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

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Most With The Least: Hisanori Takahashi (2010)

Ever since Hideo Nomo burst onto the major league scene with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, creating a craze at Chavez Ravine not seen since the days of Fernando-mania, the pipeline for Japanese players has remained quite active in the United States, particularly for the Mets.  Two years after Nomo became the first player from Japan to win the Rookie of the Year award - edging out future Mets killer Chipper Jones for the honor - the Mets signed their first Japanese player in reliever Takashi Kashiwada.

Kashiwada became the first of 15 players born in Japan to play for the Mets from 1997 to 2010, making Flushing the top destination in the major leagues for Japanese players.  However, none of the 15 athletes achieved the success and adulation that Nomo (who was one of the 15, becoming a Met in 1998) earned in Los Angeles.

Masato Yoshii won 12 games for the Mets in 1999 - albeit with a high ERA (4.40) and WHIP (1.30) - then fizzled in the postseason, pitching just 13 innings in three starts.  Tsuyoshi Shinjo became the first position player from Japan to don a Mets uniform in 2001.  But after a decade of being a rock star in Japan, he became soft rock in New York and was gone after just one somewhat productive season (returning for a shorter, less productive stint with the Mets in 2003).  And who could forget Kaz Matsui?  If the Mets signed him specifically to hit home runs in his first at-bat each season, then they were wildly successful, as Matsui did just that in each of this three years in New York.  But high expectations, in addition to temporarily displacing the more popular Jose Reyes to second base in 2004, caused the Matsui era in Flushing to be mostly forgettable.

It wasn't until 2010, when a lesser-known veteran pitcher joined the Mets, that the team found a Japanese player who actually exceeded expectations in New York.  He also developed an unexpected following and redefined himself during his one season with the Mets to became a lights-out reliever, helping the team improve by nine wins after a disappointing season the year before.

Hisanori Takahashi found success in New York in multiple roles.  (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Hisanori Takahashi played ten years in his native Japan from 2000 to 2009.  Unlike some of his more celebrated peers, Takahashi didn't begin his Japan Central League career until he was 25 years old.  And although he was a popular player in his home country, his career as a starting pitcher and sometimes reliever had its share of ups and downs.  He was an All-Star who helped the Yomiuri Giants win three championships, but he also had a number of poor seasons, which made several major league teams hesitant to sign him when he declared his interest to pitch in the United States as a 35-year-old in 2010.  But the Mets were a team in disarray and needed all the help they could get, especially in the pitching department.

After winning the N.L. East division crown in 2006 and falling one game short of the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, the Mets crumbled completely in 2009, finishing the year with a 70-92 record as several key players spent a significant amount of time on the disabled list.  One of the glaring weaknesses on the 2009 team was its pitching, as the staff finished the year with a 4.45 ERA - the third-worst mark in franchise history, surpassed by only the 2003 club (4.48 ERA) and the inaugural 1962 squad (5.04 ERA).

John Maine and Oliver Perez combined to make just 29 starts in 2009 and Johan Santana also had his season cut short due to injuries.  The only pitcher who remained healthy in 2009 and was guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation in 2010 was Mike Pelfrey, who became the first and only pitcher in team history to make 30 or more starts and finish the year with an ERA above 5.00, as he posted a 5.03 ERA in 31 starts during the nightmarish 2009 campaign.  Needless to say, the Mets went into the 2009-2010 off-season needing to bolster its pitching in the worst way.

A week before the start of spring training, the Mets signed Takahashi to a one-year, $1 million deal, with the potential to earn $2 million more in performance bonuses.  At the time, Anthony Nakanishi - who worked for Takahashi's team of agents - was quite optimistic for his agency's client.

"This could work out very well for the Mets," said Nakanishi.  "Hisanori is a bit of a late bloomer and like some other left-handed pitchers from Japan, like Hideki Okajima, his pitching style may translate even better in major league baseball.  Who knows, he could win 15 games.  It's a possibility."

Of course, Nakanishi had to say positive things about Takahashi to give Mets fans a reason to be optimistic and not boo his client from day one.  Those same fans had seen several Japanese players try to succeed in New York, with most of them failing miserably.  But predicting 15 wins for a pitcher competing for the role of fifth starter on a 70-win team?  That seemed like quite a stretch.  But before long, Nakanishi's words almost seemed prophetic, even after his client failed to earn a spot in the starting rotation coming out of spring training.

"What has my agent gotten me into?  15 wins?  Really?"  (Kyodo News, via AP)

Takahashi pitched very well for the Mets in his first spring training outside of Japan, holding opposing hitters to a .170 batting average and collecting 14 strikeouts in 13 innings of work.  But even with Jonathon Niese struggling in his Grapefruit League appearances, opening the potential for Takahashi to sneak into the rotation, manager Jerry Manuel preferred to see Takahashi in the bullpen.  When Opening Day arrived, the Mets' rotation consisted of Santana, Maine, Perez, Pelfrey and Niese, with Takahashi joining Pedro Feliciano as the team's second lefty option in the bullpen.

Takahashi's major league debut did not go well.  On April 7, 2010, the Mets erased a five-run, seventh-inning deficit against the Florida Marlins, scoring two runs in the seventh and three more in the eighth to tie the game, 6-6.  Closer Francisco Rodriguez had been used to preserve the tie in the top of the ninth inning, but was due to lead off in the bottom of the frame, causing Manuel to insert Ruben Tejada (who was also making his debut in the big leagues) into the game as a pinch hitter.  When Tejada and the rest of the team failed to push across a run, Manuel gave the ball to Takahashi to start the tenth, who allowed the Marlins to score the go-ahead run on two singles and a walk.  Takahashi was saddled with the loss in the debut, as the Mets fell to Florida, 7-6.

Although Takahashi did not have the debut he wanted, he quickly learned from his mistakes.  Manuel started to use Takahashi as a long man in the bullpen and was rewarded instantly.  From April 13 to May 16, Takahashi made 12 relief appearances, pitching three innings or more in four of those outings and striking out 32 batters in 23⅔ innings.  His best performance during the five-week stretch came on April 23, when he struck out seven Atlanta Braves hitters in three innings, earning his first big league victory in the process.

As the calendar flipped from April to May, the Mets found themselves in a surprising position - first place in the N.L. East.  But the seeds planted in April did not lead to a full bloom in May, as the Mets lost 13 of their first 18 games in the season's second month.  Games weren't the only things being dropped by the Mets, as three-fifths of the starting rotation went down, either to injury (Jonathon Niese strained his right hamstring) or ineffectiveness (Oliver Perez allowed too many long balls and John Maine allowed too many balls).  With all the tumult going on with the starting rotation, manager Jerry Manuel needed to make some decisions.  One of them was made when R.A. Dickey was inserted into the rotation, launching what became a magical three-year tenure in New York for the rejuvenated knuckleball pitcher.  Manuel's next decision involved Takahashi's move from the bullpen to make a start against the New York Yankees on May 21.  It was then that Takahashi's season really took off.

Takahashi pitched six scoreless innings against the Yankees in his first big league start, scattering five hits and striking out five batters.  But one year after Mets second baseman Luis Castillo made a costly error to give the Yankees a come-from-behind victory, it was another second sacker - Alex Cora - who tossed the game away.  Cora's throwing error on a potential double play ball was followed by a two-run double by seldom-used outfielder Kevin Russo.  (Russo had just four RBI in his entire major league career, with half of them coming in that one game-changing swing.)  Those were the only tallies needed by the Yankees in their 2-1 victory over the Mets.

The Mets lost the game, but found a new starting pitcher in Takahashi.  The southpaw continued his scoreless streak by putting six more zeroes on the scoreboard in his next start - a 5-0 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.  Although he had some hiccups along the way, Takahashi allowed one run or fewer in five of his 12 starts, which included a second brilliant performance against the Yankees on June 18, a game in which he threw another six scoreless innings.  This time, the bullpen and the defense came through for the Mets, as four relievers combined with Takahashi on the shutout.  Most importantly, the victory was the Mets' eighth straight and improved the team's record to 39-28.

Unfortunately, the Mets regressed from late June to early August, dropping 23 of 34 games to fall below .500 for the first time since late May.  The wheels came completely off the Mets' bus on August 11 when K-Rod attempted to KO his children's grandfather in the Citi Field family lounge after the team's 6-2 loss to the Colorado Rockies.  Rodriguez was arrested and missed the rest of the season with torn ligaments in his right thumb, which he suffered during the altercation.

A portrait of Citi Field's Least Wanted.  (Debbie Egan-Chin/NY Daily News)

Although the Mets were under .500 and their playoff hopes were all but gone, the team still needed to play the games on its schedule.  They also needed a closer for the rest of the season, with Rodriguez out for the year.  Once again, Manuel turned to Takahashi to fill a specific role and the 35-year-old responded with aplomb.

Takahashi got his first save opportunity on August 16, retiring the Houston Astros in order in the ninth inning of a 3-1 Mets victory.  From that point to the end of the season, Takahashi was brilliant in his new role, earning three wins and going 8-for-8 in save opportunities.  In 19 appearances, Takahashi had a 0.84 ERA and 0.94 WHIP, holding opposing hitters to a .197/.247/.289 slash line, which was slightly better than the .213/.289/.308 slash line allowed by Rodriguez prior to his season-ending scuffle.

The Mets ended the 2010 season with a 79-83 record, which represented a nine-game improvement over their 2009 performance.  Takahashi's first season in the majors was an unexpected success.  Although he didn't quite reach the 15 wins predicted by his agent at the beginning of the year, he did notch ten wins and eight saves, becoming the fifth Met - and the first since 1986 - to reach double digits in wins while saving eight or more games, joining Tug McGraw (11 wins, 8 saves in 1971), Skip Lockwood (10 wins, 19 saves in 1976), Jesse Orosco (13 wins, 17 saves in 1983; 10 wins, 31 saves in 1984) and Roger McDowell (14 wins, 22 saves in 1986) in this exclusive club.  But those four pitchers combined to make one start in their spectacular seasons (McGraw got a no-decision in that start), meaning they earned all their wins in relief.  Takahashi was the only true starter/reliever hybrid of the group, earning four of his wins as a starting pitcher.  Takahashi was also the Mets' first "rookie" pitcher to earn 10 or more wins in his inaugural major league season since 1985, when Rick Aguilera posted a 10-7 record as a first-year player for the team.

Unfortunately, once the 2010 season ended, the Mets cleaned house, ridding themselves of manager Jerry Manuel and general manager Omar Minaya.  The new regime (featuring Terry Collins and Sandy Alderson) did not see the soon-to-be 36-year-old Takahashi as part of the team's future and allowed him to become a free agent, ending the respected pitcher's one-year stay in New York.  Takahashi spent the next three seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs, before returning to Japan to pitch for the Yokohama Bay Stars in 2014.

There have been many pitchers in team history who were never expected to amount to much when they joined the big league roster.  Except for his agent, no one expected Hisanori Takahashi to contribute much to the team.  But the left-hander silenced all his critics, and in doing so, became one of the most appreciated Japanese players to ever play for the Mets.

Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

"Eight months here in the United States, I'll spend most of the time in New York.  I kind of like New York."

--Hisanori Takahashi (September 2010)


And New York kind of liked Takahashi back.  After years of high expectations for Japanese players such as Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Kaz Matsui, it was a player originally brought in to compete for the fifth starter job that finally succeeded in every role he was called upon to fill.

Hisanori Takahashi had a short career in New York, but accomplished things that very few pitchers in team history had been able to do.  In a year that provided very few highlights for the Mets, Takahashi was a bright spot, making the most of his varied opportunities and giving Mets fans a reason to cheer whenever he set foot on the mound.

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

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Joey's Small Bites: Cespedes and His Fellow Outfielders Could Make Mets Homer History

Hello, all you snowbound Mets fans.  I'm Joey Beartran and despite all the white stuff piling up outside my window, I'm thinking Mets baseball.  And why am I thinking Mets baseball?  Because of the news that the Mets did what no one thought they would do.  No, the Wilpons didn't sell the team.  But they did max out their credit cards.

Just as the first flakes flew last night, the news came out that the Mets had signed Yoenis Cespedes to a three-year, $75 million contract with an opt-out after the first year.  The stunning news that Washington couldn't buy Cespedes for five years and give him a front row seat for Daniel Murphy's next costly error shocked Mets Twitter - myself included.

It became very difficult for me to hibernate for the evening upon hearing that bit of information.  After all, throughout the off-season, Mets fans had been clamoring for the return of Cespedes, but they fully expected him to be out of the Wilpons' price range.  Then the news became official and the numbers starting running through my head.

With Michael Conforto and Curtis Granderson manning the corner outfield positions and Cespedes taking over as the team's center fielder, it occurred to me that the Mets outfield will produce a lot of home runs.  After all, Cespedes hit 35 homers last year between the Tigers and Mets, while Granderson rocketed 26 blasts.  Conforto is still developing his power, but still managed to hit 12 home runs in 91 games in the minors, nine more in 56 games after his promotion to the Mets and added another three in 12 postseason games.  (For all you kids out there, that's 24 HR in 159 games for the 22-year-old Conforto.)

So of course, being the inquisitive bear that I am, I looked back through my archives (you might call it to see how often the Mets have had three power-hitting outfielders at the same time.  My research surprised me almost as much as the Cespedes re-signing did.

The Mets have been in business for 54 seasons.  In that time, only 17 outfielders have ever produced a 20-HR campaign.  (To qualify as a Mets outfielder, the player had to have played at least half of his games in any of the three outfield positions.)  Having a pair of Mets outfielders produce 20 or more homers is even rarer in club annals, especially a pair that didn't have Darryl Strawberry as one of its members.

Prior to 1983, the Mets had never had two outfielders with 20+ homers in the same season.  But from 1983 to 1985, Strawberry and George Foster each reached the 20-homer mark.  Then, from 1987 to 1990, Strawberry and Kevin McReynolds produced 20 or more home runs in each of the four campaigns.  The only time in Mets history that two outfielders not named Darryl Strawberry joined forces to hit 20-plus homers in the same season was in 2004, when center fielder Mike Cameron (30 HR) and right fielder Richard Hidalgo (21 HR) turned the trick.  In fact, that 2004 campaign was the closest the Mets have ever come to having all three outfielders reach the 20-homer mark, as left fielder Cliff Floyd added 18 homers of his own.

Now let's just consider years in which the Mets had three outfielders hitting 15+ homers.  That total might not seem impressive, but it's a feat that's rarely been done by a trio of Mets outfielders.  Here's the tiny group of outfielders, listing the left fielder first, center fielder second and right fielder third.

  • 1965: Ron Swoboda (19 HR), Jim Hickman (15 HR), Johnny Lewis (15 HR)
  • 2000: Benny Agbayani (15 HR), Jay Payton (17 HR), Derek Bell (18 HR)
  • 2004: Cliff Floyd (18 HR), Mike Cameron (30 HR), Richard Hidalgo (21 HR)

That's it.  Only three Mets teams have produced an outfield in which all three players reached the not-so-lofty 15-homer plateau.  Over the years, the Mets have relied more on infielders (Howard Johnson, Carlos Delgado, David Wright, Lucas Duda) and even catchers (Todd Hundley, Mike Piazza) to supply power than they have in their outfielders.

It wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility to see the Conforto-Cespedes-Granderson trio becoming the fourth outfield threesome to bang out 15 homers apiece.  It also wouldn't be a shocker to see them become the first outfield combo in Mets history to each have 20 or more homers.  Conforto, Cespedes and Granderson could also combine to hit the most homers in one season by the team's primary three outfielders.

In 1987, the outfield trio of Strawberry (39 HR), McReynolds (29 HR) and Lenny Dykstra (10 HR) combined to produce 78 home runs, which is a team record for outfielders.  (Dykstra started 24 more games than fellow outfielder Mookie Wilson did in '87.)  The team's three main outfielders have produced 70 or more homers in only two other seasons, with both years involving the Straw Man and Big Mac.

The 1988 squad featured Strawberry once again clubbing 39 homers, while McReynolds hit 27 bombs and Dykstra jacked eight balls out of the park for a combined total of 74 homers.  Two years later, the Strawbery-McReynolds combo was joined by newcomer Daryl Boston, as the 1990 outfield saw left fielder McReynolds (24 HR), center fielder Boston (12 HR) and right fielder Strawberry (37 HR) combine for 73 home runs.

Other than the 1987, 1988 and 1990 clubs, no other Mets team has had its three primary starting outfielders surpass the 70-homer mark between them.  That could change in 2016 now that Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto will each be playing their first full years in New York.

Cespedes hit 35 homers during the entire 2015 regular season.  Conforto combined to hit 21 regular season homers between the minors and majors.  Granderson - the only one of the three outfielders to play the entire season in New York - had 26 homers of his own.

In 2016, the Mets could have a power-hitting outfield that has never been seen before in club annals.  Combine that with the best starting rotation in baseball and a much-improved bullpen and the outfield's home run total might not be the only thing making history for the Mets this upcoming season.

It's enough to make man or beast look forward to warm nights at Citi Field on the snowiest of winter days.

Who wouldn't wake to make snow angels the morning after Cespedes re-signs with the Mets?

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Most With The Least: Tim Teufel (1987)

Sometimes a baseball player gets benched because he's not performing well.  This occasionally leads to the benched player asking how he's supposed to prove himself on the field if he's not allowed to take the field.  However, for some players, spending time on the bench helps them become more productive when they are given the opportunity to start.  Take, for example, the case of a former Mets player and current Mets coach who was an everyday player before coming to New York and then found himself as part of a platoon just as he was entering the prime years of his playing career.

For two seasons in Minnesota, he was the team's starting second baseman.  In his first full season with the Twins, he showed uncharacteristic power potential for a middle infielder, smacking 30 doubles and 14 homers in 652 plate appearances.  His efforts did not go unnoticed, as he placed fourth in that year's American League Rookie of the Year vote.

The following season saw a slight dropoff in his extra-base hit numbers (24 doubles, 10 homers), but nothing too serious to suggest that he was expendable.  However, the Twins struggled tremendously with their pitchers, finishing near the bottom of the American League in that department.  They needed to upgrade the team's pitching if they wanted to compete in their division and so they traded their young second baseman to the New York Mets for two minor league pitching prospects and a former first round draft pick.  The Mets now had a right-handed hitting platoon partner for Wally Backman at second base to take the place of Kelvin Chapman, who batted .174 in the role the year before.  Before long, it was clear that this former Twin wasn't going to be Chapman's twin in the hitting department.

Tim Teufel had many opposing pitchers on their knees in 1987.  (Barry Colla Photography)

Timothy Shawn Teufel had over 1,000 at-bats as the Twins starting second baseman in 1984 and 1985.  But as a second baseman for the Mets playing mostly against left-handed pitchers, he amassed just 279 at-bats in 1986, starting in 70 of the team's 162 games.  Despite the decreased workload, Teufel still managed 24 extra-base hits and 31 RBI for the Mets in 1986, which represented a tremendous upgrade from Kelvin Chapman's 1985 numbers against southpaws (.172 batting average, two extra-base hits, seven RBI in 128 at-bats).

In 1984 and 1985, Wally Backman was forced to hit against left-handed pitching more often than manager Davey Johnson would have liked because of Chapman's inability to produce much of anything against them.  Backman ended up averaging close to 500 at-bats in each season and batted .280 and .273 in the two years before Teufel's acquisition.  However, the switch-hitting Backman was even more futile than Chapman was against left-handed pitching, batting an anemic .122 (16-for-131) versus southpaws in 1985.  The trade for Teufel immediately allowed Backman to play exclusively against right-handed pitching and resulted in Backman's most productive season at the plate in 1986 - a year in which he batted .320 and struck out just 32 times in 440 plate appearances, an average of one strikeout every 13.8 plate appearances.  (Batting more often against left-handed pitchers in 1984 and 1985, Backman fanned 135 times in 1,073 plate appearances, averaging one whiff every 7.9 plate appearances in those seasons.)

While the two pitching prospects (Bill Latham, Joe Klink) and former first round draft pick (future Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane) struggled in Minnesota, Teufel found a home in New York.  The Connecticut native thrived in his new role as the team's part-time second baseman, and his arrival also brought out the best in his platoon partner.  Teufel's first season in New York ended with a World Series victory, one in which he was a healthy contributor at the plate, posting an impressive .444/.500/.889 slash line in the three games he started against Boston lefty Bruce Hurst.  Hurst allowed just two extra-base hits in the series, with both of them (a double and a homer) coming off the bat of Tim Teufel.

Teufel's fielding wasn't always the best, as evidenced by his costly error in Game One of the Fall Classic, but his hitting usually overshadowed his shortcomings on defense and allowed the Mets to be deeper on the bench, as seen in a game during the Mets' dominant summer run in 1986, when Teufel's pinch-hit grand slam off Philadelphia's Tom Hume gave the Mets a thrilling extra-inning victory.

The Mets followed up their historic 1986 campaign with a disappointing 1987 season.  In 1986, the quartet of Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez and Bob Ojeda combined to start 128 games, with each starter making at least 30 starts.  A year later, the post-championship hangover affected the entire staff, with the four hurlers making just 91 starts between them and only Darling taking the ball more than 27 times.  Injuries and substance abuse curtailed the seasons of the once-dominant starting rotation, with each starter, including Darling, spending time on the disabled list in 1987.

With pitchers such as John Mitchell, Terry Leach, Don Schulze, John Candelaria and Tom Edens making unexpected starts for the Mets, it behooved the offense to carry the team even more in 1987.  Darryl Strawberry and Howard Johnson contributed greatly, becoming the first pair of teammates to produce a season with 30+ homers and 30+ stolen bases.  The newly acquired Kevin McReynolds also had a fine season, missing a 30 HR, 100 RBI campaign by just one blast and five ribbies.  But an unheralded hitting star of the 1987 season was not one of the big boppers, as Tim Teufel had one of the most productive campaigns ever produced by a part-time player in team history, shuffling his way into the hearts of Mets fans with his phenomenal performance.

YouTube video courtesy of CourtsideTweets

Once again, Teufel started in less than half of the team's games, as his name was in Davey Johnson's starting lineup just 71 times in 1987, but despite not reaching 300 at-bats for the second straight year (he had 299), Teufel managed to have the type of season he produced when he was an everyday player for the Twins.

Nine players had more at-bats than Teufel did for the Mets in 1987, including fellow second baseman Wally Backman, but Teufel still managed to finish fourth on the team in doubles (29), sixth in homers (14), sixth in RBI (61) and fifth in WAR (3.5).  He also led the team in batting average (.308), on-base percentage (.398 - tied for the team lead with Strawberry) and was runner-up to Strawberry in slugging percentage (.545), OPS (.943) and OPS+ (153).  In doing so, Teufel made team history by becoming just the third player with at least 350 plate appearances (he had 351) to produce an OPS+ higher than 150, joining Cleon Jones - who produced a 151 OPS+ in 1969 - and Strawberry.  Teufel also became the third Mets player with that many plate appearances to produce an OPS higher than .900, also joining Jones and Strawberry.

At no point of the season was Teufel hotter than he was during a two-month stretch from June to August, when the Mets went from being a fourth-place team with a .500 record to a second-place team, knocking on the door of the first-place Cardinals.  From June 9 to August 6, Teufel played in 25 games (22 starts), missing two weeks in late June with a strained right hamstring.  Teufel helped the Mets win 16 of those 25 games, reaching base 43 times and batting .348 with a lofty 1.118 OPS.  More than half of Teufel's 31 hits during his hot streak went for extra bases (10 doubles, 7 HR) and he drove in 22 runs in 89 at-bats, averaging nearly one RBI every four at-bats.

Perhaps the most incredible stat about Teufel's 1987 campaign is the following.  A total of 20 players with at least 350 plate appearances in a single season have batted higher than .308 for the Mets.  Likewise, ten Mets players have produced an OBP higher than .398 and ten players have surpassed a .545 slugging percentage.  But prior to 1987, no Mets player had ever produced a .308/.398/.545 slash line and only John Olerud (1998), Mike Piazza (1998, 2000) and David Wright (2007) have been able to match or surpass Teufel in all three categories since his spectacular 1987 campaign.

Betcha never thought you'd see Tim Teufel's name mentioned in the same sentence as these three Mets all-time greats.

Tim Teufel had 29 doubles and 61 RBI in a limited number of plate appearances in 1987.  Out of all the Mets players with fewer than 400 plate appearances in a single season through the 2015 campaign, no one has produced as many doubles as Teufel did in '87.  (Desi Relaford had 27 doubles in 340 plate appearances in 2001.)  And the only player in the franchise's first 50-plus years to surpass the 61 RBI produced by Teufel in under 400 plate appearances was Steve Henderson, who had 65 RBI in 398 plate appearances in 1977.  (Teufel still had a higher RBI/PA ratio, driving in a run every 5.75 plate appearances while Henderson had an RBI every 6.12 PA.)

Unfortunately, Teufel's amazing 1987 campaign has been mostly overlooked because that season is mostly remembered for the plethora of unexpected visits to the disabled list by the team's pitchers.  Teufel's campaign also occurred in a non-playoff year, as it took place in between the team's 1986 championship season and their 1988 division title.

Although Teufel remained on the team until 1991, his plate appearances dwindled following his breakout 1987 season.  He came up to the plate 309 times in 1988, had 254 plate appearances in 1989 and came up to bat just 192 times in 1990.  His 1990 campaign was reminiscent of his spectacular 1987 season as Teufel had 21 extra-base hits (11 doubles, 10 homers) despite not reaching 200 plate appearances.  But Teufel had just four hits in 34 at-bats through late May in 1991, and as a result, he was traded to the San Diego Padres for shortstop Garry Templeton, playing the final three seasons of his career as a part-time player with the Padres.

Teufel returned to the Mets after a few years away from the game and has served as an instructor, coach and minor league manager within the organization.  Since 2012, he has worked at the major league level, serving as the Mets' third base coach.  Just as his former manager, Buddy Harrelson, was the only man to be in uniform for the 1969 and 1986 World Series championship teams (Harrelson was the team's third base coach in 1986), Teufel is the only person to be in uniform for the 1986 and 2015 Mets teams that reached the Fall Classic.

(Getty Images)

"I'm so happy for these guys to get this feeling as a player.  Not everybody gets this chance.  I had it as a player, but as a coach I'm happy for these guys and I'm happy for the coaching staff."
--Tim Teufel, on reaching the 2015 World Series.

Tim Teufel's six-year tenure as a part-time second baseman with the Mets was solid, but unspectacular.  He never played 100 games in any of his half-dozen seasons in New York and only managed 35 homers and 164 RBI in nearly 1,500 plate appearances with the team.  But his acquisition solidified the second base position, providing the team with a high-average, base-stealing threat against right-handed pitchers in Wally Backman and a power-hitting presence versus left-handers in Teufel.  Whereas southpaws relished facing the Mets' second basemen whenever Backman or Kelvin Chapman came up to the plate in 1984 and 1985, they had to pitch more carefully against Teufel, who collected 83 extra-base hits in 810 at-bats against left-handers as a Met from 1986 to 1991.

Teufel reached the postseason twice in 1986 and 1988, but what he did in the year between his playoff appearances was the highlight of his career.  He turned a part-time job into a full-time nightmare for opposing pitchers.  And in doing so, he was responsible for one of the quietest career years by a Mets player and one of the most impressive full-season performances by a platoon player in franchise history.  Teufel made his way to the majors as an everyday player with the Minnesota Twins.  He stayed in the majors by accepting a role as a part-time player for the New York Mets who made the most of his sporadic playing opportunities.

And more than three decades after the trade for Teufel was consummated, he remains a part of the Mets on-field family.  Not bad for a player who spent a good chunk of his playing career on the bench.

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

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Most With The Least: Donn Clendenon (1969-70)

Every player goes through a slump at some point in his career.  But some slumps last longer than others and can alter the course of a player's career.  Take, for example, the case of Dick Stuart - a promising young first baseman who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Stuart was a great power hitter who averaged 37 HR and 119 RBI per 162 games played during his first four seasons in the majors.  His middle-of-the-order presence helped the Pirates win the World Series in 1960 - just his third year in the big leagues.  His best season came in 1961, when he made the National League All-Star squad and batted .301 with 35 HR and 117 RBI.  But a year later, he slumped badly, batting a measly .228 and hitting just 16 homers.  His poor production coupled with his shoddy fielding - he wasn't nicknamed "Dr. Strangeglove" for nothing - led to a trade to the Boston Red Sox following the 1962 campaign.

Backing up Stuart at first base in 1962 was a more well-rounded athlete who had already toiled in the minors for parts of six seasons.  Between 1961 and 1962, he played 89 games at the major league level before settling in as the Pirates' regular first baseman in 1963.  But the same slump that ended Stuart's tenure with the Pirates also affected his replacement, except that his slump lasted for two full seasons and threatened to end his career.  But a change of scenery, followed by a change of his role on the field caused a renaissance of this player's career, one that would take him down the road to a championship and to become an unlikely team record-holder.

The Mets needed Donn Clendenon in the worst way when they acquired him in 1969.  (AP Photo)

Donn Alvin Clendenon played nine games with the defending World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates in 1961, followed by an 80-game stint in 1962.  During his 89-game role as Dick Stuart's backup, he made solid contact (.304 batting average), was patient at the plate (.379 on-base percentage), showed power potential (22 extra-base hits) and even had a little speed (16 stolen bases).  Most importantly, he wasn't an embarrassment on the field when he traded in his bat for a glove, unlike Stuart, who probably wished the designated hitter had already entered the baseball lexicon.

Although Clendenon didn't possess the brute strength Stuart had, he still put up solid numbers from 1963 to 1965, averaging 28 doubles, 10 triples, 14 homers, 72 RBI and 14 stolen bases per season.  He then had a breakout year in 1966, batting .299 with 28 home runs and 98 RBI.  He also boasted a .520 slugging percentage and .878 OPS, both of which placed him in the National League's top ten for the 1966 season.

But Clendenon's production at the plate dropped off dramatically in 1967, as he produced a .249/.298/.370 slash line and saw his OPS drop by more than 200 points (.668).  The following season saw just a slight recovery in his numbers (.257/.309/.399) but also saw Clendenon strike out a whopping 163 times, which was the highest single-season total ever posted by a National League hitter up until that point.

Pittsburgh decided to part ways with the 33-year-old Clendenon at the conclusion of the 1968 campaign, exposing him to the expansion draft, where he was selected by the Montreal Expos with their sixth pick.  Three months after the draft, Clendenon was traded to the Houston Astros for Rusty Staub, but Clendenon refused to report to Houston.  The Astros had just hired Clendenon's former manager in Pittsburgh - Harry Walker - to be their new skipper and Clendenon did not have an amicable relationship with Walker, to say the least.  Clendenon also did not view Houston as a favorable city for him to play in, as many businesses were still using racist tactics against African-Americans.  With Clendenon refusing to leave the Expos to go to Houston, Montreal sent two other players (including future All-Star and World Series champion Jack Billingham) plus $100,000 to the Astros in lieu of Clendenon to complete the trade.

Clendenon's change of scenery from Pittsburgh to Montreal did not change his production at the plate.  His breakout 1966 campaign appeared to be his career year, as he batted just .240 with four homers and 14 RBI during his first two months with the Expos.  Clendenon appeared to be washed up just weeks before his 34th birthday.  That is, until Mets manager Gil Hodges came calling for his services.

"Are you there, Donn?  It's me, Gil."  (Herb Scharfman/Getty Images)

Back in 1964, Clendenon had sought out Hodges in an attempt to improve his fielding.  After watching Dick Stuart botch his way out of Pittsburgh with every bobble he made at first base, Clendenon knew he had to be a stalwart at the position, and so he contacted Hodges - the winner of the first three Gold Glove awards handed out to first basemen for defensive excellence - for advice on how not to fall into the same defensive traps Stuart got caught in.  Five years later, it was Hodges who wanted assistance from Clendenon.

By mid-June in 1969, the Mets had established themselves as a surprise contender in the National League East.  New York was coming off a franchise-record 11-game winning streak and was looking to upgrade an offense that had scored three runs or less in 35 of their first 57 games.  The team was also looking for a right-handed hitter who could complement the lefty-swinging Ed Kranepool at first base.  Kranepool had a torrid start in 1969, batting .324 with 16 RBI in his first 22 games, but he batted just .204 over his next 27 contests.  Kranepool's backup at the time was Cleon Jones, who started 12 games at the position over the season's first two months.  But Jones was a natural outfielder and had not played first base in his career prior to the 1969 campaign.  Hodges needed a natural first baseman to play against left-handed pitchers to allow Jones to play his preferred defensive position and give Kranepool more time to figure out how to regain his hitting stroke.  Hodges found his man on June 15, as the Mets sent four players and a player to be named later to the Expos for Donn Clendenon.

One of the problems Clendenon had during his final years in Pittsburgh and his short stay in Montreal was that he was being counted on to be an everyday player.  Clendenon was a month shy of his 34th birthday when he was traded to the Mets.  He was already past his prime when he slumped for two and a half seasons.  But he could still hit left-handed starters extremely well (.309/.364/.489 vs. LHP in 1967 and 1968).  Hodges realized that and rested him against most right-handed pitchers.  And the results were spectacular.

Clendenon played in 72 games for the Mets following the trade, making 46 starts.  His overall production as a Met was good (.252, 12 HR, 37 RBI), but he was absolutely spectacular against left-handed pitching, posting a .318/.384/.557 slash line against southpaws.  Clendenon's presence in the lineup was the boost the Mets desperately needed, as the team scored four or more runs in 26 of his 46 starts.  Most importantly, the team was 32-14 in Clendenon's starts, which helped them pass the Chicago Cubs to win their first division title.

With the Atlanta Braves using nothing but right-handed starting pitchers in the National League Championship Series, Clendenon did not see any action in the Mets' three-game sweep of the Braves.  But that changed in the World Series against the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles, as the Mets were set to face left-handed starters Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally in four of the first five games.  Clendenon took advantage of his playing time in the Fall Classic, going 2-for-4 with a double in the Mets' Game One loss.  He then homered off McNally in the Mets' 2-1 victory in Game Two and continued his long ball assault on the Orioles' lefty starters in Games Four and Five.

Clendenon's second-inning homer off Cuellar was the only run the Mets scored in the first nine innings of Game Four - a game the Mets won in the tenth.  Then, with the Mets down 3-0 to the Orioles in the sixth inning of Game Five, Clendenon hit a two-run blast against McNally immediately after Cleon Jones - the man he essentially replaced as the team's right-handed hitting first baseman - was famously hit by a pitch on his shoe.  New York scored three more runs to win the game and the series, with Clendenon (.357/.438/1.071) winning the World Series Most Valuable Player award, an honor he felt was more about his teammates than any one individual.

"There is no most valuable player on this team --- we've got lots of them."
--Donn Clendenon, following the 1969 World Series

Clendenon made the most of his playing time for the Mets in 1969, and that continued into the 1970 campaign, when he had one of the most productive seasons in franchise history for an everyday player who didn't quite play every day.

Continuing to use his successful platoon system, Gil Hodges started Clendenon in just 96 of the team's 162 games in 1970.  As a result, Clendenon produced only 396 official at-bats in his first full season as a Met, which probably cost him a chance to be an All-Star for the first time.  Through games of July 9, Clendenon started just 37 games, but batted .331 with 10 HR and 37 RBI in 163 at-bats.

Clendenon entered the month of August still wielding a hot bat, as evidenced by his .316 batting average, .561 slugging percentage and his club-record seven-RBI game on July 28 against the San Francisco Giants.  As a result, Hodges felt the need to give Clendenon more opportunities to start, even against right-handed pitching, especially with the Mets in contention for a second straight division title.

The Mets were in first place by half a game over the Pirates and held a two-game lead over the third-place Cubs as the calendar turned from July to August.  Clendenon started 51 of the team's final 60 games and carried the team on his back.  His 29 RBI in August set a club record for the month which was not surpassed until 1998, when Mike Piazza drove in 30 runs in the month of August.  (Through 2015, only seven Mets players have driven in more than 29 runs in any calendar month.  Besides Piazza, the list includes Tommie Agee, Dave Kingman, Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter, Howard Johnson and Carlos Beltran.)

Clendenon followed up his hot August with a solid September, driving in another 21 runs in the season's final month.  In doing so, he became the first Met to have back-to-back months with 20+ RBI and the first to drive in 50 or more runs over a two-month period.  (Through the 2015 campaign, only Gary Carter, Mike Piazza and Carlos Beltran have joined Clendenon as players who drove in 50+ runs over two consecutive calendar months.)

Although the Mets fell short in their quest to return to the postseason, finishing six games behind the eventual N.L. East champion Pirates, Clendenon finally had a return to his prior glory.  Despite having fewer than 400 at-bats, Clendenon produced 22 homers and 97 RBI, breaking Frank Thomas's team record for RBI in a single season.  Clendenon also batted .288 and had a .515 slugging percentage - only the second time in his career he had surpassed the .500 mark in slugging percentage - becoming the first Met to play at least 100 games and slug over .500 in the same season.

AP Photo
One of the most overlooked numbers in Clendenon's 1970 campaign was the Mets' record in his starts.  When Clendenon was in the starting lineup, the team went 52-44.  When he wasn't, the team was 31-35.  A few more starts earlier in the season could have given Clendenon his first 100-RBI campaign.  More importantly, it could have given the Mets the few extra wins they needed to repeat as division champions.  Voters for the National League MVP award certainly noticed how valuable Clendenon was to the Mets when he was in the starting lineup, as he finished 13th in the MVP vote, ahead of teammates Tommie Agee, Buddy Harrelson and Tom Seaver and just seven votes behind his former Pirate teammate, Roberto Clemente.  It was the only time in Clendenon's 12-year career that he received consideration as the league's most valuable player.

Clendenon played one more season with the Mets in 1971, but by then, the 36-year-old's skills had begun to fade.  Clendenon batted .247 with 11 homers and 37 RBI in 88 games and was subsequently released by the Mets at the conclusion of the season.  He played his final year in the big leagues as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1972, batting .191 with just nine RBI in 61 games for the Redbirds.

After playing parts of two seasons in Pittsburgh in 1961 and 1962, Donn Clendenon became an everyday player for the Pirates in 1963, turning in four solid seasons as a member of the Bucs.  However, two poor campaigns led to Pittsburgh cutting ties with the once-promising slugger after the 1968 season, just as they had done with his predecessor at first base once his skills eroded.  Their inability to notice that Clendenon was better served as a part-time player who could mash left-handed pitching led directly to his acquisition by the Mets to do just that.

Gil Hodges used Clendenon just enough to help the team win the World Series in 1969 and then used him as much as he could in a failed attempt to get them back to the promised land.  Hodges, who once helped Clendenon become a better fielder in 1964, helped him become a better hitter five years later, and lengthened the career of a player who was thought to be washed up following the 1968 campaign.

In parts of three seasons with the Mets, Donn Clendenon came up to the plate less than 1,000 times.  But he made the most of those scattered trips, winning a World Series most valuable player award and setting the franchise record for RBI in a single season.  When the Mets acquired Clendenon, it was the first baseman who won a chance to revive his career.  But when the Mets played Clendenon, it was the team who had the best chance of winning.

Donn Clendenon may not have gotten the most playing time during his short tenure with the Mets, but he certainly gave the most of his ability, allowing the team to remain contenders for the postseason after several years of just being playoff pretenders prior to his arrival in New York.

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