Monday, March 11, 2013

The Mets That Got Away: Mike Scott

Over the years, there have been a number of Mets players who were traded before they had a chance to blossom in the major leagues.  Players like Amos Otis, Nolan Ryan and Ken Singleton all come to mind.  But what about those players who were given a chance to become successful at the big league level but failed miserably as members of the Mets?

One of those players was given four years to realize his potential in Flushing.  But after showing some promise in his third year, he completely regressed in year four.  By then, the Mets had completely given up on him and decided to trade him away.  Not only did he become one of the best pitchers in the league after the Mets cut ties with him, but he got there with the timely assistance of an original Met.  And his newfound success almost prevented one of the most memorable moments in team history from ever occurring.

The Mets gave Nolan Ryan's old number to Mike Scott just a few years before making him Ryan's teammate in Houston.

Michael Warren Scott was drafted by the Mets out of Pepperdine University in the second round of the 1976 June amateur draft.  During his first three years in the Mets organization, Scott was a so-so pitcher.  He wasn't overpowering (209 Ks in 425 IP) and didn't make much of an improvement from year to year.  (Scott's ERA rose from 2.86 at AA-Jackson in 1976 to 3.94 at AAA-Tidewater in 1978.)  But that all changed in 1979, when Scott got his first chance to contribute at the big league level.

When the Mets broke camp in 1979, their roster consisted of ten new players on the 25-man roster, including five rookies.  Two of those neophytes (Jesse Orosco, Neil Allen) would go on to become successful relievers for the Mets, while the third (Mike Scott) spent most of the season flip-flopping between starter, reliever, and eventually back to the minors.

Scott made his major league debut on April 18, pitching two innings of relief against the Montreal Expos.  Six days later, Scott made his first start, pitching five solid innings against the San Francisco Giants to earn his first win in the majors.  The win was surrounded by controversy, as both the Mets and Giants played the game under protest after an argument with the replacement umpires caused a 28-minute delay.

By May 8, Scott had made three starts and two relief appearances and had fared well in those outings, pitching to a 2.84 ERA.  But his next four starts were not his best, as Scott failed to make it through the fifth inning in three of them.

After allowing four runs to the Cardinals in one-third of an inning on May 31, manager Joe Torre banished Scott to the bullpen, where he continued to pitch until he was sent back to Tidewater in mid-June.  Scott pitched well for the Tides, going 8-4 with a 3.18 ERA in 18 appearances (15 starts), which earned him a second promotion to the Mets in September.

Upon his return to the majors, Scott had one scoreless relief effort and a hard-luck loss to the Expos as a starter.  But in his third September appearance, Scott had one of the worst starts in Mets history, allowing seven runs in one-third of an inning to the Chicago Cubs on September 25.  Scott's poor outing gave the Mets' their 99th loss of the season, their final defeat before embarking on a season-ending six-game winning streak to avoid their first 100-loss campaign since 1967.  The Mets were smart enough not to give Scott a start in any of those six games.

Scott spent the majority of the 1980 season pitching for Tidewater, honing his craft at the minor league level before earning his next opportunity with the Mets.  Scott was brilliant on a sub-.500 Tides team, going 13-7 with a 2.96 ERA for a squad that finished 67-72.  When the Mets expanded their roster in September, Scott was called up once again, going 1-1 with a 4.30 ERA in six starts.

After two seasons of riding the Tidewater-to-Flushing shuttle, Scott began the 1981 campaign in New York.  For the first time since being drafted by the team in 1976, Scott had finally earned his first one-way ticket to Shea Stadium.

The strike-shortened 1981 season was Scott's first full season in the major leagues and he performed well despite his ugly 5-10 record.  Scott made 23 starts for the Mets in 1981 and posted a respectable 3.90 ERA.  The main reason for his poor record was the Mets' inability to score runs whenever he was on the mound, as New York scored three runs or less in 16 of his 23 starts.  Scott actually allowed one earned run or less in almost half (11) of his starts, but the Mets somehow managed to lose five of those games.

The Mets' lack of offense in Scott's starts were never more visible than they were in a three-start stretch in September when the team was fighting for an unlikely second-half division title.  In those three starts, Scott allowed two earned runs in 20⅓ innings, holding opposing hitters to a .174 batting average.  Naturally, the Mets lost all three games, effectively squashing any hopes of returning to the playoffs for the first time since 1973.  Any hopes of Mike Scott becoming an effective pitcher with the Mets ended the following season.

In 1982, Mike Scott had a dreadful season with the Mets, going 7-13 with a 5.14 ERA and 1.67 WHIP.  Batters resembled Pavlov's dogs whenever they stepped into the box against Scott.  Opposing hitters torched Scott for a .321 batting average and .381 on-base percentage in 1982, just one year after Scott held the opposition to a respectable .261 batting average and .306 on-base percentage.

By the end of 1982 - the sixth consecutive losing season for the Mets - general manager Frank Cashen had had enough of the underachieving Scott, dumping him on the Houston Astros on December 10 for outfielder Danny Heep.  Heep would go on to become a successful pinch-hitter with the Mets during his four seasons in New York, becoming the first player in team history to hit four pinch-hit home runs in a single season.  Mike Scott, on the other hand, did just a bit more for his new team.

After spending parts of four seasons with the Mets, Scott was finally playing for a contending team.  The Astros finished the year with an 85-77 record, six games behind the division-winning Dodgers.  Scott had his first winning season in 1983, going 10-6 with a 3.72 ERA in 24 starts.  But Scott regressed in 1984, winning only five of his 16 decisions and watching his ERA balloon nearly a run to 4.68.

Not wanting Scott to fall out of favor with the team, Astros general manager Al Rosen asked a good friend to teach Scott how to throw a new pitch.  That new pitch ended up saving Scott's career and gave the Astros an unexpected ace on the pitching staff.

Casey Stengel showed off "ace" Roger Craig before Craig showed Mike Scott how to become an ace with the Astros.

Roger Craig was a starting pitcher for the Mets during the team's first two seasons in the majors, going a combined 15-46 in 1962 and 1963.  His .246 winning percentage as a Met is the lowest in franchise history for any pitcher who recorded over 40 decisions with the team.

Mike Scott went 14-27 as a Met from 1979 to 1982.  His .341 winning percentage is the fifth-lowest in franchise history for a pitcher who racked up more than 40 decisions, but the lowest for any pitcher who didn't pitch in the Polo Grounds era.  Their inability to win games with any regularity while they were members of the Mets was the only thing Craig and Scott had in common prior to the 1985 season.

Following his 12-year playing career, Craig went on to become one of the most successful pitching coaches of his era.  Craig's pupils helped the Detroit Tigers win the World Series in 1984, with relief pitcher Willie Hernandez taking home the AL MVP and Cy Young Award.  Al Rosen, impressed with his longtime friend's success as a pitching coach, reached out to Craig and asked him to teach the 29-year-old Scott how to throw a split-fingered fastball.

Scott met up with Craig in San Diego prior to the 1985 season.  But they did not discuss their roles in Mets history.  Instead, they began to discuss a pitch that would nearly make history of the Mets less than two years later.

Craig had Scott throw for him, watching him carefully to see if there were any flaws in his pitching mechanics.  Then he showed Scott how to grip the split-fingered fastball properly.  According to Scott, the meeting was an instant success.

"Roger was great.  We went over to Grossmont Junior College in San Diego and after watching me throw, he said my mechanics were fine.  Then he said 'today we're going to talk about the pitch.'  He meant the split-fingered fastball and he gave me three things to remember.  He said first I had to make sure I threw it over the top.  Second, I had to throw it exactly like a fastball, and third, if I wanted to control the pitch better, I had to put my fingers closer together on the ball."

When the 1985 season began, it was clear that Craig's tutelage had made quite an impression on Scott.  In his first 12 starts, Scott went 5-2 with a 2.77 ERA.  Included in the stretch was a dominant performance over the Mets on May 16.  After going 0-3 with a 9.19 ERA against New York in 1984, Scott held the Mets scoreless through 8⅔ innings, outdueling Sid Fernandez, who gave up one run and two hits in seven innings.

Scott set career highs across the board in 1985, going 18-8 with a 3.29 ERA and 137 strikeouts in 221⅔ innings.  All this came from a pitcher whose previous career highs were ten wins, 83 strikeouts and 154 innings pitched.  But 1985 was just a springboard for Scott.  His performance in 1986 propelled him into the pitching stratosphere.

Prior to 1986, Scott had never struck out more than eight batters in a game, accomplishing the feat once in 1983 and twice in 1985.  But if he was just learning the split-fingered fastball in 1985, then he had mastered it by 1986.  In his third start of the season, Scott set a new career high by striking out nine Reds to record his first victory of the year.  When he won his second game on April 30, Scott began a 22-start stretch in which he averaged nearly nine strikeouts per outing.  Only once in those 22 starts did Scott fail to strike out at least seven batters.  On September 14, Scott set a new career high with 14 strikeouts.  Two starts later, he had the most memorable performance of his life. 

On September 25, Scott pitched a no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants to clinch the National League West division title.  Scott struck out 13 batters and walked only two in recording the first hitless game in a playoff-clinching victory.  In an interesting bit of irony, Roger Craig - the man who was responsible for teaching Scott how to deceive batters with the split-fingered fastball - got to watch it all unfold from the visiting team's dugout as the Giants' manager.

By pitching the Astros into the postseason for only the third time in team history (Houston won the NL West in 1980 and a split-season division title in 1981), Scott would get a chance to face the team that gave him his first chance in the majors, but pulled the plug on him just four years into his major league career.  Because of a scheduling conflict with the NFL's Houston Oilers, the Mets would have to open the NLCS in Houston even though they had won 12 more games than the Astros during the regular season.  That gave Mike Scott the opportunity to pitch Game 1 in front of a raucous crowd at the Astrodome.  Scott would not disappoint the hometown fans, striking out 14 batters in a complete game, five-hit shutout that left Gary Carter and the rest of his Mets teammates searching for scuff marks when they should have been searching for base hits.

''I think it did something funny that I normally didn't see.  You look at the kind of success he's had. You've got to think that he is doing something to the ball.  Certainly, Mike Scott has found a secret."

New York went on to win the next two games of the series before Scott returned to pitch Game 4 at Shea Stadium on three days rest.  This time, the Mets weren't swinging and missing as much as they did in Game 1, striking out only five times against Scott.  But they also weren't getting as many hits, as Scott allowed one run on three hits in pitching his second complete game of the series, a 3-1 victory that guaranteed a return trip to Houston.  Fortunately, the Mets would not return to Texas to face an elimination game, as a walk-off single by Gary Carter in the 12th inning of Game 5 gave the Mets a 3-2 series lead.

Going into Game 6 at the Astrodome, the Mets knew they had to win that game.  Otherwise, they would have to defeat Mike Scott in a seventh and deciding game to advance to the World Series.  Houston starter Bob Knepper was poised to extend the series to a climactic seventh game, pitching eight shutout innings against the Mets.  But the never-say-die Mets mounted a thrilling comeback in the ninth inning against Knepper and closer Dave Smith, scoring three runs to tie the game.  Ironically, the Mets could have taken the lead in the ninth, but Danny Heep - who was traded for Mike Scott just four years earlier - swung at ball four with the bases loaded, striking out to end the Mets' late-inning threat.

Neither team scored until the 14th inning, when Wally Backman drove in Darryl Strawberry with the go-ahead run, only to have the Astros' Billy Hatcher respond with a game-tying home run that slid down the left field foul pole in the bottom half of the inning.

Two frames later, the Mets took another lead, but this time they added two insurance runs, taking a 7-4 lead into the bottom of the 16th inning.  The extra tallies proved to be huge for the Mets, not only because Jesse Orosco allowed the Astros to plate two runs in the bottom of the inning, but because the Mets were now realizing that they had the chance to avoid facing Mike Scott in a potential do-or-die Game 7.  And once Orosco got Kevin Bass to chase a slider on a 3-2 pitch with the tying and winning runs on base, the Mets were National League champions, as Mike Scott was left to wonder on the bench what might have been had he been able to pitch in a deciding seventh game.

Mike Scott was all over the 1986 NLCS, including the 0:24 to 0:34 second mark of this video.  

Despite losing a classic series to the Mets, Mike Scott was named the NLCS Most Valuable Player.  He was responsible for both of Houston's victories in the series, pitching two complete games, allowing one run and striking out 19 batters.  The Mets would go on to defeat the Boston Red Sox in the World Series in seven games, while the Astros were left to wonder "what if?".  One thing they didn't have to wonder about anymore was if Mike Scott could become a big-game pitcher.  He certainly proved it in 1986 and continued to prove it throughout the rest of his career.

In 1986, Scott led the National League in ERA (2.22), WHIP (0.92), shutouts (5), innings pitched (275⅓) and strikeouts (306).  He earned his first All-Star selection, won the Cy Young Award and finished tenth in the NL MVP vote.  Although Scott couldn't repeat his phenomenal numbers in 1987, he still had a magnificent year.  Scott went 16-13 with a 3.23 ERA and 233 strikeouts.  He also recorded eight of the team's 13 complete games and three of their four complete-game shutouts.

After finishing 30 games above .500 in 1986, the Astros were a disappointing 76-86 in 1987.  Their offense, which was among the best in the league in 1986, sputtered in 1987.  In a year known for its offense, Houston finished last or next-to-last in the National League in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, hits and runs scored.  The Astros' lack of offensive firepower made Scott's season look all the more impressive.  Cy Young Award voters noticed as well, as Scott finished seventh in the vote despite posting a won-loss record that was only three games above .500.

Once again, a lack of offense hurt the Astros in 1988, as the team finished fifth in the six-team NL West.  It also hurt Mike Scott in the win column.  Scott finished the year with a 14-8 record and a nifty 2.92 ERA, but he also had ten no-decisions.  In eight of the ten starts he failed to earn a decision, Scott allowed three runs or less.  In nine of his no-decisions, Scott left the game with his team tied or ahead.  One year later, the team finally started to score more runs and Mike Scott was one of the main beneficiaries.

In 1989, Houston placed fourth in the National League in runs scored.  The Astros finished the year with 86 wins, the fourth-highest total in team history at the time.  Mike Scott helped the team contend for a division title by winning 17 games by the end of July.  Houston fell short in their quest to win the NL West, finishing six games behind the eventual National League champion Giants.  But Mike Scott became a 20-game winner for the first time in 1989, going 20-10 with a 3.10 ERA and a career-high nine complete games.  Scott nearly won his second Cy Young Award in four seasons in 1989, as he was the runner-up to San Diego's Mark Davis.

By 1990, Scott was reaching the end of the line.  The 35-year-old veteran finished the year with a 9-13 record and a 3.81 ERA, although he did top the 200-inning mark for the sixth straight season.  Scott made two starts in 1991, but pitched poorly in both of them, allowing a total of 12 runs in seven innings.  Injuries did not allow him to pitch again in 1991, and Scott called it a career at the conclusion of the season.  Scott's No. 33 was never worn again by an Astro, as his number was retired by the team in 1992.

Mike Scott had a 13-year career in the major leagues, with nine of those seasons coming after he was traded from the Mets to the Astros.  Although he only won 14 games as a Met in four years with the team, a meeting with former Met Roger Craig after his second season in Houston turned him from a less-than-mediocre pitcher to an All-Star almost overnight.  Scott may or may not have scuffed the ball during his time in Houston, but there is no question that he became a top pitcher after he left the Mets. 

In nine seasons with the Astros, Scott turned himself into one of the greatest pitchers on a team that has seen its share of great pitchers.  Entering the 2013 season, Scott ranks in the Astros' all-time top ten in wins (110; 4th in Astros' history), starts (259; 6th), innings pitched (1,704; 7th), strikeouts (1,318; 5th), complete games (42; 5th), shutouts (21; T-2nd) and WHIP (1.14; 5th).  In addition, Scott is one of only seven pitchers to record a 20-win season for the Astros, joining Larry Dierker, J.R. Richard, Joe Niekro, Jose Lima, Mike Hampton and Roy Oswalt.

When Scott struck out 306 batters in 1986, he joined J.R. Richard as the only Astros to strike out 300+ batters in a single season.  But Scott stands alone when it comes to the lowest single-season WHIP in franchise history, as his 0.923 WHIP from 1986 is slightly lower than previous team record-holder J.R. Richard, who had a 0.924 WHIP in 1980.  Scott was also the first Astro to win a Cy Young Award (also in 1986), made the All-Star team three times and is one of ten players to have his number retired by Houston.  Not bad for a pitcher who was cast aside by a team that finished at least 20 games under .500 in each of his four seasons there.

Mike Scott at Shea Stadium during the 1986 NLCS was a far cry from Mike Scott at Shea Stadium from 1979 to 1982.

On December 10, 1971, the Mets traded Nolan Ryan to the California Angels.  Eleven years to the day after the infamous Ryan-for-Fregosi deal, the Mets sent Mike Scott packing to Houston.  Within four years of the deal, both Ryan and Scott were doing their best to prevent the Mets from winning their third National League pennant.  The Astros failed in their quest to derail the Mets' juggernaut, but only because they couldn't pitch their aces in every game of the 1986 NLCS.

Scott might never have gotten the opportunity to become the fearsome pitcher he was for the Astros in the mid-to-late '80s had he never been dealt away by the Mets.  He certainly would not have become a Cy Young Award-winning All-Star had it not been for a career-changing encounter with former Met Roger Craig.  And because of both events, the Mets almost didn't get a chance to win their second World Series championship.

Sometimes the best thing that can happen to a player is for him to come to New York.  It happened to Reggie Jackson when he became a Yankee and it happened to Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter and a number of other players when they joined the Mets.  But sometimes the opposite is true.

For every Gary Carter who is thrilled to come to Gotham, there is a Jeff Kent who can't wait to get out.  And for every Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez and David Cone - whose careers blossomed once they were traded to the Mets - there is a Mike Scott, who needed a change in scenery to become a star on the mound.

There have been many Mets who got away before they became successful major leaguers.  Mike Scott is one of them.  But very few of them have gone on to hurt the Mets as much as Mike Scott almost did in 1986.  Had the Mets dropped Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS to the Astros, Mike Scott would have gotten a chance to end the Mets' record-breaking season in Game 7.  No player and no fan wanted that to happen.  That's how dominant Mike Scott was in 1986.  That's how Mike Scott became a deserving candidate in the ever-increasing list of the Mets that got away.  

Mike Scott carried the Astros on his back during the mid-to-late '80s.  His teammates had no problem returning the favor.

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
March 4, 2013: Ken Singleton

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