Monday, February 28, 2011

M.U.M.'s The Word (Most Underrated Mets): Rick Reed

Journeyman pitcher. Those two words imply that a pitcher is good enough to be in the major leagues, but not good enough to stick around with one team for very long. One such pitcher who kept his suitcase constantly packed started his major league career in 1988 for the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was then that the frequent flier miles started to pile up.

He was released by the Pirates prior to the 1992 season after pitching in only 31 games (18 starts) for Pittsburgh, signing a day later with the Kansas City Royals. After appearing in 20 games with the Royals (18 starts), he was signed by the Texas Rangers in 1993. But in parts of two seasons with Texas, he only started three games and relieved in three others. He was then selected off waivers by the Cincinnati Reds in 1994, hoping to make the team as a replacement player during the players' strike. Replacement players were never needed during the 1995 regular season, but he eventually made the Reds, appearing in four games (three starts) that year.

After the 1995 season, the Mets took a chance on the journeyman pitcher and he spent the 1996 season at AAA-Norfolk. He made the team in 1997 and became a key contributor to the Mets as they contended for the National League wild card until the final week of the season. After winning ten games in the major leagues from 1988-1995, he surpassed that total in 1997 alone, going 13-9 in 31 starts for the Mets. It was then that Rick Reed stopped being a journeyman pitcher and became of the most dependable pitchers in Mets history.

It took him almost a decade, but Rick Reed was finally able to unpack his suitcase in 1997.

After pitching well for the Mets during Spring Training in 1997, Rick Reed won the fifth starter's job. But despite the fact that Reed was ecstatic to make the team out of Spring Training, the joy wasn't reciprocated by the veterans on the team. Players like John Franco were not fond of having a former replacement player as a teammate. If Reed was going to win over his teammates, he was going to have to perform at his best on the field. That's exactly what he did, and it took him very little time to establish himself as one of the best pitchers on the team.

In his first start as a Met, Reed pitched seven shutout innings, holding the San Francisco Giants to three hits. Unfortunately, the Mets were also putting up zeroes on the board, and Reed received a no-decision for his efforts. Four days after his first start, Reed's next appearance came in relief against the Los Angeles Dodgers. If his start against the Giants was an appetizer, his outing against the Dodgers was the main course. Reed pitched five innings against LA, facing the minimum 15 batters (Reed gave up one baserunner, but he was erased on a double play), and striking out seven. The Mets went on to lose the game in the 14th inning, and yet again, Reed was not involved in the decision. However, with 12 shutout innings (allowing only four hits) to kick off his Mets career, Rick Reed had proven that he was going to be a pitcher to be reckoned with in the National League.

On June 1st, Reed's 1.81 ERA put him among the league leaders. However, he wasn't piling up the wins as his low ERA would suggest. In his first 12 appearances (10 starts), Reed was only credited with four wins. This was mainly due to the team's lack of hitting in his starts, as Reed left three of those ten starts with the game tied. Had the Mets scored one extra run in each of those games, perhaps Reed would have made the All-Star team, especially since he would have been among the league leaders in wins and ERA.

Despite the poor run support, Reed still managed the best year of his career by far, finishing with a 13-9 record and a 2.89 ERA, which was the sixth lowest ERA in the National League for the 1997 season.

In 1998, Rick Reed and Al Leiter were part of a formidable one-two punch at the top of the Mets' rotation. Together, they won 33 games, with Leiter winning 17 games (which to this day is the highest total by any Met since 1990) and Reed winning 16. Reed also continued to display the impeccable control that he displayed in 1997, as he walked fewer than one batter per start in 1998 (31 starts, 29 walks allowed). For his efforts, Reed was selected to his first All-Star team (he didn't get to pitch in the game).

Alas, the Mets lost their final five games of the 1998 season to fall one win short of ending a decade-long playoff drought. Although Reed had been in the major leagues since 1988 (the last time the Mets crashed the postseason party), he had never taken part in a champagne celebration. That would change in 1999, and Reed would be a major part of that change.

Despite being placed on the disabled list twice during the 1999 season, first with a tear in his left calf in April, followed by a month-long stay on the DL in August with a strained ligament on the middle finger of his pitching hand, Rick Reed was still able to make 26 starts. The 1999 Mets were the highest scoring team in franchise history, crossing the plate 853 times, so despite Reed's 4.58 ERA, he still managed to finish the year with an 11-5 record. Perhaps the biggest of those 11 victories came in his final start of the regular season.

The Mets were once considered a lock for the postseason in 1999. After defeating the Phillies on September 19, the Mets were comfortably ahead in the wild card race and only one game behind the Braves for the NL East lead. But then the Mets lost their next seven games, with four of those losses coming to Atlanta. The Mets had fallen out of the race for the division title and were now in danger of missing the playoffs altogether. Going into their final series of the season, the Mets were two games out of the wild card lead with three games to play. They were able to get one game closer to the wild card lead with a thrilling extra-inning victory over the Pirates in the first game of the series. Rick Reed was set to start the second game of the series, with the season hanging in the balance. What he gave was his finest effort in a Mets uniform.

Not known for being a strikeout pitcher, Rick Reed had not fanned more than six batters in any of his first 25 starts in 1999. However, against the team for which he made his major league debut in 1988 (which coincidentally was a 1-0 victory against the Mets on 8/8/88), Reed became Nolan Ryan for the night. The 35-year-old righty struck out a dozen Pirates and walked no one, allowing only three hits in the 7-0 complete game win. The victory, coupled with a loss by the Reds earlier in the day, put the Mets in a tie for the wild card lead. The Mets would go on to win the National League wild card berth two days later, with a 5-0 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. Rick Reed, the former journeyman pitcher, was now making his first journey into the postseason, and he would make it memorable for the Mets and their fans.

After splitting the first two games of the NLDS in Arizona, the Mets returned to Shea Stadium for their first postseason game since Game 5 of the 1988 NLCS. It was up to Rick Reed to break the tie and leave the Mets a win away from the 1999 NLCS. Just like he did against the Pirates a week earlier, Reed was in full command of his repertoire. He allowed two runs on four hits in six innings of work, as the Mets cruised to a 9-2 victory. The Mets would go on to win Game 4 on Todd Pratt's walk-off home run off Matt Mantei and advance to the NLCS, where Reed continued to show that his replacement player days were far behind him.

By the time Rick Reed took the mound in Game 4 against the Braves, the Mets had already lost the first three games of the series. It was not the first time the Mets had their backs against the wall for a Rick Reed start in 1999. They had been there two weeks earlier, when Reed came through with his complete game shutout of the Pirates. This time was different, as Reed wasn't going up against Francisco Cordova. Rather, he was facing John Smoltz, the pitcher with the best postseason record (12-3) of all-time.

Reed was dominant over the first seven innings, facing the minimum 21 batters and allowing only one of them to reach base (Bret Boone, who was immediately caught stealing after singling in the fourth inning). But with the Mets holding on to a precarious 1-0 lead, Reed allowed back-to-back home runs to Brian Jordan and Ryan Klesko. Fortunately, the Mets were able to score two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to re-take the lead. After Armando Benitez pitched a 1-2-3 inning in the ninth, the Mets had staved off elimination on the night when the team was celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Miracle Mets' 1969 World Series championship.

Reed would not pitch again in 1999, as the Mets went on to lose the NLCS to the Braves in six games, but in 2000, Reed and the Mets were able to go where no Mets team had gone since 1986.

Although Rick Reed finished with his second consecutive 11-5 season in 2000, he was victimized by a lack of run support, which explained his team-leading 14 no-decisions. However, the Mets won 10 of Reed's 14 no-decisions, going 21-9 overall in his 30 starts.

Reed struggled early on, winning only four games through July 17. However, in his final 14 starts, the Mets were witnesses to the vintage Rick Reed. In those starts, Reed went 7-3 (the Mets won 10 of those 14 starts) with a 3.26 ERA. He gave up two earned runs or less in eight of the 14 starts, allowing the Mets to cruise to their second consecutive wild card berth, finishing only one game behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East.

Given another chance to shine on the postseason stage, Reed put his game face on and accepted the challenge. Just like the year before, Rick Reed started Game 3 of the NLDS at Shea Stadium after the Mets had split the first two games on the road. Similar to his 1999 NLDS start against Arizona, Reed pitched effectively, giving up two runs in six innings against the Giants. However, this time the Mets' bats did not provide him with any runs to work with, as Reed left the game with the Mets trailing 2-0. Fortunately, the Mets were able to win the game when Benny Agbayani let the dogs out with his 13th inning walk-off blast off Giants' reliever Aaron Fultz. The Mets won the following night on Bobby Jones' one-hit masterpiece and advanced to their second consecutive NLCS, this time against the St. Louis Cardinals.

After three successful postseason starts, Reed suffered a setback in Game 3 of the 2000 NLCS, allowing five runs (four earned) in 3⅓ innings. Reed took the loss for the Mets, but that would be the only game the Mets would lose to St. Louis, as the Mets won their fourth National League pennant by defeating the Cardinals in Game 5 three days later. It would also be the only time the Mets lost a postseason game started by Rick Reed, who after more than a decade in the major leagues, was finally going to his first World Series.

From a replacement player looking for a job in 1995 to Game 3 starter in the 2000 World Series, Rick Reed personified the rags to riches story that Mets fans love to root for.

Making his first World Series appearance, Reed pitched like a veteran in Game 3. It was Reed's fifth career postseason start (all at Shea), and would be the fourth time Reed would give up two runs or less. In six innings against the crosstown Yankees, Reed allowed two runs (that seems like a pattern for him in the postseason - two runs in six innings) on six hits and struck out eight. Although Reed would not figure in the decision (why does that not seem unusual?), the Mets would go to win the game when they scored two runs in the eighth inning off losing pitcher Orlando "The Dookie" Hernandez. It was the first time in 11 postseason starts that The Dookie was charged with a loss.

In 2001, Rick Reed was having another tremendous regular season. He won seven of his first nine decisions and was among the league leaders in ERA. In addition, Reed was walking even fewer batters than his usual microscopic rate, having walked a total of five batters through June 4. In July, Reed was named to his second All-Star team, but again was not used in the game (perhaps it was because Mets manager Bobby Valentine was the skipper of the NL All-Stars). In his first start after the All-Star Game, Reed defeated the Toronto Blue Jays in an interleague matchup, giving up two runs on six hits in seven innings of work. He walked no one and struck out eight. Unfortunately, it would turn out to be Reed's final victory as a New York Met, as he was traded to the Minnesota Twins at the trade deadline for outfielder Matt Lawton.

Reed was devastated by the trade, especially after signing a three-year, $21.75 million contract with the Mets prior to the 2001 season. After the trade was consummated, Reed discussed the deal, explaining why he hadn't asked for a no-trade clause when he signed the contract:

"I assumed I'd be here three or four years and then that'd be it. I'm a little numb, to be honest with you. What do you do? Life goes on. I enjoyed my time here."

As shocking as it was to see the Mets trade away their All-Star pitcher, the team did not appear to be going anywhere in 2001. At the time of the trade, the Mets had a 49-57 record and were 11½ games behind the first place Atlanta Braves. Of course, once Reed was traded, the Mets embarked on a six-week long hot streak, winning 25 of 31 games from mid-August to late September. Although the Mets finished with their fifth consecutive winning season (82-80), they failed to make the playoffs for the first time in three years. Meanwhile, Rick Reed continued to make regular trips to the postseason, appearing in the playoffs in 2002 and 2003 for the Minnesota Twins.

Rick Reed was never the ace of the staff, but he was still one of the most dependable pitchers to ever put on a Mets uniform. In 1999, Reed walked 47 batters in 26 starts. Although those 1.8 walks per start might be considered great for most pitchers, it was an aberration for Rick Reed. In fact, in his other 112 starts for the Mets, Reed only walked 111 batters. That's less than one walk per start over 3½ seasons! Compare that to one of the other successful right-handed pitchers in Mets history, Ron Darling, whose 114 walks during his 16-win 1985 season were three more than Reed surrendered in 3½ years!

Over his 4½ year career with the Mets, Rick Reed won 59 games and lost only 36. His .621 winning percentage as a Met is second only to Dwight Gooden's .649, and he is one of only five pitchers in franchise history to win more than 60% of his decisions (the others are Gooden, Tom Seaver, Johan Santana and David Cone). Reed also ranks in the club's top ten in WHIP (1.15, 4th all-time), fewest walks per nine innings (1.6, 2nd all-time) and strikeout to walk ratio (3.7, 2nd all-time). Even sabermetricians would be happy to know that Rick Reed is 9th on the Mets' all-time list with a 14.8 WAR for pitchers.

Rick Reed bounced around from team to team for almost a decade before latching on to the Mets as a 32-year-old in 1997. At the time, few people gave Reed a chance to have any type of impact on the Mets. After all, how many pitchers become successful after winning only ten games before their 32nd birthday? But Reed defied the odds and became not only one of the best pitchers in Mets history, but one of the few pitchers who stepped it up when the games meant the most.

For all the regular season success Dwight Gooden had during his storied 11-year tenure with the team, he never won a postseason game for the Mets in seven career playoff starts. Other than his one start against the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2000 National League Championship Series, Rick Reed pitched exceptionally well in all of his other postseason appearances for the Mets, compiling a 2.88 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP in those four starts (all four of those games were won by the Mets). Yet despite his great success, both during the regular season and in the postseason, Reed never quite got the respect he deserved from his teammates, mainly because of the replacement player tag that followed him around like an albatross long after the 1994-95 strike was over.

He might have been disrespected by his own teammates, but the fans know a good pitcher when they see one. Rick Reed was underrated from the first time he put on a Mets uniform to the day he was traded in 2001. It's been a decade since Reed threw his last pitch as a Met, but the memories of one of the most underrated pitchers in franchise history will last far longer than that.

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

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ollie, Ollie, Axe Him Please!

All throughout the winter, Oliver Perez has tried to regain what used to pass for his fastball. He went to the Mexican League and became a Tomato Picker (No, seriously. If you don't believe me, click here.) That failed.

He showed up early at Port St. Lucie for Spring Training and talked to Terry Collins and Sandy Alderson about his desire to start ballgames. Blah, blah, blah.

For approximately 15 minutes, he fooled Sandy Alderson into thinking that he had recovered the ability to throw strike one before ball four. Nice try, Ollie.

Now, he's been given until March 10 to prove to pitching coach Dan Warthen and the Mets why he should be a part of this team. If he fails to do so, he will either be demoted to the bullpen or given his outright release.

You'd think El Perez-idente would take advantage of the umpteenth opportunity afforded to him to prove that he can still earn at least one dollar of his $36 million contract. Right?

So today Ollie hops, skips and jumps his way to the mound in the Mets' exhibition game against the Braves. He's given two innings to try to save his career and our sanity. What does he do with the chance? I'll spell it out for you in six short sentences that even Ollie could understand:

  • Two innings pitched.
  • 12 batters faced.
  • Four runs allowed.
  • Four hits allowed (three singles, one double).
  • Three bases on balls.
  • .583 on-base percentage against him.

Never mind the fact that he also struck out three batters. Those were sympathy Ks by the Braves. They know that if they make him look good by racking up a few strikeouts, they make the decision to cut Oliver Perez far more difficult for Mets management.

Mets fans have put up with this poor excuse for a major league pitcher ever since he put his "x" on the three-year, $36 million contract in 2009. The day he left his John Hancock on that contract was the last time Oliver Perez was able to put something where he was told.

Do us all a favor, Mr. Alderson. That March 10 deadline for Oliver Perez? Ignore it. Make it February 27. Cut him now. If you don't, you risk having Terry Collins actually having to bring him into a game during the regular season when Ollie won't be facing players who will give him sympathy strikeouts.

Jesus saves. Too bad Oliver Perez's career has already gone to Hell.

We've had enough. In your short time as GM, you should be fed up as well. Increase your popularity rating with the Mets 46-fold by ridding the team of No. 46. In fact, just retire the number while you're at it. No one should be forced to wear the most unluckiest of numbers after Ollie's negative energy has permeated it.

Simply stated, "Ollie, Ollie, Axe Him Please!" At least if the season goes badly, that would give us one highlight to celebrate.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Izzy Lightning In A Bottle?

Jason Isringhausen was one of three members of Generation K, the triumvirate of young pitchers who were supposed to be the '90s version of Seaver, Koosman and Matlack. Isringhausen had the most success after his initial call-up to the majors in 1995, going 9-2 with a 2.81 ERA in 14 starts.

However, injuries took their toll on Izzy and he was dealt to Oakland at the trade deadline in 1999 for reliever Billy Taylor. Taylor's career with the Mets lasted all of 18 games, as his 8.10 ERA probably had something to do with the length of his stay in New York. Meanwhile, Isringhausen went on to become an All-Star closer with the Athletics and Cardinals, saving 293 games over the course of his career.

Had Isringhusen stayed in New York as a reliever (he picked up one save for the Mets in 1999), perhaps Mets fans would never have been subjected to watching Armando Benitez, Braden Looper or Luis Ayala putting the BS in Blown Save. However, that was then and this is 2011, a year that has brought Izzy's baseball odyssey back to New York.

This has happened before, when a pitcher who made a splash with the Mets went elsewhere, made the postseason repeatedly, including a World Series championship, and then came back at the end of his career in an attempt to close out his career where it all began.

David Cone pitched for the Mets from 1987-1992 and had some of the best seasons of his career in Flushing. But after being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for the underachieving Jeff Kent and Ryan Thompson (whose sole claim to fame was hitting a grand slam off John Smoltz in 1994 that preceded a bench-clearing brawl when Smoltz intentionally hit mighty mite John Cangelosi with his next pitch), Cone had his greatest success in the majors. He won the Cy Young Award in 1994 with Kansas City, threw a perfect game as a member of the Yankees in 1999 and won a total of five World Series rings (one with Toronto in 1992 and four with the Yankees in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 2000). He then came back to the Mets in 2003 and surprised everyone by making the team out of Spring Training. However, his comeback was short-lived, as he went 1-3 with a 6.50 in five games (four starts).

Jason Isringhausen, on the other hand, pitched for the Mets from 1995-1999 before his trade to Oakland in July of 1999. Because of the trade, he missed out on the Mets' first playoff appearance in 11 years. But beginning the following year (2000), Isringhausen would become a staple in the playoffs.

In 2000, the A's won the AL West and in 2001, Oakland made the playoffs as a 102-win wild card team. After signing with the Cardinals as a free agent, Izzy helped St. Louis win the NL Central division title in 2002. The Cardinals failed to make the playoffs in 2003, but then won three straight division titles, winning the National League pennant in 2004 and the World Series in 2006.

Injuries took their toll on Isringhausen following his last successful season as the Cardinals' closer (2007) and he required Tommy John surgery in June of 2009, while a member of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Now Isringhausen is back on the Mets, and he is impressing the coaching staff to the point where he might pull a David Cone and make the team out of Spring Training. Mets' pitching coach Dan Warthen has monitored Isringhausen closely in camp and had this to offer on his progress:

"I've seen a lot more than I expected at any time. The ball is coming out of his hand great. He still has the Izzy curveball, and he's added a nice little cutter and changeup. I couldn't be more pleased. If Izzy can come in and continue to do exactly what he's doing right now, he is a major part of this."

If Isringhausen does make the team, he may be wearing his old No. 44 (which symbolizes the fact that he was a 44th round draft pick in 1991). Right now, Jason Bay is currently wearing the number, but he has only worn it since being traded from the Pirates to the Red Sox in 2008. When Bay was making a name for himself in Pittsburgh, he wore No. 38. Although he hasn't said that he will go back to wearing his old number with the Pirates (currently new acquisition Chris Capuano is the wearer of No. 38), he has said that he would gladly give up No. 44 to Isringhausen:

“I’ve tried to hit against him and I know how good he is. I hope he makes it because he’s a great pitcher and he’ll make our team better. And if he does, I’m giving him the shirt. It’s his. I want him to have it.”

David Cone tried to recapture some of his old magic when he broke camp with the Mets in 2003 after not pitching in the major leagues in 2002. Unfortunately for him, he wasn't able to come back successfully. Jason Isringhausen didn't pitch in the majors in 2010 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Will Izzy be able to make the team and succeed in the bullpen? If so, the Mets might have found lightning in a bottle.

There are less than five weeks to go until Opening Day. If there is something left in Izzy's tank, now is the time to prove that he is still capable of helping a big league team. With the departure of Pedro Feliciano and Hisanori Takahashi, the Mets are going to need all the help they can get in the bullpen. Jason Isringhausen might be one of those relievers, and if he is, lightning will have indeed struck twice for Izzy in New York.

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Double Dose of Dickeypedia

There are times when R.A. Dickey's words of wisdom cannot be contained. They can come at you from every direction, just like an Oliver Perez fastball. So it should come as no surprise that Bill Madden's article on the Mets' knuckler/wordsmith in today's Daily News touched upon a topic that made us consult Dickeypedia.

In 2005, R.A. Dickey was coming off his second consecutive poor season for the Texas Rangers. As a result, Dickey was asked by the Rangers to consult knuckleball guru (and former Ranger pitcher) Charlie Hough so he could learn the nuances of the nomadic pitch. In discussing Hough's influence on Dickey's career-saving pitch, the Mets' righty professed:

"Charlie taught me the rudiments of the knuckleball. He changed my grip to help with the consistency and make it mechanically more compact."

Later on, Dickey discussed how he went to Atlanta a few years after studying under Charlie Hough. There he met the Pai Mei of knuckleball instructors, Phil Niekro. After some time in the film room, Niekro made some minor changes to Dickey's delivery, evolving the pitch into what it has become.

Dickey came out of the meeting with Niekro as a new man with a devastating new pitch. So overjoyed was Dickey that he let his extensive vocabulary describe the feeling:

"Only a few people have the knuckleball vernacular. But as Phil told me, the one design of the pitch is to get people out."

R.A. Dickey learned how to throw the knuckleball so he could get people out. However, his penchant for spitting out SAT words as if they were sunflower seeds has gotten people's dictionaries out as well.

For those who only got credit on their SAT for spelling their names correctly, here are the definitions for the words "rudiments" and "vernacular":

  • 1. the elements or first principles of a subject.
  • 2. a mere beginning, first slight appearance, or undeveloped or imperfect form of something.

  • 1. the native speech or language of a place.
  • 2. the language or vocabulary particular to a class or profession.

R.A. Dickey showed us the proper way to use those words in sentences. To show you how NOT to use these words properly, we decided to contact former Met closer (and receiver of fan wrath) Armando Benitez to give us his input. In less time than he used to take to blow a crucial save, Benitez came up with these wild pitches of wisdom.

"I don't understand why Mets fans were always booing me. I always went out there and gave 100%. If that's not good enough, then tough. I won't be disrespected, so they better not be rudiments to me."

If that isn't enough for you, Benitez decided to reflect on one "disrespectful" moment in his Mets career. You might remember it as the ninth inning, game-tying, three-run homer he gave up to San Francisco's J.T. Snow in the second game of the 2000 NLDS.

"After that game, I was confronted by a Mets fan who was at the game, but couldn't get tickets. He decided to watch the game from across McCovey Cove. He told me that from where he was, he didn't even need vernaculars to see that I had just served up a meaty pitch for Snow to hit."

If only Armando Benitez had consulted Dickeypedia first, he might not have made a fool of himself when talking about Mets fans who weren't happy with his version of 100%. Then again, we are talking about the guy who put the "BS" in Blown Save...

That's all for this edition of "Dickeypedia Word of the Week". Be here next time as we proceed with your education while former Mets continue to suffer their humiliation.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dickeypedia Word of The Week: Narrative

Welcome to the first weekly (or so we hope) installment of "Dickeypedia Word of the Week", where we take a word from an R.A. Dickey quote, define it for you, then go to a former or current Met and ask him to use it in a sentence.

The first word taken from our Dickeypedia is the word "narrative", which was uttered by the scholarly R.A. during an interview with the New York Times' David Waldstein. In discussing the memoir that he is writing, Dickey said:

"It’s inevi
table in any good narrative that there’s conflict. That’s the way life is, and to be honest about that conflict, you’re going to have a response.”

A quick check of our dictionary (I'll spare you by not calling it a Dickey-tionary) shows the following definitions for the word "narrative" as a noun:

  • 1. a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.
  • 2. a book, literary work, etc., containing such a story.
  • 3. the art, technique, or process of narrating.
true or 2. f2ictitious.
R.A. Dickey already used the word in a sentence during his interview. We decided to ask former Met legend (in his own mind) Gregg Jefferies to use "narrative" in a sentence and this was the best he could offer:

"Although I felt that I was the true MVP of the 1988 Mets, I was surprised to learn that some of my teammates thought I was cocky and a crybaby. I haven't been able to determine who these teammates were, but I've narrative down to Keith Hernandez and Roger McDowell."

That's right, Gregg. You not only found a way to become a cancer in the Mets clubhouse, but you were also able to turn the word "narrative" into a verb. Perhaps the extra "G" in your first name stands for "genius", although you'd probably correct me by saying that "genius" starts with a "j".

That's all for this week's installment. Be sure to come back next week when we cogitate about Dickey's next profound statement, and perhaps ask one of your least favorite Mets to make bigger fools of themselves than they did on the field.

Monday, February 21, 2011

An Interesting Pitching Stat, 20 Years In The Making

Throughout their nearly half-century of existence, the Mets have always prided themselves on their pitching. From stalwarts like Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman to '80s greats Dwight Gooden and David Cone, the Mets have always had a quality starter or two in their rotation. Even the current Mets have an ace up their sleeve every time Johan Santana takes the mound.

However, since 1988, the Mets have only won one NL East championship (2006), and that division title was due more to their great hitters (Reyes, Wright, Beltran, Delgado) than their pitching (Tom Glavine and Steve Trachsel led the staff with 15 wins apiece). If "pitching wins championships", then the Mets have been without good pitching for the better part of two decades. In fact, it's actually worse than it seems.

What did Frank Viola and Dwight Gooden do that hasn't been accomplished by any Mets pitcher in over twenty years? Perhaps if you would stop reading this small print, you'd already know!

In 1990, Frank Viola became the last Met to win 20 games when he finished the season with a 20-12 record. That same season, he was almost joined by Dwight Gooden, as Doc fell one win short of the 20-win plateau when he lost his final start of the season against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Since 1990, no Met has approached 20 victories, with Al Leiter coming the closest when he won 17 games in 1998.

Twenty years have elapsed since the Mets had a pitcher win at least 18 games in a single season. When Viola and Gooden achieved their lofty win totals in 1990, the Florida Marlins, Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays weren't even major league franchises yet, with the Marlins and Rockies making their debuts in 1993, while the Diamondbacks and Rays played their first games five years later. Yet all four of those expansion teams have had at least one 18-game winner since their inaugural seasons. Let's look at each major league team, in alphabetical order by league, to see how they've fared since 1990.

American League
  • Baltimore Orioles: Mike Mussina (18 wins in 1999)
  • Boston Red Sox: Jon Lester (19 wins in 2010)
  • Chicago White Sox: Jon Garland (18 wins in 2006)
  • Cleveland Indians: Cliff Lee (22 wins in 2008)
  • Detroit Tigers: Justin Verlander (18 wins in 2010)
  • Kansas City Royals: Kevin Appier (18 wins in 1993)
  • Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: John Lackey (19 wins in 2007)
  • Minnesota Twins: Johan Santana (19 wins in 2006)
  • New York Yankees: CC Sabathia (21 wins in 2010)
  • Oakland Athletics: Trevor Cahill (18 wins in 2010)
  • Seattle Mariners: Felix Hernandez (19 wins in 2009)
  • Tampa Bay Rays: David Price (19 wins in 2010)
  • Texas Rangers: Kenny Rogers (18 wins in 2004)
  • Toronto Blue Jays: Roy Halladay (20 wins in 2008)

National League
  • Arizona Diamondbacks: Brandon Webb (22 wins in 2008)
  • Atlanta Braves: Russ Ortiz (21 wins in 2003)
  • Chicago Cubs: Carlos Zambrano (18 wins in 2007)
  • Cincinnati Reds: Pete Schourek (18 wins in 1995)
  • Colorado Rockies: Ubaldo Jimenez (19 wins in 2010)
  • Florida Marlins: Dontrelle Willis (22 wins in 2005)
  • Houston Astros: Roy Oswalt (20 wins in 2005)
  • Los Angeles Dodgers: Chan Ho Park (18 wins in 2000)
  • Milwaukee Brewers: Chris Capuano (18 wins in 2005)
  • Philadelphia Phillies: Roy Halladay (21 wins in 2010)
  • Pittsburgh Pirates: John Smiley (20 wins in 1991)
  • San Diego Padres: Jake Peavy (19 wins in 2007)
  • San Francisco Giants: Tim Lincecum (18 wins in 2008)
  • St. Louis Cardinals: Adam Wainwright (20 wins in 2010)

Do you see any teams missing? Perhaps you noticed the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals missing from the list. It's true that they have not had an 18-game winner in the past two decades. But in the strike-shortened 1994 season, Ken Hill of the Montreal Expos was leading the National League with 16 victories when the baseball season came to an abrupt end in mid-August. Surely, had the season been allowed to be played out until its completion, Hill would have earned the two victories needed to reach the 18-win plateau.

So what other team has been left out of the above list? You guessed it. Your friendly neighborhood New York Mets. Since 1990, no Met pitcher has reached the 18-win mark in a single season and only Al Leiter has won as many as 17 games, doing so in 1998. (Pedro Martinez is the only 17-game winner for the Expos/Nationals franchise over the past two decades, winning that many games in 1997, when he won the National League Cy Young Award.)

In 2008, Johan Santana could have won as many as 23 games for the Mets, but the bullpen blew seven of his leads and he was forced to settle for a 16-win season. Johan's bad luck has been felt by many starters recently, as the Mets have had shaky bullpens in each of the past four seasons.

One thing is for sure. Whether it be because of a less than stellar bullpen or because the Mets have not had many aces in their rotation over the past two decades, they have not been able to put a big winner on the mound since the days of Frank Viola and Dwight Gooden.

Perhaps Mike Pelfrey or R.A. Dickey will be the ones to finally crack the 18-win plateau, as Big Pelf won a career-high 15 games for the sub-.500 Mets last year and R.A. used his Dickey-pedia to attain his 11 victories despite not starting a game until May 19. But for a team that has supposedly prided itself on having great pitching over their long history, having a strike-shortened season keeping the Mets from being the only team without an 18-game winner since 1990 is not something they should ever be proud of.

M.U.M.'s The Word (Most Underrated Mets): Rusty Staub

In 1971, the Mets boasted one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. Tom Seaver won 20 games and led the league with a 1.76 ERA (his only season with an ERA under 2.00). Danny Frisella and Tug McGraw combined to win 19 games and save 20, with both pitchers finishing with ERAs under 2.00. As a team, the Mets led the National League with a 2.99 ERA. Yet despite being able to keep their opponents off the scoreboard, the Mets found it difficult to put runs on the board themselves.

Collectively, the Mets hit .249 in 1971 and scored 588 runs (an average of 3.6 runs per game). They had no firepower in their lineup, as evidenced by their 320 extra-base hits (203 doubles, 29 triples, 98 home runs), which averages out to slightly under two extra-base hits per game. No Met hitter hit 15 HR, scored 70 runs or drove in 70. As a result, the excellent pitching was wasted more often than not, and the Mets suffered in the standings. With an 83-79 record, the Mets finished in third place in the NL East, 14 games behind the eventual World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Mets' front office realized that the team needed a serious upgrade in their offense if they wanted to compete in 1972 and beyond. Manager Gil Hodges was not in favor of trading the team's best prospects to acquire an established hitter, but the Mets were in desperate need. Unfortunately, Hodges would not live to see the Mets acquire their stud hitter, as he suffered a heart attack and passed away on April 2, 1972. Three days later, the Mets announced that they had traded former #1 overall draft pick Tim Foli, Queens native Mike Jorgensen and top prospect Ken Singleton to the Montreal Expos to acquire the big bat they had coveted for the better part of a year. That hitter would become one of the most popular players in Mets history.

That ain't no Danny Boy; that's Rusty Staub!

Daniel Joseph Staub, better known as Rusty, had been selected to the National League All-Star team in each of the previous five seasons prior to his trade to the Mets. By age 28, Staub had already put together an impressive baseball résumé, collecting 1,300 hits, 239 doubles, 135 HR and 640 RBI. He also showed a keen eye at the plate, with 619 walks and only 507 strikeouts over the first nine years of his career. With Staub batting cleanup between Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones, the Mets had a formidable middle of the lineup that was expected to give their pitchers much-needed run support.

Staub began the season on a tear, going into the month of June with a .325 batting average, .403 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage near .500. Not coincidentally, the Mets were also off to the finest start in their 11-year history. On May 20, the team held a 6½ game lead in the NL East, and as late as June 6, the Mets were 19 games above .500 (32-13). However, June 3 might have been the day that the season took a turn for the worse, for it was on that day that Rusty Staub's hand got in the way of a George Stone pitch.

In the seventh inning of a game eventually won by the Mets, Atlanta pitcher and future Met George Stone hit Rusty Staub with a pitch on his right hand. Staub continued to play for the next two weeks before the pain became unbearable and he was diagnosed with a broken right hand, necessitating a long stay in the disabled list. Over the next three months, Staub played in only one game. In his absence, the Mets' offense resembled the punchless 1971 version, not hitting for average and not hitting for power. The team was in first place with a 36-20 record after Staub's last game on June 18. When he returned for good on September 18, the Mets were already 16½ games behind the Pirates, having gone 36-47 during the three months. Naturally, once Staub returned, the team started to play well again, winning 11 of their final 17 games, but it was too late to save the season. The three-month stretch without their cleanup hitter took what could have been a memorable campaign and turned it into yet another 83-win season, the team's third consecutive year with that win total.

In 1973, the Mets actually regressed, finishing with their worst record since their pre-Amazin' days. However, the rest of the division also took two steps back, allowing the Mets and manager Yogi Berra to capture the mediocre National League East division title with an 82-79 record. This time, Rusty Staub was healthy for the entire season, and he helped carry the team to their unlikely division title.

After losing to the San Francisco Giants on August 26, the Mets found themselves with a 58-70 record, taking up residence in the NL East's basement. The San Diego Padres came to town to start a three-game series at Shea Stadium the following night. Through the first 4½ innings, the Padres held a 2-1 lead, which was par for the course for the 1973 Mets. But everything changed in the fifth inning with one mighty swing by Le Grande Orange, as Staub connected for a grand slam off Padres' starter Steve Arlin to give the Mets a 5-2 lead. The Mets went on to win the game for starter George Stone (remember him?) and then never stopped winning.

Beginning with Rusty's Grand Slam game on August 27, the Mets won 24 of their final 33 games, overtaking every division rival on their way to first place. During those 33 games, Staub carried the offense, hitting .321 and reaching base at a .411 clip. He scored 24 runs, drove in 20, and pounded out 11 extra-base hits (six doubles, five homers). He also made excellent contact, striking out only nine times in 151 plate appearances. Staub's production at the end of the regular season was excellent, but it was nothing compared to what he did in the postseason.

After losing Game 1 of the 1973 NLCS to the Cincinnati's Big Red Machine, the Mets' big orange machine took over the series. In the fourth inning of Game 2, Staub gave the Mets the lead with a solo homer off 18-game winner Don Gullett. It would be the only run the Mets would need as they tied up the series with a 5-0 victory. Staub repeated the feat in Game 3, giving the Mets an early 1-0 lead with a first inning blast. When Rusty came up for his next turn at bat in the second inning, the Reds decided to take out starting pitcher Ross Grimsley, replacing him with reliever Tom Hall. Did Rusty blink? Not a chance. This time, he unloaded a three-run homer off Hall, and the Mets cruised to a 9-2 victory in a game that also featured a brawl between Pete Rose and Buddy Harrelson at second base.

I'll bet Pete Rose knew what the Las Vegas odds were on this boxing match.

The Mets lost Game 4, 2-1 in 12 innings, but could have lost it an inning earlier had it not been for a brilliant catch by Rusty Staub off the bat of Dan Driessen. With two outs and two men on base in the top of the 11th inning, Driessen launched a shot near the right field fence. Running at full speed, Staub reached out and robbed Driessen of an extra-base hit, slamming into the right field wall in the process. Unfortunately, Staub separated his shoulder on the play and did not play in Game 5. However, the Mets were able to win that game without the services of their rightfielder, upsetting the Reds to win their second National League pennant.

Rusty Staub was banged up from his temporary game-saving catch in the NLCS, so had he performed poorly in the World Series against the defending champion Oakland Athletics, it would have been understood. Instead, Rusty turned in an MVP-caliber performance for the Mets that almost carried them to their second World Series title.

After not starting Game 1, appearing only as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning, Staub hit .423 over the remaining six games, collecting 11 hits in 26 at-bats. His biggest performance came in Game 4. With the Mets already down two games to one, Staub put the team on his shoulders and carried them to victory with a Herculean effort, going 4-for-4 and driving in five runs. In the first inning, Staub's three-run homer off 21-game winner Ken Holtzman gave the Mets the early lead. It was the lefty-hitting Staub's fourth home run of the postseason, all off southpaws. Later, with the Mets holding on to a 4-1 lead, Staub's two-run single broke the game open and the Mets went on to tie the series.

The Mets won Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead back to Oakland, but lost Games 6 and 7, failing to win their second championship. Rusty did all he could in Game 7, doubling home a run in the sixth inning to give the Mets their first tally after falling behind 5-0. But alas, not even the great Rusty Staub could carry the Mets on his separated shoulder forever. The Mets would probably not have made it to the seventh game of the World Series had it not been for Rusty. Even with his .423 batting average over the seven games, the Mets only hit .253 as a team in the World Series. Take away Rusty's heroics and the Mets collected only 55 hits in 235 at-bats (.234 batting average).

Still, the season had to be considered a great success for the Mets and for Rusty Staub, a season in which Rusty set the franchise record for doubles with 36, which surpassed the previous mark of 32 by Tommy Davis in 1967.

In 1974, the Mets underachieved in a major way, finishing the season with a 71-91 record, which was the team's worst record since Tom Seaver's rookie season in 1967. Again, Rusty Staub was among the team leaders in many offensive categories, but his .258 batting average was his lowest since 1965, when he was a 21-year-old playing in Houston (see photo below...umm...not sure which one though). Facing failure for the first time as a Met, Staub was determined to bounce back the following season, which he did in record-setting fashion.

Perhaps Rusty's poor 1974 season was due to the fans confusing him for Richie Cunningham.

The 1975 season saw the Mets return to contention after their post-pennant meltdown. As late as September 1st, the Mets were only four games out of first place, with dreams of their third division title in seven seasons becoming more realistic by the day. In addition to their usual excellent pitching, one of the main reasons for the Mets' success in 1975 was the resurgence of Rusty Staub. Le Grande Orange became the first Met in team history to surpass the 100 RBI mark in a single season, finishing with 105 (Donn Clendenon was the previous record holder with 97 RBI in 1970). Unlike some players who drive in their runs in bunches, Rusty was consistent throughout the year, driving in between 15 and 20 runs in every month of the season. Staub was at his best when he came to bat with a runner on third and less than two outs. In those situations, Rusty hit .436, driving in 42 runs and collecting a franchise record nine sacrifice flies.

Alas, the Mets fell short at the end of the season, finishing in third place with an 82-80 record. Despite their improvement in 1975, the Mets felt they needed more pitching, so they decided to trade their best hitter to Detroit for Mickey Lolich, who had won 207 games in 13 years with the Tigers. It was an ill-fated move for the Mets, who gave away their most productive RBI bat to acquire a pitcher who had lost 39 games over the previous two seasons. Over the next three seasons, Staub drove in 318 runs for the Tigers, while Lolich won a total of eight games in a Mets uniform. Until 1977, when the Mets held their Midnight Massacre, the trade of Staub to the Tigers would rank just below the Nolan Ryan/Jim Fregosi deal in 1971 as the worst in franchise history.

After his days with the Tigers, Staub played for the Montreal Expos and the Texas Rangers, before returning to the Mets as a free agent in 1981 to be their starting first baseman. The Mets had also traded for Dave Kingman, himself a victim of the Midnight Massacre in 1977, and moved him to first base from left field in May, relegating the 37-year-old Staub to the bench. It was as the team's primary pinch-hitter that Staub found a new life with the Mets.

After Kingman moved to first base, Staub was used as a pinch-hitter 32 times, excelling in the role. His .346 batting average and .438 on-base percentage off the bench made him one of the top pinch-hitters in the National League. Staub only struck out one time as a pinch-hitter during the strike-shortened 1981 season, making him one of the team's few offensive weapons in an otherwise forgettable year.

By 1982, the Mets were in the midst of their sixth consecutive losing season. Attendance was down and the magic (promised to the fans in a 1980 marketing campaign) wasn't back. There wasn't much to cheer about at Shea Stadium. But one player who always got the fans up on their feet was Rusty Staub. Although Staub's batting average as a pinch-hitter wasn't as good in 1982 (.211) as it was the previous year (perhaps he was concentrating on his new player-coach job), he still managed to drive in 13 runs in the role. In 1983, Staub had given up his player-coach role and gone back to full-time pinch-hitting. That was when Staub delivered his best performance for the up-and-coming Mets.

The Mets had started out poorly in 1983, going 16-30 over their first 46 games, which led to the resignation of manager George Bamberger. Soon after Frank Howard took over the sinking ship, Rusty Staub took his pinch-hitting to another level. From June 11 to June 26, opposing pitchers found it impossible to retire Staub, as Rusty tied the major league record by collecting eight consecutive pinch hits. He also started at first base on June 15, 1983 (the same day Keith Hernandez was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals and the first time yours truly attended a game at Shea Stadium) and went 3-for-4 as he kept the position warm for Keith's debut in the following game. For his efforts, Staub received the National League Player of the Week Award for the week of June 19.

Staub was not only hot in June; he was on fire all season. In addition to tying the consecutive pinch hit record (previously held by Dave Philley, who played guessed it...the Phillies), Staub also tied the major league record with 25 pinch-hit RBI and broke the all-time record with 81 pinch-hit at-bats (94 plate appearances). Even with all the extra times at bat, Staub remained an outstanding contact hitter, striking out only six times in those 94 plate appearances.

By 1984, the Mets were back to being contenders and Staub's career was winding down. Still, at age 40, Rusty continued to be an RBI machine as a pinch-hitter, driving in 18 runs in 1984 before calling it a career in 1985 after collecting eight more pinch-hit RBI in only 42 at-bats. For the five years he was a Met in his second tour of duty with the team, Staub's pinch-hitting numbers were as follows: .271 batting average (75-for-277), 15 doubles, 6 HR, 70 RBI, .347 on-base percentage, 36 walks, 23 strikeouts.

So beloved was Rusty Staub at Shea Stadium that the Mets held a "Thanks, Rusty" day on July 13, 1986. (For two great videos of the ceremony, click here for Part One and here for Part Two.)

Some players have excelled for the Mets, left the team via trade or free agency, only to return a during the latter stages of their career as a shadow of their former selves (see Tom Seaver, Kevin McReynolds, David Cone). Although Rusty Staub did not become an everyday player during his second tour of duty with the Mets, he became the best pinch-hitter in franchise history and is remembered fondly for what he gave to the Mets during both of his stints in New York.

Tom Seaver and Rusty Staub - teammates on the 1973 National League Champion Mets and teammates on the 1983 cellar-dwelling Mets. In between, both players spent considerable time away from the Mets.

Since retiring from baseball, Rusty has remained active in the community as a restaurateur and through his humanitarian efforts. His Rusty Staub Foundation and the New York Police and Fire Widows' and Children's Benefit Fund have raised millions of dollars for their respective causes.

Rusty Staub is a legend both on and off the field. He was a clutch hitter during his two stays in New York and ranks among the team leaders in various offensive categories. Still, when one thinks of the best players in franchise history, Rusty's name hardly gets a whisper, making Le Grande Orange also Le Grande Underrated Met. But if you're a Met fan who remembers the '70s and '80s well, I'm sure there are many warm memories that Rusty Staub helped create.

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

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Why Can't Oliver Perez Be More Like Kevin Saucier?

Oliver Perez. The very words elicit a uniform reaction among Mets fans. Some people immediately voice their displeasure once they hear his name. Some just mumble incoherently, while others just walk away in disgust. And why shouldn't these people react accordingly? After all, Ollie has earned exactly zero dollars of his $36 million contract that he signed prior to the 2009 season.

Despite the fact that Oliver Perez has exactly three wins over the past two seasons, he has refused to accept minor league assignments and continues to be a cancer that cannot be expunged. His contract makes him untradeable and the team has yet to bite the bullet by giving him his outright release.

If only Oliver Perez would follow in the footsteps of former relief pitcher Kevin Saucier, things would be much better in the Land of Ya Gotta Believe. Who is Kevin Saucier, you ask? Pull up a Mets bean bag, 'cause I've got a story to tell...

Is that a Phillies player in a Studious Metsimus blog? Say it ain't Saucier!

Kevin Saucier (pronounced So-Shea; the first name is still pronounced Kevin) was a left-handed relief pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers in the late '70s and early '80s. As a Phillie, Saucier had a cup of coffee in the major leagues in 1978 before being called up to the majors for good in June of 1979. In a little over half a season with the Phillies, Saucier was an average middle reliever, finishing the year with a 4.19 ERA, with just a little bit of wildness, walking 33 batters in 62 1/3 innings.

In 1980, he was a member of Philly's Cardiac Kids, who went on to win their first World Series championship. His second season in the majors showed improvement (7-3, 3.42 ERA) and he wasn't as wild, walking 20 batters in 50 innings during the regular season. However, in the postseason his wildness returned, as Saucier walked four batters and threw a wild pitch in only 1 1/3 innings of NLCS and World Series work.

Although he had won a World Series ring before his 25th birthday, the Phillies gave up on the young lefty during the offseason. In November, Saucier was traded to the Texas Rangers, who sent him a month later to the Detroit Tigers. Saucier flourished under manager Sparky Anderson, who showed great confidence in the southpaw by using him as the Tigers' closer. In the strike-shortened 1981 season, Saucier was 4-2 with 13 saves and a 1.65 ERA. In 49 innings, he allowed only 47 baserunners (26 hits, 21 walks), holding opposing batters to a barely-there .160 batting average. But come 1982, everything changed.

Saucier began the season well in 1982, winning three games and saving four others. His 1.47 ERA was even lower than the one he registered in his breakthrough 1981 season. Everything appeared to be okay when he was brought in to pitch against Oakland on May 28. But with slugger Tony Armas at the plate, Saucier threw a pitch that missed home plate "by a good five feet and sailed off in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge." The next pitch was even wilder than the previous one. Not knowing what had happened, Saucier shrugged it off and finished his outing. But the wildness that Saucier experience against the A's in late May continued throughout his next 14 appearances. Over 21 1/3 innings during that stretch, Saucier walked 20 batters and hit two others. As a result, he was sent down to AAA-Evansville, where he walked 23 batters in 20 innings of work.

The following March, Saucier was released by the Tigers. Not ready to call it a career, Saucier signed a minor league contract with the Atlanta Braves for $30,000 that would pay him $100,000 if he made it to the majors. In his first exhibition game, Saucier uncorked seven wild pitches, causing him to call his manager over to take him out of the game. The next day, Saucier went out to the mound and decided he could not pitch again. His reasoning for his sudden retirement? I'll let Saucier describe it himself:

"It's funny, but when I was coming up, control was my main thing. I mean I could really pump that ball in there. I used to get mad when I wasn't out there pitching. And then all of a sudden I didn't want to go out there anymore. I was afraid I was going to kill somebody. I had thrown at hitters before, sure, but I never threw at their heads. The difference was I had my control then, and I knew where I was going to hit them. But now, well, I just had no idea where that ball was going to go, and it scared me so bad I thought I'd crack up."

So now the Mets have a player who can't seem to throw the ball anywhere near the strike zone. Even while playing for his hometown team in Culiacán, Mexico, Perez suffered bouts of wildness. In his final two starts, Ollie pitched 6 2/3 innings, walking nine batters and throwing a wild pitch.

There is one difference between Perez and Saucier. Oliver Perez is due to earn $12 million in 2011, while Saucier earned less than 10% of that amount over his entire career. It's not unprecedented to walk away from an eight-figure salary. If Gil Meche could do it, why can't Oliver Perez?

Perhaps Oliver Perez can turn things around in spring training, make the team as a lefty specialist/spot starter and become a hot commodity come July's trade deadline. Or perhaps he'll wake up and realize that throwing a baseball should be reserved for the experts, not for someone who is trying to become the first pitcher to walk a batter on three pitches.

Kevin Saucier walked away from the game at age 26 because he was afraid he'd kill someone with an errant pitch. Gil Meche left $12 million on the table because he was no longer able to pitch effectively without shoulder surgery. Oliver Perez wouldn't even accept a minor league assignment last year that could have helped his career and certainly would have helped the team that pays him his undeserved millions.

Perhaps Ollie should step into the batter's box against Kevin Saucier or Gil Meche. Then he would see what it's like to have a career blow up before its time. At the very least, at least he'd see what opposing batters have to contend with when they have no idea where the ball is going.

Do us all a favor, Ollie. Take your last hop over the foul line and follow in the footsteps of Kevin Saucier and Gil Meche. Walk away from the game now before all of us (yourself included) have to suffer more. It's the only type of walk we'd like to see from you in 2011.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Gary Sheffield Retires; Is He A Hall of Famer?

Gary Sheffield formally announced his retirement from baseball yesterday, calling it quits after playing 22 seasons in the major leagues, the last of which came in 2009 as a member of the Mets. He leaves the game as one of the most prodigious sluggers in history and one of the most feared hitters of his era. But is he a Hall of Famer? The numbers seem to say yes.

Beginning in 1988 as a 19-year-old shortstop for the Milwaukee Brewers, making him a Robin Yount for a new generation, Sheffield went on to fill up the stat sheet for over two decades. Consider that in addition to his 509 home runs (No. 500 happened in a Mets uniform at Citi Field, as seen in the photo to the right), Sheffield hit 467 doubles and 27 triples, making him one of only 33 players in major league history to collect over 1,000 extra-base hits. The other 32 are either in the Hall of Fame, not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame, still active, or have been kept out of the Hall of Fame because of a lifetime ban (Pete Rose) or steroid involvement (Rafael Palmeiro).

Sheffield put up huge numbers across the board during his 22 years in the majors. Over his career, he had nine seasons with a .300+ batting average, eight seasons with 30+ HR, eight seasons with 100+ RBI (including four seasons with at least 120 RBI), seven seasons with 100+ runs scored and 16 seasons with double-digit steals. Although Sheffield never challenged for a stolen base title, he stole 253 bases in his career, including 22 steals as a 38-year-old in 2007. Every player with at least 1,600 runs scored and 1,600 RBI (Sheffield finished with 1,636 runs scored and 1,676 RBI) who is eligible for the Hall of Fame has been inducted, except for Rafael Palmeiro, but Palmeiro didn't have the stolen base potential that Sheffield had (Raffy stole 97 bases in 20 seasons).

There actually was one offensive category in which Sheffield failed to put up big numbers, but it was a category that will enhance his Hall of Fame candidacy. For all the power generated by his trademark waggle of the bat and ferocious swings, Sheffield never struck out more than 100 times in a season. In fact, when he struck out 83 times as a Yankee in 2004, that represented the most strikeouts Sheffield collected in a single season (later matched in 2007 as a member of the Detroit Tigers).

Sheffield's lack of strikeouts showed how good of an eye he had at the plate, but he was also very selective. Despite never striking out more than 83 times in a single season, he did find a way to draw more than 83 walks in a season nine times, including a career-high 142 in 1996, when he led the National League with a .465 on-base percentage. From 1995-2003, it seemed as if Sheffield was always on base, as he registered a .400+ OBP in each of those nine seasons, averaging .428 over the time period.

Although he never won an MVP Award, Sheffield did finish in the top ten six times. He also was a nine-time All-Star and won five Silver Slugger Awards.

Many Mets players lost their power stroke at Citi Field in 2009. Not Gary Sheffield. Until he got hurt in late August, Sheffield was the team leader in home runs despite having only 268 at-bats. (Photo by Andrew Savulich)

However, many players from the so-called Steroid Era are having a tough time getting the Hall of Fame to open its doors for them (Mark McGwire and the aforementioned Palmeiro, to name a few). Some players, like Jeff Bagwell, are guilty either by association or because they looked like stunt doubles for He-Man. Where that leaves Gary Sheffield, who admitted to taking "the cream" unknowingly, is something for the Hall of Fame voters to decide when his name appears on the ballot for the first time in 2015.

Gary Sheffield had a long and illustrious career in baseball. As a youngster, he was mostly known for being Dwight Gooden's nephew and for intentionally throwing balls away in an effort to get himself traded out of Milwaukee. As he matured, both physically and mentally, Sheffield became one of the best hitters in the game, reaching base by any means possible and not giving away at-bats via the strikeout. To me, that's the trademark of a Hall of Famer. Let's see if the actual voters think the same way in four years.

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