|Jacob deGrom looks at how high his stock has risen since making his Mets debut. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)|
There are certain years in which a rookie class produces some outstanding first-year players. Just seven years ago, the National League saw Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki and Hunter Pence finish 1-2-3 in the Rookie of the Year vote. All three players have made multiple All-Star teams, combining to make a dozen Midsummer Classic appearances.
But for every 2007 in the National League, there is a 2014 - a year in which no rookie player is having a stellar season. It is because there are very few standout neophytes in the Senior Circuit this season that a player like Jacob deGrom is being talked about as a viable Rookie of the Year candidate. Including today's win over the Brewers, deGrom is 5-5 with a 2.79 ERA, allowing just five homers in 14 starts. He also leads all rookie pitchers in innings pitched (87) and strikeouts (83). The only players other than deGrom who are legitimate contenders for the Rookie of the Year Award are Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton and San Diego's Jesse Hahn.
Hamilton is leading all first-year National League hitters in most categories, including hits (101), doubles (20), triples (6), RBI (40) runs scored (50) and stolen bases (40). But Hamilton has been slumping, batting .176 since the All-Star break. Hamilton has also struggled to keep his on-base percentage above .300 all season and is on pace to strike out well over 100 times this year, a double no-no for a leadoff hitter.
Meanwhile, Hahn is 6-2 with a 2.12 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. He's also leading all rookie pitchers with 9.8 K/9 IP. Although those numbers are impressive, Hahn is averaging nearly four walks per nine innings and has made just eight starts. That's barely more than half the number of starts deGrom has for the Mets.
Unless deGrom completely falls apart over the last two months of the season, he stands a good chance to finish in the top three of the National League Rookie of the Year vote. In addition to the four Mets who won the award (Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden), there have been eight other former Metropolitans who finished in the top three.
After making their National League debut in 1962 with a slew of veteran players, the Mets decided they needed to add some fresh faces to their roster in 1963. One of those faces belonged to 22-year-old rookie Ron Hunt. Hunt was purchased from the Milwaukee Braves at the conclusion of the 1962 season, but did not get into a game with the Mets until the team's seventh contest in 1963. But once he got into the lineup at second base, Hunt made it impossible for manager Casey Stengel to take him out.
In the first of his 12 big league seasons, Hunt posted career highs in several offensive categories that he would never surpass. Among these categories were at-bats (533), hits (145), doubles (28), home runs (10) and RBI (42). Hunt finished second in the 1963 Rookie of the Year vote to Cincinnati's Pete Rose, even though Hunt had more doubles, homers and RBI than Rose and finished the year with an identical .334 on-base percentage. It should be noted that Hunt accomplished his numbers while compiling nearly 100 fewer at-bats than Rose and playing in a much weaker lineup that gave him far less protection than Rose enjoyed.
One year after Tom Seaver broke through with the Mets during his Rookie of the Year campaign, Koosman had an even better inaugural season than Seaver did. Whereas Seaver went 16-13 with a 2.76 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in his rookie campaign, Koosman was far better in his, going 19-12 with a 2.08 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. Koosman also recorded eight more strikeouts than Seaver did in his first season and pitched five more shutouts than "The Franchise".
But Seaver didn't have much competition for the 1967 Rookie of the Year Award. A year later, Koosman faced stiff competition from future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench. Five years after Ron Hunt finished second to a legendary member of the Cincinnati Reds, Koosman did the same, as Bench edged Koosman for the top rookie honor by just one vote. Jim Enright, a writer for the Chicago American, could not decide between the two candidates, and cast a split ballot for Bench and Koosman, saying, "In all fairness I could not vote for one and not the other." Had he voted for Koosman instead of splitting his decision, the Mets' southpaw would have shared the 1968 Rookie of the Year Award with Bench.
The first ten years of the Mets' existence saw the team produce several good, young players. Among these players were one Rookie of the Year Award winner (Seaver) and two runners-up (Hunt, Koosman). But in 1972, New York had its first third-place finisher for top rookie in the league. And as impressive as a top-three finish is for any rookie, this particular Mets neophyte wasn't even the best rookie on his own team.
Playing in just 117 games in 1972, John Milner showed Mets fans why he would become known as "The Hammer", pounding 17 home runs in his inaugural campaign. Milner also showed a keen eye at the plate, walking 51 times in just 423 plate appearances. As Milner showed his prowess at the plate, his teammate, Jon Matlack, topped his performance on the mound. Matlack's first full season in the majors produced a 15-10 record, 2.32 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 169 strikeouts, which earned him the 1972 Rookie of the Year Award. But instead of settling for second place, Milner also finished behind Giants' catcher Dave Rader, whose .640 OPS was dwarfed by Milner's .762 mark.
In 1976, Steve Henderson was one of the Reds' top prospects, hitting for average (.312), flashing good power (17 HR) and displaying great speed (44 SB). Henderson continued to tear it up at the Triple-A level in 1977, batting .326 with seven homers and 19 steals in just 60 games. But Henderson was an outfielder, and with top slugger George Foster in left, perennial Gold Glove winner Cesar Geronimo in center, and batting title contender Ken Griffey in right, Henderson's chances of making the Reds was slim to none. With no room on the roster for him, Cincinnati traded Henderson to the Mets for the team's first Rookie of the Year winner, Tom Seaver.
In his first season in New York, Henderson blossomed, posting a .297/.372/.480 slash line. Despite not playing his first game for the Mets until June 16, Henderson led the team in RBI (65) and tied for the team lead in homers (12). He also finished second to Lenny Randle in both runs scored (67) and triples (6). Henderson lost the Rookie of the Year Award to Montreal's Andre Dawson, finishing just one vote behind the future Hall of Famer, despite having a higher batting average, OBP and slugging percentage than Dawson. Henderson also scored more runs, drew more walks and tied Dawson in runs batted in despite playing in 40 fewer games than the Hawk.
In 1980, the Mets marketing campaign tried to convince fans that the magic was back at Shea Stadium. Sure enough, in September, three promising rookies made their debuts with the team, as Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman and Hubie Brooks all made their first appearances at the major league level during the final month of the 1980 campaign. Although Backman spent most of the next few seasons in the minors, Wilson and Brooks were with the Mets to stay, and both took advantage of their new everyday player status.
Wilson impressed the Mets with his speed, but Brooks had a better all-around game. Two weeks before the player's strike began in 1981, Brooks was contending for a batting title. Once the players came back from their two-month hiatus, Brooks began to drive the ball, collecting ten extra-base hits and driving in 13 runs in his first 19 games after the strike. For the season, Brooks batted .307 with 21 doubles, four homers and 38 RBI. That was good enough for third place in the National League Rookie of the Year vote, behind Fernando Valenzuela and Tim Raines. How impressive was Brooks' rookie season? To this day, Brooks remains the only Met rookie with at least 350 at-bats to finish his first year with a batting average above .300.
In 1986, the Mets had several players locked into their defensive positions such as Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter and Darryl Strawberry. Manager Davey Johnson also employed several platoons, making it difficult for a rookie to find his way into the starting lineup. But one rookie learned how to play many positions in order to make the team. Contending for a batting title during the first half of the season and lashing extra-base hit after extra-base hit throughout the entire season forced Johnson to put him in the lineup as many times as he could, even if he didn't have a regular position on the field.
After having a cup of coffee with the big club in 1984, Kevin Mitchell made it back to New York in 1986. By July 6, Mitchell was batting .370 with 16 doubles and five homers, despite starting just 33 games. But Mitchell had also played six defensive positions by then, playing everywhere but second base, pitcher and catcher. By season's end, Mitchell's batting average had sunk to .277, but he still managed 22 doubles, 12 homers and 43 RBI in just 328 at-bats, which placed him third in the Rookie of the Year ballot behind Todd Worrell of the St. Louis Cardinals and Robby Thompson of the San Francisco Giants. Mitchell became the second Met rookie (after Ron Hunt) to record 20 doubles and 10 HR and will always be remembered for his hit that continued the Mets' miraculous tenth-inning rally in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Unfortunately, that hit was his last in a Mets uniform, as the versatile slugger was traded to the San Diego Padres during the off-season.
Not since Darryl Strawberry in 1983 had a Met rookie been promoted to the big leagues with such potential. But that was a different team in 1983 - a team that was on the rise and destined for greatness. The 1988 squad had recently won a championship and appeared poised to become a dynasty. But the team was getting older and needed an infusion of young talent. Gregg Jefferies had destroyed minor league pitching from 1985 to 1987, recording two 100-RBI campaigns and batting .354 over the three years. By 1988, the 21-year-old was ready to become a full-time player at the major league level. Unfortunately, his maturity level hadn't caught up with his talent level.
Jefferies batted .321 after his late-season call-up to the Mets, and despite not playing enough to remove his rookie status for the following season, Jefferies still got enough support from the voters to finish sixth in the 1988 Rookie of the Year vote. A year later, his production at the plate suffered, as his batting average slumped to .258, although he did record 28 doubles, 12 homers, 21 stolen bases and a clubhouse full of dissenting veteran players. His attitude notwithstanding, he still finished third in the 1989 Rookie of the Year ballot, trailing Cubs teammates Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith. At least Jefferies got the last laugh, making multiple All-Star teams (albeit with the St. Louis Cardinals) while Walton and Smith never played in the Midsummer Classic.
The Mets did not produce many five-tool players in their minor league system in the 1990s, but one player stood out among all the others. In the mid-'90s, Jay Payton was recognized by Baseball America as one of the top prospects in the game. He was never better than he was in 1995, when he batted .307 with 31 doubles, 18 homers and 27 stolen bases, all while playing an above-average center field. But injuries held Payton to 71 games in 1996 and wiped out his entire 1997 campaign. Payton split time between the majors and minors in 1998 and 1999, before finally getting his first chance to stick with the Mets in 2000. He took full advantage of the opportunity.
Payton led all Mets outfielders in games played during their pennant-winning season, batting .291 with 23 doubles, 17 homers, 62 RBI and 63 runs scored. He also made great contact and had a keen eye at the plate, as evidenced by his low strikeout total. Payton whiffed just 60 times in 523 plate appearances in 2000. But the voters were more impressed by Rafael Furcal's speed (40 SB) and Rick Ankiel's arm (194 Ks in 175 IP) than Payton's complete game, dropping Payton to third in the Rookie of the Year vote behind the Braves' speedster and the Cardinals' promising young pitcher. The Mets haven't had a top-three finisher in the Rookie of the Year vote since.