Monday, January 18, 2016

The Most With The Least: Tim Teufel (1987)

Sometimes a baseball player gets benched because he's not performing well.  This occasionally leads to the benched player asking how he's supposed to prove himself on the field if he's not allowed to take the field.  However, for some players, spending time on the bench helps them become more productive when they are given the opportunity to start.  Take, for example, the case of a former Mets player and current Mets coach who was an everyday player before coming to New York and then found himself as part of a platoon just as he was entering the prime years of his playing career.

For two seasons in Minnesota, he was the team's starting second baseman.  In his first full season with the Twins, he showed uncharacteristic power potential for a middle infielder, smacking 30 doubles and 14 homers in 652 plate appearances.  His efforts did not go unnoticed, as he placed fourth in that year's American League Rookie of the Year vote.

The following season saw a slight dropoff in his extra-base hit numbers (24 doubles, 10 homers), but nothing too serious to suggest that he was expendable.  However, the Twins struggled tremendously with their pitchers, finishing near the bottom of the American League in that department.  They needed to upgrade the team's pitching if they wanted to compete in their division and so they traded their young second baseman to the New York Mets for two minor league pitching prospects and a former first round draft pick.  The Mets now had a right-handed hitting platoon partner for Wally Backman at second base to take the place of Kelvin Chapman, who batted .174 in the role the year before.  Before long, it was clear that this former Twin wasn't going to be Chapman's twin in the hitting department.

Tim Teufel had many opposing pitchers on their knees in 1987.  (Barry Colla Photography)

Timothy Shawn Teufel had over 1,000 at-bats as the Twins starting second baseman in 1984 and 1985.  But as a second baseman for the Mets playing mostly against left-handed pitchers, he amassed just 279 at-bats in 1986, starting in 70 of the team's 162 games.  Despite the decreased workload, Teufel still managed 24 extra-base hits and 31 RBI for the Mets in 1986, which represented a tremendous upgrade from Kelvin Chapman's 1985 numbers against southpaws (.172 batting average, two extra-base hits, seven RBI in 128 at-bats).

In 1984 and 1985, Wally Backman was forced to hit against left-handed pitching more often than manager Davey Johnson would have liked because of Chapman's inability to produce much of anything against them.  Backman ended up averaging close to 500 at-bats in each season and batted .280 and .273 in the two years before Teufel's acquisition.  However, the switch-hitting Backman was even more futile than Chapman was against left-handed pitching, batting an anemic .122 (16-for-131) versus southpaws in 1985.  The trade for Teufel immediately allowed Backman to play exclusively against right-handed pitching and resulted in Backman's most productive season at the plate in 1986 - a year in which he batted .320 and struck out just 32 times in 440 plate appearances, an average of one strikeout every 13.8 plate appearances.  (Batting more often against left-handed pitchers in 1984 and 1985, Backman fanned 135 times in 1,073 plate appearances, averaging one whiff every 7.9 plate appearances in those seasons.)

While the two pitching prospects (Bill Latham, Joe Klink) and former first round draft pick (future Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane) struggled in Minnesota, Teufel found a home in New York.  The Connecticut native thrived in his new role as the team's part-time second baseman, and his arrival also brought out the best in his platoon partner.  Teufel's first season in New York ended with a World Series victory, one in which he was a healthy contributor at the plate, posting an impressive .444/.500/.889 slash line in the three games he started against Boston lefty Bruce Hurst.  Hurst allowed just two extra-base hits in the series, with both of them (a double and a homer) coming off the bat of Tim Teufel.

Teufel's fielding wasn't always the best, as evidenced by his costly error in Game One of the Fall Classic, but his hitting usually overshadowed his shortcomings on defense and allowed the Mets to be deeper on the bench, as seen in a game during the Mets' dominant summer run in 1986, when Teufel's pinch-hit grand slam off Philadelphia's Tom Hume gave the Mets a thrilling extra-inning victory.

The Mets followed up their historic 1986 campaign with a disappointing 1987 season.  In 1986, the quartet of Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez and Bob Ojeda combined to start 128 games, with each starter making at least 30 starts.  A year later, the post-championship hangover affected the entire staff, with the four hurlers making just 91 starts between them and only Darling taking the ball more than 27 times.  Injuries and substance abuse curtailed the seasons of the once-dominant starting rotation, with each starter, including Darling, spending time on the disabled list in 1987.

With pitchers such as John Mitchell, Terry Leach, Don Schulze, John Candelaria and Tom Edens making unexpected starts for the Mets, it behooved the offense to carry the team even more in 1987.  Darryl Strawberry and Howard Johnson contributed greatly, becoming the first pair of teammates to produce a season with 30+ homers and 30+ stolen bases.  The newly acquired Kevin McReynolds also had a fine season, missing a 30 HR, 100 RBI campaign by just one blast and five ribbies.  But an unheralded hitting star of the 1987 season was not one of the big boppers, as Tim Teufel had one of the most productive campaigns ever produced by a part-time player in team history, shuffling his way into the hearts of Mets fans with his phenomenal performance.

YouTube video courtesy of CourtsideTweets

Once again, Teufel started in less than half of the team's games, as his name was in Davey Johnson's starting lineup just 71 times in 1987, but despite not reaching 300 at-bats for the second straight year (he had 299), Teufel managed to have the type of season he produced when he was an everyday player for the Twins.

Nine players had more at-bats than Teufel did for the Mets in 1987, including fellow second baseman Wally Backman, but Teufel still managed to finish fourth on the team in doubles (29), sixth in homers (14), sixth in RBI (61) and fifth in WAR (3.5).  He also led the team in batting average (.308), on-base percentage (.398 - tied for the team lead with Strawberry) and was runner-up to Strawberry in slugging percentage (.545), OPS (.943) and OPS+ (153).  In doing so, Teufel made team history by becoming just the third player with at least 350 plate appearances (he had 351) to produce an OPS+ higher than 150, joining Cleon Jones - who produced a 151 OPS+ in 1969 - and Strawberry.  Teufel also became the third Mets player with that many plate appearances to produce an OPS higher than .900, also joining Jones and Strawberry.

At no point of the season was Teufel hotter than he was during a two-month stretch from June to August, when the Mets went from being a fourth-place team with a .500 record to a second-place team, knocking on the door of the first-place Cardinals.  From June 9 to August 6, Teufel played in 25 games (22 starts), missing two weeks in late June with a strained right hamstring.  Teufel helped the Mets win 16 of those 25 games, reaching base 43 times and batting .348 with a lofty 1.118 OPS.  More than half of Teufel's 31 hits during his hot streak went for extra bases (10 doubles, 7 HR) and he drove in 22 runs in 89 at-bats, averaging nearly one RBI every four at-bats.

Perhaps the most incredible stat about Teufel's 1987 campaign is the following.  A total of 20 players with at least 350 plate appearances in a single season have batted higher than .308 for the Mets.  Likewise, ten Mets players have produced an OBP higher than .398 and ten players have surpassed a .545 slugging percentage.  But prior to 1987, no Mets player had ever produced a .308/.398/.545 slash line and only John Olerud (1998), Mike Piazza (1998, 2000) and David Wright (2007) have been able to match or surpass Teufel in all three categories since his spectacular 1987 campaign.

Betcha never thought you'd see Tim Teufel's name mentioned in the same sentence as these three Mets all-time greats.

Tim Teufel had 29 doubles and 61 RBI in a limited number of plate appearances in 1987.  Out of all the Mets players with fewer than 400 plate appearances in a single season through the 2015 campaign, no one has produced as many doubles as Teufel did in '87.  (Desi Relaford had 27 doubles in 340 plate appearances in 2001.)  And the only player in the franchise's first 50-plus years to surpass the 61 RBI produced by Teufel in under 400 plate appearances was Steve Henderson, who had 65 RBI in 398 plate appearances in 1977.  (Teufel still had a higher RBI/PA ratio, driving in a run every 5.75 plate appearances while Henderson had an RBI every 6.12 PA.)

Unfortunately, Teufel's amazing 1987 campaign has been mostly overlooked because that season is mostly remembered for the plethora of unexpected visits to the disabled list by the team's pitchers.  Teufel's campaign also occurred in a non-playoff year, as it took place in between the team's 1986 championship season and their 1988 division title.

Although Teufel remained on the team until 1991, his plate appearances dwindled following his breakout 1987 season.  He came up to the plate 309 times in 1988, had 254 plate appearances in 1989 and came up to bat just 192 times in 1990.  His 1990 campaign was reminiscent of his spectacular 1987 season as Teufel had 21 extra-base hits (11 doubles, 10 homers) despite not reaching 200 plate appearances.  But Teufel had just four hits in 34 at-bats through late May in 1991, and as a result, he was traded to the San Diego Padres for shortstop Garry Templeton, playing the final three seasons of his career as a part-time player with the Padres.

Teufel returned to the Mets after a few years away from the game and has served as an instructor, coach and minor league manager within the organization.  Since 2012, he has worked at the major league level, serving as the Mets' third base coach.  Just as his former manager, Buddy Harrelson, was the only man to be in uniform for the 1969 and 1986 World Series championship teams (Harrelson was the team's third base coach in 1986), Teufel is the only person to be in uniform for the 1986 and 2015 Mets teams that reached the Fall Classic.

(Getty Images)

"I'm so happy for these guys to get this feeling as a player.  Not everybody gets this chance.  I had it as a player, but as a coach I'm happy for these guys and I'm happy for the coaching staff."
--Tim Teufel, on reaching the 2015 World Series.

Tim Teufel's six-year tenure as a part-time second baseman with the Mets was solid, but unspectacular.  He never played 100 games in any of his half-dozen seasons in New York and only managed 35 homers and 164 RBI in nearly 1,500 plate appearances with the team.  But his acquisition solidified the second base position, providing the team with a high-average, base-stealing threat against right-handed pitchers in Wally Backman and a power-hitting presence versus left-handers in Teufel.  Whereas southpaws relished facing the Mets' second basemen whenever Backman or Kelvin Chapman came up to the plate in 1984 and 1985, they had to pitch more carefully against Teufel, who collected 83 extra-base hits in 810 at-bats against left-handers as a Met from 1986 to 1991.

Teufel reached the postseason twice in 1986 and 1988, but what he did in the year between his playoff appearances was the highlight of his career.  He turned a part-time job into a full-time nightmare for opposing pitchers.  And in doing so, he was responsible for one of the quietest career years by a Mets player and one of the most impressive full-season performances by a platoon player in franchise history.  Teufel made his way to the majors as an everyday player with the Minnesota Twins.  He stayed in the majors by accepting a role as a part-time player for the New York Mets who made the most of his sporadic playing opportunities.

And more than three decades after the trade for Teufel was consummated, he remains a part of the Mets on-field family.  Not bad for a player who spent a good chunk of his playing career on the bench.

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
January 11, 2016: Donn Clendenon


DyHrdMET said...

Kelvin Chapman. that name sounds familiar. almost like I know him.

Ed Leyro (and Joey Beartran) said...

I heard he went to a Mets-Rangers game in Arlington in 2011. At least that's what Howie Rose told me.