Monday, January 6, 2014

The Best On The Worst: Todd Hundley

With apologies to Jerry Grote, the two most beloved catchers in Mets history are Gary Carter and Mike Piazza.  Both Carter and Piazza were considered to be the best hitting catchers of their time and both made their teams better while they were in their prime.  Carter helped the Mets win two division titles and one World Series championship, while Piazza led the team to its only back-to-back postseason appearances and the 2000 National League pennant.

Because of their success and popularity, the uniform numbers of Carter and Piazza have been taken out of circulation, with fans clamoring for both No. 8 and No. 31 to be retired by the team.  Carter's five years with the Mets coincided with the team's greatest era, as New York won more games from 1985 to 1989 than any other team in baseball.  Similarly, Piazza kept the Mets competitive during his first four years with the club (1998-2001), with the team playing meaningful games in September and October all four seasons.

Carter entered the Hall of Fame in 2003.  Piazza hopes to follow in Carter's footsteps in 2014.  But there was a gap of nearly a decade between last game as a Met in 1989 and Piazza's inaugural contest with the team in 1998.  And there was one backstop who was behind the plate for most of that time, bridging the gap from one championship-caliber catcher to another.

This catcher never led the Mets to the playoffs, and most of his seasons ended with the team playing out the stretch in September in front of empty Shea Stadium seats.  But that didn't deter him from giving his best performance day in and day out, regardless of where the Mets stood in the division race.  It's too bad that he saw more losses behind the plate than any Mets catcher since Jerry Grote.

A young Todd Hundley keeps his eye on the ball. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Todd Randolph Hundley was born on May 27, 1969, at a time when his father, Randy, was behind the plate for the division-leading Chicago Cubs.  Less than four months after Todd was born, Randy's squad had let its division lead slip away to the Miracle Mets.  It was something the Hundley family would get used to once Todd became a Met two decades later.

The Mets drafted Todd Hundley in the second round of the 1987 June amateur draft via the Baltimore Orioles, who lost a draft pick when World Series MVP Ray Knight signed a free agent contract with the O's following the 1986 season.  Hundley was a skinny kid with a familiar last name, especially within the catching community.  But Hundley made it to the majors on more than just nepotism; he made it with his superb talent.

Hundley struggled as a teenager in his first two minor league seasons, batting .146 in 34 games in 1987 and .186 in 53 games in 1988.  But everything came together for the young catcher in 1989, a year in which he batted .269 with 23 doubles, four triples, 11 homers and 66 RBI.  By 1990, Hundley was ranked as one of Baseball America's top prospects, earning him his first call-up to the big leagues in May.

Davey Johnson, who had a penchant for wanting good, young players on his team since becoming the Mets' manager in 1984, inserted Hundley into the starting lineup on May 18 against the San Diego Padres, and Hundley delivered a double off Bruce Hurst, who just four years earlier had almost been named World Series MVP as a member of the Boston Red Sox before the aforementioned Knight snatched it away from him.  Hundley would go on to start each of the next three games for the Mets, but would fail to get another hit.  Four days after his major league debut, Hundley saw his manager relieved of his duties by general manager Frank Cashen.  A week later, Hundley was back in the minor leagues and Mackey Sasser, with his .300-plus batting average, was named the team's primary backstop.  It would be another two years before Hundley took the job back from Sasser.

Hundley spent most of the 1990 and 1991 campaigns in the minor leagues, putting up excellent offensive numbers there, but struggling during his various call-ups to the big leagues.  Hundley combined to play in 57 games for the Mets in 1990 and 1991, batting .173 with one homer and nine RBI.  Hundley finally took over as the team's top catcher on Opening Day of the 1992 season, but by then, the Mets had turned into The Worst Team Money Could Buy.  A number of veteran players had been added to the team to complement Hundley, but many of them underachieved.  Players like Bobby Bonilla and Bret Saberhagen couldn't live up to the hype of the big stage in New York, and the team wilted in the hot, summer months.  As the team struggled, so did its young catcher, as Hundley could only muster one home run and 12 RBI in his last 68 games after posting six homers and 20 RBI in his first 55 contests.  But perhaps the misfortune of the team was a blessing in disguise for the 23-year-old Hundley, as the team focused more on the shortcomings of its high-priced veterans, allowing Hundley (who still had a .200 career batting average through 1992) to continue his development at the major league level.  The team sunk to new depths in 1993, but Hundley's star was just beginning to rise.

The 1993 season was one to forget for the Mets and their fans, as the team suffered its first 100-loss campaign since 1967.  But it an important year for Todd Hundley, as the switch-hitter reached double digits in home runs for the first time.  Hundley managed just a .228 batting average (which represented a career-high at the time), but he also had 11 HR and 53 RBI in 417 at-bats.

Over the next two seasons, both of which were shortened because of the players' strike, Hundley's power continued to evolve.  Because of the truncated seasons, Hundley combined to produce only 566 at-bats in 1994 and 1995, but in those at-bats, Hundley hit 31 homers and drove in 93 runs.  How far had Hundley advanced in the power department in those two years?  The only National League catcher with more home runs than Hundley in those two seasons was the Dodgers' Mike Piazza.  That's how much Hundley had improved.   In addition to his newfound power stroke, Hundley also showed dramatic improvement in his plate discipline, batting .258 with a .343 on-base percentage in '94 and '95, after posting .213 and .261 marks in those respective categories from 1990 to 1993.

Hundley's final 51 games in 1995 were very Piazza-like, as he batted .311 with 11 HR and 32 RBI.  The team also responded, going 27-24 in those 51 games.  For the first time since Hundley became a regular in the Mets' lineup, the team had something to look forward to in 1996.  Not only was Hundley turning into a top offensive threat, but a young trio of starting pitchers was about to burst onto the scene for the Mets.  The group of Jason Isringahusen, Bill Pulsipher and former No. 1 overall draft pick Paul Wilson, dubbed Generation K, was supposed to herald a new era of greatness in Mets history.  The threesome didn't become the second coming of Seaver, Koosman and Matlack, but the man who tried to mold them behind the plate did produce an historic season of his own.

In 1996, the Mets finished the year with a 71-91 record.  It was the sixth consecutive losing mark for a once-proud team who had ridden the championship wave just a decade before.  But when the trio of Isringhausen, Pulsipher and Wilson failed to live up to the lofty expectations, it was another trio who took baseball by storm in '96, as Bernard Gilkey, Lance Johnson and Todd Hundley set their sights on breaking as many offensive team records as they could.

Gilkey produced one of the most complete seasons ever put up by a Mets' everyday player in 1996, setting or tying club records in doubles (44) and runs batted in (117), while adding 30 homers, a .317 batting average and a league-leading 18 outfield assists.  Gilkey also became the first Met ever to have an 8.0 WAR in a single season.  Johnson, meanwhile, broke team records in hits (227), triples (21), total bases (327) and runs scored (117), becoming an All-Star for the first time.  But as mentioned in the 1990s Nike commercial, "chicks dig the long ball", and in 1996, everyone was digging the long balls being hit by Todd Hundley.

Hundley began the 1996 season the way he ended the previous year, batting .323 with eight homers and 19 RBI over his first 18 games.  Although his average dipped below .300 by May 1, Hundley continued to hit bombs with aplomb.  By the time the All-Star Game rolled around, Hundley had already taken 23 balls over the wall and had driven in 66 runs.  It was a Midsummer Classic Hundley would not miss, as the Mets' catcher was named to his first All-Star team in July.  After the break, Hundley continued to mash the ball.  By season's end, Hundley had become the first Met to reach 40 homers in a season.  His 41 taters also set a major league record for home runs by a catcher.  Furthermore, he became the first switch-hitter in National League history to hit more than 40 homers in a season.  The only major leaguer who had accomplished the feat before 1996 was Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle.  When all was said and done for the 1996 season, Hundley had batted .259 with 32 doubles, 41 homers and 112 RBI.  But he still had not played a meaningful game in September since his rookie season in 1990.  That all changed in 1997.

Under new manager Bobby Valentine, the losing attitude that had permeated the Mets clubhouse from 1991 to 1996 vanished.  Gone were the Vince Colemans, Bobby Bonillas and Bret Saberhagens from the previous six seasons.  Replacing them were players like Hundley, Butch Huskey (who posted a career-best .287, 24 HR, 81 RBI season in 1997) and veteran trade acquisition John Olerud, who brought an exceptional bat and glove with him to Shea Stadium from Toronto.  The pitching staff also finally came together, with Bobby Jones becoming an All-Star and Rick Reed getting a second chance to make a first impression.  Turk Wendell also came over to the Mets in an August deal that included center fielder Brian McRae.  Those extra pieces helped the Mets finish the year with an 88-74 record, with the team remaining in competition for the wild card until the final week of the season.  The seeds for success were planted in 1997, and Todd Hundley continued to blossom.

Although Hundley hit 11 fewer homers in 1997 than he did in '96, he still became the first Mets catcher to post multiple 30-homer seasons.  Hundley also made the All-Star team for a second consecutive season and walked a career-high 83 times in 1997, en route to posting a career-best .394 on-base percentage.  But a late-season slump by Hundley irked Bobby Valentine, causing him to lash out against his All-Star catcher.  The skipper caused headlines of his own when he was quoted as saying...


"I think he doesn't sleep enough.  He's a nocturnal person.  He needs more rest.  He has a really tough time getting to sleep after games.  I heard one night he stayed out until 4 o'clock in the morning before he was ready to go to sleep."

At the time, Hundley was going through many personal issues.  His wife was pregnant with their third child and his mother was very sick.  In addition, Hundley was recovering from nagging injuries to his toe and ribs.  But Hundley persevered through all of his distractions and still managed to lead the team to its best record since his rookie campaign.  The distraction he had in 1998, however, was one he could not recover from.

At the conclusion of the 1997 season, Hundley underwent a major surgical procedure on his right elbow.  It was a procedure his surgeon, Dr. David Altchek, claimed could have him out of action until the following April or could wipe out his entire 1998 season.  Mets general manager Steve Phillips prayed for the best but prepared for the worst.  The Mets began the season with Tim Spehr and Alberto Castillo as their top two catchers, but also used Rick Wilkins and Todd Pratt behind the plate in May.  By mid-May, it was clear Hundley was not going to be back any time soon.  It was also clear that the four-headed monster at the catcher's position needed a big-time upgrade.  Phillips immediately went to work, and despite denying he was interested in Mike Piazza, claiming he "wasn't a fit" for the Mets, acquired the slugging catcher in a trade with the Florida Marlins.

With Piazza now on the team, Hundley was out of a job.  And despite a valiant effort to redefine himself as an outfielder, the experiment flopped, as Hundley batted .161 with three homers and 12 RBI in 53 games.  During the offseason, the Mets signed Piazza to a seven-year, $91 contract and traded Hundley to Piazza's first team, the Dodgers.  Hundley played five more seasons in the majors with the Dodgers and Cubs, hitting 24 homers in both 1999 and 2000 for his first major league manager, Davey Johnson, who was now managing in Los Angeles.  Hundley had two subpar seasons in Chicago and 2001 and 2002, before returning to the Dodgers for his final major league season in 2003, the same year the Cubs won their first postseason series in 97 years.

In 14 major league seasons, Hundley hit 202 home runs, making him one of only 18 players who played the majority of his games at catcher to hit at least 200 homers.  As a Met, Hundley hit 124 home runs, which is currently the seventh-highest total for any player in franchise history.  Hundley also ranks in the team's top 20 in games played (829; 18th all-time), runs scored (340; 18th), RBI (397; 13th), walks (299; 20th), doubles (118; 19th), total bases (1,116; 16th) and slugging percentage (.438; 17th).  But most of those numbers were compiled on some bad Mets teams.  And Hundley also had some of the worst timing of any player in recent history.

Hundley began his career just two seasons after the Mets won a division title.  By his second year, the Mets were beginning the third-longest stretch of sub-.500 seasons in franchise history.  Hundley also played his last year as a Met just before the team embarked on their only back-to-back playoff appearances in club annals.  And Hundley's bad timing continued after he left the Mets, as he went back to Los Angeles from Chicago the year before the Cubs came five outs away from advancing to their first World Series in nearly six decades.

Wearing white or black, Todd Hundley knew how to attack.  (Photo by David Seelig/Getty Images)

Todd Hundley was one of the best players to ever put on a Mets uniform.  Unfortunately for him, his time with the team came during one of the most embarrassing eras in team history.  It also occurred between the careers of two of the most beloved catchers who ever called Flushing home - Gary Carter and Mike Piazza, two Hall of Fame-caliber players who are still respected and revered by Mets fans.

Hundley's Mets career began under the tutelage of Davey Johnson and ended with Bobby Valentine as his skipper - the two winningest managers in team history.  But Hundley saw very little winning during his nine seasons in New York.  The years Hundley spent with the Mets may have been some of the worst the team has experienced in the last few decades.  That doesn't mean Hundley shouldn't be remembered as one of the best players the team has ever seen.  He was one of the few reasons to look forward to a Mets game in the mid-1990s.

Note:  The Best On The Worst is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting the greatest Mets players who just happened to play on some not-so-great Mets teams.  Please come back next week for the next installment.

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