Monday, February 27, 2012

One Season Wonders: Bret Saberhagen

In 1991, the Mets went into the season with a manager other than Davey Johnson for the first time since 1983. Perhaps not coincidentally, the 1991 season ended with the Mets registering their first losing record since the aforementioned '83 campaign.

During the Mets' seven-year string of excellence from 1984-1990, the team prided itself on having a strong starting rotation.  Pitchers like Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Bobby Ojeda, David Cone and Frank Viola had all contributed excellent seasons for the Mets during that period.  But a lot was changing as a result of the 1991 season.

Ron Darling was traded to Montreal at the 1991 trade deadline. Also gone were Bobby Ojeda, who was traded to Los Angeles prior to the 1991 season, and Frank Viola, who signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox after losing 10 of his last 12 decisions with the Mets in 1991.

Of the pitchers still on the Mets,  Sid Fernandez was coming off an injury-plagued season in which he only made eight starts, winning one of them.  David Cone lost a career-high 14 games in 1991, despite leading the league with 241 strikeouts.  And Dwight Gooden, the long-time ace of the staff, had undergone rotator-cuff surgery in September and was not a lock to be ready for the start of the 1992 season.

The Mets needed a quality starting pitcher and they needed one fast.  They also wanted a young pitcher who was a proven winner and could give them plenty of innings.  Five years after acquiring David Cone from Kansas City, they went back to the Royals and found themselves the ace they wanted in 27-year-old Bret Saberhagen.

The Mets hoped Bret Saberhagen would be the apple of their eye when they traded for him in 1991.

Bret William Saberhagen had done it all in the major leagues before his 28th birthday.  He was a two-time All-Star (1987, 1990), a Gold Glove Award winner (1989), a two-time Cy Young Award winner (1985, 1989), had pitched a no-hitter (1991) and was a World Series MVP, pitching the Kansas City Royals to their first and only title in 1985.  One thing he hadn't done was pitch in a large market city, as Kansas City wasn't exactly the media capital of the world, or even Missouri for that matter.

But with the Mets in need of a quality arm to anchor their depleted staff, Saberhagen seemed like the perfect fit.  So on December 11, 1991, the Mets traded Kevin McReynolds, Gregg Jefferies and Keith Miller to the Royals for Saberhagen and Bill Pecota.  The cost to acquire the front-line starter they coveted was steep, as McReynolds, Jefferies and Miller were all regulars on the 1991 Mets, but the Mets were desperate for an ace, and Saberhagen fit the bill.

As good as Saberhagen was during his eight-year stay with the Royals, he did suffer from the even-year, odd-year syndrome.  Saberhagen finished with a losing record in every even-numbered year, going a combined 36-48 with a 3.70 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1990.  However, in odd-numbered years, Saberhagen was an elite pitcher.  In 1985, 1987, 1989 and 1991, Sabes combined to go 74-30 with a 2.85 ERA and 1.06 WHIP.  His first year with the Mets was going to be an even-numbered year.  You can imagine what happened next.

Bret Saberhagen was one of a number of new faces brought in by general manager Al Harazin prior to the 1992 season.  With Eddie Murray, Bobby Bonilla and manager Jeff Torborg on board, Saberhagen was supposed to be the crown jewel of the offseason haul.  Instead, he turned out to be the cubic zirconia version of his former self.

Injuries prevented Saberhagen from performing at the level the Mets expected of him, and as a result, he was only able to make 15 starts, going 3-5 with a 3.50 ERA.  The next year, everyone expected a bounceback season from Saberhagen, especially since it was an odd-numbered year.  The only problem was that it was only Saberhagen who everyone expected to bounce back.  The rest of the team was another story.

In 1993, the Mets produced their worst record in twenty-six years.  Not since the days before Gil Hodges' arrival as manager had the Mets been so awful.  The '93 squad finished the year with a 59-103 record, and it could have been much worse had it not been for a season-ending six-game winning streak.  The Mets were so bad in 1993 that even the expansion Florida Marlins finished ahead of them in the seven-team National League East.  Needless to say, Bret Saberhagen did not win a lot of ballgames in '93.  However, he wasn't that bad compared to his teammates.

Although injuries curtailed Saberhagen's season for the second consecutive year, he was the only starter to not finish the season with a losing record.  In addition to his 7-7 record in 19 starts, Saberhagen had a respectable 3.29 ERA and an outstanding 1.06 WHIP.  The low WHIP was a direct result of Saberhagen's excellent control, as he walked a mere 17 batters in his 19 starts.

After two injury-plagued seasons in 1992 and 1993, the Mets still had not gotten what they expected from their ace.  However, when Saberhagen was healthy in 1993, he showed he could be one of the stingiest pitchers in baseball.  All he needed was one season of good health, just one, to prove that he could still be one of the best pitchers in the game.  That wish became a reality in 1994.

After their horrific 1993 season, the Mets weren't expected to do much in 1994.  But they surprised most experts over the first month and a half of the season, jumping out to a quick start.  The Mets weren't doing it with their hitting (they finished next-to-last in the NL in batting average in 1994) or their baserunning skills.  (Jose Vizcaino went 1-for-12 in stolen base attempts and John Cangelosi led the team in thefts with five - that's one, two, three, four, FIVE STEALS!)  But the one thing they had in 1994 that they didn't have in 1993 was a healthy Bret Saberhagen.  And his health was instrumental in getting the Mets off to their quick start.  In the team's first 32 games, Saberhagen was 4-1 with a 3.09 ERA.  As a result, through May 10, the Mets were in second place with an 18-14 record, just 2½ games behind the first place Atlanta Braves.

Saberhagen split his next four decisions as the Mets slipped below .500.  But beginning with his start on June 13 against the defending National League champion Phillies, Saberhagen went on a roll that lasted until the end of the season.  On that fateful night, Saberhagen pitched beautifully, allowing two runs (one earned) in seven innings, needing only 94 pitches to stifle the high-powered Phillies' offense.  It was a far cry from his previous outing against Philadelphia, a four-inning, seven-run debacle on May 21.  The confidence he gained by beating the Phillies in mid-June lasted for the rest of the season, as Saberhagen was pretty much unhittable after that game.

Beginning with his final start in June, Saberhagen had one of the finest extended stretches in club history.  From June 30 to his last start of the season, Sabes went 7-0 with a 1.51 ERA and 0.85 WHIP.  Even more impressive was his strikeout-to-walk ratio, as Saberhagen struck out 62 batters over his final nine starts while walking only five.  That's one, two, three, four, FIVE WALKS, as in the same number of steals John Cangelosi had all season.

During this second-half surge, Saberhagen pitched what was perhaps his best game as a Met against the San Diego Padres on July 15.  In the second game of a twi-night doubleheader against the Padres, Saberhagen pitched ten scoreless innings, allowing five hits (all singles) while striking out 11 and walking none.  Unfortunately, Padres' starter Andy Benes matched Saberhagen zero-for-zero, striking out 14 Mets batters in eight innings of work.  Saberhagen's valiant effort went for naught, as the Mets lost the game, 2-1 in 14 innings, when Mike Maddux allowed back-to-back home runs to Tony Gwynn (the best hitter in Padres' history) and Phil Plantier (the current hitting coach for the Padres).

After Saberhagen defeated the Phillies again on August 10 to improve his record to 14-4, the Mets stood only two games under .500 with a 55-57 record.  It was Saberhagen's seventh consecutive victory, a streak that began on June 30 when the Mets entered the day in last place with a 33-43 record.  Since then, the Mets had gone 22-14 and had climbed into third place in the NL East.  The Mets lost their next game in 15 innings and then lost the season soon after, as the baseball strike put an end to the 1994 season.  Who knows what Bret Saberhagen would have accomplished had the season not been cut short?

Despite the premature ending to the 1994 season, it still went down in history as the year in which Bret Saberhagen produced one of the best pitching performances in club annals.  For the year, Saberhagen went 14-4, but that didn't tell the whole story.  His 2.74 ERA and 1.03 WHIP were both second in the National League to Atlanta's Greg Maddux.  Saberhagen also finished in the top ten in wins (14, 3rd), winning percentage (.778, 2nd), innings pitched (177
⅓, 3rd), strikeouts (143, 4th) and complete games (4, 4th).  He also had the dubious distinction of finishing the year with more wins (14) than walks (13).  In addition, by recording 143 strikeouts against only 13 bases on balls, Saberhagen finished the year with an unheard of 11:1 K/BB ratio.  How unheard of was it?  To this day, it's still a major league record.

After two injury-plagued seasons in 1992 and 1993, Saberhagen finally produced the season the Mets expected from him during his third year in New York, making the All-Star team and finishing third in the Cy Young Award vote.  His 1994 campaign came on the heels of his infamous bleach-spraying incident, a matter that earned him a four-game suspension to start the '94 season and caused him to be discussed in trade talks with the Cleveland Indians, a trade that would have brought shortstop Felix Fermin and young right-handed starter Albie Lopez to the Mets.  Fortunately for the Mets, that deal was never consummated, as Fermin went on to hit .190 in 1995 and 1996 (after a .317 campaign in 1994) and Lopez posted a career ERA just under 5.00 in a decade-long major league career.

The 1995 season didn't begin as scheduled, as the strike knocked out the first three weeks of the regular season.  The season finally did get underway in late April, but Bret Saberhagen left his best stuff behind.  Although Saberhagen was decent in 16 starts for the Mets in 1995, he only won five games.  His 3.35 ERA and 1.14 WHIP, although both good, were nowhere near his numbers from his record-setting 1994 campaign.  Also, his strikeout-to-walk ratio decreased dramatically in 1995, as Saberhagen struck out 71 batters while walking 20 in his 16 starts.  The 3.55 K/BB ratio was a far cry from his major league record 11.00 K/BB mark in 1994.

As a result, Saberhagen was traded to the Colorado Rockies in July for minor league pitchers Arnold Gooch and Juan Acevedo.  Although the move was widely speculated to be payroll-related, Mets' co-owner Fred Wilpon said it was due to Saberhagen's injury history and lack of overall productivity during his 3½-year stay in New York.  Wilpon had decided that Mets needed to get younger to get better, and Saberhagen was not part of that equation.  Besides, Generation K was about to take Flushing by storm.  Until it didn't.

One thing Fred Wilpon was right about was that Bret Saberhagen wasn't very durable.  In fact, Saberhagen only had one more injury-free season left in him, going 15-8 in 31 starts for the 1998 Red Sox.  Although Saberhagen did pitch in the majors until 2001, he was never able to stay healthy once he left the Mets, save for that 1998 season.  A career that once looked so promising fizzled out earlier than expected, as Saberhagen appeared in only three games after his 36th birthday.

If not for injuries and Bleach-gate, Bret Saberhagen's career as a Met could have been truly special.

From 1992 to 1995, Bret Saberhagen was never as bad as people made him out to be.  Although he won only 29 games as a Met (the same total won by Oliver Perez, a pitcher who really was as bad as people made him out to be), he posted a 3.16 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in his nearly four-year career in orange and blue.  Let's put his Mets career in perspective. 

Only ten pitchers in Mets history had a lower ERA than Saberhagen's 3.16 mark.  Bret Saberhagen's winning percentage as a Met was .580.  The only pitchers in team history who topped that are Dwight Gooden (.649), Rick Reed (.621), Johan Santana (.615), Tom Seaver (.615), David Cone (.614), Ron Darling (.586), Al Leiter (.586) and Pedro Martinez (.582).  And about that WHIP.  The only Met with a better career WHIP than Bret Saberhagen is Tom Seaver, and you need to go to a third decimal point to determine that Seaver's 1.076 WHIP was only slightly better than Saberhagen's 1.079 WHIP.

For all the talk about how Bret Saberhagen underachieved, he really didn't.  Although he wasn't as healthy as he could have been, when he was on the mound, he was one of the best pitchers to ever put on a Mets uniform.  Unfortunately, his career on the field in New York was overshadowed by his mischief off the field.  But once you look past his off-field behavior, you'd see that Bret Saberhagen was really a special pitcher for the Mets.

To New York sports fans, 1994 was memorable because of the Rangers winning the Stanley Cup and the Knicks making it to the seventh game of the NBA Finals.  But for Mets fans, 1994 was the year Bret Saberhagen quietly put up one of the best seasons in team history, even if the season was cut short by the players' strike.  The Mets haven't had a player win more than 17 games in a season since Frank Viola and Dwight Gooden accomplished the feat in 1990.  Just imagine what Bret Saberhagen could have done had it not been for the strike.

Although he was technically a one-season wonder in New York, Bret Saberhagen's career as a Met was not too shabby.  But because his tenure in New York coincided with some of the worst seasons in recent history, his accomplishments on the field have been largely forgotten.  They shouldn't be.  Bret Saberhagen was pretty darn good.  No amount of bleach will ever erase that.

Note: One Season Wonders is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets who had one and only one memorable season in New York.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:
January 2, 2012: Bernard Gilkey
January 9, 2012: Terry Leach 
January 16, 2012: George Stone
January 23, 2012: Roger CedeƱo
January 30, 2012: Frank Viola
February 6, 2012: Joe Christopher 
February 13, 2012: Dave Magadan 
February 20, 2012: Pedro Martinez

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