Monday, February 15, 2016

The Most With The Least: Moises Alou (2007)

It's not exactly a secret that older players tend to break down during the long baseball season more often than their younger counterparts do.  Through the 2015 season, Mets players have appeared in 150 or more games in a single season a total of 88 times.  Sixty-two of those 88 instances were by players who had yet to turn 30 when they accomplished the feat.  And when 37-year-old Eddie Murray played in 154 games for the Mets in 1993, he became the oldest player in franchise history to complete a season in which he appeared in a minimum of 150 games.

Murray is one of just six players in club annals to play at least 100 games in a season after he had blown out 37 candles.  He's also one of three former Mets - Brett Butler and Rickey Henderson are the others - who had at least 350 at-bats in a season after turning 37.  Needless to say, older position players have rarely contributed on an everyday basis for the Mets, and even fewer have been as productive as they were during their younger years.

One former Met in particular had a fantastic - albeit abbreviated - season with the team after he was signed as a free agent four months after his 40th birthday.  Injuries curtailed his first season with the club, causing him to miss over two months of action.  But when he returned from his extended stay on the disabled list, the quadragenarian embarked on a record-setting stretch with his bat, doing everything he could to prevent the team from falling victim to what became an epic collapse.

Omar Minaya finally got his man when he signed Moises Alou.  (Doug Benc/Getty Images)

Moises Rojas Alou always had trouble staying healthy throughout his entire major league career.  In the 1990s, he missed two entire years (1991, 1999) because of injuries.  He also missed at least 26 games in ten other seasons.  When he was healthy, he was one of the best hitters in the sport, batting .330 or higher three times.  He also produced three 30-HR campaigns and five 100-RBI seasons.

But after a seven-year stretch from 1997 to 2003 in which Alou helped three teams reach the postseason, which included winning a World Series title with the Florida Marlins in 1997, the left fielder's luck with team success faded.  It began with the moment Alou could not catch a foul ball in Game Six of the 2003 National League Championship Series - a moment that Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman is still catching hell for.  Alou and his Cubs teammates failed to win the game and the pennant.  A year later, the Cubs finished in third place in the N.L. Central, despite Alou's best efforts (39 HR, 106 RBI) to carry the team back to the playoffs.  The 38-year-old Alou then left the Cubs to play two seasons in San Francisco, where his father, Felipe, was the team's manager.  But the Giants, who had just completed their eighth consecutive winning season in 2004, were tremendous disappointments in 2005 and 2006, finishing below .500 in both years.

Alou had already turned 40 when he became a free agent for the last time following the 2006 campaign.  He also had not appeared in a postseason game in three consecutive seasons after making four trips to playoffs in the previous seven years.  The Mets, who had come within one win of a trip to the World Series in 2006, were in dire need of a right-handed bat, particularly one who could hit left-handed pitchers effectively.  They found their man in Alou, whose lifetime .332/.399/.559 slash line against southpaws was exactly what general manager Omar Minaya was looking for in a middle-of-the-order hitter.  Minaya signed Alou to a one-year, $7.5 million contract, with a second year club option.  According to Alou, winning was the main reason why he chose to sign with the Mets.

"The length of the contract doesn't matter to me at this point in my career," Alou said.  "I want to win this year.  And if things work out the way I think they will, I will play two years in New York."

With the soon-to-be 41-year-old on board, the Mets began the 2007 season by winning their first four games in convincing fashion.  Alou collected five hits and two walks in the four games - games the Mets won by a combined 31-3 score.  By late April, Alou was on a tear, batting just under .400 with an OPS over 1.000.  But the injury bug found its way back into Alou's system, as the left fielder strained his left quadriceps muscle in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers on May 12.  With Alou out of the lineup, the team struggled on offense, batting .252 with a .308 on-base percentage in the month of June, after collectively batting .281 and reaching base at a .352 clip prior to Alou's injury.

Alou tried to get back in the lineup in early June, but when his doctors allowed him to resume running, he continued to feel pain in his left leg.  The Mets were in the midst of a three-week stretch in which they lost 13 of 16 games, and the time off the field was clearly upsetting Alou.

Travis Lindquist/Getty Images

 "I'm frustrated.  I came here to play, not get hurt.  I mean, I have to play.  I didn't think it would be this long, and I'm very disappointed.  When you're hurt and you're on a good team, you feel like you're in everybody's way.  I don't like that feeling."

Alou wasn't the only one frustrated, as manager Willie Randolph couldn't decide on which player was best suited to replace Alou during his time on the disabled list.  By the time Alou returned from what became an unwanted 66-game vacation, Randolph had called upon Carlos Gomez (20 starts), Endy Chavez (12 starts), Ricky Ledee (9 starts), Lastings Milledge (8 starts), Ben Johnson (5 starts), David Newhan (5 starts), Marlon Anderson (4 starts) and Damion Easley (3 starts) to fill in for Alou in left field.  But once Alou shook off the rust from his extended stay on the D.L., he became the hottest hitter on the team.

After not collecting a hit in four of his first ten games following his return to the team (which briefly lowered his batting average under .300), Alou went on an 11-game hitting streak, in which he produced five homers and drove in 13 runs.  The Mets won seven of those 11 games.  Then, after going 0-for-4 against the San Diego Padres on August 22, Alou embarked on another hitting streak - one that wouldn't end until he entered the Mets' record books.

Alou collected at least one hit in the six games he started from August 23 to August 29.  Alou didn't the start the game against the Phillies on August 30, but he did come into the game as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning, where he walked to helped fuel a five-run rally by the Mets.  Although Alou did not collect a hit in the game, his hitting streak would be allowed to continue, as MLB rules dictate that such a skein cannot by terminated if all of a player's plate appearances in a game result in either a walk, hit batsman, defensive indifference and/or sacrifice bunt.

Following his appearance as a pinch-hitter in Philadelphia, Alou started nine of the team's next ten games.  The Mets won all nine of the games he started and were shut out in the one game he didn't start.  When the Mets defeated the Atlanta Braves on September 12, their lead in the N.L. East grew to a season-high seven games with 17 games to play.  Alou was one of the main reasons for the team's early September success, batting .421 with eight extra-base hits, ten runs scored and five RBI in the month through the 12th.  His hitting streak also stood at 17 games, which was just nine short of the team's all-time record of 26, set by David Wright earlier in the 2007 season (the streak began at the end of the 2006 campaign and continued into 2007) and seven games short of the team's single-season record (Hubie Brooks and Mike Piazza shared that record).

But then the Mets went into a free fall, losing their next five games.  At the same time, the Phillies won six games in a row to cut the Mets' lead in the division to a scant 1½ games.  Alou did all he could to help the Mets during their losing streak, collecting nine hits in the five games, but the team's suspect pitching was mostly responsible for the defeats, allowing 39 runs in the handful of contests.  The Mets recovered to win four of the next five games, with Alou contributing eight hits and five RBI.  In the fifth game, one in which the Mets defeated the Marlins, 7-6 in 11 innings, Alou drove in the tying run with a single in the eighth inning after failing to collect a hit in his first three at-bats.  The single extended his hitting streak to a team-record 27 games and also made him the oldest player in history with a skein of that length.  

New York entered the final week of the regular season with a 2½-game lead over the Phillies.  On paper, they appeared to be in good shape as they entered their three-game series in Washington against the Nationals, who were 69-87 and had scored just 636 runs all season, which were the fewest runs scored by any team in the majors.  Incredibly, Washington scored 32 runs in the three-game sweep of the Mets, and not even Alou's hitting clinic in the three games (seven hits, five RBI) could prevent the Mets from having their division lead over the Phillies whittled to just half a game.

Travis Lindquist/Getty Images
Despite the devastating loss in the final game of the series, one in which the Mets blew an early 5-0 lead, Alou's first-inning home run did extend his hitting streak to 30 games and gave him a .403 batting average and 1.029 OPS over the 30-game period, to go with eight doubles, one triple, four homers, 17 RBI and 22 runs scored.  But his individual success could not translate into team success, as the Mets went just 15-15 in the 30 games.  Alou's hitting streak ended on September 27, in a 3-0 loss to the Cardinals and the Mets' season ended three days later when they lost for the 12th time in their last 17 games.

After the heartbreaking conclusion of the 2007 campaign, the Mets decided to pick up Alou's $7.5 million option for the 2008 season.  General manager Omar Minaya expected Alou to be on a mission to help the team get back to the postseason after falling just short of their goal in 2007.  Alou certainly agreed with Minaya, and was not afraid to share his thoughts on the team's September collapse.

"I'm angry at what happened last year and our fans deserved better," Alou said.  "I'm coming back to help us win a championship.  From the first day of spring training we have to show people that 2008 will be different."

Unfortunately, the 2008 season was anything but different.  Once again, the Mets squandered a division lead in late September and once again, Alou could not stay healthy.  In fact, he barely played for the Mets in 2008, appearing in only 15 games, with all but one of them coming in the month of May.  (Alou had hernia surgery in March, a strained calf in late May and a torn left hamstring while rehabbing at AA-Binghamton in July.)  During the brief time Alou was healthy in 2008, he was just a singles hitter for the Mets, collecting just two doubles and no homers, despite a .347 batting average.  Alou's final injury put a nail in the 42-year-old's major league career, one that ended with five years of missing the postseason.

Alou's time in New York - when he was healthy - showed that he could still be one of the best hitters in the game even at his advanced age.  In parts of two seasons with the Mets, Alou had just 414 plate appearances, but he still batted an impressive .342 with a .507 slugging percentage, adding 21 doubles, 13 homers and 58 RBI.  This made Alou one of just six players in club annals to play multiple seasons with the team and have at least a .500 slugging percentage (with a minimum of 400 plate appearances), joining Mike Piazza (.542), Darryl Strawberry (.520), Carlos Delgado (.506), John Olerud (.501) and Carlos Beltran (.500).  Alou also has the highest lifetime batting average of any Mets player with at least 400 plate appearances, comfortably ahead of the .326 mark produced by Lance Johnson during his two-year stay in New York from 1996 to 1997.

In addition to his slugging prowess, Alou rarely struck out as a Met, fanning just 34 times over his two seasons with the team.  In fact, Alou became just the third Met in franchise history in 2007 to produce a season with 30 or more extra-base hits and 30 or fewer strikeouts, joining Ron Hunt and Felix Millan.  However, Alou had by far the highest batting average, OBP, slugging percentage and OPS of the three players.

Thanks for this, Baseball Reference Play Index!

Moises Alou could have been the right player to push the Mets to the pennant they failed to capture in 2006.  But he just couldn't stay healthy enough to contribute.  When he wasn't on the field in 2007, the Mets couldn't decide on a proper replacement for him in left, and the team failed to increase their lead in the division, going 35-31 during his time on the disabled list.  Had Alou remained healthy and productive, perhaps the team would have had a double-digit cushion in the standings in September instead of just a seven-game lead in the middle of the month.

Then again, even when Alou was healthy and charging forward with his team-record hitting streak, he still couldn't do anything about the shortcomings of the team's pitchers.  With every hit and RBI picked up by Alou, he had to watch his pitchers give up several of their own, and as a result, the pennant that eluded him when Steve Bartman got in his way in Chicago also got away from him in New York.

The 2007 season is one most Mets fans would like to forget.  But if one thing from that season should be held on to, it's that fans got to see a tremendous player at the end of his career doing what he did best over a career that spanned nearly two decades.  It's just too bad that one of the things he did best (hitting) got overshadowed by the other (getting hurt).  And because of that, the physical pain felt by Alou will always by rivaled by the emotional pain still felt by Mets fans whenever the year 2007 is brought up as a topic of discussion.

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
February 1, 2016: Chris Jones
February 8, 2016: Claudell Washington

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