Monday, February 10, 2014

The Best On The Worst: Skip Lockwood

When the New York Mets won the World Series in 1969, the trophy they received was quite unique.  In addition to it being the first World Series trophy handed out to a team that had to win a league championship series before winning the Fall Classic, it was also the only trophy to feature a pennant for the Seattle Pilots.

The Pilots were an American League expansion team in 1969, joining the Kansas City Royals as Junior Circuit neophytes.  But after just one season in the Pacific Northwest, the team packed its bags days before the beginning of the 1970 season and headed to Milwaukee to become the Brewers.

Only four players who were members of the 1969 Pilots ended up joining the Mets after their short time in Seattle.  One was Jim Gosger, the only non-pitcher to play for the 1969 and 1973 Mets who never appeared in a postseason game for either team.  Two others were pitchers Jack Aker (1974) and Mike Marshall (1981), both of whom never appeared in a major league game after their one season with the Mets.  The fourth former Pilot who eventually touched down in Flushing as a member of the Mets had a far more respectable (and longer) career in New York.  In fact, he became one of the few dependable relief pitchers on a team that needed more than just a little relief.

The bespectacled Skip Lockwood had an eye for being a great relief pitcher for the Mets.

Claude Edward Lockwood (or "Skip" as he was better known) was a career American Leaguer prior to becoming a Met in 1975.  After his one season in Seattle, Lockwood was used mostly as a starting pitcher by the Brewers from 1970 to 1973, then became a full-time reliever as a member of the California Angels in 1974.  Lockwood spent one miserable season with the Halos (2-5, 4.32 ERA, 1.39 WHIP) and was then traded to the Yankees, who released him prior to the start of the 1975 season.  One week after he was let go by the Yankees, he was signed by the Oakland Athletics, but Lockwood never pitched for the A's, as Oakland sent the six-year veteran to the minor leagues, where he remained until he was purchased by the Mets in July.

After the departure of Tug McGraw following the 1974 season, the Mets turned to Bob Apodaca to close out games for the team in 1975.  Apodaca had a wonderful season for the Mets in '75, saving 13 games and posting a stellar 1.49 ERA.  But he had two stints on the disabled list during his first season as the team's closer, which included a one-month stay on the DL that kept him off the mound until late July.  Needing a dependable and healthy arm in the bullpen, the Mets turned to Lockwood, who surprised himself and the team by dominating National League hitters over the season's final two months.

Lockwood pitched in 24 games for the Mets in 1975, allowing just 28 hits in 48⅓ innings.  Opposing hitters batted just .174 against him and he matched Apodaca with a 1.49 ERA.  But what was more surprising was the number of strikeouts Lockwood was recording.  From 1969 to 1974, Lockwood fanned 450 batters in 810⅔ innings, an average of 5.0 K/9 IP.  But in less than 50 innings for the Mets in 1975, Lockwood struck out 61 batters, averaging 11.4 K/9 IP.  In 14 of his 24 appearances, Lockwood fanned three or more batters, despite pitching two or fewer innings in nine of those 14 games.  Perhaps his greatest effort came in the season's final game, a game in which he was called upon to pitch the Mets to a winning record, and help Tom Seaver win his third Cy Young Award.

The Mets went into Game No. 162 with an 81-80 record, needing a win to secure its sixth winning season in seven years.  Tom Seaver entered the game with a 21-9 record and 2.29 ERA.  But San Diego's Randy Jones had also recorded a 20-win season in 1975 and was leading the league with a 2.24 ERA.  Jones also had three more complete games and one more shutout than Seaver.  The one thing Seaver had going for him was that he was leading the league in strikeouts, while Jones pitched to contact, as evidenced by his 108 Ks in 285 innings.  Seaver was not very good in his final start of the season, allowing four runs in five-plus innings against the Philadelphia Phillies.  Seaver was pitching in and out of trouble all game, allowing four hits and five walks.  After allowing the first four batters to reach base against him in the sixth inning, manager Roy McMillan pulled Seaver for Skip Lockwood.  Lockwood retired all 12 batters he faced, striking out six of them, allowing the Mets to hold on for a 5-4 victory over the Phillies and preserving Seaver's league-leading 22nd victory.

Lockwood's perfect four-inning performance in the season finale earned him a save, but he saved more than just the game.  He saved Seaver's bid for the Cy Young Award, which he earned by just ten votes over Randy Jones.  He also saved the Mets' quest for a winning season, allowing the team to finish an otherwise mediocre season with an 82-80 record.

When the 1976 season started, new Mets manager Joe Frazier decided that Lockwood was going to be the team's primary closer, with Apodaca pitching earlier in games if he was needed to do so.  Lockwood responded to his new role brilliantly, going 10-7 with a 2.67 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and a team-leading 19 saves.  With 10 wins and 19 saves, Lockwood became the first pitcher in team history to reach double digits in both categories in the same season.  Only Jesse Orosco (1983, 1984) and Roger McDowell (1986) have been able to match Lockwood's feat.

Skip Lockwood circa 1976
Lockwood also recorded 108 strikeouts in 94 innings in 1976, making him the first Mets relief pitcher to strike out over 100 batters in a single season.  (Tug McGraw struck out 109 batters in 1971, but he started one game that year, striking out nine batters in that start.  Therefore, he recorded exactly 100 Ks in relief in 1971.)  The only Mets reliever since Lockwood to have at least 108 Ks in one season is Armando Benitez, who whiffed 128 batters in 1999.

Once again, Lockwood was virtually unhittable, as he held opposing hitters to a .186 batting average in 1976.  That gave Lockwood a combined .182 batting average against him in 1975 and 1976.  According to, that made Lockwood the hardest pitcher to hit of all pitchers who threw at least 100 innings in '75 and '76.  Only three other pitchers (Dave LaRoche, Mark Littell, Charlie Hough) held opposing batters to a sub-.200 batting average over those two seasons, but all of them allowed a batting average of .192 or higher.

The Mets finished the 1976 campaign with an 86-76 record.  It was the second-highest win total in franchise history after the 1969 World Championship team.  But it would also be the last time the Mets sniffed a winning record until 1983.  As good as Skip Lockwood had been in 1975 and 1976, even he couldn't prevent the Mets from falling to the bottom of the NL East in subsequent seasons.

The 1977 season started off poorly for the Mets.  By late May, the team was in last place with a 15-30 record and manager Joe Frazier was out of a job.  By year's end, the Mets had lost 98 games, as well as top pitcher Tom Seaver (traded to Cincinnati) and top slugger Dave Kingman (traded to San Diego).  The team couldn't hit, finishing dead last in the National League in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs and runs scored.  Additionally, the team's top starting pitchers after Seaver (Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack) combined to go 15-35 with an ERA approaching 4.00.  Skip Lockwood also had what would be a considered a down year for him, but his down year still made him one of the most dependable pitchers on an otherwise inconsistent team.

For the year, Lockwood went 4-8 with a 3.38 ERA and 1.13 WHIP, striking out 84 batters in 104 innings.  Although he was still very stingy against opposing hitters, allowing them to bat just .227 against him, it was the highest batting average recorded against him in his first three years as a Met.  Even so, Lockwood recorded his first 20-save season in 1977 while blowing only four saves.  The never-ending turmoil between the players and the front office seemed to have an effect on Lockwood's performance over the first three months of the season.  Through June 29 (two weeks after the notorious Midnight Massacre), Lockwood had a 4.23 ERA and had lost four out of five decisions.  But from June 30 to September 12, Lockwood pitched like he always had for the Mets, posting a 1.87 ERA in 30 appearances and holding opposing batters to a .196 batting average while recording 11 saves.

Lockwood had a similar season for the Mets in 1978, going 7-13 with a 3.57 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 73 strikeouts in 90⅔ innings.  But Lockwood only recorded 15 saves in 1978, mainly because he had to be shut down with a shoulder injury after making just one appearance in September.  It's not like the Mets needed him during the season's final month, as the team finished in last place with a 66-96 record.

After two consecutive so-so seasons with the Mets, Lockwood was primed for a comeback season in 1979, especially since he was in the final year of a three-year contract he signed prior to the 1977 campaign.  With free agent dollars on the horizon, Lockwood was on a personal mission to succeed, even if his teammates appeared to be on their own missions to fail.  The Mets lost 99 games in 1979, but Lockwood was absolutely brilliant.  Over the first two months of the season, Lockwood was nine-for-nine in save opportunities and posted a 1.49 ERA, matching his earned run average from his first year as a Met.  But after allowing a run on June 6, Lockwood tore a shoulder muscle, ending his outstanding season prematurely, even though the team's physician, Dr. James C. Parkes, originally thought he was not seriously injured.

Skip Lockwood

"He has stiffness in the back of the shoulder.  He pulled some small muscle fibers.  But with heat and massage and rest, he should be ready to pitch Saturday.  We don't think it's serious."

--Dr. James C. Parkes, Mets team physician

The Mets tread water over the next two months without their top reliever, but the lack of an experienced closer came back to haunt them, as the team lost 40 of 50 games from August 5 to September 25, going 2-14 in one-run games over that time period.  Relievers were responsible for eight of the 14 losses, with future Mets closer Neil Allen earning four "L"s.  How bad was the team's relief corps after Lockwood succumbed to his injury in June?  Lockwood's nine saves led the team in 1979, even though he didn't throw a pitch after June 6.

Despite his penchant for losing one-run affairs, the Mets decided to keep Allen as their closer in 1980, waving goodbye to Skip Lockwood.  Allen would go on to save 69 games for the Mets in four-plus years with the team, but he was never as dominant as Lockwood was, posting a 3.54 ERA and 1.45 WHIP.  Allen also lost 40 games and blew 23 save opportunities from 1979 until his departure on June 15, 1983 in the trade that netted the Mets their future captain, Keith Hernandez.

Skip Lockwood pitched his last game for the Mets on June 6, 1979.  He signed a free agent contract with his hometown team, the Boston Red Sox, prior to the 1980 season, but never saw eye-to-eye with manager Don Zimmer, who constantly misused him.  The Red Sox released him after the season came to an end.  Lockwood then signed a minor league contract with the Montreal Expos, but his career came to an end during the 1981 players' strike without ever playing a game for the Expos.

When you look back at the numbers posted by Skip Lockwood during his 12-year major league career, it appears as if Lockwood was a less-than-ordinary pitcher.  He had a very low winning percentage, going 57-97 as a starter and reliever.  Lockwood also had a 3.55 ERA and 1.31 WHIP, numbers that were fairly average for the era in which he pitched.  But during his five years as a Met, Lockwood was as good a relief pitcher as the team had ever seen.

From 1975 to 1979, Lockwood pitched in 227 games for the Mets, all in relief.  In those five seasons, Lockwood recorded 24 wins and 65 saves, posting a 2.80 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and striking out nearly a batter an inning (368 Ks in 379⅔ innings).  What made this all the more impressive was that the Mets' combined record over those five seasons was 361-449.  In other words, Lockwood pitched beautifully on a team that played horribly.

On a team that has had its share of great pitchers over the years, Skip Lockwood's name is usually overlooked.  However, of all pitchers in Mets history with at least 300 innings pitched for the team, Lockwood ranks very highly in several categories.  Through the 2013 season, Lockwood is among the team's all-time leaders in ERA (2.80; 4th all-time), WHIP (1.11; 4th), batting average against (.213; 4th), on-base percentage against (.285; 5th), slugging percentage against (.319; T-4th) and strikeouts per nine innings (8.72 K/9 IP; 2nd).  Also, his 65 saves rank him 9th all-time in Mets history.  Prior to becoming a Met, Lockwood never allowed opposing batters to finish a season with an on-base percentage under .300 against him.  In five years with the Mets, his opponents' year-by-year OBP against him was .287, .265, .288, .298 and .292, respectively.  Basically, Lockwood had opposing hitters on lockdown once he became a Met.

Skip Lockwood became a Met after spending six seasons with the Pilots, Brewers and Angels - teams that never posted a winning record during his time with them.  He played a key role in helping the Mets to a winning record - his first as a major leaguer - in 1975.  He then became the team's top closer in 1976, also a winning season for the Mets.  But Lockwood never got to play for a winning Mets team again, as the team spiraled its way to the bottom of the division.

Lockwood was one of the greatest and most unheralded relief pitchers in the history of the Mets franchise.  It's a shame that he never got to experience the thrill of a pennant race with the team.  But then again, when you're one of the best players on some of the worst Mets teams, that kind of deal comes with the territory.

You can't discuss the best closers in Mets history without mentioning Skip Lockwood.

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.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 6, 2014: Todd Hundley 
January 13, 2014: Al Jackson
January 20, 2014: Lee Mazzilli
January 27, 2014: Steve Trachsel
February 3, 2014: Rico Brogna

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