Friday, November 8, 2013

Players Who Led The Mets In Unexpected Categories

When you think of the greatest home run hitters in Mets history, Darryl Strawberry, Mike Piazza, David Wright and Dave Kingman come to mind.  Similarly, no list of great Mets starting pitchers or relief pitchers can be generated without a mention of Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, Jerry Koosman, Jesse Orosco and John Franco.

All of those players led the team in several hitting and pitching categories over the years.  But what about those players who led the team in unexpected categories - categories they weren't known for as hitters or pitchers?  What about players who were never above-average at anything, but were fortunate to have one great season or two in a particular category?  And don't forget the handful of players who were strongly disliked by Mets fans, but still managed to lead the team in something other than boos.

Today, we'll discuss a dozen of those players.  You'll be educated.  You'll be amazed.  You'll be awestruck.  (But you'll probably still boo those players who you always booed in the past.)  Let's begin!


Johnny Lewis leads the 1965 Mets in runs scored

In 1965, the Mets were in their fourth year of existence, but they were still looking and playing like an expansion team.  After upping their win total in 1963 and 1964, the Mets regressed in 1965, losing 112 games.  The Mets also lost their manager as well, as the charismatic Casey Stengel was forced to retire as the team's skipper due to a hip injury.  But one bright spot on the 1965 team was the play of outfielder Johnny Lewis.

Lewis was playing in his first season with the Mets after being traded to New York by the St. Louis Cardinals following the 1964 campaign.  Through late July, Lewis was the best player on the team.  In just 81 starts, Lewis was batting .260 with 14 homers, 37 RBI and 49 runs scored.  He also was among the league leaders in outfield assists, finishing the year with 14.  But once Wes Westrum replaced the injured Casey Stengel as manager, Lewis' performance suffered.  Over the last two months of the season, Lewis batted .219 with just one homer, eight RBI and 15 runs scored in 53 games.  Despite his two-month post-Stengel slump, Lewis still managed to lead the Mets in runs scored with 64.

Lewis' run total in 1965 represented approximately two-thirds of the times he crossed the plate in his career, as he played in three other seasons in the majors and managed to score a total of 33 runs in those campaigns.

Honorable mention goes to Joel Youngblood, who paced the 1979 Mets with 90 runs scored.  Although he played 14 seasons in the big leagues, averaging over 100 games played per season, Youngblood finished his career with 453 runs scored (an average of 39.5 runs per season) and never scored more than 59 runs in any other season.


Ted Martinez leads the 1972 and 1974 Mets in triples

Players with good speed and an ability to hit the ball in the power alleys or down the right field line usually rack up their share of triples.  Ted Martinez played nine seasons in the big leagues without ever showing much speed (29 career stolen bases) or an ability to get hits that weren't singles (50 doubles, 16 triples, seven home runs).  But somehow he managed to lead the Mets in three-base hits twice.

In 1972, Martinez hit played six defensive positions for the Mets as their utility man.  He didn't hit much (.224 batting average) or walk much (.254 on-base percentage), but he did find a way to collect a team-leading five triples, one more than Bud Harrleson and Jim Fregosi.  What makes his feat all the more impressive is that Martinez only hit five doubles all season to go with his five triples.

Two years later, Martinez once again became an unexpected triples machine, leading the team with a career-high seven three-baggers despite posting a lower batting average (.219) and on-base percentage (.247) than he did when he was the team's triples leader in 1972.  Martinez had no real challenge to the team lead as Wayne Garrett finished second on the team with three triples.  His time as a top triples producer ended almost as soon as it began, as Martinez didn't collect another three-base hit until 1977 as a member of the Dodgers.


Dave Kingman leads the 1975 Mets in stolen bases

In the mid-'70s and early '80s, no Mets fan left his or her seat whenever Dave Kingman stepped up to the plate.  Prior to his arrival in New York in 1975, no Met had ever hit as many as 35 homers in a single season.  Kingman surpassed that total three times in Flushing, including a 37-HR campaign in 1982, when he became the Mets' first home run champion.  Kingman left the Mets after the 1983 season as the team's all-time home run leader with 154.  But his first season in New York saw him lead the team in something other than homers.

Kingman stole a team-leading seven bases for the Mets in 1975, a year that saw the club steal a league-low 32 bases.  None of Kingman's teammates stole more than four bases in 1975.  Kingman was also the only Met to reach double digits in stolen base attempts, as he was caught stealing five times in 12 tries.  Gene Clines was second on the team with eight attempts.

The Sky King was the Steals King in 1975, proving that he was more than just a home run and strikeout machine for the Mets.  But in reality, what it really proved was that the Mets were a station-to-station team, depending on their excellent pitching and ability to hit home runs (the team finished sixth in the league in homers) to claw out victories.


Richie Hebner leads the 1979 Mets in RBI

After suffering through their second consecutive losing season in 1978, the Mets felt the need to upgrade their offense. To do so, they traded one of their best starting pitchers, Nino Espinosa, to the Philadelphia Phillies for veteran third baseman Richie Hebner.  Although Hebner had hit 156 homers prior to coming to the Mets in 1979, he had never driven in as many as 75 runs in a season until his one year in Flushing.  But if you ask Hebner, he would have gladly traded that first 75-RBI campaign for a ticket out of the Big Apple.  In other words, let's just say John Rocker enjoyed his short stays in New York more than Hebner did.

Despite his disdain for the Big Apple, Hebner actually performed fairly well for the Mets.  The surly slugger hit .268 with 25 doubles, 10 homers and 79 RBI.  Although he only played in 136 games (five of his teammates played 150+ games), Hebner tied Lee Mazzilli for the team lead in RBI.  Hebner was also one of the team's best clutch hitters, batting .308 with men on base and .310 with a runner on third and less than two out.  He also fared well against division rivals, batting an even .300 (87-for-290) versus NL East pitchers.

Hebner was not long for New York, as his insensitive comments were hurting the team more than his bat was helping it.  Just days after the 1979 World Series ended, Hebner was traded to the Detroit Tigers and Elliott Maddox became the Mets' third baseman until top prospect and fan favorite Hubie Brooks was ready to take over the position in September.  Boos for third basemen stopped soon after Brooks' promotion.


Mark Bomback leads the 1980 Mets in wins

From 1971 to 1978, Mark Bomback was a minor leaguer in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.  In those eight seasons, his major league experience consisted of one start and one relief appearance.  But Bomback couldn't crack the Brewers' starting rotation in 1979, even after a career year at the Triple-A level in which he went 22-7 with a 2.56 ERA.  The Brewers traded Bomback to the Mets after the 1979 season and he was immediately given a chance to succeed in New York.

Bomback began the 1980 campaign in the bullpen, making three relief appearances in April before earning his first start on April 23.  Bomback was superb against the Phillies in that start, earning his first major league victory.  He was even better in his next start (also against the Phillies), as he pitched a complete-game two-hit shutout against the eventual World Series champions.

The Mets were marketing that "the magic was back" at Shea Stadium, and part of that magic came from the right arm of Mark Bomback.  Bomback won nine of his first 12 decisions in 1980, as the Mets made a surprising run at the .500 mark in mid-July.  But Bomback faded down the stretch, and his career came crashing down soon after.  Although Bomback led the team with ten victories in 1980, it was his only year with the Mets.  Bomback pitched three other seasons in the big leagues, making 20 starts and 18 relief appearances.  He was the winning pitcher in just six of those 38 appearances.


Pete Falcone leads the '80 and '82 Mets in strikeouts

Pete Falcone was drafted by the San Francisco Giants with the fourth overall pick in the 1973 June amateur draft.  Two years later, he won 12 games as a rookie with the Giants and won 12 more as a Cardinal in his sophomore season in the majors.  But St. Louis gave up on Falcone after he combined to post a 6-15 record with a 5.56 ERA in 1977 and 1978.  After surpassing 130 strikeouts in each of his first two seasons in the majors, Falcone's final season in St. Louis saw him strike out only 28 batters in 75 innings.  As a result, the Cardinals traded him to the Mets following the 1978 campaign.

Falcone posted a 26-37 record during his four-year tenure with the Mets, but his 3.91 ERA showed the lack of run support he got in New York.  Although he wasn't a dominant strikeout pitcher, Falcone led the team in strikeouts twice.  He needed just 109 strikeouts in 1980 and 101 strikeouts in 1982 to lead the team - the lowest totals for a team strikeout leader in a non-strike shortened season.  Ironically, neither total was Falcone's career high as a Met.  The lefty from Brooklyn's Lafayette High School (which also produced fellow southpaws Sandy Koufax and John Franco) fanned 113 batters for the Mets in 1979, which was second on the team to Craig Swan's 145 Ks.

How low were Falcone's team-leading strikeout totals in 1980 and 1982?  They were fewer than the 128 whiffs posted by Armando Benitez in relief in 1999.  Yeah, that low.  Falcone finished his ten-year big league career in 1984, having struck out just 865 batters despite making 217 starts and 108 relief appearances.  In four years with the Mets, Falcone pitched in 145 games (86 starts) striking out 379 batters, or three fewer than fellow Lafayette alum Koufax fanned in 1965 alone.


Anthony Young leads the 1992 Mets in saves

Mention Anthony Young's name to any long-time Mets fan and they'll tell you that his full name should have been Anthony L. Young since the letter "L" was seen next to his name in the boxscore quite often in 1992 and 1993.  But Young was more than just a hard-luck loser for the Mets in that awful Jeff Torborg era.  He actually was a team leader in a positive pitching category, as he tied John Franco for the team lead in saves in 1992 with 15.

After losing eight consecutive decisions as a starter in May and June, manager Jeff Torborg decided to give Young a chance as a closer, becoming the right-handed portion of a lefty-righty closer combo with John Franco.  The move seemed to pay off, as Young did not give a run in 20 straight appearances in July and August, recording nine saves and two holds along the way.  But Young was atrocious in September, blowing five saves and adding five losses to what became a major league record 27-game losing streak.  He would only save three more games as a Met following the 1992 season.

Young's 5-35 won-loss record is the worst for any Mets pitcher with 40 or more decisions in franchise history, but he truly wasn't a bad pitcher, posting a 3.82 ERA in 101 appearances.  And he also accomplished something that wasn't surpassed by a Met in over two decades, as no homegrown Met saved more than 15 games after Young did in 1992 until Bobby Parnell recorded 22 saves for the Mets in 2013.


Desi Relaford leads the 2001 Mets in batting and SB

On a team that was coming off a World Series appearance and featured Mike Piazza, Robin Ventura, Todd Zeile and Edgardo Alfonzo, it was Desi Relaford who led the team in batting average (.302) and stolen bases (13).  Relaford also nearly led the team in doubles, as his 27 two-baggers were second to Piazza's 29.  The 2001 campaign also saw Relaford finish second on the team to Piazza in slugging percentage (.472) and OPS (.836).  Relaford's .364 on-base percentage was tied for second with Benny Agbayani.

If leading the team in two offensive categories (and nearly leading the club in several others) wasn't enough for the utility infielder, Relaford also pitched a perfect inning of relief on May 17, 2001, striking out the first batter he faced on three pitches and inducing two fly ball outs from the next two batters.  It was the best pitching performance by a position player in Mets history.

Relaford played a total of 11 years in the big leagues and never had as complete a season as he had in only 340 plate appearances in 2001.  He finished his career with a .243 batting average, 147 doubles and 81 steals, averaging 12 doubles and seven stolen bases per season in the years prior to and after 2001.


Timo Perez leads the '02 Mets in doubles and triples

The Mets entered the 2002 season with high expectations and a plethora of new players, as newcomers Mo Vaughn, Jeromy Burnitz and Roberto Alomar joined veteran returnees Mike Piazza and Edgardo Alfonzo.  On paper, that team should have produced many extra-base hits.  But none of those players led the team in doubles in 2002.  Similarly, none of them led the team in triples.  But like Ted Martinez before him, the team leader in three-base hits (and two-base hits) was a versatile player with little power, not much speed and an aversion to drawing ball four.

Timo Perez was a cult hero for the Mets during their run to the World Series in 2000.  But he never lived up to the potential he showed during September and October of their pennant-winning campaign.  By 2002, he was playing almost every day, mainly because outfielders Roger CedeƱo, Jay Payton and Jeromy Burnitz either underperformed or were injured.  As a result, Perez managed to collect 27 doubles and six triples in 136 games, leading the team in both categories despite being eighth on the Mets in plate appearances.

Perez played seven other seasons in the major leagues, but was only able to collect 64 doubles and four triples in those seven campaigns.  He also collected two other things in those seven seasons - World Series rings - as Perez was a member of the 2005 White Sox and 2006 Cardinals, playing a total of 99 games between the two championship teams.


Jason Phillips leads the '03 Mets in batting average

To many Mets fans, Jason Phillips was primarily known for two things.  He, along with Vance Wilson, was one of the catchers who allowed Mike Piazza to move to first base on a full-time basis (temporarily) and he was also known for the goggles he wore as a hitter.  But those goggles did the trick for Phillips in 2003, as he did what Piazza did regularly for the Mets for many years - he led the team in hitting.

When Mo Vaughn was lost to what became a career-ending injury, Phillips took over at first base, even though he was primarily a catcher.  Phillips was just so-so a hitter through June 16, batting .242 and giving no indication that he was going to compete for a batting title.  For a two-month stretch from mid-June to mid-August, Phillips produced a Piazza-esque .364/.420/.531 slash line.  Phillips was hitting .316 as late as September 7 before a slump over the last three weeks of the season caused his batting average to fall below .300.  However, his .298 average was the highest of all the regular players on the 2003 squad.  (Jose Reyes batted .307, but he only played in 69 games.)

Phillips was never able to repeat his 2003 success in ensuing seasons.  His average dropped 80 points to .218 as the Mets' primary catcher in 2004.  He played three more seasons in the majors for the Dodgers and Blue Jays after 2004, never hitting above .250 in any of those seasons.  His post-2003 batting average was just .227.


Kaz Matsui leads the 2004 Mets in hits, 2B and 3B

In a move that generated much pomp and circumstance in two countries, former Japanese League All-Star (and hot dog) Kaz Matsui became the first infielder from Japan to sign a major league contract when he agreed to a three-year deal in 2004 to play shortstop for the Mets, despite the team already having 20-year-old Jose Reyes playing the position.  Reyes, who only had half a season of major league experience under his belt, moved to second base for the 2004 campaign to allow Matsui to take over his former (and future) position.

Matsui, a former 30-30 player in Japan, couldn't reach 30 homers or 30 steals in two and a half seasons as a Met, totaling 11 homers and 22 steals from 2004 to 2006.  But somehow, amid the growing crescendo of boos emanating from every level of Shea Stadium, Matsui was the team leader in a number of offensive categories in his rookie season, despite missing 43 games in August and September due to an injury.

Although he only played in 114 games in 2004, Matsui led the team in hits (125), doubles (32) and tied for the team lead in triples (2).  The whole team had just 20 triples, or one fewer than Lance Johnson had by himself in 1996.  Matsui's numbers were good enough to make him finish sixth in the Rookie of the Year vote, behind future All-Stars Jason Bay and Matt Holliday.  But in the years following his rookie campaign, Matsui's career veered more toward Bay than Holliday.  By mid-2006, Matsui had played himself out of New York, as the infielder was traded to Colorado, where he enjoyed a wonderful postseason (.304 batting average, five extra-base hits, eight RBI in 11 games) during the Rockies' run to an unexpected World Series berth.


Daniel Murphy leads the 2009 Mets in home runs

When he was first called up to the Mets in 2008, Daniel Murphy was known as a hard-working player who could hit to all fields with extra-base power.  However, he was not much of a home run hitter.  In fact, in his first four seasons with the Mets, Murphy hit more than six homers just once.  But that one season came in 2009, when everyone and his mother ended up checking in to the DL Hotel.

Only three players had more than 380 plate appearances for the Mets in 2009.  One of them was Luis Castillo, who made jaws drop whenever he hit a ball that hit the outfield fence on three hops.  Another was David Wright, who took some time to get adjusted to Citi Field's pitcher-friendly dimensions.  Wright hit a career-low 10 homers in 144 games.  Castillo and Wright both made short visits to the disabled list.  Daniel Murphy did not, playing in all but seven games in 2009.

On a team that had Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, Gary Sheffield and Jeff Francoeur on its roster at various points of the season, Murphy was the only one to hit more than ten homers.  He needed five long balls in September to take over the team lead, but his 12 homers for the year were good enough to make him "Daniel Murphy, Home Run Machine" for one season.

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