Monday, February 29, 2016

The Most With The Least: Art Shamsky (1968-70)

One of the worst feelings for a promising minor league talent is knowing his path to the majors is being blocked by a productive veteran.  It happens to young prospects all the time, causing those players to be misused at the major league level when a space eventually opens up for them on the parent club's roster.  Unfortunately, many of those misused players end up having relatively short careers and their potential on the big league diamond is never fully realized.

Occasionally, a team that can't guarantee playing time to a young star at the major league level ends up trading that player to a team that can offer him a more steady job.  Sometimes, all it takes is a trade to a new environment for that player's talents to shine.  And in the late 1960s, one such player found his way to success as a member of the New York Mets.

Art Shamsky's left-handed power was crucial in the Mets' drive to October glory.  (Warren Zvon/Mets Fantasy Cards)

Arthur Louis Shamsky was born in 1941 to Jewish parents in St. Louis.  Signed as an amateur free agent by Cincinnati in 1959, Shamsky was a power-hitting outfielder in the Reds' minor league system, clubbing 92 home runs from 1960 to 1964.  Even though he had proven himself in the minor leagues, spending the entire 1963 and 1964 campaigns at the Triple-A level, his road to everyday success in the majors was blocked by the Reds' potent outfield.  With young star Tommy Harper manning one corner outfield position and future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson handling the other, Shamsky didn't make the jump to the majors until 1965, and even then, the Reds could only give him 96 at-bats, mostly as a pinch-hitter, as he started just 12 of the 64 games he played in.

Cincinnati had two 20-game winners in 1965 in Sammy Ellis and Jim Maloney, but the team's combined ERA was ninth in the ten-team National League, with only the Mets posting a worse earned run average as a team.  Because of the Reds' shortcomings on the mound, Reds owner Bill DeWitt went into the 1965-66 off-season coveting starting pitchers.  At the same time, he thought 30-year-old Frank Robinson was past his prime and felt he was expendable.  As a result, DeWitt traded Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles for two-time All-Star pitcher Milt Pappas and two other players in what became one of the most lopsided trades in major league history.

Pappas never panned out in Cincinnati, while Robinson went on to win a Triple Crown in his first season in Baltimore and eventually wore an Orioles cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.  The Robinson trade didn't help the Reds, but did help further the career of Art Shamsky, who appeared to be in line to earn more at-bats in 1966 with the departure of Robinson.  Or so he thought.

In 1966, the Reds moved third baseman Deron Johnson - who had a league-leading 130 RBI in 1965 - to left field and shifted Tommy Harper from left to right.  As a result, Shamsky started just 63 games for the Reds in '66.  However, Shamsky made the most of his opportunity when he did receive a rare start, blasting 21 homers in 234 at-bats.

Although Shamsky was one of the team's top home run hitters in 1966, he did not cross the plate very often nor did he drive in many runners other than himself.  Despite his 21 homers, he scored just 41 times and produced 47 RBI.  In doing so, he became the first player in major league history to hit 20 or more homers while failing to score 50 runs or drive in 50.  And since then, only seven players have been able to match Shamsky's feat.

Without the Baseball Reference Play Index, Shamsky's feat would have remained an urban legend.

Shamsky failed to capitalize on his breakout season, batting .197 with just three homers in 147 at-bats during the 1967 campaign.  Although he was still only 26 years old, the Reds traded him to the New York Mets at the conclusion of the season for veteran utility infielder Bob Johnson.  Nineteen days after Shamsky became a Met, the team made an unorthodox trade, sending pitcher Bill Denehy and cash to the Washington Senators for manager Gil Hodges.

The arrival of Hodges changed Shamsky's career forever, as Hodges believed in a platoon system in which he assembled his starting lineup according to the opponent's starting pitcher.  Now, rather than being relegated to the bench the way he was throughout most of his career in Cincinnati, the left-handed hitting Shamsky would get an opportunity to start against right-handed pitchers.  As a result, Shamsky started in 87 of the Mets' 162 games in 1968, collecting 30 extra-base hits (including 12 homers) in 345 at-bats.

Although Shamsky batted just .238 in his first year with the team, that was still higher than the team's .228 overall batting average in what became known as "The Year of the Pitcher".  Shamsky finished eighth on the team in at-bats, yet still finished third in doubles (tied with Ron Swoboda), second in triples (tied with Cleon Jones) and third in homers.  His 48 RBI were also good for fourth on the team, just 11 behind team leader Swoboda.  If there was one negative about Shamsky's 1968 campaign, it was his 58 strikeouts against 21 walks.  By today's standards, that may not seem like a tremendous number of whiffs.  But it was highly unusual for Shamsky, who prided himself on being a good contact hitter.  The "high" strikeout total was something Shamsky set out to correct in 1969, and in doing so, he enjoyed his most complete season at the plate and his greatest team success.

From 1965 to 1968, Shamsky posted a .231 batting average and .723 OPS.  He also struck out 166 times (and drew 78 walks) in 822 at-bats, averaging a strikeout every 4.95 at-bats.  A back injury suffered in spring training caused Shamsky to miss the first 30 games of the 1969 season.  But when he returned to the Mets in mid-May, he was far more focused at the plate, and the team benefited from the new Art Shamsky.

Shamsky made his season debut with a pinch-hit RBI single against the Atlanta Braves on May 13.   By the All-Star break, he was batting .343 with a .997 OPS in 140 at-bats.  He also drew 22 walks while striking out just 19 times as part of a right field platoon with Ron Swoboda.  Then, beginning in mid-August, Shamsky started 30 of the team's next 43 games.  Three of the 13 games he did not start were due to his observance of Rosh Hashanah, even though the team was facing right-handed starting pitchers in those games.  The Mets won all three games sat out by Shamsky - plus 25 of the 30 contests he did start - on their way to winning their first National League East crown.

Photo by The Sporting News
Despite spending the first month of the 1969 campaign on the disabled list with a back injury, Shamsky surpassed 300 at-bats for the second consecutive season.  He also batted .300 for the first time in his career, adding 14 homers and 47 RBI, while finishing the year with more walks (36) than strikeouts (32).  Shamsky finished second on the team in both batting average and home runs.  He was also the team's first runner-up in on-base percentage (.375), OPS (.863) and OPS+ (139).  And despite Cleon Jones's team-leading .340 batting average and Tommie Agee's club-topping 26 homers, it was Shamsky who led the team with a .488 slugging percentage.

Shamsky continued his torrid hitting in the National League Championship Series, collecting seven hits in the three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves.  Atlanta used right-handed starting pitchers in all three games, allowing Shamsky to start each game over Swoboda, who did not have a single plate appearance in the short series.  Shamsky set the tone for the series in Game One, collecting the Mets' first hit and crossing the plate on a Jerry Grote single.  He then contributed another single - his third hit of the game - during the Mets' five-run eighth inning rally, which turned a 5-4 deficit into a 9-5 lead.  The Mets won Game One, then took the next two games, with Shamsky producing four more hits.  But just as Shamsky earned playing time over Swoboda in the NLCS, he spent most of the World Series on the bench, as the Mets faced southpaw starters four times in the Fall Classic.  Shamsky did not collect a hit against Baltimore in the World Series, but he did collect a ring after the Mets dispatched in Orioles in five games.

The Mets failed to defend their World Series title in 1970, but Shamsky finally succeeded in becoming a regular player for the first time.  Shamsky continued to platoon in right field with Ron Swoboda, but also logged significant time as part of a first base platoon with Donn Clendenon.  Originally, Ed Kranepool was supposed to be the left-handed hitting complement to the righty-swinging Clendenon at first, but Kranepool experienced the worst slump of his career during the first few months of the 1970 campaign and was subsequently sent to the minors, allowing Shamsky to become the starting first baseman whenever the Mets were facing a right-handed starting pitcher.

Used mostly out of the cleanup spot in the Mets' batting order, Shamsky started over 100 games for the first and only time in his career in 1970.  He had his greatest success in the month of May, when he put up a .341/.416/.580 slash line in 24 starts.  During the month, he produced six doubles, five homers and 17 RBI, all while splitting time between right field (13 starts), first base (nine starts) and left field (two starts).  He also struck out just seven times in 101 plate appearances, while walking a dozen times.

New York may not have recaptured the glory from their miraculous 1969 campaign in 1970, but Shamsky did have a spectacular season of his own, setting career highs in runs scored (48), RBI (49), hits (118) and extra-base hits (32).  He also led the team with a .293 batting average and produced his second straight season with an OPS above .800.  And once again, he finished the year with more walks (49) than strikeouts (33).

Sadly, the 1971 campaign would be Shamsky's fourth and final season in New York.  For the second time in three years, injuries curtailed his campaign, but this time Shamsky could not recover from his nagging aches and pains, batting .185 with five homers in 18 RBI in 135 at-bats.  The only positive thing to come out of Shamsky's 1971 season was that he once again walked more times than he struck out, drawing 21 bases on balls while fanning 18 times.

Just one day after the conclusion of the 1971 World Series, Shamsky was part of an eight-player deal between the Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals.  Unfortunately, he never played a game for his hometown team, as he was released by the Cards at the end of spring training and signed with the rival Chicago Cubs.  Shamsky then split the 1972 season between the Cubs and the Oakland A's before being released by Oakland in July, just three months before the A's won the World Series.

When he played his final game in the majors, Shamsky was 30 years old.  Only once in his eight-year major league career did he play enough to reach 400 at-bats, but he never had a problem with the fact that he did not become a true everyday player.  While in New York, Shamsky learned to love his adopted city, just as Mets fans - especially ones of the Jewish faith - embraced him.

(Barry Talesnick/Globe Photos)

"I learned that New York City is really one of a kind. ... The city energizes you.  There is never a dull moment in New York City.  After a few months I fell in love with the city. ... I was okay with it now."

---Art Shamsky, from his book "The Magnificent Seasons".

Art Shamsky found the role he was perfect for as a member of the New York Mets.  In his four years with the team, Shamsky accepted the platoon philosophy of manager Gil Hodges, becoming one of the most valuable members of a championship team.  To this day, he is beloved by Mets fans young and old.  He is also respected by his peers in the Jewish sports community, who inducted him into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1994.

He may have averaged just 296 at-bats per season during his tenure in New York, but Shamsky always made the most of those opportunities, appearing among the team leaders in virtually every offensive category despite his limited number of plate appearances.  That is why whenever the topic comes up of which player accomplished the most on the Mets with the least amount of playing time, Art Shamsky is sure to be one of the players in the conversation. 

Note:  The Most With The Least is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who performed at a high level without receiving the accolades or playing time their more established teammates got, due to injuries, executive decisions or other factors.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 4, 2016: Benny Agbayani
January 11, 2016: Donn Clendenon
January 18, 2016: Tim Teufel
January 25, 2016: Hisanori Takahashi
February 1, 2016: Chris Jones
February 8, 2016: Claudell Washington
February 15, 2016: Moises Alou
February 22, 2016: Pat Zachry

Monday, February 22, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Donruss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note:  The Most With The Least is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who performed at a high level without receiving the accolades or playing time their more established teammates got, due to injuries, executive decisions or other factors.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 4, 2016: Benny Agbayani
January 11, 2016: Donn Clendenon
January 18, 2016: Tim Teufel
January 25, 2016: Hisanori Takahashi
February 1, 2016: Chris Jones
February 8, 2016: Claudell Washington
February 15, 2016: Moises Alou

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Most With The Least: Moises Alou (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travis Lindquist/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for this, Baseball Reference Play Index!

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

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

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

Note:  The Most With The Least is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who performed at a high level without receiving the accolades or playing time their more established teammates got, due to injuries, executive decisions or other factors.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 4, 2016: Benny Agbayani
January 11, 2016: Donn Clendenon
January 18, 2016: Tim Teufel
January 25, 2016: Hisanori Takahashi
February 1, 2016: Chris Jones
February 8, 2016: Claudell Washington

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Most With The Least: Claudell Washington (1980)

There have been many players to have long and distinguished careers in baseball who made brief pit stops as members of the Mets.  Warren Spahn, Willie Mays and Roberto Alomar had already established themselves as future Hall of Famers before they reported for duty in Flushing.  But by the time they joined the Mets, they were a shadow of their former selves and were out of baseball soon after their Mets debuts.

Very rarely has a player come to the Mets as a former All-Star, played well for the team, then left New York to become an All-Star again.  One such example was a player who came to the team as a gifted 25-year-old athlete who had tremendous speed and solid pop in his bat.  He exhibited both of those qualities during his brief tenure with the Mets, but once his 17-year stay in the majors was over, his time with the team was mostly met with "oh, he was once with the Mets?" comments from even the most die-hard fans.

He spent less than four months in a Mets uniform, but his mostly overlooked time with the team produced several magical moments, giving Mets fans credence that "The Magic is Back" was more than just a team slogan.

In 79 games as a Met, Claudell Washington had a full year's production compared to most of his teammates.  (Topps Image)

Claudell Washington was a superstar at a very young age.  Drafted as a 17-year-old amateur free agent by Oakland in 1972, Washington rocketed through the A's minor league system.  After batting .361 with 11 homers and 33 stolen bases in just 74 games at the Double-A level in 1974, Washington was promoted to the majors eight weeks before his 20th birthday, winning a World Series ring with the A's just three and a half months after his call-up.  In his first full season in the big leagues (1975), Washington made the American League All-Star team, collecting a hit and stealing a base in the Midsummer Classic, before getting picked off by Mets pitcher Jon Matlack, who earned the victory in the game.  Washington ended the 1975 campaign with a .308 batting average, ten homers, 40 steals and placed 14th for the A.L. Most Valuable Player award.

But Washington had a disappointing 1976 campaign, showing very little power (5 HR) and having his batting average drop more than fifty points and his OPS tumble by more than one hundred points.  At the same time, the A's were a team in transition.  The advent of free agency caused team owner Charlie Finley to part ways with most of the players that helped the team win five consecutive division titles from 1971 to 1975.  Free agent departures, trades and player releases resulted in four future Hall of Famers - Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Billy Williams and Rollie Fingers - leaving the team.  Veteran players weren't the only casualties of Finley's fire sale, as 22-year-old Claudell Washington was dealt to the Texas Rangers just days before the start of the 1977 season for two minor league players and cash.  It would not be the last time Washington changed uniforms.

Washington was traded five times and signed three free-agent deals with new teams over the course of his lengthy career.  In 1980, he was traded from the Chicago White Sox (his third team) to the Mets.  At the time of the deal, the Mets had recently undergone an ownership change and were desperately trying to attract fans to Shea Stadium.  The team was the first in baseball to hire an advertising agency when they brought in Jerry Della Famina and his partners to come up with a slogan for the team.  "The Magic Is Back" sought to foreshadow that good times were just around the corner at Shea.  But by mid-May, the team was mired in the N.L. East cellar with a 9-18 record.  A month-long burst of energy gave the Mets hope, as the team went 13-8 in their next 21 games.  That was when new general manager Frank Cashen decided he had to bring in a big bat to help the team continue down the winning path, and he did so by trading for Washington.

The Mets had homered just 11 times in their first 48 games, with two of the homers coming in the season's third game.  From April 16 to May 23, the team managed to hit just three homers in 30 games.  Although Washington wasn't a classic slugger, he had an innate ability to drive the ball, as evidenced by his 33 doubles and 13 homers in 131 games for the White Sox in 1979.  And given that Washington was only 25 years old when the Mets acquired him, he still had the potential to develop more power.

His first hit as a Met came during one of the most memorable innings in Mets history, as his RBI single with two outs in the ninth on June 14 brought Steve Henderson to the plate, who delivered a game-ending three-run homer off San Francisco Giants reliever Allen Ripley to complete the improbable five-run ninth-inning rally.  Washington's single in the "Hendu Can Do" game was the only hit he produced in his first two weeks with the team.  His next three hits traveled just a little farther than his first.

Image courtesy of Fleer
On June 22, the Mets played the finale of a three-game series at Dodger Stadium, hoping to escape with a victory after dropping the first two contests, which included a shutout loss to Jerry Reuss the day before.  New York wasted no time putting runs up on the scoreboard, using Washington's first home run as a Met to take a 2-0, first-inning lead.  Washington then homered again in the fifth, becoming the first player on the power-starved Mets to have a multi-homer game in 1980.  Two innings later, he completed the trifecta, becoming the third player in franchise history - after Jim Hickman in 1965 and Dave Kingman in 1976 - to hit three home runs in one game.  Washington had a chance to hit a fourth homer in the ninth inning, but singled instead.  He then stole second base, becoming the first Met to have three homers and a stolen base in the same game.  No Mets player matched Washington's feat until Yoenis Cespedes turned the trick in Colorado on August 21, 2015.

Washington's three-homer game was the first time since June 30, 1979 that the team had hit three home runs in one contest.  It was also just the second time during the 1980 campaign that the club had homered more than once in a game.  It didn't take long for the Mets to produce another three-homer game, doing so the next time they took the field two days later in Chicago, and once again Washington left the yard.  With the Mets trailing by two runs in the fifth inning, Washington clubbed a three-run homer off Cubs starting pitcher Rick Reuschel, giving the Mets a 6-5 lead, which the bullpen was able to hold at windy Wrigley Field.

The four homers in two games for Washington proved to be contagious, especially once the calendar turned to July.  After hitting just 15 homers in their first 62 games, the Mets hit 19 home runs in the first 19 games they played in July.  Washington's prodigious power displays rubbed off on fellow outfielder Lee Mazzilli, who hit 11 of those 19 home runs.  Washington played in 14 of the 19 games, putting together a streak where he drove in at least one run in 10 of 11 games.  He also doubled once, legged out three triples, homered twice and stole six bases in the 14-game stretch.

New York reached the .500 mark during the Mazzilli and Washington-fueled hot streak, but then stumbled in August, going 9-20 from August 3 (when the team was just one game under .500 and six games out of first place) until the end of the month.  The Mets scored just 98 runs in those 29 games, as the team's early summer magic went poof.  But the one player who continued to wave a magic wand in August was Claudell Washington.

Washington played in 25 of the 29 games, batting .352 with a .545 slugging percentage.  While his teammates were dormant at the plate, Washington contributed six doubles, a triple, three homers and 14 RBI in just 88 at-bats.  When Washington finally cooled down, the team completely stopped winning.  Literally.  From August 31 to September 27, Washington played in 18 games, putting up a .169/.210/.220 slash line.  The Mets lost all 18 games.

Once the 1980 season had come to its conclusion, with the advertised magic not being all the way back, Washington left the Mets as a free agent, signing a five-year, $3.5 million contract with the Atlanta Braves.  The contract was ridiculed by most baseball pundits, and several baseball owners were stunned by the money Braves owner Ted Turner was throwing at Washington.  Yankees owner George Steinbrenner called Turner "crazy", while Baltimore Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams said the deal was "the most outrageous contract I have ever heard of" and went on to add other opinions on the signing, saying "it's absolutely crazy" and "a touch of madness".  Mets general manager Frank Cashen, who engineered the trade for Washington just five months earlier, had just one word to say on the subject.

(Keith Torrie/NY Daily News)


Washington was reunited with his former Mets manager, Joe Torre, in Atlanta after Torre was relieved of his managerial duties in New York following the 1981 season.  Torre's leadership and Washington's bat (he achieved a career high in home runs, RBI and runs scored, while adding 33 stolen bases) helped lead the Braves to a division title in 1982 - the team's first since losing to the Mets in the NLCS in 1969.  Two years later, Washington made his second All-Star team and first as a National League player, entering the game as a defensive replacement for Mets superstar Darryl Strawberry.  Ten years after he played his final game with the Mets, he retired from baseball, spending the final five seasons of his 17-year major league career with the California Angels and New York Yankees.

Claudell Washington's career with the Mets lasted all of 79 games.  He started just 68 times, but still managed to be one of the team's top offensive stars.  He produced a .275/.324/.465 slash line in 306 plate appearances and had 16 doubles, four triples, 10 homers, 42 RBI and 17 stolen bases.  Despite playing in less than half of the team's games in 1980, Washington was second on the Mets in home runs, sixth in doubles, third in triples, sixth in RBI and fourth in steals.  He also led the team in slugging percentage and his 121 OPS+ was second to Lee Mazzilli (126 OPS+).

In 1980, the Mets assured their fans that the magic of the team's past was on its way back to Shea Stadium.  Although the team did not fulfill their end of the bargain for a few more years, the team did give its fans a reason to come out to the ballpark when the trade for Claudell Washington was made.  Washington's performance at the plate and on the basepaths allowed him to leave for greener pastures after the season was over, but he still thrilled Mets fans during the brief time he called Flushing home.

Yes, it's true.  Claudell Washington was actually a Met, even if it was only for four months out of his 17 years in the majors.  If you blinked, you missed it.  But if you were an opposing pitcher facing the Mets during the summer of 1980, then you had a front row seat to what Washington was capable of doing on a baseball diamond.  It's no wonder Ted Turner broke the bank (and the minds of his peers) for a player like Washington.

Note:  The Most With The Least is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who performed at a high level without receiving the accolades or playing time their more established teammates got, due to injuries, executive decisions or other factors.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 4, 2016: Benny Agbayani
January 11, 2016: Donn Clendenon
January 18, 2016: Tim Teufel
January 25, 2016: Hisanori Takahashi
February 1, 2016: Chris Jones

Monday, February 1, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YouTube video courtesy of CourtsideTweets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note:  The Most With The Least is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who performed at a high level without receiving the accolades or playing time their more established teammates got, due to injuries, executive decisions or other factors.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 4, 2016: Benny Agbayani
January 11, 2016: Donn Clendenon
January 18, 2016: Tim Teufel
January 25, 2016: Hisanori Takahashi