Monday, February 1, 2016

The Most With The Least: Chris Jones (1995-96)

Pinch-hitting is a thankless job.  It's also one of the most difficult things to do in baseball with any kind of consistency.  Take, for example, former Met Lenny Harris.  No one had more pinch hits in the history of the game than Harris, who finished his 18-year career with 212 safeties as a pinch-hitter.  From 1995 - the first season in which Harris had 50 at-bats as a pinch-hitter - through 2005, Harris batted .300 or higher in a pinch-hitting role in five of those 11 seasons.  However, he batted .220 or lower in four of the other six campaigns.

Another former Met who struggled mightily and succeeded wildly as a pinch-hitter was Ed Kranepool.  From 1966 to 1970, Eddie was not steady in the role, collecting just ten hits in 71 at-bats for a putrid .141 batting average.  But as easy as it was to retire Kranepool as a pinch-hitter when he was in his 20s, it became nearly impossible to keep him off base when he came up as a pinch-hitter in his 30s.  From 1974 to 1978, Kranepool batted .396 (57-for-144) in a pinch, racking up 11 doubles, one triple and five homers as a substitute hitter.

Kranepool and Harris are just two examples of how frustrating it can be for a hitter to come off the bench at a moment's notice.  But Kranepool and Harris weren't always on the bench.  In fact, Kranepool averaged nearly 500 plate appearances per year from 1964 to 1969, making the National League All-Star team as a 22-year-old first baseman in 1965, while Harris was a super utility player in the 1990s, playing every position on the field except catcher.

Meanwhile, one former Met was practically stuck to the bench during his two years in New York, starting just 62 games in his pair of seasons with the team.  When his name was in the starting lineup, he performed rather poorly.  But coming off the bench, he was a completely different player.  In fact, unlike most other pinch-hitters, this player was incredibly consistent as a sub during his time in New York, to the point where he eventually found himself walking off into the team's pinch-hitting record books.

Look!  Up in the sky!  It's a bird!  It's a plane!  It's another Chris Jones walk-off homer!  (Jim Commentucci/Post-Standard)

In 1970, the Beatles took "The Long and Winding Road" all the way No. 1.  For the Fab Four from Liverpool, it was their final time at the top of the charts.  Fourteen years later, Christopher Carlos Jones began his long and winding trek from Liverpool (New York, not the U.K.) to the top of the professional baseball world, although his rise to the majors took a little longer than he would have liked.

Jones was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1984 and didn't make his major league debut until 1991.  From 1991 to 1994, Jones was an outfielder for the Reds, Houston Astros and Colorado Rockies, but averaged just 100 at-bats per season for the three teams.  It wasn't until he became a member of the Mets that Jones finally played a full season in the majors, even if he never realized his dream of becoming an everyday player.

During the strike-shortened 1995 campaign, Jones started 40 games for the Mets.  He was mostly unproductive as a starting player, batting .247 with a .288 on-base percentage and .373 slugging percentage in 161 plate appearances.  But it was as a pinch-hitter that Jones found otherworldly success.

In just his fourth pinch-hitting appearance for the Mets, Jones took Giants starter Mark Portugal deep, giving New York its only run in a 5-1 loss to San Francisco.  Three days later, Jones came into the game as a pinch-hitter against future Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman of the San Diego Padres, who was trying to protect a one-run lead in the tenth inning.  Hoffman had allowed back-to-back singles to Jeff Kent and Joe Orsulak before Jones stepped up to the plate.  Trying to get Jones to ground into a game-ending double play, Hoffman worked the count to two balls and two strikes before Jones unloaded on Hoffman's fifth offering, launching the ball deep down the left field line for a game-ending three-run homer.  Jones's blast was the first walk-off home run ever surrendered by Hoffman and the first game-ending four-bagger by a Met in two seasons (Bobby Bonilla was the last to turn the trick in 1993).

Two months after his teammates celebrated with him at home, Jones invited his fellow Mets to another post-game party at the plate.  On July 29, in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Mets manager Dallas Green removed first baseman Rico Brogna - who was one of the team's best hitters - for pinch-hitter Jones in the bottom of the tenth inning.  Bucs skipper Jim Leyland had brought in southpaw reliever Ross Powell to face the lefty-swinging Brogna, which forced Green to bring in the right-handed hitting Jones.  The move paid off immediately, as Jones delivered a home run to deep left-center off Powell, giving the Mets an instant 2-1 victory over the Pirates.

Chris Jones in 1995.
Less than four weeks later, Jones was kept in the park in a pinch-hitting role, but the end result didn't change.  Once again, a game-ending hit by Jones pinned a loss on Trevor Hoffman, as the Padres closer allowed three hits, a walk and a wild pitch before being removed for reliever Doug Bochtler.  Bochtler struck out the first batter he faced before surrendering the game-ending single to Jones.  For Jones, the walk-off hit was all the more satisfying because it came just one day after he was denied a game-tying, ninth-inning homer because of a blown call by an umpire.  In that game against the Giants on August 23, Jones hit an opposite-field fly ball off San Francisco starter Terry Mulholland that grazed off the right field foul pole with two outs in the ninth.  However, first base umpire Gary Darling didn't see it that way, calling the ball foul and bringing Jones back to the plate, where he struck out to end the game on the very next pitch.

For the year, Jones posted an incredible .400/.469/.840 slash line in 32 pinch-hitting appearances, a far cry from the .247/.288/.373 figure he put up when his name was in the starting lineup.  In addition, Jones became just the third Met to produce three walk-off hits in the same season, joining Jerry Buchek (1967) and George Foster (1983).

The 1995 Mets didn't have a single outfielder who started more than 88 games at any one outfield position.  Manager Green was constantly tinkering with his starting lineups, especially when it came to the outfield.  He penciled in Brett Butler as the team's starting center fielder 88 times before Butler was traded to the Dodgers in mid-August.  Other than Butler, no player started more than half of the season's 144 games at one outfield position.  Six players started ten or more games in left field, while four players made at least 18 starts in right.  Included in that mix was Chris Jones, who made 17 starts in left and 18 starts as the team's right fielder.  But the team wanted more stability in the outfield for the 1996 campaign, and did so by signing free agent Lance Johnson to play center field and trading for left fielder Bernard Gilkey.  Both players made over 150 starts at their respective positions for the Mets in 1996, leaving Butch Huskey, Alex Ochoa and Carl Everett as a three-headed monster that combined to start 139 games in right field.  As a result, Jones's playing time was significantly reduced in 1996, as Green allowed him to start just 22 of the team's 162 games.  But the Mets' crowded outfield situation allowed Jones to continue to serve as the team's top pinch-hitter, and he did just that in his second year in New York, wasting no time to continue thrilling fans with his late-inning heroics.

On Opening Day, the Mets spotted St. Louis an early six-run cushion, but then chipped away at the Cardinals' lead.  By the time the seventh inning rolled around, the lead had been cut in half.  At the end of the seventh frame, the comeback was complete.  New York scored four runs in the inning to take a 7-6 lead, with the first run of the inning scoring on a single by Jones, who was pinch-hitting for pitcher Jerry DiPoto.  Three weeks later, Jones entered a game against the Cincinnati Reds in the eighth inning as part of a double switch.  The game eventually went into extra innings and ended when Jones took reliever Jeff Shaw - who ended his career with 203 saves and two All-Star selections - out of the yard for his third walk-off homer in less than 12 months, causing his manager to rave about Jones's uncanny ability to contribute in clutch situations.

"Chris Jones is one of my favorite guys, he works very hard to stay ready," said Green.  "I haven't been able to use him as much [as a starter], but whenever I call on him he makes a contribution.  He really hit that one."

Jones continued to serve as the team's top player off the bench, with occasional starts here and there in the congested outfield, but was mostly used in double switches and as a pinch-hitter.  In late July, he came into a game against the Pirates after Carl Everett injured his right leg in the fourth inning.  On the mound for Pittsburgh was left-hander Denny Neagle, who struck out a career-high 12 batters in the game.  But Neagle surrendered a game-tying home run to Bernard Gilkey in the ninth, sending the game into extra innings.  The Pirates scored a run in the top of the tenth to regain the lead and brought in three-time All-Star closer Dan Plesac to try to finish off the Mets in the bottom of the frame.  An error by shortstop Jay Bell allowed Alvaro Espinoza to reach base to lead off the inning.  Two batters later, Jones introduced Plesac to the deepest part of Shea Stadium.

YouTube video courtesy of CourtsideTweets

Jones's fourth walk-off home run (and fifth game-ending hit) in two seasons sparked the Mets to their season-high fifth consecutive victory and prompted his manager to once again lament that he couldn't get Jones into more games.

"He wants to play desperately but I can't put him in the outfield with the guys I've got," said Green, who was perhaps better served to keep Jones as a late-inning contributor rather than as a player who accumulated most of his at-bats as a starter.

All told, Jones played in 168 games during his two-year stint with the Mets, starting 62 of the 168 contests.  He compiled just 331 at-bats between the two seasons, but still managed to produce 12 home runs and 49 RBI.  However, one-third of his dozen homers were of the walk-off variety, which puts him in exclusive company.  Through the 2015 season, only four players in franchise history have hit as many as four game-ending home runs for the Mets.  Three of them are Cleon Jones, Kevin McReynolds and Mike Piazza - players who combined to hit 435 homers during their time in New York.  All three players currently rank in the team's all-time top twenty in lifetime home runs.  The unlikely member of the walk-off dinger quartet is Chris Jones, whose 12 career homers as a Met tie him for 125th place on the team's home run list with players such as David Segui, Brian Schneider, Jordany Valdespin and fellow walk-off homer hero Tim Harkness.

Incredibly, Jones delivered a go-ahead RBI ten times in his limited appearances for the Mets - a phenomenal accomplishment for a player who did not have 50 RBI in his career with the team.  In addition, eight of his 12 home runs either tied the game or gave the Mets the lead, including a go-ahead blast against future Hall of Famer John Smoltz in 1996 during his Cy Young Award-winning campaign.

Whereas some of the all-time great pinch-hitters like Lenny Harris and Ed Kranepool had outstanding years as super subs to go along with some stinkers, Chris Jones always had success in the role during his two seasons with the Mets.  A year after batting .400 as a pinch-hitter in 1995, Jones put together another solid season, batting .318 in 25 appearances.  For the two years, Jones put up a .362/.439/.617 slash line as pinch-hitter, which dwarfed his numbers as a starting player over the same time period (.243/.290/.370).  In addition, Jones produced half of his dozen home runs with the Mets in games he didn't start.  He also had 21 of his 49 RBI when he came into the game as a late-inning defensive replacement, as a part of a double switch, or as a pinch-hitter.  Jones did this despite having far more at-bats as a starting player (235) than he did as a substitute (96).

The Mets did not have much to celebrate in 1995 and 1996, as those seasons came during a dark six-year period in which the team employed five managers and failed to finish above .500 in any of the six seasons.  But Chris Jones's late-inning contributions made it worthwhile for Mets fans to maintain interest in games until the very last out was recorded.  No lead was safe as long as Jones was still on the bench, waiting for his name to be called.  He was very quietly one of the best late-inning clutch performers in team history despite having a relatively short career with the Mets.

Chris Jones waited seven years to make his major league debut after he was originally drafted in 1984.  He waited another four years before he made a name for himself as a member of the New York Mets.  And very few Mets players, past or present, have been able to duplicate what Jones was able to accomplish in the toughest of situations.  Jones is a true example of what it means to make the most of the few opportunities he was afforded.

"I don't leave anything on the table.  You're in the majors a short period of time and you have to give 100 percent."

--Chris Jones (after yet another walk-off homer)

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
January 18, 2016: Tim Teufel
January 25, 2016: Hisanori Takahashi

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