Monday, January 31, 2011

Mets Hall of Famer and Fans Run Up Empire State Building For Charity

On February 1, two friends of Studious Metsimus will be running an uphill battle (literally) for a good cause. Sharon Chapman and Phil Hees will be among the many runners who will be racing their way to the top of the Empire State Building on Tuesday. They will be running up the 1,576 steps to support Team For Kids (you can read more about Team For Kids by clicking here).

Sharon has been an active member of Team McGraw, running at numerous events (including the 2010 ING New York City Marathon) in an effort to raise money and awareness for children and adults with brain tumors. The Tug McGraw Foundation uses this support in an effort to improve the quality of life of those patients and their caregivers.

Sharon Chapman (seen here with fellow Empire State Building runner Phil Hees during the 2010 ING New York City Marathon) scores the winning run every time she participates in a charitable event. She is also a die-hard Mets fan and is a big hit with Mets bloggers, as evidenced by her Mets cap, Team McGraw bracelet and singlet, "Ya Gotta Believe" necklace and Faith and Fear in Flushing wristband. (Photo taken by Kevin Chapman)

Sharon and Phil will not be the only runners with ties to the Mets. Former Met and current SNY studio analyst Darryl Strawberry will also be racing to the Observation Deck of the Empire State Building. The Straw Man will be running in support of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, which strives to find a cure for those suffering with the disease.

Multiple myeloma is a cancer that affects the body's plasma cells. Strawberry is a cancer survivor himself, after being diagnosed with colon cancer in 1998, which makes this run personal for him.

Sharon and Phil will be seeing this familiar face as they make their ascent to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building.

Please join us as we doff our Mets caps in honor of Sharon Chapman, Phil Hees, Darryl Strawberry and all of the runners who will be climbing their way to the Observation Deck of the Empire State Building on Tuesday in support of Team For Kids and the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.

As they make their run towards the sky, they will also be running into our hearts and the hearts of all those who will benefit from their contributions.

M.U.M.'s The Word (Most Underrated Mets): Bobby Jones

The 1990 season was a transitional one for the New York Mets. In May, long-time manager Davey Johnson was fired after a 20-22 start. Although the Mets recovered under new manager Bud Harrelson to finish with a 91-71 record, the team received a great blow during the offseason when Darryl Strawberry left the team as a free agent to sign with his hometown Los Angeles Dodgers.

With Strawberry gone, the Mets turned to Hubie Brooks to play right field. Brooks had a good 1990 season with the Dodgers (.266, 20 HR, 91 RBI), but he was already 34 years old when the Mets acquired him from Los Angeles for Bobby Ojeda and Greg Hansell. Asking a 34-year-old to replace a 28-year-old perennial All-Star was a recipe for disaster and sure enough, Brooks had one of his worst seasons in 1991, hitting .238, with 16 HR and 50 RBI.

Just like Hubie failed on the field, the Mets did the same in the standings, finishing in fifth place with their first losing record (77-84) since 1983. However, the 1991 season did have something positive come out of it.

When Darryl Strawberry left New York following the 1990 season, the Mets received a supplemental pick to be used between the first and second rounds of the 1991 amateur draft. That sandwich pick (the 36th overall draft selection) turned out to have a pretty good Mets career in his own right.

Bobby Jones was a right-handed pitcher from Fresno, California. Before the Mets drafted the All-American out of Fresno State University with the 36th pick of the 1991 amateur draft, Jones already had a Mets connection, as he attended the same high school (Fresno High School) as "The Franchise" himself, Tom Seaver.

Bobby Jones (wearing #22 in the back row) was partying like it was 1988 in this photo from his Fresno High School days. (photo courtesy of

Like Tom Seaver before him, Bobby Jones' ascent to the major leagues was a quick one. After dominating minor league hitters at three different levels (27-15, 2.71 ERA, 304 Ks, 78 BB), Jones was called up to the major leagues in August of 1993, making his major league debut against the Philadelphia Phillies, the team that went on to win the National League pennant two months later.

Jones held the Phillies lineup in check, allowing one earned run in six innings of work. He gave up seven hits and walked one batter. Although the Mets defense threatened to ruin Jones' debut (their four errors led to four unearned runs), their offense (you may call him Tim Bogar) showed up to preserve his first major league win.

Tim Bogar collected two doubles and two home runs in the 9-5 Mets victory. His three-run homer in the sixth inning turned a one-run game into an 8-4 Mets lead. He then gave the Mets an insurance run in the ninth inning with an inside-the-park home run. However, just like the Mets in 1993, even when something went right, something else would go wrong. During his unnecessary head-first slide into home plate, Bogar tore a ligament in his left hand and would not play again in 1993.

The Mets went on to finish the 1993 season in last place in the NL East, with the expansion Florida Marlins finishing five games ahead of them. Their 59-103 record in 1993 would give us another Tom Seaver-Bobby Jones parallel, as Jones' initial campaign with the Mets was the team's first 100-loss season since 1967, the same year Tom Seaver made his major league debut for New York.

When the 1994 season began, Bobby Jones was firmly entrenched in the Mets' rotation, starting the third game of the season behind Doc Gooden and Pete Smith (feel free to chime in with a "who dat?"). But Jones (along with Bret Saberhagen) soon became one of the go-to guys in the rotation, as Gooden succumbed to his addictions for the final time as a Met. Pete Smith also gave in to his addictions, although his drug of choice was the gopher ball (Smith gave up a league leading 25 HR in 1994).

Despite the poor performances by Gooden (3-4, 6.31 ERA) and Smith (4-10, 5.55 ERA), the Mets flirted with the .500 mark for most of the year, finishing with a 55-58 record when the players' strike ended the 1994 season. Saberhagen's season (14-4, 2.74 ERA, a major league record 11:1 K/BB ratio) was nothing short of brilliant, but that was to be expected from a man who had already won two Cy Young Awards in his career (1985, 1989). It was Bobby Jones' performance in his first full season as a Met that kept the team from falling back to the depths they reached in 1993.

For the season, Jones went 12-7 with a 3.15 ERA, with the Mets winning 15 of his 24 starts. In 14 of those 24 starts, Jones gave up two earned runs or less. He also gave the Mets much-needed durability, especially with the bullpen being overworked due to the inefficiency of the other starters not named Saberhagen. Jones pitched at least six innings in all but four of his starts and made it through the seventh inning more than half the time (14 starts). For his efforts, Jones finished eighth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting, behind future Mets Steve Trachsel and Cliff Floyd.

After being tantalized by his excellent 1994 season, the 1995 and 1996 seasons would have to be considered a slight disappointment for Bobby Jones. Although Jones was rewarded with the Opening Day nod in each season, his performances in the other starts left a lot to be desired.

Jones followed up his 1994 season by going 10-10 in 1995 and 12-8 in 1996. The combined 22-18 record over the two seasons wasn't so bad, especially when the Mets' records during that span (69-75 in 1995, 71-91 in 1996) are taken into consideration. However, opposing batters learned how to hit Jones better during those two seasons than they did in 1994.

In 1994, the National League hit .257 against Jones, who gave up 157 hits in 160 innings. That number rose to .274 in 1995 (209 hits in 195.2 innings) and .288 in 1996 (219 hits in 195.2 innings). As a result, Jones' ERA rose from an exceptional 3.15 in 1994 to a mediocre 4.19 and 4.42 in 1995 and 1996, respectively. Fortunately for Jones, the youth movement known as Generation K (Bill Pulsipher, Paul Wilson, Jason Isringhausen) did not become the second coming of Seaver, Koosman and Matlack, thereby allowing Jones to retain his status at the top of the Mets' rotation. Jones rewarded the Mets for their patience in 1997.

After getting the ball on Opening Day in 1995 and 1996, Bobby Jones did not get that honor for the 1997 opener. Instead, new manager Bobby Valentine (who replaced Dallas Green during the latter part of the 1996 season) chose to bestow the Opening Day honor to veteran Pete Harnisch. Harnisch would pitch into the sixth inning, an inning in which the Mets allowed the San Diego Padres to score 11 runs. Soon after the Opening Day debacle, Harnisch was placed on the disabled list after feeling exhaustion and anxiety. It was later revealed that Harnisch was suffering from depression.

When Harnisch went down in April, it was up to the rest of the staff to step up, especially Bobby Jones, who hadn't lived up to expectations following his rookie season in 1994. Then something special happened. Bobby Jones became an effective pitcher again and for the first time during his tenure as a Met, the team started to win.

In the finale of the season-opening series against the Padres, Jones made his first start of the season, picking up the win by holding San Diego to one run over eight innings. It was the Mets' first victory of the season after losing their first two games. The performance by Jones in his first start would serve as a reminder that 1997 was going to be nothing like the previous two years.

From April 30 to June 9, Jones went on one of the most dominant stretches by any Met (Seaver and Gooden included) in franchise history. In eight starts, Jones allowed only ten earned runs for a 1.45 ERA. Opposing batters hit only .199 against him, and when they did get a hit, more often than not, it was a single (.271 slugging percentage over the eight starts). The most important stat during that stretch of starts was Jones' record, a perfect 8-0. For his efforts, Jones was named the National League's Player of the Month for May.

Before the first official day of summer arrived, Jones had already established himself as one of the best pitchers in the league. After Bobby Jones defeated the Pirates on June 20 by the score of 1-0, his record stood at 12-3. For his strong first half, Jones was rewarded with his first selection to the All-Star Game. He did not disappoint the fans in the Midsummer Classic, striking out sluggers Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mark McGwire (who combined to hit 114 HR in 1997) in succession during his one scoreless inning of work.

Do these guys look scary to you? Bobby Jones made mincemeat of them in the 1997 All-Star Game.

After his strong start, Jones came back to Earth, winning only three games after the All-Star Break. However, when the season ended, his overall numbers were still brilliant. For the year, Jones went 15-9, with a 3.63 ERA. After two years of allowing more base hits than innings pitched, Jones held opposing batters to a career-low .242 batting average, allowing 177 hits in 193.1 innings. Bobby Jones' breakout season coincided with the Mets' return to contention, as the team finished with an 88-74 record, their best mark since Darryl Strawberry's final year as a Met in 1990.

The Mets won 88 games again in 1998, but by then, Al Leiter and Rick Reed had already established themselves as the top two pitchers on the staff, winning 33 games between them. Despite another season giving up fewer hits than innings pitched (192 hits in 195.1 innings), Jones was the victim of the dreaded no-decision more times than he would have liked. In 30 starts, Jones was credited with 12 no-decisions. The Mets ended up winning eight of those 12 games. Therefore, despite the fact that the Mets won 17 of his starts, Bobby Jones finished the 1998 season with a career-low nine wins. It was the first time in his career that Jones failed to register double-digit victories over a full season.

The 1999 season was a memorable one for the Mets but a difficult one for Bobby Jones. For the first time in his career, the injury bug latched itself onto Jones, limiting him to 12 mostly unsuccessful starts. For the season, Jones finished with a 3-3 record and a career-worst 5.61 ERA. Because the Mets had depth in their rotation, Jones was left off the postseason roster. After experiencing hard times with the Mets early on in his career, Jones was now the odd man out when the team finally reached the playoffs. The postseason snub should have motivated Jones to have a strong 2000 season, but that was not the case during the early part of the year.

The Mets were on a mission in 2000. After losing their final five games of the 1998 season to narrowly miss out on the playoffs and falling two wins short of the World Series in 1999, the Mets were not going to settle for anything less than an appearance in the Fall Classic in 2000. For Bobby Jones, he had an additional goal on his mind. He wanted to make sure he wouldn't be an afterthought if the Mets reached the playoffs again. But after three poor starts to begin the season, Jones was placed on the disabled list with a strained right calf. After a one-month stay on the DL, Jones picked up right where he left off, giving the Mets less than they expected from a man who had been an All-Star just three years before. After a June 10 loss to the Yankees, Jones' ERA stood at 10.19. It was then that the Mets made the not-so-difficult decision to send Jones to the minor leagues.

Perhaps it was the embarrassment of being sent down to the minors for two weeks, but once Jones returned to the Mets, he was a completely different pitcher. In his first start with the Mets after being recalled from AAA-Norfolk, Jones pitched eight strong innings, holding the Pirates to one run and five hits, while striking out eight. The start against Pittsburgh was a sign of things to come.

Back in black? Bobby Jones was just happy to be back in the major leagues.

Beginning with his June 23 start against the Pirates, Jones pitched as well as he had in 1997. After his short stint in the minor leagues, Jones went 10-3 with a 3.69 ERA. He saved his best for last, winning seven of his final eight decisions, as the Mets repeated as the National League's Wild Card winner. This time around, Bobby Jones would not be on the outside looking in, as his strong finish helped him earn a spot on the postseason roster. The longest tenured starting pitcher on the Mets was finally going to get his chance to shine in the playoffs.

From 1993-2000, Bobby Jones won 74 games in the regular season. But it was his 75th win that became the most memorable victory of his career.

After losing Game 1 to the NL West champion San Francisco Giants, the Mets pulled out two hard-fought extra-inning victories in Games 2 and 3. Benny Agbayani was the man who let the dogs out at Shea Stadium in Game 3 with his game-ending 13th inning homer off Aaron Fultz. The thrilling victory gave the Mets a 2-1 series lead, meaning that the clinching could come at Shea Stadium if the Mets won Game 4. Bobby Valentine gave the ball and his trust to Bobby Jones to pitch the Mets into the NLCS. The manager would not be disappointed.

Of course the Mets are ecstatic. After all, they had finally cracked the mystery that was on everyone's minds in the year 2000, for it was Benny Agbayani who was guilty of letting the dogs out.

Bobby Jones was making his first postseason start in Game 4 of the 2000 NLDS. Whereas most pitchers admit being nervous before their first playoff start, Jones pitched with ice water in his veins. He retired the first 12 Giants to face him, taking a 2-0 lead into the fifth inning, courtesy of a first-inning two-run homer by Robin Ventura. Then he ran into trouble in the fifth inning, allowing his first baserunner of the game when former Met (and 2000 NL MVP) Jeff Kent doubled down the left field line. Kent took third base when Ellis Burks flied out to rightfielder Timo Perez. J.T. Snow then walked, putting the tying runs on base for shortstop Rich Aurilia. Bobby Valentine could have taken Jones out of the game. Instead, he stayed with his veteran pitcher, allowing him to face Aurilia. Jones induced a short fly ball to left, keeping Kent at third base and Snow at first. After walking catcher Doug Mirabelli to load the bases, Jones retired opposing pitcher Mark Gardner on a pop-up to second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo, ending the Giants' threat. It would be the only time the Giants came close to scoring.

In the bottom of the fifth inning, the Mets added two runs to their lead, with Bobby Jones starting the rally. After Mike Bordick grounded out weakly to start the inning, Jones struck out. However, the alert veteran reached first base safely when Mark Gardner's pitch could not be handled by Doug Mirabelli. Timo Perez then sent Jones to third base with a double, which was followed by a two-run double by Alfonzo. The Mets now had a 4-0 lead and Bobby Jones, fresh off an inning where he escaped a bases-loaded jam, had all the extra run support he needed.

The Giants were retired in order in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. When Bobby Jones came out to the mound for the ninth inning, the Shea Stadium crowd gave him a rousing ovation. This was a man who was there when the Mets were the laughingstock of the National League. Now all he was hearing were cheers from the Shea faithful. The Mets were three outs away from a return trip to the NLCS, and Bobby Jones was three outs away from finishing up the best start in Mets postseason history.

Jones had already thrown 109 pitches through eight innings. The Giants may have known that Jones' pitch count was already in triple digits, but you wouldn't have known it by the way they approached the ninth inning. After retiring Marvin Benard to start the inning, Bill Mueller grounded out on Jones' first pitch. Up came Barry Bonds*, one of the most patient hitters in the National League. Bonds* had already ended Game 2 of the NLDS by looking at strike three on a pitch by John Franco. He was not going to go down with the bat on his shoulders this time. On Jones' first pitch, Bonds* took a mighty cut and lined out to centerfielder Jay Payton. The man who was left off the postseason roster in 1999 had just pitched a complete game, one-hit shutout to catapult the Mets into their second consecutive NLCS. Bobby Jones went from a minor league demotion in June to the best postseason start in franchise history in October, the ultimate rags to riches story.

Bobby Jones delivered the knockout blow to the Giants in Game 4 of the 2000 NLDS.

However, his 75th win as a Met was also his last. Jones took the mound for Game 4 of the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals and pitched poorly. Although the Mets staked him to an 8-3 lead, Jones couldn't get out of the fifth inning, allowing six runs in four-plus innings of work. Despite the subpar outing, the Mets won the game 10-6 and then won the pennant the following night.

Jones' final appearance for the Mets came in Game 4 of the 2000 World Series. After losing the first two games at Yankee Stadium, the Mets came back to win Game 3, putting Bobby Jones in position to tie up the Fall Classic with a victory in Game 4. The elation felt by the Mets after their Game 3 victory was short-lived, as Derek Jeter led off Game 4 with a home run. Jones didn't pitch badly in the game, allowing three runs and four hits in his five innings of work, but the Mets never recovered from Jeter's game-opening blast, losing the game 3-2.

The Mets failed to win their third World Championship in 2000, falling to the crosstown Yankees in five games. However, they did enjoy their most successful season in Bobby Jones' eight years in New York. Unfortunately for Jones, 2000 would be his last season as a Met. The Mets did not re-sign the free agent following the 2000 season, allowing him to sign with the San Diego Padres.

His first year in San Diego was terrible, to say the least. Jones allowed a league-leading 37 HR in 2001 and also led the league with his 19 losses. After finishing the 2002 season with a 7-8 record, Jones retired at the young age of 32.

Let's just say Bobby Jones didn't come close to winning one of these in his two years as a Padre.

Although he never approached the annual numbers expected of him following his rookie season, Bobby Jones still had quite a career as a Met. His 74 regular season victories are ninth on the team's all-time list and his .569 career winning percentage leaves him just shy of the top ten (Rick Aguilera is 10th with a .578 winning percentage). However, no Mets pitcher appeared on the 1990s leaderboard more than Bobby Jones.

For the decade (1990-1999), Jones finished first in starts, innings pitched and wins. He also finished in the top five in strikeouts, complete games, shutouts and winning percentage.

Sure, there were far better pitchers in Mets history. There were also pitchers who took the mound facing more pressure than Bobby Jones did. But when it comes time to consider the entire Mets résumé of Bobby Jones, no one can deny that he was truly one of the most underrated, if not forgotten, players in the history of the franchise. Anyone who remembers Bobby Jones solely for his one memorable performance in the 2000 NLDS has missed out on what was truly a solid career.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wait, You Gave Him Hu's Number?

Yesterday at Citi Field, new Mets utility infielder Chin-lung Hu was introduced at a press conference. The soon-to-be 27-year-old Hu was acquired by the Mets from the Los Angeles Dodgers in an attempt to find Jose Reyes an adequate backup.

If by adequate backup, the Mets mean a .191 career hitter in the major leagues over 96 games, then they've found the perfect man for the job.

Chin-lung Hu did have a good minor league career, batting .299 in 754 games. He provided some speed, hitting 154 doubles, 28 triples and stealing 97 bases. He also makes good contact, striking out only 332 times over those 754 games. However, he does not draw many walks (190 bases on balls in 3,434 career plate appearances between the minors and majors) and provides little pop, hitting 47 HR over his minor league career and only two in parts of four seasons in the major leagues, none since 2007.

Still, the Mets are not just handing him a major league job. He will have to earn it out of Spring Training. And if he does, he will have to deal with a Citi Field crowd that is quick to let you know whether or not they appreciate what you're doing on the field.

Does Hu have a chance to succeed at Citi Field? If you look at the recent history of the number he wore on his back during Wednesday's press conference, he might need a "Hu"-lot of luck.

When you think of current Mets who regularly receive one-finger salutes, the first names that come to mind are Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo. But if you go back just a few years, say from 2004-2006, the boobirds at Shea were reserved for another Met wearing number 25, Kaz Matsui.

When he was signed to a three-year deal prior to the 2004 season, Kaz Matsui looked like a savior from overseas. He was so highly regarded that the Mets immediately put him at shortstop, moving the incumbent (and injured) Jose Reyes over to second base. The move appeared to pay off after Matsui's first game of the season, a game in which he homered in his first major league at-bat and reached base all five times he batted.

Matsui's hot start continued over the first two weeks of the season. In his first 12 games, he hit .333 and carried an on-base percentage of .456. He almost looked like a bargain at $20.1 million over three years. Then came this thing called reality, also known as the rest of the season.

After April 18, Matsui played in 102 games, hitting only .265. His on-base percentage (.315) was far below what was expected from the Mets' leadoff hitter. As the oh-fers piled up, so did the boos at Shea Stadium.

Matsui was traded to the Colorado Rockies on June 9, 2006, but not before he compiled jaw-dropping numbers. And by jaw-dropping, I mean everyone's jaw would drop whenever they thought about how much the Mets paid for a stiff like Matsui. Over the course of his 239-game Mets career, Matsui batted .256, with 106 runs scored, 11 HR and 75 RBI. Compare that to what Jose Reyes did in 2006 alone, when he hit .300, with 122 runs scored, 19 HR and 81 RBI. Is it no wonder that Matsui sounded more like Mat-BOO-i at Shea Stadium?

Prior to the failed Matsui experiment, another Met wore #25 for more years than he should have. The number was given to a hometown boy who was trying to bring the Mets back from the abyss. Instead, he pushed them further in to a place they didn't return from until after he left the team.

Is striking out something they do in the Bronx, Bobby?

Bobby Bonilla was part of a fearsome twosome in Pittsburgh. Along with the skinny Barry Bonds (not to be confused with the asterisked Barry Bonds*), the Pirates won division title in 1990 and 1991. Bonilla was a major part of Pittsburgh's divisional dynasty, hitting 39 doubles, 32 HR and driving in 120 runs in 1990. He followed that up by hitting .302 in 1991 with a league-leading 44 doubles and another 100 RBI season. As one of the most feared sluggers in the league, the Mets made him a prime target during the 1991-1992 offseason.

On December 2, 1991, the Mets got their man, signing the Bronx-born Bonilla to a five-year, $29 million deal. How did the perpetually-smiling Bonilla handle his first year in New York? How does a .249, 19 HR, 70 RBI, 23 doubles season sound to you?

The team that Bob Klapisch and John Harper immortalized in their book "The Worst Team Money Could Buy: The Collapse of the New York Mets" was one of the biggest underachieving teams in franchise history. With Eddie Murray, Bret Saberhagen and Bonilla on board, along with new skipper Jeff Torborg, the Mets were supposed to return to the top of the NL East standings after finishing the 1991 season with their first losing record in eight years. Instead they continued their downward spiral.

In Bonilla's second season in New York, he actually improved upon his atrocious 1992 season, batting .265, with 34 HR and 87 RBI. But despite his good season on the field, what he did off the field kept him stranded in Boo York City. Still fuming over his representation in the book, Bonilla confronted Bob Klapisch, threatening to "show him the Bronx", which was perceived as a not-so-veiled threat against the author. This was not the only time Bonilla's conduct became headline-worthy.

During his Mets career, he once called the press box to complain about an error given to him by the official scorer. He also made a famous fashion statement at Shea Stadium, wearing earplugs during a game to drown out the sea of boos that threatened to envelop him.

Bonilla was finally relieved of his Met duties when he was traded on July 28, 1995 to the Baltimore Orioles for supposed five-tool stud Alex Ochoa and Damon Buford, neither of whom ever became big-time players on the Mets. His time away from "home" was short-lived, as the Mets re-acquired Bonilla on November 11, 1998, by sending another boo-worthy player, Mel Rojas, to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Bobby Bo.

Just because the fans had more to cheer about in 1999 didn't mean everything was fine and dandy for the former superstar. Bonilla had a (how shall we say this to avoid being shown the northern-most borough of New York) putrid season in 1999. He played in 60 games and collected only 19 hits. His .160 batting average was lower than pitcher Masato Yoshii's .164 mark. Fans who weren't around during his first stint in New York got a quick education on how to boo Bobby Bonilla properly.

What was once a star player had shriveled into an aloof, uncaring "athlete", one who seemed to be more interested in getting to the World Series of Poker with Rickey Henderson during Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS than the actual World Series.

Pick a card, Bobby. Any card. If you can't hear me because of the earplugs you're wearing, have Rickey pick the card out for you.

Thankfully, Bonilla was given his walking papers on January 3, 2000, never appearing in a Mets uniform again. However, due to a clause in his contract, Bobby Bonilla is back on the Mets payroll, receiving an estimated $29 million over the next 25 years. Although the deal is actually a good one from a financial standpoint, it's given Mets fans another reason to hate Bobby Bonilla.

So now it's Chin-lung Hu's turn to wear the number once worn by Kaz Matsui and Bobby Bonilla. Will he become the latest player to receive the boo treatment, which appears destined for anyone wearing #25? Pedro Feliciano seemed immune to it, as he wore the number from 2006 until his last game as a Met in 2010, but perhaps that was only an aberration.

For Chin-lung Hu to avoid the boobirds at Citi Field, he must play at a level expected of a major leaguer. If he doesn't improve upon his career .191 batting average, he won't be able to block out the boos, even if he finds one of Bobby Bonilla's old earplugs.

Hu's that standing next to Sandy Alderson? Naturally!

Hu must remember that he is there to back up Jose Reyes, not to be Jose Reyes. No one on the Mets is like the effervescent Reyes. His charismatic personality and All-Star caliber play on the field has endeared him to Mets fans since 2003. Hu can't possibly expect to achieve that status overnight. But what he can do is play as hard as he can, whether it be in a pinch-hitting role or just giving Jose Reyes a day off here and there.

Chin-lung Hu will either be accepted as a quality utility player in New York or he will be booed out of town if his performance warrants it. Hu's it going to be?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Josh Thole Hopes To Give Mets Stability Behind The Plate

Josh Thole goes into spring training as the odds-on favorite to get the bulk of the playing time at catcher. Even if manager Terry Collins goes to a lefty-righty platoon with Thole and the newly acquired Ronny Paulino, it would be the left-handed hitting Thole getting the lion's share of at-bats. If Thole can handle the Mets' pitching staff and can successfully hit major league pitching on a regular basis, he stands to do something that hasn't been seen in Flushing since the days of Mike Piazza.

The Mets have played musical chairs at a number of positions, most notably at third base (until the arrival of David Wright in 2004) and right field. One position where they've had stability over the past half-century is at catcher.

Since 1962, the Mets have used 142 third basemen and 197 rightfielders (soon to be 198 if Carlos Beltran moves over to right). But they have only penciled in 81 catchers on their lineup cards, despite it being the most grueling position to play on the field.

It was original Met manager Casey Stengel who once famously said that you have to have a catcher, or else you're going to have a lot of passed balls. From 1962-1965 (which coincides with the time Casey was the Mets' skipper), the Mets didn't have a true #1 catcher, using 14 men at the position. Chris Cannizzaro played the most games at the position over the team's first four seasons, but that only added up to 236 games.

It wasn't until 1966, when Jerry Grote was traded to the Mets from the Houston Astros, that the Mets could boast finally having an everyday catcher. And once Grote took over the job, the catcher's position became as stable as any on the Mets.

From 1966-1976, Grote caught 1,176 games, which still represents the most games caught by any player in Mets history. Except for the 1972 season, when he was sidelined by injuries, Grote was the team's #1 catcher. With the emergence of John Stearns, Grote was deemed expendable, and he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 31, 1977.

John Stearns was the Mets' regular catcher during the team's lean years from 1977-1982. In addition, he was also one of the team's best players, providing some pop (tying for the team lead with 12 HR in 1977 and hitting a career-high 15 HR in 1978) and exceptional speed for a catcher (91 stolen bases as a Met, including 25 SB in 1978).

Stearns was the first Mets position player to be selected to four All-Star teams (1977, 1979, 1980, 1982), but his career was cut short by a severe case of elbow tendinitis. Unable to throw, Stearns barely played in 1983 (4 games) and 1984 (8 games), appearing mostly as a pinch-runner.

The main backup catcher for both Grote and Stearns was Ron Hodges. He began his career in 1973 for the "Ya Gotta Believe" Mets, playing in 45 games and walking in his only postseason plate appearance in Game 1 of the World Series. From 1973-1981, Hodges backed up both Grote and Stearns, never appearing in more than 59 games in any season.

Then in 1982, he finally got his chance to be the team's #1 catcher when John Stearns succumbed to his elbow injury. Hodges became the team's everyday catcher at the end of the 1982 season and continued to hold the position in 1983, before going back to being the #2 guy in 1984 behind Mike Fitzgerald.

After Hodges retired, the top man behind the plate for the Mets became one of the most beloved figures in Mets history. Gary Carter was acquired via a trade with the Montreal Expos prior to the 1985 season and immediately became the best offensive catcher in franchise history. In five years as a Met, Carter caught in 566 games, picking up 89 HR and 349 RBI along the way. He became the first Met to drive in 100 or more runs in back-to-back seasons when he accomplished the feat in 1985 (100 RBI) and 1986 (105 RBI).

Along with first baseman Keith Hernandez, Carter was named co-captain of the Mets in 1988, even though he was already on the downside of his Hall of Fame career. Despite this, he was still named to the All-Star team in each of his five seasons in New York.

Once the '90s began, the Mets returned to the pre-Grote system of "let's send this guy out there to see how he does". Most of the time, it was Mackey Sasser who went behind the plate, but his unusual (how shall we say this politely) "throwing disability" prevented him from ever taking over the everyday job. It wasn't until 1992 when a homegrown talent took the position and made it his own.

After a few brief appearances in 1990 (36 games) and 1991 (21 games), Todd Hundley became the Mets' #1 catcher in 1992 at the tender age of 22. He went through the usual growing pains in his first full season as a Met, hitting .209, with 7 HR and 32 RBI. But as he got older, his power made its presence felt. From 1993-1995, Hundley averaged 14 HR and 49 RBI, numbers that would have been higher had the players' strike not wiped out parts of the 1994 and 1995 seasons. Then came 1996, the year Todd Hundley broke out in a major way.

In his fifth full season in the major leagues, Hundley obliterated his previous career highs in home runs and RBI. He became the first player in franchise history to surpass the 40 HR mark in 1996, and his 41 bombs set the all-time major league record for home runs by a catcher (which was surpassed by the Braves' Javy Lopez in 2003). He also recorded 112 RBI, which at the time, was the most by any catcher in Mets' history.

Hundley followed up his record-setting season with another good year, although not quite at his 1996 levels. He became the first Mets catcher to record back-to-back seasons with 30 or more homers in 1997, when he finished with 30 HR and 86 RBI. Unfortunately, that would be his last full season as a Met, as injuries limited Hundley to 53 games in 1998. However, the Mets did have a good backup plan, one that involved a certain trade with the Florida Marlins.

On May 22, 1998, the Mets traded Preston Wilson, Ed Yarnall and Geoff Goetz to the Florida Marlins for a catcher who had only been in Florida for one week. He went on to become the best hitting catcher, and perhaps the best hitter, in franchise history. That catcher was Mike Piazza.

Opposing pitchers feared him. Opposing baserunners? Not so much.

Piazza heard some boos early on from the Shea Stadium crowd. After all, he only drove in 20 runs over his first 47 games in New York, far less than the numbers he was accustomed to posting. Then Piazza caught fire, and he took the team with him. Over his final 62 games (57 starts), Piazza hit .362, had an on-base percentage of .434 and a slugging percentage of .670. He hit 19 doubles, 16 HR and drove in 56 runs over that two-month stretch. Amazingly, his power did not come along with a high strikeout total, as Piazza whiffed a mere 26 times over his final 62 games.

Piazza did not lead the Mets to the postseason in 1998, but he was able to carry them into October the following two years, including the franchise's fourth World Series appearance in 2000. In 2001, the Mets were struggling before September 11. After the season resumed on September 17, Piazza put the team on his back and almost led them back to the playoffs. Over the team's final 16 games, Piazza hit .364. He picked up 12 extra-base hits (seven doubles, five homers) and drove in 16 runs.

The 2002 season began a downward turn for Piazza, as he went from out-of-this-world numbers for a catcher to just very good numbers. Although he still had 33 HR and 98 RBI, he failed to hit .300 for the first time since in a full season, finishing the year with a .280 batting average. Piazza rejoined the human race from 2003-2005, averaging 17 HR and 50 RBI, to go with a .265 batting average. Despite his return back to Earth, Piazza still finished his Mets career with 220 HR and 655 RBI, numbers that rank him near the top of the franchise leaderboard.

For 40 seasons (1966-2005), the Mets basically used only six catchers (Grote, Stearns, Hodges, Carter, Hundley, Piazza). However, since Piazza played his last game as a Met in 2005, no Mets catcher has been the #1 guy behind the plate for more than two seasons. It's now up to Josh Thole to bring stability back to a position that was known for it throughout the majority of the team's existence.

Born during the 1986 World Series, the new "kid" hopes to reach the heights the old "Kid" (Gary Carter) reached during that magical World Championship season.

Thole has already proven he can handle a major league pitching staff. In 73 games last season, Thole's catcher's ERA (which calculates the ERA of the Mets' pitchers while Thole is catching them) was 3.58, which was lower than the overall team ERA of 3.73. He has also shown he can get on base. In 255 career plate appearances, Thole's batting average is .286 and his on-base percentage is .357. In fact, Thole's OBP would have led the Mets in 2010 had he registered enough at-bats.

For now, the future for the Mets at the catcher's position lies in the hands of Josh Thole. As long as he plays the way he is capable of playing, the 24-year-old Thole could join the exclusive list of catchers who have enjoyed great success behind the plate for the Mets. A long run at the catcher's position hasn't been seen since 2005. It's time for Thole to bring back stability behind the plate.

Monday, January 24, 2011

M.U.M.'s The Word (Most Underrated Mets): Kevin McReynolds

The 1986 Mets were perhaps the most beloved team in franchise history. They combined a great pitching staff along with veteran leadership (Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Ray Knight) and youthful exuberance (Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell) to win their second World Championship.

However, after the season ended, general manager Frank Cashen decided that Kevin Mitchell had too much youthful exuberance, which was the polite way of saying that Mitchell was a bad influence on Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. It was time for the versatile rookie to go, and so Cashen traded Mitchell (along with Shawn Abner, Stanley Jefferson, Kevin Armstrong and Kevin "No, not that one" Brown) to the San Diego Padres for pitcher Gene Walter, minor leaguer Adam Ging and a good ol' country boy from Arkansas named Walter, although Mets fans probably know him better by his middle name.

You can't call him Wally, but you can call him underrated.

Walter Kevin McReynolds was coming off a 1986 season in which he set career highs in batting average (.288), runs scored (89), home runs (26), RBI (96) and stolen bases (8). It was not his first good year in the majors, as he had a stellar 1984 season for the Padres, finishing 17th in the NL MVP voting and helping the Padres advance to their first World Series. However, McReynolds broke his hand in Game 4 of the 1984 NLCS and did not play in the World Series, which the Padres lost to the Detroit Tigers in five games.

Although McReynolds was the Padres' primary centerfielder, the Mets acquired him to play left field, a position he had only played for 43 games over his first four seasons in the majors. The Mets had gone through four and a half years of the underachieving malcontent, also known as George Foster, from 1982 until midway through the 1986 season, when they released him soon after he stayed glued to the bench during a bench-clearing brawl between the Mets and the Cincinnati Reds.

There's a better chance you'll find Waldo in this donnybrook than George Foster.

The Mets used four leftfielders after Foster's release, never starting Mookie Wilson, Kevin Mitchell, Danny Heep and the newly re-acquired Lee Mazzilli for more than five consecutive games at a time. The team needed a steady leftfielder, one that wouldn't be a cancer in the clubhouse (a la Foster) or a bad influence on the young stars (a la Mitchell). Kevin McReynolds fit the bill perfectly and gave the Mets quite the ballplayer in left field.

McReynolds' career as a Met didn't start off with a bang. After a loss to the Chicago Cubs on June 9, 1987, the Mets slipped to fourth place with a .500 record (28-28). One of the reasons for the poor start to the season was the hitting (or lack thereof) of Kevin McReynolds. Big Mac's numbers at the plate (.249, 9 HR, 26 RBI) weren't that much different than what George Foster was giving the Mets in 1986. All that changed the following afternoon (June 10), when McReynolds collected four hits (two singles, two doubles), scored two runs and drove in another. That began a two-month stretch where McReynolds and the Mets simultaneously caught fire.

From June 10 to August 7, McReynolds played in 53 games (52 starts). Over that time period, he batted .338, with 13 doubles, two triples, 10 home runs and 42 RBI. The 25 extra-base hits over the two months gave him an exceptional .572 slugging percentage. The Mets needed McReynolds' power in the lineup because Darryl Strawberry was not driving in runs at his usual pace (30 RBI over the same 53-game stretch). When McReynolds woke up from his early season slumber, so did the Mets, as the team went 35-18 during Big Mac's hot streak. In two months, the Mets went from a fourth-place, .500 team to a second place team that was within striking distance of the first place St. Louis Cardinals.

Then September 11 happened. No, not THAT September 11. On the night of September 11, 1987, the Mets and Cardinals squared off at Shea Stadium, with the Mets trying to close to within half a game of the first place Redbirds. Everything was going perfectly for the Mets. Ron Darling took a no-hitter into the sixth inning and the Mets had a 4-1 lead (St. Louis scored their run on two walks and two groundouts).

Then Vince Coleman dropped a drag bunt that not only ended Darling's no-hitter, but his season as well, as Ronnie injured his thumb while diving to make a play on the ball. Once Terry Pendleton hit a two-out, two-run game-tying homer in the ninth inning off Roger McDowell, the Mets' chances to catch the Cardinals in the standings vanished. The Cardinals went on to win the NL East, denying the Mets an opportunity to defend their World Series title.

Although the Mets failed to advance to the postseason in 1987, it was not the fault of Kevin McReynolds. In fact, McReynolds was one of the reasons why the Mets stayed in the division race for as long as they did. He batted .276, and set career-highs with 163 hits, 32 doubles, 29 HR and 14 stolen bases. He also picked up 95 RBI while showing great discipline at the plate, striking out only 70 times in 639 plate appearances. Big Mac didn't help the Mets to the postseason in 1987, but 1988 was a different story.

McReynolds started the 1988 season with a bang, going 4-for-5 with two homers on Opening Day in Montreal. The two blasts were part of a six-homer barrage by the Mets, which included a monster shot by Darryl Strawberry that hit the roof of Olympic Stadium. The Opening Day fireworks by McReynolds were just a prelude for what was to come. Over his first six games of the season, Kevin hit .565 (14-for-23). He slid back to reality after his dominant start to finish the first half of the season with respectable numbers (.281, 11 HR, 47 RBI, 11 SB). Once he returned from the All-Star Break, McReynolds took his game to another level, starting with the first game in Atlanta.

On July 14, the Mets and Braves were engaged in a seesaw battle. The Braves had an early 3-0 lead, but the Mets poured it on, scoring eight unanswered runs to take an 8-3 lead. The big blow was a three-run homer by McReynolds in the fourth inning. The Braves refused to lose quietly, storming back with five runs of their own to tie the game at 8. Darryl Strawberry led off the top of the ninth inning by reaching first on an error. Unfortunately, he was thrown out trying to steal second in the hopes that McReynolds would drive him in. Darryl's over-aggressiveness might have cost the Mets the go-ahead run, as McReynolds doubled into the gap in left-center. A ground ball double play by Gary Carter ended the Mets threat and the game moved on into extra innings, where the Mets won the game in the 11th inning on a base hit guessed it...Kevin McReynolds.

For the game, Big Mac was true to his nickname, going 5-for-6, with three runs scored, two doubles, a home run and four RBI. July 14 wasn't the last time McReynolds had a big game in the second half. Two weeks later against the Phillies, he went 4-for-4, hitting another home run and driving in five runs. In August, he had another five-RBI game, this time against the Cubs. But he saved his hottest RBI streak for the most important time of the year.

Over a two-week stretch in September, McReynolds was a one-man wrecking crew. In 14 games, he batted .400, with six home runs and 18 RBI. While McReynolds was rockin', the Mets were rollin'. New York won 13 of those 14 games, including the game against the Phillies on September 22 which gave them their second NL East title in three years. Not surprisingly, McReynolds went 2-for-4 with an RBI in that game. It was the third of five consecutive multi-hit games for the leftfielder, who was now in the middle of everyone's MVP conversations.

Unfortunately, the MVP Award was not to be, as Kirk Gibson's performance for the Dodgers (.290, 25 HR, 76 RBI, 31 SB) was considered more valuable than McReynolds' season (.288, 27 HR, 99 RBI, 21 SB) and teammate Darryl Strawberry's year (.284, 39 HR, 104 RBI, 36 SB). It was widely agreed that voters who picked an MVP candidate from the Mets split their votes between Strawberry and McReynolds, allowing Gibson to sneak away with the award. However, had the voters noticed that McReynolds also led the league with 18 outfield assists (including seven runners thrown out at the plate) and set a major league record by having the most stolen bases in a season without being caught (later broken by Chase Utley in 2009 with his 23-for-23 season), perhaps they would have changed their vote to the player who was truly the most complete player in the National League in 1988.

McReynolds continued his dynamic 1988 season into the playoffs, where the Mets faced off against Orel Hershiser and the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team they had defeated 10 out of 11 times during the regular season. Hershiser had finished the 1988 season by pitching 59 consecutive scoreless innings and he continued to do the same in Game 1 of the NLCS, holding the Mets to zero runs through eight innings. But things began to unravel for "The Bulldog" in the ninth inning.

In 1988, the National League was schooled by Hershiser and his "Orel" exams.

After a leadoff single by wünderkind Gregg Jefferies, Keith Hernandez moved him to second base with a groundout. Darryl Strawberry then lined a double to right field, plating Jefferies and ending Hershiser's scoreless streak and his night, as he was removed from the game for closer Jay Howell.

Kevin McReynolds was the first batter to face Howell, and he was able to draw a walk. After Howard Johnson struck out, the Mets were down to their final out, but they still had their two MVP candidates on the bases and Gary Carter at the plate. With the Dodger Stadium crowd on their feet in anticipation of the final out, Carter silenced the ballpark by looping a double in front of a diving John Shelby. Strawberry had already scored the tying run as McReynolds was rounding third. The throw from Shelby to Mike Scioscia arrived at the same time as McReynolds' lowered shoulder did. The jarring home plate collision led to the go-ahead run for the Mets and they held on to that lead, taking Game 1 in their final at-bat, with the winning run scoring on the shoulders of Kevin McReynolds.

The Mets split the next two games of the NLCS, taking a 2-1 series lead into Game 4, the game forever known as the Mike Scioscia game. With the Mets about to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series, manager Davey Johnson left Dwight Gooden on the mound the start the ninth inning. At the time, the Mets led the game 4-2. Gooden stayed in the game even after issuing a leadoff walk to John Shelby. The reasoning for the non-move was simple. The next batter was light-hitting catcher Mike Scioscia, who had hit only three home runs in 408 regular season at-bats and was a prime candidate to hit into a double play. There was no double play, unless if you can start one from behind the outfield wall.

One former Dodger who wore #14 helped the Mets win the World Series in 1969. Nineteen years later, another one prevented the Mets from reaching the World Series.

With Mike Scioscia tying the game with his Pendletonian blast, the momentum shifted over to the Dodgers, especially after Kirk Gibson's two-out, solo homer in the 12th inning off Roger McDowell gave Los Angeles a 5-4 lead. The Mets fought back in their half of the inning, as the first two batters reached base against former Met Tim Leary. After retiring Gregg Jefferies, another former Met came into the game to face lefties Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry. That man would be Jesse Orosco.

Orosco was able to induce a popup from Strawberry that could not score the tying run. The next batter was Kevin McReynolds. Orosco would not get a chance to face Big Mac, as future Met and current Bulldog Orel Hershiser would get the call to come in from the bullpen.

McReynolds had already contributed greatly to the game. His solo homer in the fourth inning had given the Mets a 3-2 lead, a lead that was extended to 4-2 in the sixth inning when McReynolds hit a ground rule double and scored on Gary Carter's triple. Big Mac had also drawn a walk in the 11th inning, followed by a stolen base to put his potential winning run in scoring position. However, that is where he was left stranded. Now the game was in the 12th inning, and it was up to him not to leave anyone stranded.

With the Shea Stadium crowd expecting another comeback victory, McReynolds lifted the third pitch from Hershiser into short center field. Everyone's thoughts went back to the ninth inning of Game 1, when John Shelby failed to catch Gary Carter's short fly ball, allowing the tying (Strawberry) and go-ahead (McReynolds) runs to score. That Game 1 moment would not be revisited in Game 4, as Shelby raced forward and tumbled onto the Shea Stadium grass, this time with ball in glove. Game 4 went to the Dodgers, as did Game 5.

You mean to tell me that the Mets were beaten by a guy wearing braces?

The series shifted back to Dodger Stadium for Game 6 with the Mets trying to stave off elimination. Their chances looked good with 20-game winner David Cone on the mound, although he had already been defeated by the Dodgers in Game 2. A repeat performance by Cone in Game 6 would mean that the hitters would have to come through to save the Mets' season. That's exactly what Kevin McReynolds did.

Batting with the bases loaded and one out in first inning, McReynolds hit a sacrifice fly to right field, giving the Mets the early 1-0 lead. In the third inning, after a leadoff single by Strawberry, McReynolds followed with a base hit of his own, moving Strawberry into scoring position, where he eventually scored on a double by shortstop Kevin Elster. The Mets still had a slim 2-0 lead in the fifth inning when McReynolds delivered the crushing blow, a two-run homer to left that knocked out starting pitcher Tim Leary. The blast gave the Mets a 4-0 lead and they went on to win the game 5-1, on the strength of David Cone's complete game and Kevin McReynolds' fireworks at the plate.

Alas, the Mets would not be celebrating a pennant after Game 7, as Orel Hershiser pitched a five-hit shutout to send the Dodgers to the World Series. McReynolds' 0-for-4 performance in the NLCS finale did not take anything away from his otherwise stellar series. Over the seven games, he collected seven base hits, including two doubles and two homers, scored four runs, drove in another four and stole two bases. For his efforts, he was rewarded with a three-year, $5.5 million contract during the off-season.

Although the Mets did not return to the playoffs in 1989 and 1990, it was not the fault of McReynolds. In fact, his two seasons were very similar:

  • 1989: .272, 22 HR, 85 RBI, 74 runs, 25 doubles, 15 SB, 9 assists
  • 1990: .269, 24 HR, 82 RBI, 75 runs, 23 doubles, 9 SB, 12 assists

Going into the 1991 season, things had changed for the Mets. The team McReynolds joined in 1987 was a shadow of its former self. Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson and Darryl Strawberry were no more. Those veteran players had been replaced by a new group of veterans. It's too bad the new cast of non-characters included Rick Cerone, Vince Coleman, Hubie Brooks, Garry Templeton and Tommy Herr, players who would have made a formidable team had they brought their DeLoreans with them with the time coordinates set for 1980-1985.

The Mets could've used 1.23 gigawatts of electricity in their bats in 1991.

The team was in disarray. There was no chemistry among the diverse group of players. As a result, performances suffered and the team fell apart, as they finished with their first losing season since 1983. McReynolds was not immune to the underachievement virus being passed around in the clubhouse, as he finished the 1991 season with his poorest numbers as a Met (.259, 16 HR, 74 RBI, 65 runs scored, 32 doubles, 6 SB, 9 assists). His only bad season in New York was also his final one, as McReynolds was traded to the Kansas City Royals (along with Gregg Jefferies and Keith Miller) for Bret Saberhagen and Bill Pecota (whose sole claim to fame as a Met was that he became the first position player to pitch in a regular season game when he did so in 1992).

Saberhagen had a Pedro Martinez-like Mets career, pitching four years in New York, with almost half of his victories coming in one of them (Saberhagen won 29 games as a Met, with 14 of them coming in 1994. Martinez won 32 games in New York, with 15 of them coming in 2005), while Bill Pecota only collected 269 at-bats in his one season as a Met.

The move to Kansas City did not help McReynolds' career, as he failed to hit .250 or pick up 400 at-bats in either of his two years there. In fact, his cumulative power numbers during the 1992 and 1993 seasons in Kansas City (24 HR, 91 RBI) were similar to what he produced in one average season during his prime with the Mets.

Despite the fact that McReynolds' career was on the downside, the Mets re-acquired him prior to the 1994 season. The main reason for McReynolds 2.0 was not to try to resuscitate his dying career. The Mets pulled off this deal in order to rid themselves of Vince Coleman (a.k.a. Vincenzo Grucci), who left his career in St. Louis, but brought his fireworks to New York.

Was Vincenzo Grucci responsible for this as well? (Photo by David G. Whitham)

Unfortunately, injuries took their toll on the 34-year-old McReynolds, as he was placed on the disabled list three times during the 1994 season. But before his second stint on the DL, McReynolds was showing signs of his former self. In his last eight games before his second trip to the disabled list, McReynolds hit .308, with a .400 on-base percentage and a .731 slugging percentage. He also scored seven runs, drove in nine and stole a base. Once he returned from the DL on July 8, he picked up right where he left off, batting .300 over his next nine games. His start on July 19 was vintage Kevin McReynolds.

The Mets were trailing the Dodgers 4-2 going to the bottom of the eighth inning. It was the second time the Mets had trailed by two runs in the game. In the fourth inning, the Mets were losing 2-0 when Todd Hundley cut the lead in half with a solo home run. With one out, Kevin McReynolds put himself into scoring position with a double off Dodger starter Kevin Gross. He later came around to score on a triple by Jeff Kent (who probably received a cheer or two from the 22,045 fans in attendance) that tied the game at 2.

In the sixth inning, with the Mets down 4-2, McReynolds delivered his second hit of the game, but was erased when Joe Orsulak followed Big Mac by grounding into a 6-4-3 double play. The next time Big Mac got an opportunity to hit, he would make sure the Mets would not go quietly.

With one out and two runners in scoring position, McReynolds came up to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning. A sacrifice fly would score a run, but a base hit would tie the game. Big Mac would come through with the latter, delivering a base hit to left that scored the tying runs. Later on in the inning, the Mets would load the bases against former Met Roger McDowell. First baseman David Segui hit a ground ball to his counterpart at first, Eric Karros, who threw home to force out McReynolds. But centerfielder Ryan Thompson followed that up by clearing the bases with a double to left, giving the Mets a 7-4 lead, a lead that John Franco protected in the ninth inning.

The Mets' five-run eighth inning, fueled by McReynolds two-run single, ended a two-game losing streak. But during his slide into home plate during the game-changing inning, McReynolds jammed his knee. It was later revealed that he had suffered cartilage damage in his right knee, necessitating a third trip to the disabled list. McReynolds did not start another game for the Mets, although he did come off the disabled list to appear as a pinch-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies on August 11, the day before the 1994 players strike was set to begin. In his final turn at-bat, McReynolds pinch hit for starting pitcher Jason Jacome and flied out against Fernando Valenzuela (yes, El Toro was a Phillie then) in the eighth inning. The Mets went on to lose the game 2-1 in 15 innings, then went on strike an hour later.

During the players strike, McReynolds decided that baseball was no longer in his future, so he retired back home to Arkansas for a life as an outdoorsman and duck hunting entrepreneur.

Duck season? Wabbit season? In the late '80s, it was Big Mac season at Shea.

Kevin McReynolds played 12 years in the major leagues, six of those seasons with the Mets in two separate stints. His 122 home runs as a Met are good for eighth on the all-time club leaderboard, but at the time he retired in 1994, only three Mets had ever hit more home runs than McReynolds (Darryl Strawberry, Howard Johnson, Dave Kingman). Also, McReynolds remains in the top ten on the franchise's all-time RBI list with 456, but was sixth at the time of his retirement (surpassed only by Darryl Strawberry, Howard Johnson, Ed Kranepool, Cleon Jones and Keith Hernandez). In addition, he was one of the smartest baserunners in franchise history, stealing 67 bases in 83 attempts (80.7% success rate). He also registered 60 outfield assists during his six seasons in New York, making him one of the better defensive players among Mets outfielders.

When Kevin McReynolds became a Met prior to the 1987 season, he was supposed to be the player the Mets thought they were getting when they signed George Foster five years earlier. They got far more than that. They got a player who wasn't a cancer in the clubhouse and one who was consistently good in all aspects of the game. Yes, sometimes he seemed to have his mind on hunting a little too much, but that was just a little bit of Arkansas that he brought with him to the big city.

Kevin McReynolds might be the best leftfielder in Mets history (no offense to Cleon Jones), yet so many people forget how valuable he was to the Mets during his time in New York. No leftfielder had a better stretch as a Met than McReynolds did from 1987-1990. If a big hit was needed, you could count on Big Mac to come through. If you needed a runner in scoring position, a successful steal attempt would soon follow. Need a strong and accurate throw from the outfield to cut down a run at the plate? McReynolds was your man. Without question, Kevin McReynolds is one of the most underrated Mets of all-time. It's just that he was too quiet to let you know it himself.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Pelfrey and Thole: The Battery That Energizes The Mets

Earlier today, Mike Pelfrey and Josh Thole both appeared on WFAN, with Pelfrey talking to Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton and Thole discussing the Mets with Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts. Both Pelfrey and Thole are enthused about the new regime at Citi Field, offering nothing but positive thoughts on the Mets and the direction of the team.

Some highlights of the conversation with the newly re-signed Mike Pelfrey include the following:

  • Although he feels bad about what happened to Jerry Manuel and Omar Minaya, he feels the Mets did the right thing by hiring Terry Collins and Sandy Alderson.
  • Feels the rotation is fine, especially with the recent signings of Chris Capuano and Chris Young
  • Brushes away doubts that this year's rotation needs work by mentioning that last year's rotation did better than anyone expected.
  • Quite pleased with his new contract (one-year, $3.925 million), which represents a significant raise from his $500,000 salary in 2010.
  • Says agent Scott Bora$ was pleased with the Mets initial offer of "between $3.5 and $4 million, but closer to $4 million."
  • Embraces his new role as the ace of the staff while Johan Santana recovers from surgery.
  • Doesn't think the Jets have a chance against the Steelers.

Photo taken by Studious Metsimus staff. That's right, we bad!

Aside from the last comment about the Jets' chances against the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game, Big Pelf gave Mets fans hope that 2011 will not be a disappointing season. He expects to be on the mound every fifth day, regardless of how he feels, and will not make excuses for poor play. He recognized that he had a poor month in 2010 (from June 30 to August 4, Pelfrey did not win a game and gave up 62 hits in 30 innings, leading to a bloated 9.00 ERA over that five week stretch), but vows to learn from that shaky month to be the pitcher he knows he has to be.

Whereas Pelfrey talked mostly about the pitching staff and his own status on the team, Josh Thole talked about every aspect of the team. He talked about the pitching staff as well, but also discussed his hitting style and the outlook for the Mets' everyday lineup. Among the topics Thole discussed with Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts were:

  • Expects fire and ambition from Terry Collins.
  • Not expecting the starting job to be handed to him.
  • Going into spring training with the mindset that he's fighting for a job.
  • Likes to hit in the 2-hole, but will hit anywhere TC puts him.
  • Won't try to hit home runs, but thinks Citi Field plays perfectly for his type of swing, allowing him to collect more hits.
  • Clicked the most with R.A. Dickey, since he caught him often at AAA-Buffalo and always sat with him the day after Dickey's starts to discuss what went wrong and what they can improve upon for the next start.
  • Expects Dickey to improve on last year's performance since last year was Dickey's first year as a full-time knuckleballer and has a much faster kunckleball than most other knucklers, giving hitters less time to react.
  • Thinks Mets have the bats in the lineup to hit the Phillies' pitching since they have former Silver Sluggers and All-Stars in the lineup.

Photo not taken by Studious Metsimus staff. Guess we not so bad as we claimed.

With the departure of Pedro Feliciano, Mike Pelfrey is now the longest tenured pitcher on the Mets, having been with the team since 2006. With Johan Santana's status for the first half of the season unknown, it will be up to Pelfrey to become the ace of the staff. Other than the aforementioned horrible five-week stretch from late June to early August, Big Pelf pitched like a wily veteran.

Prior to June 30, Pelfrey was 10-2 with a 2.71 ERA. After August 4, Mike was 5-3 with a 2.78 ERA. That's a 15-5 record with a sub-3.00 ERA for 27 starts. Like it or not, the 27-year-old Pelfrey is the leader of the staff. He might still be young, but he's not a kid anymore in baseball terms. It's time for Pelfrey to be consistently good for all 34 of his starts.

As for Josh Thole, he sounds much wiser than his 24 years. He's not taking anything for granted and is willing to learn from the team's veterans. He's cognizant of his role on the team and will not hesitate to talk to his teammates whenever he needs advice.

Until Johan Santana returns, Mike Pelfrey will be the #1 guy in the rotation. For the time being, Josh Thole is the team's #1 catcher. Both players are going to have to bring their "A" game to the table if the Mets are going to improve in the National League East. From what they said today on WFAN, it looks like they're both eagerly anticipating showing New York and the rest of the baseball world that the Mets are going to be a big surprise in 2011.

Monday, January 17, 2011

M.U.M.'s The Word (Most Underrated Mets): Jon Matlack

In 1966, the Mets had the #1 draft pick in the June Amateur Draft. A certain Reginald Martinez Jackson was there for the taking as the first pick, but instead the Mets chose Steve Chilcott, a left-handed hitting high school catcher from California. Jackson was taken as the second pick by the Kansas City Athletics. 27 years and 563 home runs later, Reggie Jackson was inducted into the Hall of Fame, while the Mets were left wondering what might have been.

One year after drafting Chilcott, who never played a game in the major leagues (Chilcott and Brien Taylor are the only #1 overall picks to retire from baseball without ever making it to the major leagues), the Mets had the #4 pick in the amateur draft. At the time, Chilcott was wallowing in the minor leagues, while Reggie Jackson had already made it to the majors.

Going into the 1967 draft, the Mets' focus was on pitching. Eight of their first 12 picks in the '67 amateur draft were pitchers, including their first round pick. That year, the Mets did not waste their high draft pick on a player who fizzled out in the minor leagues, for 1967 was the year the Mets drafted Jon Matlack.

Jonathan Trumpbour Matlack, despite the high draft pick, took some time to get to the major leagues. The Mets did not feel the need to rush him, being that he was all of 17 years old on draft day.

During the Miracle Mets season of 1969, the 19-year-old Matlack was pitching at AAA-Tidewater, just one step away from the major leagues. But the Mets had a strong pitching staff, with Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Don Cardwell, Jim McAndrew and Nolan Ryan all spending time in the starting rotation. Because of the surplus of quality starting pitching at the major league level, Matlack spent the entire 1969 and 1970 seasons at Tidewater as well as the majority of the 1971 season.

Matlack didn't have a spectacular three-year stay in Triple-A, going 37-25, with a 4.09 ERA. However, when Jerry Koosman was placed on the disabled list on July 6, 1971, a spot in the rotation opened up. The time had finally come for the Mets' first round draft pick from 1967 to make the jump to the big leagues.

While Koosman was recuperating on the DL, Matlack made five starts. Unfortunately, his first major league victory did not come so easily, as Matlack was charged with three losses and two no-decisions during his first stint in the major leagues. Koosman returned from the disabled list on August 14 and Matlack was sent back to Tidewater. He was brought back up to the Mets in September, making one relief appearance and one start, where he gave up one run in eight innings of work. However, Matlack did not receive any run support in his final effort, settling for the no-decision in a game the Mets eventually won 2-1. Although Matlack finished with an 0-3 record for the Mets in 1971, he retained his rookie status for 1972, a season that would firmly entrench him in the starting rotation.

When Nolan Ryan was traded to the California Angels on December 10, 1971 in the infamous Jim Fregosi deal, it opened up a spot in the starting rotation. Jon Matlack was now in the big leagues for good and he took full advantage of the opportunity, going 6-0 in his first nine games (eight starts), with a 1.95 ERA. Matlack's sixth victory was a complete game three-hit shutout against the Phillies, defeating Steve Carlton, who went on to win 27 games and the Cy Young Award in 1972.

Carlton was not the only pitcher from that game who won a major award for his outstanding performance in 1972. His opponent took home an award as well, as Jon Matlack became the second Mets player to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award (Tom Seaver was the first in 1967). Matlack finished the season with a 15-10 record and a 2.32 ERA, good for fourth in the National League.

The 1972 season also ended with Matlack playing an important part in baseball history, as he gave up Roberto Clemente's 3,000th hit on September 30. It would be the last hit in Clemente's storied career, as he was tragically killed in a plane crash while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

When 1973 began, Matlack was no longer the rookie in the rotation. He was now the #3 pitcher on the staff after Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, the leaders of the 1969 World Champion Mets. Unfortunately, the Mets had not returned to the postseason since 1969. All that changed when the Mets started to believe.

The 1973 Mets were going nowhere fast. After three consecutive third place, 83-win seasons, the Mets appeared headed towards familiar territory - last place. That's exactly where the Mets found themselves on August 30, after a 10-inning, 1-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. Although the Mets were struggling to find their identity and their place in the standings, their poor record was not the fault of Jon Matlack, as the sophomore pitcher had a strong stretch of starts from May to August. Over a period of 18 starts, Matlack held hitters to a .217 batting average and a .300 slugging percentage. The end result for the 18-start stretch was a 2.73 ERA. However, the Mets could not capitalize on Matlack's extended streak of excellence, losing 11 of those 18 starts. But after August 30, everything changed for Matlack and the Mets.

Once Tug McGraw uttered his famous "Ya Gotta Believe" rallying cry, the Mets were nothing but a team that believed. They won 21 of their final 29 games, overtaking every team in the NL East before winning the division on the final day of the season. Matlack was brilliant over his last five starts, holding hitters to a .186 batting average and registering a 1.77 ERA. Despite the fact that his won-loss record was 14-16, Matlack finished the year with a 3.20 ERA and his first (and only) season with 200 or more strikeouts. The Mets were on to the playoffs for the second time in franchise history and this time, Jon Matlack was going to be a part of it.

Matlack was only in his second full season in the major leagues, but you would never know it by how he pitched in the postseason. After the Mets had lost the first game of the NLCS against the Cincinnati Reds, Matlack was called upon to even the series, a tough task for any pitcher against the vaunted hitters of the Big Red Machine, let alone a 23-year-old making his first playoff appearance. Matlack responded by pitching one of the greatest games in Mets postseason history, shutting out the Reds on two hits, while striking out nine. Matlack's performance kept the Mets from falling behind 2-0 in the best-of-five series and served as the catalyst for the Mets' eventual series win.

Seriously, didn't anyone have color TVs back in 1973?

The Mets' opponent in the 1973 World Series was the Oakland A's, led by slugger Reggie Jackson. (Hey, didn't we talk about him about a million paragraphs ago?) Matlack, who had already started 35 games (34 regular season, 1 postseason) was called upon to start Game 1. In doing so, he became only the fourth pitcher in major league history to start a World Series opener with a losing record (14-16) during the regular season. The other pitchers to accomplish this rare feat were Alvin Crowder (9-11 with the 1934 Detroit Tigers), Denny Galehouse (9-10 with the 1944 St. Louis Browns) and Don Drysdale (13-16 with the 1966 Los Angeles Dodgers). Matlack pitched well, but took the loss as the Mets' bats remained silent in the 2-1 defeat.

Matlack came back on only three days rest to start Game 4 and pitched beautifully, holding the A's to one unearned run and three hits over eight innings of work. The Mets also won Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead in the World Series. That's when the decision to start Seaver and Matlack on short rest came back to bite manager Yogi Berra and all those who believed in the 1973 Mets.

Although George Stone had an unexpectedly good season (12-3, 2.80 ERA), he was bypassed for Seaver and Matlack in the final two games. When Seaver lost a tightly contested Game 6, Matlack was tabbed as the Game 7 starter. The World Series finale would be his 38th start of the season, and the wear and tear of the long season on his young arm showed, as he gave up four third-inning runs to the A's. The Mets were never able to recover from the early deficit, losing the game and the World Series to Oakland by the final score of 5-2.

If anything, the postseason experience made Matlack a stronger pitcher. In one season, he experienced the highest of highs (his stellar playoff debut against the Reds) and the lowest of lows (losing the seventh game of the World Series). He was now battle tested and ready to move on to the 1974 season, which was one of the most perplexing seasons for any pitcher in franchise history.

If you look at Matlack's numbers from 1974, you'd think he was a top contender for the Cy Young Award. He finished the season with a 2.41 ERA, 14 complete games, 195 strikeouts, allowed only eight home runs in 265.1 innings and led the major leagues with seven shutouts. Why did Matlack not receive any Cy Young love in 1974? Perhaps it was his 13-15 record that season.

How could someone who had such a brilliant season on the mound do so poorly in the won-loss department? Simply stated, the Mets offense in 1974 was offensive. As a team, the Mets batted .235 in 1974, hitting only 96 home runs and scoring 572 runs (an average of 3.1 runs per game). If the 2010 Mets drove you crazy with their 12 walk-off losses, imagine what it was like in 1974, when the Mets set a franchise record with 14 walk-off losses (10 of them in extra innings).

Speaking of extra innings, the Mets were 4-16 in extra inning games in 1974 and 17-36 in one-run games. Is it no wonder that Matlack couldn't win more games? Either the team couldn't score when he was pitching, or the bullpen blew the game for him once he left the mound. Nowhere was this more evident than during the last two months of the season.

From August 3 to October 2, Matlack made 13 starts for the Mets. He pitched complete games in more than half of those starts (seven), had an excellent strikeout to walk ratio (79 K, 31 BB) and registered an ERA of 1.86 (22 earned runs in 13 starts). Of course, the Mets lost nine of those 13 games, scoring three runs or less in ten of them.

It's actually a wonder that Matlack won as many games as he did in 1974. In winning 13 games, he had to be nearly perfect. He pitched 11 complete games in those 13 victories, and had a stunning ERA and WHIP (0.95 ERA, 0.74 WHIP). The only reward for such a stellar season was his first All-Star Game selection, an honor bestowed upon him again in 1975 and 1976.

In those two All-Star seasons (1975 and 1976), Matlack did much better in the win column, combining to go 33-22 over the two campaigns. In 1976, Matlack won a career-high 17 games, led the National League with six complete games and had a 2.95 ERA. The Mets also recovered in the standings, finishing 86-76, which at the time, was the second-most wins in franchise history.

Uh oh. We're about to begin the paragraph about 1977, meaning the smiles in the photo above are about to turn into frowns.

Going into the 1977 season, Jon Matlack had won 75 games and sported a 2.88 career ERA. He was part of a spectacular starting rotation that featured Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. But everything changed in that fateful season. The Mets started the season poorly. After a Memorial Day doubleheader sweep at the hands of the Montreal Expos, the Mets' record stood at 15-30, which was good enough for last place in the NL East, 14 games behind the first place Chicago Cubs. Following the losses, the Mets fired manager Joe Frazier and replaced him with first baseman Joe Torre. It would not be the only change the Mets underwent in 1977.

Two weeks after the firing of Joe Frazier, the Mets traded away "The Franchise", as Tom Seaver was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. On the same day, slugging first baseman/outfielder Dave Kingman was traded to the San Diego Padres. From that day forward, June 15, 1977 would always be known as "The Midnight Massacre". Seaver was not the only member of the 1969 World Champions to be traded in 1977, as his batterymate Jerry Grote was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 31.

Jon Matlack, already a veteran at age 27, was spared from all the in-season transactions, but his performance on the mound suffered. His 7-15 record and 4.21 ERA was easily the worst of his career. As a result, Matlack was traded to the Texas Rangers on December 8, 1977, in a four-team deal that also involved the Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves. There was a future Hall of Famer involved in the deal (Bert Blyleven), but unfortunately, the man known to Studious Metsimus readers for his love of flatulence was sent from the Rangers to the Pirates.

This photo will never stink.

The players that became Mets in the deal were Willie Montañez, Tom Grieve and Ken Henderson. Neither player did particularly well or played much with the Mets, but Matlack rebounded from his awful 1977 season with the Mets to win 15 games for the Rangers in 1978. He also posted career-bests in 1978 with a 2.27 ERA and 18 complete games.

Matlack's 1978 season was his last good year in the major leagues, as injuries cut his once-promising career short. From 1979-1983, Matlack was able to win only 28 games for the Rangers, finishing his career as part of Texas' bullpen. Matlack was only 33 when he retired after being released by the Rangers on October 31, 1983.

Although Matlack only pitched six full seasons for the Mets, his name appears all over the franchise's all-time leaderboard. He's in the top ten all-time in wins (82, 7th), starting pitchers' ERA (3.03, 3rd), WHIP (1.19, 10th), innings pitched (1,448, 6th), strikeouts (1,023, 8th), complete games (65, 4th) and shutouts (26, tied for 2nd).

Surprisingly, despite the fact that he last played for the Mets in 1977 and his name still remains plastered all over the club's all-time pitching leaders, Matlack has not been enshrined into the Mets Hall of Fame. Surprisingly enough, for a team that has always prided itself on pitching, only four of its pitchers have been inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame, three of whom were Matlack's teammates. Tom Seaver was inducted in 1988. He was followed by Jerry Koosman the following year, Tug McGraw in 1993 and Dwight Gooden in 2010.

Thanks to Corbis Images for this sweet photo of the Mets' Big Three (Jon Matlack, Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman).

Perhaps someday Matlack will join Seaver, Koosman, McGraw and Gooden with a plaque of his own in the Mets Hall of Fame. For the short period of time that he was a Met, he established himself as one of the best pitchers in franchise history. It's been 34 years since Matlack pitched his last game in a Mets uniform. If the Mets can't agree that he belongs in their Hall of Fame, perhaps at least their fans can agree with me that Matlack is one of the most underrated Mets of all-time.

Whenever one thinks of the competitive Mets teams from the early-to-mid '70s, it should not just be the combination of Seaver and Koosman that comes to mind. Matlack was just as instrumental as "The Franchise" and "The Kooz" to the success of those teams. Who knows just how high he would have ranked on the Mets' all-time pitching leaderboards had they not given up on him (and everybody else) after his first subpar season in 1977?