Monday, February 22, 2016

The Most With The Least: Pat Zachry (1977-80)

One of the toughest things for any athlete to do is replacing a living legend.  In addition to fulfilling his personal goals and the team's needs on the field, the new player has to prove himself to the fans of the player he replaced.  It's not an easy task, and some players, despite performing relatively well, are never able to live up to the fans' expectations.

In 1977, one such player joined the New York Mets.  This player had already tasted individual and team success before he called Flushing home, and he continued to succeed in the Big Apple.  There was only problem.  The Mets were a team in disarray when he joined them and most importantly, he was asked to fill the shoes of a franchise player.  Not just any franchise player, but "The Franchise" himself.  And because of that, his personal successes with the team were never fully appreciated by the fans who only wanted their team leader back.

Tall, lanky and not Tom Seaver.  That was Pat Zachry in a nutshell.  (Image courtesy of Topps)

Patrick Paul Zachry took his time making it to the big leagues.  Drafted out of high school in 1970 as a 19th round pick by the Cincinnati Reds, Zachry was never a top prospect.  But after slowly rising through the ranks, Zachry had a stellar season at AAA-Indianapolis in 1975, leading the American Association with a 2.43 ERA (min. 10 starts).

The Cincinnati Reds also had a memorable 1975 campaign, winning their first World Series title in 35 years.  The Big Red Machine, as they were known, had All-Stars and future Hall of Famers at every position.  Their starting rotation, however, was a little suspect.  Only two pitchers on the 1975 Reds made more than 26 starts and the combined 3.62 ERA of the team's starting pitchers was nearly a run higher than the bullpen's ERA.

Cincinnati then traded Clay Kirby and his 4.72 ERA in 19 starts to the Montreal Expos during the off-season and went with Pat Darcy as the fifth starter in 1976.  This allowed Zachry to join the Reds in 1976 as a relief pitcher.  But Darcy was awful in three April starts, allowing 14 runs in 16⅓ innings.  By mid-May, Darcy was out of the rotation and Zachry had stepped in.  Five months later, Zachry was on top of the world.

Despite not earning his first win until May 9, Zachry finished his first year in the majors with a 14-7 record and 204 innings pitched.  He allowed just eight home runs and finished among the league leaders in ERA, FIP and K/9 IP.  Zachry was also the winning pitcher in Game Two of the National League Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies and Game Three of the World Series versus the New York Yankees.  By season's end, Zachry had earned a World Series ring and the National League Rookie of the Year Award, which he shared with San Diego Padres pitcher Butch Metzger.

Zachry had a poor start to the 1977 campaign, as did the Reds, who were playing .500 ball for most of the first two months of the season.  At the same time, the relationship between the Mets and their ace pitcher, Tom Seaver, was rapidly approaching its breaking point.  After a Daily News article by Dick Young claimed that Seaver was upset at former teammate Nolan Ryan's new contract with the California Angels and mentioned the wives of both players, Seaver demanded a trade.

"That Young article was the straw that broke the (camel's) back," Seaver said.  "Bringing your family into it with no truth whatsoever to what he wrote, I could not abide that.  I had to go."

June 16, 1977 Daily News cover
On June 15, Seaver got his wish, as the Mets completed "The Midnight Massacre" trade with the Reds, sending Seaver to Cincinnati for Zachry, Steve Henderson, Doug Flynn and Dan Norman.  At the time of the trade, Zachry had a 3-7 record and a 5.04 ERA with the Reds, which was the exact opposite of Seaver's 7-3 mark and 3.00 ERA with the Mets.  Although Zachry managed to turn his season around in New York, going 7-6 with a 3.76 ERA in 19 starts with his new team, Seaver was even better in Cincinnati, winning 14 of his 20 starts and finishing the year with a 21-6 record - his fifth and final 20-win season.  Seaver also led the league with seven shutouts and a 1.01 WHIP.  The Mets ended the year without "The Franchise" and with a new pitcher who couldn't prevent the team's first last place finish since Seaver's rookie season in 1967.

In 1978, the first full year after the departure of Seaver, Zachry had a Seaver-like first half of the season.  When Zachry pitched a two-hit shutout against the Phillies on July 4, his record stood at 10-3 with a 2.90 ERA.  Making his phenomenal first half even more impressive was that the team was 22-41 in games started by other pitchers.  For his first-half efforts, Zachry was named to the National League All-Star team for the first time, although he wasn't called upon to pitch in the Midsummer Classic.  Even with the All-Star nod, Zachry still hadn't become the fan-favorite Seaver was.  However, he was giving the team the best chance to win games, just as his trade counterpart used to do.  Unfortunately, as much as Zachry was matching Seaver in the wins department, he couldn't match Seaver's run of good health.

From 1967 to 1976, Seaver made at least 32 starts in each season for the Mets.  Zachry combined to make 31 starts with the Reds and Mets in 1977, but could only make 21 starts with the Mets in 1978.  Zachry's first full season as a Met ended on July 24, when he injured himself upon being removed from a game against his former team.  After Pete Rose singled for Cincinnati in the seventh inning to extend his hitting streak to National League record-tying 37 games, Zachry allowed George Foster to drive Rose in with a single of his own.  When manager Joe Torre removed Zachry from the game, the right-hander took out his frustrations by kicking a concrete step in the dugout, fracturing his left foot and ending his season.

It was more of the same for Zachry in 1979, as he had a fantastic start to the season, going 5-0 with a 2.89 ERA in his first six starts, but once again, the injury bug defeated him more often than opposing teams did.  Zachry missed a month after his third start of the season because of inflammation in his pitching elbow, then aggravated the injury once he returned in late May.  He did not return to the Mets again until early May 1980.

Despite winning just six of his 26 starts in 1980, Zachry may have had his finest season with the Mets after his year-long stay on the disabled list.  Unfortunately, the Mets gave him very little run support when he was on the mound in 1980, which explains his 6-10 won-loss record.  Zachry allowed two earned runs or fewer in 14 of his 26 starts.  He earned a loss or no-decision in eight of those 14 starts.  He also held the opposition scoreless in six of his starts, but the Mets somehow managed to lose three of those games.  In all, the Mets lost 15 of Zachry's 26 starts during the 1980 campaign.  They scored a total of 26 runs in those losses, averaging 1.7 runs per game in the defeats.  Even Seaver in his prime would have had a tough time winning games with that putrid run support.

Through the 1980 season, Zachry had a 28-23 record as a Met, making him only pitcher - starter or reliever - who pitched for the team in each season from 1977 to 1980 to post a cumulative winning record.  Zachry was also second to Craig Swan in that time period in ERA (3.35), ERA+ (107) and batting average allowed (.252).  The Mets were 38-35 in Zachry's 73 starts during his first four seasons with the team, posting a .521 winning percentage in his starts.  When any other pitcher started, they were a completely different team, going 207-323 for a .391 winning percentage.

The strike-shortened 1981 season changed baseball forever.  It was also a turning point in Zachry's career.  Prior to the season, the Mets signed Zachry to a five-year, $2 million contract.  The Mets took a chance on Zachry, even though the Texan had not been able to stay healthy for much of his Mets career.  It was something that had frustrated Zachry ever since he kicked the dugout step in 1978, but with the new contract signed, Zachry aimed to leave his injury history in the past.

Image courtesy of Donruss

"I'm looking forward to staying in one piece for the year.  I'm relieved that the whole thing is over.  I felt O.K. physically, and now I feel better mentally, too."

General manager Frank Cashen also looked forward to having Zachry's services through the 1985 season, although he also couldn't help but discuss Zachry's injury history.

"If Pat Zachry can stay free of injuries, he has the natural equipment to be a great pitcher, " Cashen said.  "At the age of 28, (he) should be just coming into his prime.  He figures to be one of our starting pitchers for the next five years."

Zachry did manage to stay healthy in 1981 for the first time in four seasons, but he did not perform as well as the team expected, leading the league with 14 losses.  (On the flip side, Seaver paced the National League with 14 wins.)  In addition to his league-leading loss total, Zachry finished with an ERA above 4.00 for the first time as a Met.  Once again, the lack of run support was front and center in Zachry's starts, as the team scored two runs or fewer in 11 of his 24 starts.  But this time, Zachry also contributed to his high loss total, as he allowed four runs or more in ten of his 24 starts after allowing 4+ runs in just 23 of his first 73 starts in a Mets uniform.

At the conclusion of the 1981 season, Joe Torre - the only manager Zachry had pitched for as a Met - was relieved of his duties.  Torre was replaced by George Bamberger, who used an unorthodox approach when managing his starting pitchers during the 1982 campaign.  No pitcher made more than 24 starts for the Mets in 1982, and every starter pitched out of the bullpen as well.  Other than Randy Jones, who made 20 starts and eight relief appearances, every other pitcher who made at least a dozen starts for the Mets also made at least 12 appearances out of the bullpen.  Included in that group was Pat Zachry, who started 16 games and pitched in relief 20 times.

Zachry suffered without a set role, posting his second straight 4.00+ ERA in 1982.  He also had a 1.50 WHIP and struck out just 69 batters (both figures were his worst in any season he made 10+ starts).  Two months after the conclusion of the 1982 campaign, the Mets re-acquired Tom Seaver, as general manager Frank Cashen sent Charlie Puleo, Jason Felice and future major league manager Lloyd McClendon to Cincinnati for the beloved Met.  Eleven days after that trade was completed, Cashen sent Zachry to Los Angeles for outfielder Jorge Orta, ending the 30-year-old's tenure as a member of the Mets.  Zachry spent the final three years of his five-year contract as a relief pitcher for the Dodgers (1983-84) and Phillies (1985), hanging up his spikes at the age of 33.

(Photo by Tony Triolo/Getty Images)
In six years with the Mets, Zachry went 41-46 with a 3.63 ERA, which didn't exactly make Mets fans forget about Seaver.  But from 1977 to 1980, a Pat Zachry start was as good a chance as Mets fans had to see their favorite team win.  When he played his final game with the Mets in 1982, Zachry ranked in the team's all-time top ten in wins (41; T-7th), complete games (20; 9th), shutouts (6; T-7th) and WAR (7.3; 7th).  To this day, he still ranks in the team's top twenty in games started (113; 19th) and is 13th in both complete games and shutouts.  And he accomplished all this despite missing significant chunks of time due to injuries and playing for Mets teams that performed poorly on the offensive side.

Pat Zachry was never going to replace Tom Seaver in the hearts of Mets fans.  Nor was he ever going to replicate Seaver's gaudy numbers on the mound.  But for four seasons before signing his long-term deal, Zachry performed as best as he could given the circumstances he was faced with.  The Mets were a shadow of the team they were in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when they won two National League pennants and a World Series title.  By the time Zachry joined the team in 1977, the Mets had already begun what turned into the darkest seven-year period in club history.  Zachry was one of the lone bright spots on the club, making an All-Star team and winning games when most other Mets pitchers were having difficulty doing the same.

But Zachry was just part of the franchise, not "The Franchise".  He filled his own shoes quite admirably during his time in New York.  If only he hadn't been expected to fill someone else's at the same time...

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
February 15, 2016: Moises Alou

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