Monday, November 7, 2016

The Mets Who Came Close to Winning a Major Award

In the classic film, "A Christmas Story", Ralph Parker's Old Man became quite excited when he realized he had won a major award.  And why shouldn't he?  It's not every day that someone is recognized with a prize, even if it's just a leg lamp wrapped in vintage Old West tumbleweed.

Just like Mr. Parker was rightfully pleased with what he won, major league ballplayers are tickled pink when they are bestowed with their sport's most prestigious single-season honors.  After all, a player's performance can vary dramatically from one campaign to another, especially for a player who might be considered, shall we say, fra-jee-lay.  (Those players must be Italian.)

What I'm trying to say is that nothing is guaranteed in baseball, so winning a major award might be what separates a so-so career from one that causes a player to be remembered long after his career is over.  For example, Jon Matlack had a mediocre 82-81 won-loss record in seven seasons as a Met and never approached the lofty statuses afforded his fellow moundsmen, Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman.  But he won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1972 - one of five Mets players to take home the prize for top neophyte - and even the most casual Mets fan today knows about Matlack, even though the southpaw pitched his final game for the team nearly 40 years ago. 

Some all-time Mets greats came close to taking home the hardware, such as Koosman, who finished second in the 1968 N.L. Rookie of the Year vote to future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench and second to future Met Randy Jones for the 1976 N.L. Cy Young Award.  Similarly, Seaver and Keith Hernandez were runners-up in the 1969 and 1984 National League Most Valuable Player Award race.  Koosman, Seaver and Hernandez are now all in the Mets Hall of Fame and are beloved by Mets fans to this day.

But several former Mets who were near-misses come awards time aren't Mets Hall of Famers such as Kooz, the Franchise and Mex.  Perhaps with a little more support from awards voters, they would have earned a plaque of their own at Citi Field.  Here are ten players who came oh-so close to winning the baseball version of a leg lamp.


Ron Hunt

After making their National League debut in 1962 with a slew of veteran players, the Mets decided they needed to add some fresh faces to their roster in 1963.  One of those faces belonged to 22-year-old rookie Ron Hunt.  Hunt was purchased from the Milwaukee Braves at the conclusion of the 1962 season, but did not get into a game with the Mets until the team's seventh contest in 1963.  But once he got into the lineup at second base, Hunt made it impossible for manager Casey Stengel to take him out.

In the first of his 12 big league seasons, Hunt posted career highs in several offensive categories that he would never surpass.  Among these categories were at-bats (533), hits (145), doubles (28), home runs (10) and RBI (42).  Hunt finished second in the 1963 Rookie of the Year vote to Cincinnati's Pete Rose, even though Hunt had more doubles, homers and RBI than Rose and finished the year with an identical .334 on-base percentage.  It should be noted that Hunt accomplished his numbers while compiling nearly 100 fewer at-bats than Rose and playing in a much weaker lineup that gave him far less protection than Rose enjoyed.


John Milner

The first ten years of the Mets' existence saw the team produce several good, young players.  Among these players were one Rookie of the Year Award winner (Seaver) and two runners-up (Hunt, Koosman).  But in 1972, New York had its first third-place finisher for top rookie in the league.  And as impressive as a top-three finish is for any rookie, this particular Mets neophyte wasn't even the best rookie on his own team.

Playing in just 117 games in 1972, John Milner showed Mets fans why he would become known as "The Hammer", pounding 17 home runs in his inaugural campaign.  Milner also showed a keen eye at the plate, walking 51 times in just 423 plate appearances.  As Milner showed his prowess at the plate, his teammate, Jon Matlack, topped his performance on the mound.  Matlack's first full season in the majors produced a 15-10 record, 2.32 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 169 strikeouts, which earned him the 1972 Rookie of the Year Award.  But instead of settling for second place, Milner also finished behind Giants' catcher Dave Rader, whose .640 OPS was dwarfed by Milner's .762 mark.


Steve Henderson

In 1976, Steve Henderson was one of the Reds' top prospects, hitting for average (.312), flashing good power (17 HR) and displaying great speed (44 SB).  Henderson continued to tear it up at the Triple-A level in 1977, batting .326 with seven homers and 19 steals in just 60 games.  But Henderson was an outfielder, and with top slugger George Foster in left, perennial Gold Glove winner Cesar Geronimo in center, and batting title contender Ken Griffey in right, Henderson's chances of making the Reds was slim to none.  With no room on the roster for him, Cincinnati traded Henderson to the Mets for the team's first Rookie of the Year winner, Tom Seaver.

In his first season in New York, Henderson blossomed, posting a .297/.372/.480 slash line.  Despite not playing his first game for the Mets until June 16, Henderson led the team in RBI (65) and tied for the team lead in homers (12).  He also finished second to Lenny Randle in both runs scored (67) and triples (6).  Henderson lost the Rookie of the Year Award to Montreal's Andre Dawson, finishing just one vote behind the future Hall of Famer, despite having a higher batting average, OBP and slugging percentage than Dawson.  Henderson also scored more runs, drew more walks and tied Dawson in runs batted in despite playing in 40 fewer games than the Hawk.


Hubie Brooks

In 1980, the Mets marketing campaign tried to convince fans that the magic was back at Shea Stadium.  Sure enough, in September, three promising rookies made their debuts with the team, as Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman and Hubie Brooks all made their first appearances at the major league level during the final month of the 1980 campaign.  Although Backman spent most of the next few seasons in the minors, Wilson and Brooks were with the Mets to stay, and both took advantage of their new everyday player status.

Wilson impressed the Mets with his speed, but Brooks had a better all-around game.  Two weeks before the player's strike began in 1981, Brooks was contending for a batting title.  Once the players came back from their two-month hiatus, Brooks began to drive the ball, collecting ten extra-base hits and driving in 13 runs in his first 19 games after the strike.  For the season, Brooks batted .307 with 21 doubles, four homers and 38 RBI.  That was good enough for third place in the National League Rookie of the Year vote, behind Fernando Valenzuela and Tim Raines.  How impressive was Brooks' rookie season?  To this day, Brooks remains the only Met rookie with at least 350 at-bats to finish his first year with a batting average above .300.


Jesse Orosco

When the Mets traded Minnesota native Jerry Koosman to the Twins following the 1978 campaign, they received two minor league pitchers in return.  One of the young hurlers was Greg Field, who never played in the Mets organization, as he was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates the following April.  The other was a 21-year-old southpaw who spent his first professional season getting himself in and out of jams, as evidenced by his stellar 1.12 ERA and mediocre 1.23 WHIP pitching for the Elizabethton Twins.  It's no wonder he was eventually known by the moniker Messy Jesse.

Jesse Orosco will always be known for recording the final out of the 1986 World Series and for appearing in more games than any pitcher in major league history.  But as a part-time closer who spent most of his career coming into games long before the ninth inning, Orosco had little hope of ever being considered for an individual award.  At least until he put up one of the best seasons ever recorded by a reliever in 1983, posting a 13-7 won-loss record with 17 saves.  In 110 innings, Orosco posted a 1.47 ERA, becoming the only Met (starter or reliever) to post a sub-1.50 ERA in 100 or more innings.  In fact, Orosco is one of only seven pitchers since 1920 to accomplish the feat, joining players such as Hall of Famers Bob Gibson (1968) and Bruce Sutter (1977).  For his efforts, Orosco finished third in the N.L. Cy Young Award ballot, finishing behind John Denny and Mario Soto.


Kevin Mitchell

In 1986, the Mets had several players locked into their defensive positions such as Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter and Darryl Strawberry.  Manager Davey Johnson also employed several platoons, making it difficult for a rookie to find his way into the starting lineup.  But one rookie learned how to play many positions in order to make the team.  Contending for a batting title during the first half of the season and lashing extra-base hit after extra-base hit throughout the entire season forced Johnson to put him in the lineup as many times as he could, even if he couldn't promise him a regular position on the field.

After having a cup of coffee with the big club in 1984, Kevin Mitchell made it back to New York in 1986.  By July 6, Mitchell was batting .370 with 16 doubles and five homers, despite starting just 33 games.  But Mitchell had also played six defensive positions by then, playing everywhere but second base, pitcher and catcher.  By season's end, Mitchell's batting average had sunk to .277, but he still managed 22 doubles, 12 homers and 43 RBI in just 328 at-bats, which placed him third in the Rookie of the Year ballot behind Todd Worrell of the St. Louis Cardinals and Robby Thompson of the San Francisco Giants.  Mitchell became the second Met rookie (after Ron Hunt) to record 20 doubles and 10 HR and will always be remembered for his hit that continued the Mets' miraculous tenth-inning rally in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.  Unfortunately, that hit was his last in a Mets uniform, as the versatile slugger was traded to the San Diego Padres during the off-season, which brings us to the next player on this list.


Kevin McReynolds

Following the 1986 World Series victory, general manager Frank Cashen traded Kevin Mitchell to his hometown San Diego Padres, mainly because he thought Mitchell was a problem in the clubhouse.  In return, he received an outfielder who also had World Series experience but wouldn't hurt a fly (as long as he wasn't hunting it).  Kevin McReynolds gave the Mets several solid, All-Star caliber seasons and almost led the Mets to a second pennant in three years in 1988.

McReynolds had the most complete season of his career in 1988, batting .288 with 30 doubles, 27 homers, 99 RBI and a perfect 21-for-21 in stolen bases, which at the time was a major league record for most steals in a season without being caught.  He finished in the top five in the league in home runs and RBI, while placing in the league's top ten in extra-base hits and slugging percentage.  And on the defensive side, he led all National League outfielders with 18 assists and five double plays turned.  But because his fellow outfielder and teammate Darryl Strawberry also had a spectacular season (39 HR, 101 RBI, 29 SB), McReynolds and Strawberry split the MVP vote, allowing Dodgers outfielder Kirk Gibson to limp home with the award.  McReynolds, who never made an All-Star team in a dozen seasons in the big leagues, finished third in the 1988 N.L. MVP vote.


Gregg Jefferies

Not since Darryl Strawberry in 1983 had a Met rookie been promoted to the big leagues with such potential.  But that was a different team in 1983 - a team that was on the rise and destined for greatness.  The 1988 squad had recently won a championship and appeared poised to become a dynasty.  But the team was getting older and needed an infusion of young talent.  Gregg Jefferies had destroyed minor league pitching from 1985 to 1987, recording two 100-RBI campaigns and batting .354 over the three years.  By 1988, the 21-year-old was ready to become a full-time player at the major league level.  Unfortunately, his maturity level hadn't caught up with his talent level.

Jefferies batted .321 after his late-season call-up to the Mets, and despite not playing enough to remove his rookie status for the following season, Jefferies still got enough support from the voters to finish sixth in the 1988 Rookie of the Year vote.  A year later, his production at the plate suffered, as his batting average slumped to .258, although he did record 28 doubles, 12 homers, 21 stolen bases and a clubhouse full of dissenting veteran players.  His attitude notwithstanding, he still finished third in the 1989 Rookie of the Year ballot, trailing Cubs teammates Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith.  At least Jefferies got the last laugh, making multiple All-Star teams (albeit with the St. Louis Cardinals) while Walton and Smith never played in the Midsummer Classic.


Frank Viola

After losing the pennant to the Dodgers in 1988, Frank Cashen started to part ways with several players who were instrumental in the team's rise to title contention.  By late July 1989, fan-favorite players such as Wally Backman, Roger McDowell, Lenny Dykstra and Mookie Wilson were all former Mets.  Although Cashen was trying to rebuild the team, he wasn't giving up on the 1989 campaign.  That was made clear when the general manager traded five pitchers to the Twins for 1987 World Series MVP and 1988 A.L. Cy Young winner Frank Viola.

Viola was a local kid from Long Island who became one of the most durable pitchers in the game, averaging over 250 innings pitched per season from 1984 to 1988.  And as a left-handed starter, that durability made him all the more valuable.  Although Viola couldn't help the Mets defend their 1988 N.L. East division crown, he did go on to win 20 games for the team in 1990, joining Jerry Koosman as the team's only left-handed starters to win that many games in a season.  The Mets won 91 games in 1990 but fell short of their postseason goals, finishing behind the Pittsburgh Pirates in the East.  No Mets pitcher was able to duplicate Viola's 20-win campaign for over two decades, when R.A. Dickey accomplished the rare feat.  Viola's 20-win season earned him a third-place finish in the 1990 N.L. Cy Young Award vote behind fellow 20-game winners Doug Drabek and Ramon Martinez.


Jay Payton

The Mets did not produce many five-tool players in their minor league system in the 1990s, but one player stood out among all the others.  In the mid-'90s, Jay Payton was recognized by Baseball America as one of the top prospects in the game.  He was never better than he was in 1995, when he batted .307 with 31 doubles, 18 homers and 27 stolen bases, all while playing an above-average center field.  But injuries held Payton to 71 games in 1996 and wiped out his entire 1997 campaign.  Payton split time between the majors and minors in 1998 and 1999, before finally getting his first chance to stick with the Mets in 2000.  He took full advantage of the opportunity.

Payton led all Mets outfielders in games played during their pennant-winning season, batting .291 with 23 doubles, 17 homers, 62 RBI and 63 runs scored.  He also made great contact and had a keen eye at the plate, as evidenced by his low strikeout total (Payton whiffed just 60 times in 523 plate appearances in 2000).  But the voters were more impressed by Rafael Furcal's speed (40 SB) and Rick Ankiel's arm (194 Ks in 175 IP) than Payton's complete game, dropping Payton to third in the Rookie of the Year vote behind the Braves' speedster and the Cardinals' promising young pitcher.  The Mets wouldn't have another top-three finisher in the Rookie of the Year vote for another 14 years, when Jacob deGrom took home the award.
 
 

1 comment:

Warren Zvon said...

Great info. We were ripped off on a few of those. Jefferies was the biggest disappointment IMO. Orosco's accomplishments really stand out. I never had heard the nickname "Messy Jesse" before. Ha :)