Monday, March 4, 2013

The Mets That Got Away: Ken Singleton

In the late '60s and early '70s, the Mets went as far as their pitching would take them.  The 1968 team was the first to lose fewer than 90 games, with sophomore sensation Tom Seaver and Rookie of the Year runner-up Jerry Koosman combining for 35 of the team's 73 wins.  One year later, that dynamic duo was joined by rookie Gary Gentry in the rotation and went on to win the World Series.  The Miracle Mets were also helped by a stellar bullpen, which included Ron Taylor, Tug McGraw and part-time starter Nolan Ryan.

The Mets failed to defend their title in 1970 and fell short once again in 1971.  Both of those teams led the National League in ERA and strikeouts.  They also shared identical 83-79 records.  How could teams so rich in pitching fail to win more than one division or league title from 1968 to 1971?  The answer is simple.  They couldn't hit.

The 1968 team was the only Mets squad that failed to score three runs per game.  In 1970, the Mets' .249 team batting average was well below the league average of .258.  And in 1971, the team could only muster 98 home runs (the NL average was 115).  Even the 1969 World Championship team had difficulty at the plate, finishing near the bottom of the league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

By 1972, the Mets were desperate to acquire a premier slugger to give their offense a jump start.  They had already failed twice when they kept their focus on acquiring an offensive-minded third baseman, losing Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan in the process.  This time, they set their sights elsewhere, trading for soon-to-be fan-favorite Rusty Staub.  Unlike Joe Foy and Jim Fregosi - the players received for Otis and Ryan, respectively - Staub actually produced as a Met.  But by the end of 1975, Staub had become an ex-Met, while one of the players he was traded for was just entering his prime and becoming one of the top players in the majors.

The Mets developed Ken Singleton and other talented hitters in the 1960s.  Keeping them, however, was another story.

Kenneth Wayne Singleton was the Mets' first round selection in the 1967 January draft, taken one spot before future Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk.  At the time, the New York-born Singleton was a student at Hofstra University who had played just one year of college ball.  But that single season was enough to attract the attention of Mets scouts, as the team took the 19-year-old outfielder with the third overall pick in the draft.

Singleton displayed the poise and patience of an experienced veteran as he was advancing through the Mets' minor league system, batting over .300 and reaching base more than 40% of the time.  When he finally reached AAA-Tidewater in 1970, it had become clear that Singleton was ready for the bright lights of the New York stage.

Singleton tore apart the International League as a member of the Tides, batting .388 with 17 homers and 46 RBIs in only 64 games.  The switch-hitting Singleton also had an eye-popping .513 on-base percentage and .703 slugging percentage.  But the Mets had a crowded outfield, with Cleon Jones in left, Tommie Agee in center and a platoon of Ron Swoboda and Art Shamsky in right.  A change would be needed for Singleton to get his first promotion to the big leagues.  That change would come at the expense of another native New Yorker.

As spring turned to summer in 1970, the Mets were playing as mediocre as a team could play.  Through their first 65 games, the team had not yet been more than three games above or below the .500 mark.  The team was in desperate need of a spark to awaken from its doldrums, especially with first place still within shouting distance.  In a move that was considered shocking, but not unexpected, the Mets sent veteran first baseman Ed Kranepool to Tidewater and promoted Ken Singleton to take his spot on the roster.

Going into the 1970 season, Kranepool was the longest tenured Met, having played in each of the team's first eight seasons.  But after a slow April in which he batted .222 with no extra-base hits and one RBI, everything began to unravel for the 25-year-old veteran.

Ed Kranepool
The former All-Star failed to collect a single hit in the month of May and was no longer being used as part of a lefty-righty platoon with World Series MVP Donn Clendenon at first base.  With part-time rightfielder Art Shamsky now sharing first base duties with Clendenon and leftfielder Cleon Jones suffering from hamstring and groin injuries, the time was right for Singleton to get his long-awaited promotion to the big leagues, which finally happened on June 23.  Singleton's promotion made Kranepool a minor leaguer for the first time since 1964.

Singleton began his big league career as the Mets' leftfielder, keeping the position warm for Jones while he recovered from his injuries.  Upon Jones' return in July, Singleton moved over to right field, where he played until an injury forced him to leave a game early on August 3.  When Singleton returned to the Mets ten days later, he was placed in a four-man right field rotation that also featured Swoboda, Shamsky and Dave Marshall.  The lack of regular playing time hurt Singleton, as he batted .220 in his last 30 games (10 starts) to finish his rookie campaign with a .263 average.

In 1971, Singleton found himself on the Mets' Opening Day roster for the first time, but struggled mightily in his first full season in the major leagues.  Singleton was batting .175 and had collected one extra-base hit in the team's first 49 games, being used mostly as a pinch-hitter and late-inning defensive replacement.  But once manager Gil Hodges inserted him in the starting lineup for good on June 11, Singleton became one of the team's top threats at the plate.

Singleton played in 84 of the team's final 109 games.  Although his batting average over that span was only .255, he reached base at a .381 clip.  Singleton also collected 12 home runs and 39 RBIs over the final 3½ months of the season.  The 24-year-old outfielder was at his best during the final three weeks of the season, batting .313 with five home runs and 14 RBIs in his last 15 starts.  Included in Singleton's season-ending hot streak was his first and only multi-homer game as a Met, which he accomplished in the regular season finale to help Tom Seaver win his 20th game of the year.  (Editor's note: For more on this game, please listen to the audio at the end of this piece.)

In his first two seasons with the Mets, Singleton never became the full-time player he expected to be, collecting fewer than 500 at-bats in 184 games.  But he did show good power (18 HR), an ability to drive in runs (72 RBIs) and a keen eye at the plate (91 walks).  Going into his third year in the big leagues, Singleton had every intention to be the Mets' Opening Day rightfielder.  He did start in the outfield as the curtains rose on the 1972 campaign, but it wasn't as a member of the New York Mets.

The Mets had coveted superstars to bolster their offense going into the 1972 season, especially after posting back-to-back 83-79 records in 1970 and 1971.  In December, they added their first piece, sending Nolan Ryan and three others to the California Angels for Jim Fregosi.  Four months later (and just three days after the death of manager Gil Hodges), they pulled off another deal, acquiring Rusty Staub from the Montreal Expos for Mike Jorgensen, former No. 1 overall pick Tim Foli and one Kenneth Wayne Singleton.

Tim Foli, Ken Singleton, Rusty Staub and Mike Jorgensen exchange pleasantries at Shea Stadium.

Ken Singleton's first year in Montreal was similar to his last year with the Mets.  Although Singleton was finally given the opportunity to be an everyday player with the Expos, he managed only 14 homers and 50 RBIs in 142 games.  One year later, he posted the kind of season he never got a chance to achieve as a Met.

In their first four seasons in the National League, the Montreal Expos had never competed for a division title.  But that all changed in 1973, when a late surge pushed them above the .500 mark and only half a game out of first place on September 16.  The Expos eventually watched the Mets pass them and every other team in the NL East, but they still managed to win a franchise-record 79 games.  None of it would have been possible if not for the MVP-caliber season produced by Ken Singleton.

Over the Expos' final 50 games, no pitcher could get Singleton out.  He batted .357 and posted a .486 on-base percentage, reaching base a whopping 105 times (61 hits, 44 walks).  Montreal finished 3½ games behind the eventual National League champion Mets, but had a new star in Ken Singleton.  Singleton played in all 162 games and finished the year with a .302 batting average, 23 homers, 103 RBIs and 100 runs scored, becoming the first Expo to reach triple digits in runs batted in and runs scored.  He also paced the National League with a .425 on-base percentage.  To this day, Singleton's 123 walks in 1973 remain the Expos/Nationals' franchise record.

A year after helping the Expos contend for the first time in their short history, Singleton had a disappointing follow-up campaign.  In 148 games, Singleton batted .276 with only nine home runs.  His walks dipped from 123 to 93 and his triple-digit totals in runs and RBIs dropped to 68 and 74, respectively.  Although Singleton was only 27 and just entering his prime, Montreal decided to give up on their promising outfielder.  In what became a lopsided deal, the Expos sent Singleton and pitcher Mike Torrez to Baltimore for four-time 20-game winner Dave McNally, outfielder Rich Coggins and a minor leaguer.

McNally and Coggins managed three wins and ten hits, respectively, as members of the Expos.  Torrez won 124 games after leaving Montreal, including a 20-win season in his first year in Baltimore, while Singleton became one of the best hitters in the American League and a perennial MVP candidate following the trade.

In 1975, Singleton enjoyed a fine first season in Baltimore, batting .300 with 15 homers and 55 RBIs as the Orioles' leadoff hitter.  Singleton also laced a career-high 37 doubles and set a still-standing Baltimore Orioles record with 118 walks (the franchise record of 126 was set while the team was still in St. Louis as the Browns). 

Singleton's second season in Baltimore produced a .278 average, 13 homers and 70 RBIs.  His third year there made him a superstar.

The 1977 American League leaderboard had Ken Singleton's name all over it.  Singleton finished third in the league in batting average (.328), second in on-base percentage (.438) and second in OPS (.945).  He also surpassed a .500 slugging percentage for the first time in his career on the strength of his 24 doubles and 24 homers.  In addition, Singleton drove in 99 runs and crossed the plate 90 times, while drawing 100 or more walks for the third time in five seasons.  For his efforts, Singleton was selected to his first All-Star team and finished third behind Al Cowens and future Hall of Famer Rod Carew in the AL MVP race.

After another fine season in 1978 (.293, 20 HR, 81 RBI, .409 OBP), Singleton had a career year in 1979.  The 32-year-old continued to hit well (.295) and posted a high on-base percentage (.405), but he also became one of the top power hitters in the league, shattering his previous career highs with 35 homers and 111 RBIs.  On a team that featured future Hall of Famer (and future Met) Eddie Murray, it was Singleton who helped the Orioles end the Yankees' three-year reign as American League champions.

Singleton's torrid regular season carried into the postseason.  In his first trip to the playoffs after ten years in the big leagues, Singleton batted .375 against the Angels in the ALCS and .357 versus the Pirates in the World Series.  Singleton appeared to have a strong chance to be named World Series MVP, batting .412 in the first four games as the Orioles took a commanding 3-1 series lead.  But Baltimore dropped the final three games of the series, losing to the Pirates in seven games.  A month after his team was the runner-up to Pittsburgh in the Fall Classic, Singleton became the runner-up to Don Baylor for the AL Most Valuable Player Award.

Although the Orioles won 100 games in 1980, they failed to defend their American League crown, finishing three games behind the Yankees in the AL East.  But Singleton did everything he could to keep Baltimore in contention until the final weekend of the regular season.  In the season's final 33 games, Singleton batted .373 with 15 extra-base hits and 28 RBIs.  Baltimore fell short in their quest to repeat as AL champs, but Singleton succeeded in his quest to continue to be one of the league's top hitters, finishing the year with a .304 batting average, 24 homers and 104 RBIs.

As Singleton entered his mid-thirties, his numbers began to drop off.  The strike-shortened 1981 season saw Singleton make the All-Star team for the final time.  But it also saw him fail to score 50 runs or drive in 50 runs despite playing in over 100 games.  In 1982, Singleton posted his lowest batting average (.251) since his last year as a Met.  That season was also his first year as the Orioles' primary designated hitter.  But after two subpar seasons, Singleton had one final productive season, and it came at the best possible time.

In 1983, Singleton batted .276 with 18 homers and 84 RBIs.  He also finished second in the league in walks (99) and fifth in on-base percentage (.393).  For the second time in his career, Singleton was going to the playoffs, as Baltimore held off the Detroit Tigers for the division title.  Baltimore had won the AL East for the seventh time since division play began in 1969, but only had one title to show for it.  (The Orioles also won the 1966 World Series, but that was three years before the advent of divisional play.)  That would change in 1983.

In a career that began in 1970 as a member of the defending World Series champion Mets, Singleton finally got to win a championship of his own in 1983.  Baltimore took out the Chicago White Sox in the ALCS before defeating the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series in five games.  Singleton didn't pick up a hit in the Fall Classic, but he did draw a game-tying bases-loaded walk as a pinch-hitter in the decisive fifth game.  He also got to pick up something far more valuable - a World Series ring that had eluded him for 13 years.

Singleton played one more year in Baltimore before retiring at the end of the 1984 season.  He finished his career with a .282 batting average and .388 on-base percentage, collecting 2,029 hits, 317 doubles, 246 homers and 1,065 RBIs - numbers that he could have achieved as a Met had he not been traded prior to the 1972 season because the Mets were in need of offense.

The Orioles have been in Baltimore for 60 years, moving to Charm City from St. Louis following the 1953 campaign.  In that time, many great hitters have donned Orioles uniforms.  Ken Singleton is one of them.  In ten years with the Orioles, Singleton ranks among the team leaders in games played (1,446; 8th in Orioles history), at-bats (5,115; 8th), hits (1,455; 6th), doubles (235; 10th), home runs (182; 7th), RBIs (766; 5th), runs scored (684; 10th), walks (886; 4th) and on-base percentage (.388; T-2nd).

Rusty Staub, the man Singleton was traded for in 1972, was only a Met for four seasons before he was traded to Detroit prior to the 1976 campaign (Staub did return in 1981, but was used mostly as a pinch-hitter for the next five seasons).  His numbers as a Met from 1972 to 1975 were comparable to what Singleton produced over the same time period in Montreal and Baltimore:

  • Rusty Staub:      .276/.361/.428, 99 doubles, 62 HR, 297 RBI, 267 runs scored
  • Ken Singleton:  .289/.399/.432, 106 doubles, 61 HR, 282 RBI, 333 runs scored

But Staub obviously did nothing for the Mets from 1976 to 1980 and played sparingly for the team from 1981 until his retirement in 1985.  At the same time, Singleton made multiple All-Star teams as a member of the Orioles, nearly won two AL MVP Awards, played in two World Series and won a championship.

Perhaps former Mets director of player development Whitey Herzog (who knows a thing or two about winning pennants and championships after leaving New York) said it best in his book, "White Rat: A Life In Baseball", when he shared his thoughts on the trade that jettisoned Ken Singleton, Tim Foli and Mike Jorgensen out of New York.

"We made a terrible deal with Montreal, giving up three fine players for Rusty Staub.  Here I was busting my tail to develop young players, and Don Grant says he doesn't trust minor leaguers, that we need big names.  We had guys in our system who could have helped the Mets dominate baseball in the 1970s ... and we gave them up."

Both Tim Foli and Mike Jorgensen eventually returned to New York after being shipped out in the Rusty Staub deal.  Foli was purchased by the Mets in December 1977, which led to the trade of long-time shortstop Buddy Harrelson to the Phillies the following March.  Mike Jorgensen won a Gold Glove two years after being traded by the Mets to Montreal, but didn't begin his second engagement in New York until 1980.

By then, the Mets were no longer contenders in the NL East.  They also were no longer hoping that Ken Singleton would follow suit and return to New York, as he had carved out an exceptional career in Baltimore - one that led him to be enshrined in the Orioles Hall of Fame in 1986.  Ironically, it was the same year Rusty Staub was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame.

Rusty Staub was a beloved player in New York.  But his best years happened before and after his first stint with the team.  In the three seasons prior to becoming a Met (1969-1971), Staub averaged 26 HR and 90 RBIs.  In the three seasons after leaving New York (1976-1978), Staub averaged 20 HR and 106 RBIs.  But he never hit 20 homers in a season for the Mets and only once surpassed 80 RBIs.  Meanwhile, Singleton produced five seasons of 20+ homers and three years of 100+ RBIs in Montreal and Baltimore.  And those walks.  Oh, those walks.

From 1972 to 1983, Singleton finished in his respective league's top ten in walks every year.  Over the same time period, he ranked among the league leaders in on-base percentage ten times, including five seasons above .400 and another year in which he just missed with a .397 OBP.  From 1973 to 1980, Singleton's combined on-base percentage was .406, as he reached base via a hit, walk or hit-by-pitch over 2,100 times in the eight-year period.

How impressive was that eight-year stretch for Singleton?  Let's put it this way.  Going into the 2013 season, David Wright is the Mets' all-time leader in times on base.  The long-time third baseman has reached base safely 2,078 times in nine seasons with the team.  In second place is Ed Kranepool, who reached base 1,886 times in 18 years in New York.  Singleton reached base more times in eight years than any Met has ... EVER!  That's more than David Wright and more than the man whose poor start in 1970 gave Singleton his first chance to compete at the major league level.

Ken Singleton did it all in the major leagues.  He hit for average.  He hit for power.  He reached base with a consistency that most players can only dream of having.  He was a three-time All-Star (1977, 1979, 1981).  He had four top ten MVP finishes (1973, 1975, 1977, 1979).  He played in two World Series (1979, 1983).  And at the tail end of his long and successful career, he achieved his life-long dream of winning a championship.  Yup, Ken Singleton did it all.  But he didn't do any of it as a Met.

The Mets gave up on Singleton long before he had a chance to prove just how valuable a player he was about to become.  Their impatience and need to acquire a big-name, veteran slugger led to the departure of three players who all had long, successful careers.  (Both Foli and Jorgensen played in the big leagues until 1985).  But of the three players traded for Rusty Staub in 1972, none had as big an impact to his new team as Ken Singleton.  Sure, it's possible the Orioles could have won without Singleton.  But it's certain the Mets would have been a better team had they never let him get away.

This audio of Ken Singleton's final game as a Met was brought to you by samspinchat on YouTube.  It's also sponsored by Rheingold.

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
February 25, 2013: Randy Myers

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