' dime.

Ed Leyro (and Joey Beartran) said...

We gave the Phillies Tug McGraw and he thrived there. We gave them Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell and they both improved upon their numbers with the Mets during their time in Philly. Even Rico Brogna picked up his only two 100 RBI seasons after he left New York for Philly. We finally got it right when we gave them Turk right as his career was about to go downhill. I wish we had given them Mel Rojas before he gave up that home run to Paul O'Neill in 1998...