Monday, January 11, 2016

The Most With The Least: Donn Clendenon (1969-70)

Every player goes through a slump at some point in his career.  But some slumps last longer than others and can alter the course of a player's career.  Take, for example, the case of Dick Stuart - a promising young first baseman who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Stuart was a great power hitter who averaged 37 HR and 119 RBI per 162 games played during his first four seasons in the majors.  His middle-of-the-order presence helped the Pirates win the World Series in 1960 - just his third year in the big leagues.  His best season came in 1961, when he made the National League All-Star squad and batted .301 with 35 HR and 117 RBI.  But a year later, he slumped badly, batting a measly .228 and hitting just 16 homers.  His poor production coupled with his shoddy fielding - he wasn't nicknamed "Dr. Strangeglove" for nothing - led to a trade to the Boston Red Sox following the 1962 campaign.

Backing up Stuart at first base in 1962 was a more well-rounded athlete who had already toiled in the minors for parts of six seasons.  Between 1961 and 1962, he played 89 games at the major league level before settling in as the Pirates' regular first baseman in 1963.  But the same slump that ended Stuart's tenure with the Pirates also affected his replacement, except that his slump lasted for two full seasons and threatened to end his career.  But a change of scenery, followed by a change of his role on the field caused a renaissance of this player's career, one that would take him down the road to a championship and to become an unlikely team record-holder.

The Mets needed Donn Clendenon in the worst way when they acquired him in 1969.  (AP Photo)

Donn Alvin Clendenon played nine games with the defending World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates in 1961, followed by an 80-game stint in 1962.  During his 89-game role as Dick Stuart's backup, he made solid contact (.304 batting average), was patient at the plate (.379 on-base percentage), showed power potential (22 extra-base hits) and even had a little speed (16 stolen bases).  Most importantly, he wasn't an embarrassment on the field when he traded in his bat for a glove, unlike Stuart, who probably wished the designated hitter had already entered the baseball lexicon.

Although Clendenon didn't possess the brute strength Stuart had, he still put up solid numbers from 1963 to 1965, averaging 28 doubles, 10 triples, 14 homers, 72 RBI and 14 stolen bases per season.  He then had a breakout year in 1966, batting .299 with 28 home runs and 98 RBI.  He also boasted a .520 slugging percentage and .878 OPS, both of which placed him in the National League's top ten for the 1966 season.

But Clendenon's production at the plate dropped off dramatically in 1967, as he produced a .249/.298/.370 slash line and saw his OPS drop by more than 200 points (.668).  The following season saw just a slight recovery in his numbers (.257/.309/.399) but also saw Clendenon strike out a whopping 163 times, which was the highest single-season total ever posted by a National League hitter up until that point.

Pittsburgh decided to part ways with the 33-year-old Clendenon at the conclusion of the 1968 campaign, exposing him to the expansion draft, where he was selected by the Montreal Expos with their sixth pick.  Three months after the draft, Clendenon was traded to the Houston Astros for Rusty Staub, but Clendenon refused to report to Houston.  The Astros had just hired Clendenon's former manager in Pittsburgh - Harry Walker - to be their new skipper and Clendenon did not have an amicable relationship with Walker, to say the least.  Clendenon also did not view Houston as a favorable city for him to play in, as many businesses were still using racist tactics against African-Americans.  With Clendenon refusing to leave the Expos to go to Houston, Montreal sent two other players (including future All-Star and World Series champion Jack Billingham) plus $100,000 to the Astros in lieu of Clendenon to complete the trade.

Clendenon's change of scenery from Pittsburgh to Montreal did not change his production at the plate.  His breakout 1966 campaign appeared to be his career year, as he batted just .240 with four homers and 14 RBI during his first two months with the Expos.  Clendenon appeared to be washed up just weeks before his 34th birthday.  That is, until Mets manager Gil Hodges came calling for his services.

"Are you there, Donn?  It's me, Gil."  (Herb Scharfman/Getty Images)

Back in 1964, Clendenon had sought out Hodges in an attempt to improve his fielding.  After watching Dick Stuart botch his way out of Pittsburgh with every bobble he made at first base, Clendenon knew he had to be a stalwart at the position, and so he contacted Hodges - the winner of the first three Gold Glove awards handed out to first basemen for defensive excellence - for advice on how not to fall into the same defensive traps Stuart got caught in.  Five years later, it was Hodges who wanted assistance from Clendenon.

By mid-June in 1969, the Mets had established themselves as a surprise contender in the National League East.  New York was coming off a franchise-record 11-game winning streak and was looking to upgrade an offense that had scored three runs or less in 35 of their first 57 games.  The team was also looking for a right-handed hitter who could complement the lefty-swinging Ed Kranepool at first base.  Kranepool had a torrid start in 1969, batting .324 with 16 RBI in his first 22 games, but he batted just .204 over his next 27 contests.  Kranepool's backup at the time was Cleon Jones, who started 12 games at the position over the season's first two months.  But Jones was a natural outfielder and had not played first base in his career prior to the 1969 campaign.  Hodges needed a natural first baseman to play against left-handed pitchers to allow Jones to play his preferred defensive position and give Kranepool more time to figure out how to regain his hitting stroke.  Hodges found his man on June 15, as the Mets sent four players and a player to be named later to the Expos for Donn Clendenon.

One of the problems Clendenon had during his final years in Pittsburgh and his short stay in Montreal was that he was being counted on to be an everyday player.  Clendenon was a month shy of his 34th birthday when he was traded to the Mets.  He was already past his prime when he slumped for two and a half seasons.  But he could still hit left-handed starters extremely well (.309/.364/.489 vs. LHP in 1967 and 1968).  Hodges realized that and rested him against most right-handed pitchers.  And the results were spectacular.

Clendenon played in 72 games for the Mets following the trade, making 46 starts.  His overall production as a Met was good (.252, 12 HR, 37 RBI), but he was absolutely spectacular against left-handed pitching, posting a .318/.384/.557 slash line against southpaws.  Clendenon's presence in the lineup was the boost the Mets desperately needed, as the team scored four or more runs in 26 of his 46 starts.  Most importantly, the team was 32-14 in Clendenon's starts, which helped them pass the Chicago Cubs to win their first division title.

With the Atlanta Braves using nothing but right-handed starting pitchers in the National League Championship Series, Clendenon did not see any action in the Mets' three-game sweep of the Braves.  But that changed in the World Series against the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles, as the Mets were set to face left-handed starters Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally in four of the first five games.  Clendenon took advantage of his playing time in the Fall Classic, going 2-for-4 with a double in the Mets' Game One loss.  He then homered off McNally in the Mets' 2-1 victory in Game Two and continued his long ball assault on the Orioles' lefty starters in Games Four and Five.

Clendenon's second-inning homer off Cuellar was the only run the Mets scored in the first nine innings of Game Four - a game the Mets won in the tenth.  Then, with the Mets down 3-0 to the Orioles in the sixth inning of Game Five, Clendenon hit a two-run blast against McNally immediately after Cleon Jones - the man he essentially replaced as the team's right-handed hitting first baseman - was famously hit by a pitch on his shoe.  New York scored three more runs to win the game and the series, with Clendenon (.357/.438/1.071) winning the World Series Most Valuable Player award, an honor he felt was more about his teammates than any one individual.

"There is no most valuable player on this team --- we've got lots of them."
--Donn Clendenon, following the 1969 World Series

Clendenon made the most of his playing time for the Mets in 1969, and that continued into the 1970 campaign, when he had one of the most productive seasons in franchise history for an everyday player who didn't quite play every day.

Continuing to use his successful platoon system, Gil Hodges started Clendenon in just 96 of the team's 162 games in 1970.  As a result, Clendenon produced only 396 official at-bats in his first full season as a Met, which probably cost him a chance to be an All-Star for the first time.  Through games of July 9, Clendenon started just 37 games, but batted .331 with 10 HR and 37 RBI in 163 at-bats.

Clendenon entered the month of August still wielding a hot bat, as evidenced by his .316 batting average, .561 slugging percentage and his club-record seven-RBI game on July 28 against the San Francisco Giants.  As a result, Hodges felt the need to give Clendenon more opportunities to start, even against right-handed pitching, especially with the Mets in contention for a second straight division title.

The Mets were in first place by half a game over the Pirates and held a two-game lead over the third-place Cubs as the calendar turned from July to August.  Clendenon started 51 of the team's final 60 games and carried the team on his back.  His 29 RBI in August set a club record for the month which was not surpassed until 1998, when Mike Piazza drove in 30 runs in the month of August.  (Through 2015, only seven Mets players have driven in more than 29 runs in any calendar month.  Besides Piazza, the list includes Tommie Agee, Dave Kingman, Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter, Howard Johnson and Carlos Beltran.)

Clendenon followed up his hot August with a solid September, driving in another 21 runs in the season's final month.  In doing so, he became the first Met to have back-to-back months with 20+ RBI and the first to drive in 50 or more runs over a two-month period.  (Through the 2015 campaign, only Gary Carter, Mike Piazza and Carlos Beltran have joined Clendenon as players who drove in 50+ runs over two consecutive calendar months.)

Although the Mets fell short in their quest to return to the postseason, finishing six games behind the eventual N.L. East champion Pirates, Clendenon finally had a return to his prior glory.  Despite having fewer than 400 at-bats, Clendenon produced 22 homers and 97 RBI, breaking Frank Thomas's team record for RBI in a single season.  Clendenon also batted .288 and had a .515 slugging percentage - only the second time in his career he had surpassed the .500 mark in slugging percentage - becoming the first Met to play at least 100 games and slug over .500 in the same season.

AP Photo
One of the most overlooked numbers in Clendenon's 1970 campaign was the Mets' record in his starts.  When Clendenon was in the starting lineup, the team went 52-44.  When he wasn't, the team was 31-35.  A few more starts earlier in the season could have given Clendenon his first 100-RBI campaign.  More importantly, it could have given the Mets the few extra wins they needed to repeat as division champions.  Voters for the National League MVP award certainly noticed how valuable Clendenon was to the Mets when he was in the starting lineup, as he finished 13th in the MVP vote, ahead of teammates Tommie Agee, Buddy Harrelson and Tom Seaver and just seven votes behind his former Pirate teammate, Roberto Clemente.  It was the only time in Clendenon's 12-year career that he received consideration as the league's most valuable player.

Clendenon played one more season with the Mets in 1971, but by then, the 36-year-old's skills had begun to fade.  Clendenon batted .247 with 11 homers and 37 RBI in 88 games and was subsequently released by the Mets at the conclusion of the season.  He played his final year in the big leagues as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1972, batting .191 with just nine RBI in 61 games for the Redbirds.

After playing parts of two seasons in Pittsburgh in 1961 and 1962, Donn Clendenon became an everyday player for the Pirates in 1963, turning in four solid seasons as a member of the Bucs.  However, two poor campaigns led to Pittsburgh cutting ties with the once-promising slugger after the 1968 season, just as they had done with his predecessor at first base once his skills eroded.  Their inability to notice that Clendenon was better served as a part-time player who could mash left-handed pitching led directly to his acquisition by the Mets to do just that.

Gil Hodges used Clendenon just enough to help the team win the World Series in 1969 and then used him as much as he could in a failed attempt to get them back to the promised land.  Hodges, who once helped Clendenon become a better fielder in 1964, helped him become a better hitter five years later, and lengthened the career of a player who was thought to be washed up following the 1968 campaign.

In parts of three seasons with the Mets, Donn Clendenon came up to the plate less than 1,000 times.  But he made the most of those scattered trips, winning a World Series most valuable player award and setting the franchise record for RBI in a single season.  When the Mets acquired Clendenon, it was the first baseman who won a chance to revive his career.  But when the Mets played Clendenon, it was the team who had the best chance of winning.

Donn Clendenon may not have gotten the most playing time during his short tenure with the Mets, but he certainly gave the most of his ability, allowing the team to remain contenders for the postseason after several years of just being playoff pretenders prior to his arrival in New York.

Note:  The Most With The Least is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who performed at a high level without receiving the accolades or playing time their more established teammates got, due to injuries, executive decisions or other factors.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 4, 2016: Benny Agbayani

1 comment:

Edgy DC said...

Worth noting is that Clendenon had declared his intention to retire following the abortive trade to Houston, and had to be talked out of it by the league offices, who didn't like the precedent. He would later dismiss his poor stats with Montreal, ascribing them to the equivalent of spring training, with him being behind the rest of the league in getting into shape and getting the rust off. It wasn't until just about the time the Mets came calling that he was ready.