Monday, February 25, 2013

The Mets That Got Away: Randy Myers

In 1988, the Mets suffered an unexpected and heartbreaking loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.  Following the season, the team began what was to become a major 12-month overhaul.

By the end of the 1989 campaign, a year in which the Mets failed to win 90 games for the first time in the Davey Johnson era, the Mets had said their final goodbyes to Wally Backman, Terry Leach, Roger McDowell, Lenny Dykstra, Rick Aguilera, Lee Mazzilli, Mookie Wilson, Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter.  Replacing them were players such as Juan Samuel, Frank Viola, Jeff Musselman and a number of minor leaguers.  Samuel, Viola and Musselman were all ex-Mets by the end of the 1991 season, while the minor leaguers became never-Mets.

Only one trade produced a player who remained a Met past the 1991 season.  It gave the Mets a player who participated in their two postseason runs in 1999 and 2000, which would seem to suggest that the deal was a steal for New York.  Although John Franco became the team's all-time saves leader and was eventually enshrined into the Mets Hall of Fame, he did come at a price, and that price was a young relief pitcher who became one of the most dominant closers in baseball in the 1990s, helping three teams reach the postseason and setting all-time National League records for a fourth.

Randall K. Myers, before major league hitters discovered what the "K" was for.

Randall Kirk Myers was drafted by the Mets in the first round of the 1982 June secondary draft.  Myers was a starting pitcher at the time who had a blazing fastball, but no control over it.  In his first four years in the minors, Myers walked 343 batters and threw 56 wild pitches.  But when hitters took a hack at Myers' pitches, they usually came up empty.

From 1982 to 1985, Myers averaged nearly a strikeout per inning (597 Ks in 604 IP), allowed a mere 505 hits (7.5 H/9 IP) and gave up only 30 HR (less than one homer every 20 innings).  As a result, Myers posted an excellent 40-28 won-loss record and was able to maintain a fine 3.01 ERA.

But despite his fantastic minor league numbers as a starter, Myers was unable to crack the Mets' rotation, as the youth movement of Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez and Rick Aguilera limited Myers' opportunities at the big league level.  Myers made one appearance for the Mets in 1985, pitching the final two innings of the season in relief.  Then in 1986, Myers was back in the minors, but this time he was there as a reliever.  It would turn out to be a career-changing decision.

Myers began the 1986 season at AAA-Tidewater, where he spent the first half of the season in the bullpen.  In 45 games with the Tides, Myers posted a 2.35 ERA and recorded 12 saves, striking out 79 batters and allowing only two homers in 65 innings.  Myers was called up to the Mets in July and got into ten games with the parent club, striking out 13 batters in 10⅔ innings.  By 1987, Myers became a bigger cog in the Mets bullpen.

In the year following the Mets' World Series championship, the two-headed closer combo of Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco suffered from a post-title hangover.  Both pitchers had ERAs north of 4.00 and Orosco actually led the team in losses with nine.  The Mets bullpen as a whole did not fare well in 1987, but one of the bright spots was the emergence of Randy Myers.

Myers had a rough start in his first full season as a Met.  Manager Davey Johnson used the rookie reliever sparingly through the first four months of the season, with Myers appearing in only 29 of the team's first 102 games.  As a result, Myers was maddeningly inconsistent, sporting an ungodly 5.44 ERA for the third-place Mets.  But in the season's final two months, Myers was unhittable as he helped the team rise back into NL East contention.

Over the first three weeks of August, Myers struck out 17 batters in ten scoreless innings.  He also held opposing hitters to a .162 batting average, .184 on-base percentage and notched two saves.  Although the Mets finished short in their quest to repeat as division champions, Myers' performance over the final two months of the season (1.97 ERA, five saves, five holds, 43 Ks, eight walks, no homers allowed) gave the Mets hope that 1988 would be a more successful campaign.  Rookie of the Year voters also took notice of his final two months, as Myers finished tied for 6th in the 1987 vote.

The 1988 campaign started out with Myers in a new role as the team's left-handed closer, as long-time Met Jesse Orosco was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers during the offseason.  Myers' start was as blazing as his fastball, as the lefty went 4-0 with nine saves and a microscopic 0.87 ERA through early June.  After allowing three runs without retiring a batter in a game against the Expos on June 12, Myers settled down, saving 17 games in 18 chances and posting a 1.52 ERA the rest of the way.  Myers finished his first season as a closer with a brilliant 1.72 ERA and 0.91 WHIP.  He also recorded 26 saves and struck out 92 batters in 75 innings.  More importantly, he finally started to control the fastball that constantly got away from him in the minors, as he walked just 30 batters and uncorked three wild pitches.

In 1987, Myers' strong finish didn't help the Mets reach the postseason.  That was not the case in 1988, as the Mets ran away with the NL East title.  Although the Mets lost a heartbreaking NLCS to the Dodgers in seven games, Myers was outstanding in his first playoff experience.  Myers got into three games, allowing no runs and one hit in 4⅔ innings.  But the series turned when Myers wasn't brought into a game.

With the left-handed hitting Mike Scioscia representing the tying run at the plate in the ninth inning of Game 4, manager Davey Johnson chose not to replace Dwight Gooden with Randy Myers to set up a lefty-lefty matchup.  The move went on to become one of the costliest decisions in Mets history, as Scioscia took Gooden deep to tie the game.  Myers eventually replaced Gooden in the ninth, pitching 2⅓ shutout innings before he was replaced by co-closer Roger McDowell.  One inning later, McDowell allowed a solo homer to NL MVP Kirk Gibson, a lefty just like the recently-removed Randy Myers.  Myers never threw another pitch in the series.

Following the disappointing end to the 1988 season, the Mets continued to underachieve in 1989.  The team won fewer than 90 games for the first time since 1983, spending most of the season alternating between third and fourth place before finally moving into second place to stay on the next-to-last day of the season after they had been eliminated from playoff contention.  Randy Myers, however, did not underachieve, going 7-4 with 24 saves and a 2.35 ERA.

With the Mets having traded Roger McDowell during the 1989 season, the team went into the Winter Meetings searching for a right-handed reliever to replace McDowell and serve as a complement to Randy Myers.  They succeeded in getting a reliever in Nashville, but he wasn't a righty.  And he also came at a price.

On December 6, 1989, Myers was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for fellow southpaw and Brooklyn native John Franco.  The move brought an ecstatic Franco back home, while Randy Myers was left stunned, especially since he had become one of the most dominant closers in the league.  Franco eventually became the longest tenured pitcher in Mets history, saving a team-record 276 games.  But Myers had more success on an individual level and a team level after the Mets let him get away.

Who needs sleeves when you can have a Nasty Boy or two keeping you warm?

While Franco was saving games for a second-place Mets team in 1990, Randy Myers was becoming one of the "Nasty Boys" in the Reds bullpen.  The three-headed monster made up of Myers, fellow southpaw Norm Charlton and wide-eyed righty Rob Dibble became one of the most formidable relief trios of their generation.  The Nasty Boys combined to record 44 of the Reds' league-high 50 saves, in addition to their 2.14 ERA and 291 strikeouts in 235 innings.

With a steady offense, quality starting pitching and dominant relief corps, Cincinnati was never out of first place, keeping a firm grip on the division lead from Opening Day to the end of the season.  Randy Myers was one of the many contributors to the Reds' wire-to-wire success.  Myers led the team with 31 saves and posted a 2.08 ERA, striking out 98 batters in 86⅔ innings.  He was also one of the toughest pitchers to hit in the National League, holding opposing hitters to a .193 batting average and .281 slugging percentage.

For his efforts, Myers earned his first trip to the All-Star Game, finished fifth in the NL Cy Young Award vote and even received MVP consideration.  But he got a lot more consideration for MVP in the National League Championship Series.

Myers took home the top prize in the NLCS, saving three games for the Reds, including the Game 6 clincher that sent Cincinnati to the World Series for the first time since 1976.  Myers was also on the mound in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the World Series against the defending champion Oakland A's, retiring Carney Lansford on a foul pop-up to complete an unlikely four-game sweep that gave the Reds the title.

Myers did it all for Cincinnati in 1990, even taking time out to record a rap video as a member of "B-Lark and The Homeboys".  But Myers was just getting started in 1990, even if his fledgling music career was not.

In 1991, the Reds couldn't capitalize on their unexpected World Series-winning campaign.  Instead, they decided to convert Randy Myers into a starting pitcher, which he hadn't done since his days as a Mets farmhand.  Needless to say, it failed miserably.

Myers started 12 games for the Reds in 1991.  Although he had a respectable 3.45 ERA in those dozen starts, he pitched in and out of trouble regularly, allowing 106 base runners (62 hits, 43 walks, one hit batsman) in 70⅓ innings.  Myers' teammates didn't fare much better, as Cincinnati followed up its memorable 1990 campaign by finishing fifth in the six-team NL West with a disappointing 74-88 record in 1991. 

Two months and two days after he became a Red, Myers was sent packing again, this time to San Diego in a trade for infielder Bip Roberts.  After a so-so season with the Padres (3-6, 38 saves, 4.29 ERA, 1.48 WHIP), Myers became a free agent and signed a three-year deal with the Chicago Cubs.  The National League record book was not prepared for what Myers was about to accomplish.

In 1993, while the Mets were plodding through their first 100-loss campaign since 1967, their former closer was thriving as a North Sider.  Myers set a National League record by saving 53 games in his first season as a Cub, helping Chicago finish the year above .500 for only the third time in 21 seasons.  Myers' save total dropped to 21 in 1994, as the Cubs failed to give Myers many late-inning leads to protect.  Chicago finished the 1994 season in last place in the NL Central, winning only 49 games before the players' strike put the kibosh on the season.

The Cubs went back above .500 in 1995, finishing the year with a 73-71 record (the strike cut 18 games from the schedule) and contending for the first-ever National League wild card berth.  Chicago eventually fell short, finishing four games behind the Colorado Rockies for the additional playoff spot.  For the second time in three seasons, Myers led the National League in saves with 38.  He also became a three-time All-Star, earning his second consecutive nod as a Cub.  But his time with the Cubs ended with an unexpected bang, as Myers had to fend off a would-be attacker on the Wrigley Field mound after allowing a crushing home run to Houston's James Mouton.

Even a Getty Images watermark can't cover up the fact that Randy Myers is one tough badass.

The attack on the mound helped steer Myers to Baltimore when he became a free agent after the conclusion of the 1995 season.  As an Oriole, Myers was reunited with former Mets manager Davey Johnson, who gave him his first shot in the big leagues a decade earlier.  Myers did not disappoint, helping the Orioles make the playoffs in each of his two seasons in Baltimore.

Myers saved 31 games for Baltimore in 1996, as the Orioles ended a 13-year playoff drought by claiming the American League wild card.  Myers was especially productive during the season's final month.  On August 29, the Orioles found themselves in a virtual three-way tie with the White Sox and Mariners for the AL wild card lead.  From that point on, Baltimore was one of the hottest teams in the league, winning 12 of their next 16 games to take control of the wild card race.  Myers was particularly dominant during the season's final month, posting a barely-there 0.84 ERA in 13 games and allowing only nine hits - all singles - in 10⅔ innings.

Myers' regular season success in his first year as an Oriole continued in his second year with the team, as he led the American League with 45 saves in 1997.  In doing so, Myers set a new single-season team record, shattering the old mark of 37 set by Gregg Olson in 1990.  (Myers' record was eventually surpassed by Jim Johnson, who saved 51 games for the Orioles in 2012.)

Unfortunately, his success in the regular season didn't carry over into the playoffs, as Myers struggled in the postseason for the first time in his career.  After not having allowed an earned run in any of his first 12 postseason appearances with the Mets and Reds, Myers gave up an extra-inning walk-off home run to Bernie Williams, giving the Yankees the win in Baltimore's first ALCS game since 1983.

In 1997, Myers lost another ALCS game in walk-off fashion, although this one was far from being a conventional walk-off loss.  In what was perhaps the turning point of the series, Marquis Grissom of the Indians stole home off Myers in the bottom of the 12th inning on a failed suicide squeeze attempt by Omar Vizquel.  The Game 3 victory gave Cleveland a 2-1 lead in a series they went on to win in six games.

Randy Myers was one of the most dependable playoff relievers of all time.  But even he wasn't perfect all the time.

Once again, Myers was facing free agency and once again, he switched teams.  This time, Myers packed his bags for Toronto, who gave him a three-year, $18 million contract.  While in Toronto, Myers fared well in the saves department (28) but did not fare well with his ERA (4.46), leading the Blue Jays to bid farewell to Myers in August.  Toronto placed Myers on waivers, where he was unexpectedly claimed by the San Diego Padres.

The Blue Jays gladly traded their expensive reliever back to San Diego (Myers was a Friar in 1992), where he served as a lefty specialist and set-up man to closer Trevor Hoffman.  Myers didn't pitch well in his new role, posting a 6.28 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in 21 games with the Padres.  But the trade to San Diego did allow Myers to pitch in the World Series for a second time, eight years after winning a ring with Cincinnati.  Myers did not perform well in the playoffs, allowing four runs in three innings to the Braves and Yankees.

Since San Diego had claimed Myers off waivers, they were now on the hook for the remaining two years and $13 million left on his contract.  But Myers did not pitch at all in 1999 and 2000 because of a damaged shoulder and offseason rotator cuff surgery.  Myers' injuries caused the Padres to become involved in an ugly legal dispute with their insurance carrier, which was eventually settled in 2003.  By that time, Myers had already been out of baseball for two years.  Myers retired in 2001 after appearing in one game with the Seattle Mariners' Triple-A affiliate in Tacoma, allowing four runs without retiring a batter.

Randy Myers pitched 14 seasons in the major leagues with six different teams.  He finished in the league's top ten in saves at least once with each team.  In doing so, Myers became the only player in history to finish in his respective league's top ten in saves with at least six teams.  Myers also led the league in saves three times (1993, 1995, 1997) and finished second twice (1991, 1992).  Against the Mets, Myers was a perfect 21-for-21 in save opportunities.  And of course, Myers' 347 career saves are ninth all-time and third among left-handed pitchers.

The man affectionately referred to as Randall K. Myers by former Mets broadcaster Tim McCarver was a four-time All-Star who received Cy Young consideration in 1990, 1993 and 1997 and MVP votes in 1988, 1990, 1993 and 1997.  Myers also made the playoffs five times with three teams and posted a 2.35 ERA in 29 career postseason appearances.

In his short time with the Mets, Myers saved 56 games, which has him on the outside of the team's top ten list looking in (Braden Looper is 10th all-time with 57 saves as a Met).  His time as a starter in Cincinnati kept him from cracking the Reds' top ten as well.  But Myers is one of only four relievers to save as many as 100 games for the Cubs.  He is also eighth on the Padres' all-time saves list and ranks fifth on the Orioles' leaderboard.

Randy Myers last threw a pitch in a Mets uniform on September 30, 1989.  Since then, six pitchers have earned the right to be the Opening Day closers for the Mets.  Those six pitchers are:

Braden Looper
  • John Franco (1990-1999)
  • Armando Benitez (2000-2003)
  • Braden Looper (2004-2005)
  • Billy Wagner (2006-2008)
  • Francisco Rodriguez (2009-2011)
  • Frank Francisco (2012)

Besides being the team's Opening Day closers, the six pitchers listed above have another thing in common.  None of them were developed in the Mets' minor league system.  Franco and Benitez were acquired via trades, while Looper, Wagner, Rodriguez and Francisco all signed with the Mets as free agents.

The Mets have not developed a closer in their system since Randy Myers.  Sure, Aaron Heilman and Bobby Parnell have been used to close out games for limited stretches, with Heilman recording nine saves as a Met and Parnell notching 14, but the homegrown Met with the most saves since Randy Myers left New York is ... (drum roll please) ... Anthony Young!

Young is most known for his record-setting 27-game losing streak, but he also filled in for incumbent closer John Franco while the Mets' all-time saves leader was recovering from various injuries in 1992 and 1993.  Young saved 15 games for the Mets in 1992 and three more in 1993, ending his Mets career with 18 saves - a number that has only been surpassed by 16 players in Mets history, including the last homegrown Met to save that many games, Randy Myers.

The Mets haven't developed many closers over the last quarter century.  The last time they did, they traded him away for a hometown kid, but not a homegrown player.  The hometown kid (John Franco) became the team's all-time leader in saves, but was never an imposing figure on the mound and only led the league in saves twice as a Met.  The homegrown player (Randy Myers) went on to become one of the most dominant closers the game has ever known, becoming an All-Star with three different teams and setting the National League single season saves record.

Having veteran leadership is always beneficial to a contending team, but sometimes that leadership comes with a price.  The Mets paid that price when they traded Randy Myers to the Cincinnati Reds in 1989.  And they've been paying for other teams' closers ever since.  Sometimes it's best to give a kid a chance.  Otherwise, he might turn into a Met that got away.

Not even a black and white photo can mask how colorful Randy Myers was.

Note:  The Mets That Got Away is a thirteen-part weekly series that spotlights those Mets players who established themselves as major leaguers in New York, only to become stars after leaving town.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 7, 2013: Nolan Ryan
January 14, 2013: Melvin Mora  
January 21, 2013: Kevin Mitchell 
January 28, 2013: Amos Otis
February 4, 2013: Jeff Reardon
February 11, 2013: Lenny Dykstra
February 18, 2013: Jeff Kent


James Preller said...

Great piece, Ed. I had forgotten about the fan charging the mound incident. Classic Randy Myers.

My hope is that the Mets are about to embark on a new era of developing relievers from within our own system -- including closers -- copying the success of the Atlanta Braves. I'm convinced this is the way to go, and finally the system appears to have the young, live arms to make it so.

JP ("Two Guys Mets")

Ed Leyro (and Joey Beartran) said...

The Braves are a perfect example of how to develop (and keep) their closers. In the last 20 years alone, they've developed Mark Wohlers, Mike Stanton (the original, not Giancarlo), Kerry Ligtenberg, John Rocker and Craig Kimbrel. Imagine what the Mets could have done in 2007 and 2008 if they would have had a homegrown talent step in for Billy Wagner when he was hurt instead of having to import guys like Luis Ayala!