May 23, 2006
BASEBALL: The Parachute's Not Opening
The (predictable) struggles of Jose Lima and Jeremi Gonzales, contrasted with the near-juggernaut the Mets have been thus far when they start their real starters, made me think back to two Mets teams I remember well that had much the same problem: the 1987 and 2000 Mets. Let's compare how each team fared when starting their emergency starters vs. the main rotation - I've included not just W-L and runs scored and allowed per game but also the team's "Pythagorean" record with each set of starters:
The 1987 team was particularly frustrating (the frustration still burns today): this was the defending world champs, and they had seven top-notch starters - behind the front five of Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda, Sid Fernandez, and Rick Aguilera, they had the rookie David Cone and my all-time favorite Met, Terry Leach, who started 12 games and went 7-1 with a 3.51 ERA as a starter. As you can see, when one of those guys started, the Mets played at a 95-win clip, the same as the division champion Cardinals. But Gooden missed two months in drug rehab, and the others had a series of injuries - Ojeda and Aguilera missed months with arm trouble, Leach had knee problems, Sid wrenched his knee running out a triple, Cone had a finger crushed when he was hit on the hand while bunting, Darling tore up his thumb fielding a Vince Coleman bunt that broke up a no-hitter. In their stead, the Mets gave 19 starts to the resolutely mediocre John Mitchell, and 10 more to a combination of short reliever Jeff Innis, a washed-up John Candelaria, and hopeless cases Don Schulze and Tom Edens. The results were predictably disappointing.
The 2000 team was more a matter, like the current team, of just falling off a cliff after the 5-man rotation. The starters included two aces (Al Leiter and Mike Hampton), two reasonably dependable pitchers (Rick Reed and Glendon Rusch), and the by-then unpredictable Bobby J. Jones (the white, righthanded one), who went 11-6 despite a 5.06 ERA but ended up throwing a 1-hit shutout in the NLDS to eliminate the team with the best record in the National League, Barry Bonds' Giants (Bonds went 0-4 with two whiffs). But beyond there be dragons: Pat Mahomes was an occasionally effective reliever that year, but hideous in five starts, and the other emergency starters - Dennis Springer, Bill Pulsipher, Grant Roberts, and Bobby M Jones (the black, lefthanded one) all got shelled whenever they appeared, albeit not often enough to keep the Mets from the Wild Card.
This year thus far looks like 2000 - even including Victor Zambrano, the front five (featuring Pedro, Glavine, Trachsel and Brian Bannister) has kept the team playing at a 105-win clip, but Jose Lima, Jeremi Gonzalez and John Maine have offered nothing but grief. (I'm not totally down on Maine, but he's clearly not a great option). Lima is gone now, replaced tomorrow night by Cuban defector Alay Soler, who's been tearing up AA. Mike Pelfrey is probably not far behind as a replacement for Gonzalez, and Bannister is expected back soon. Let's hope that's as far down the depth chart as these Mets have to go again.
'87 was a horror show. I remember all those injuries, and they took their toll. But don't forget that Darling was poor before he got injured, Cone started, what, maybe 4 or 5 games before the bunting mishap, and both Orosco and McDowell had very poor years. You probably recall that after a very, very rocky spring, Myers was *lights out* and actually came into a few save situations late that season. Everyone remembers McDowell-Pendleton, but I remember Schmidt taking Orosco deep to win a September game vs. the Phils. Jesse blew his share that year.
Which actually links this seasons troubles so far to '87: Wagner has not been too good, and Willie's bizarre handling of the bullpen has cost the Mets games.
I wrote about the latter yesterday; follow the link on my name if you're curious.
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Nonetheless, thanks for the reminder of Leach that season. Every game you figured some team in that heavy-hitting season would rock him, but it never happened. He just kept winning through that summer.
McDowell got a late start on the season because (shades of Looper and others) he waited until March to have hernia surgery. Also, he threw 127.1 innings in relief in 1985 and 142.1 in 1986 (counting the postseason), so some burnout should have been expected. Orosco got overused early in the year before McDowell was available and before Myers hit his stride. I thought Jesse was finished that year, but I was off by about 16 years.
Darling appeared to struggle mentally early when he was the only healthy guy on the staff, but he pitched well in the second half. As for Cone, he got pulverized in his first two starts - he was nervous - but settled down into a groove after Davey started him in the Jimmy Fund exhibition game vs. the Red Sox (who cancelled the thing after that, never wanting to see the Mets again).
I was wondering the same about McDowell. In '86 he was virtually untouchable until August or September, when they started hitting him hard. He was fantastic against the 'Stros, including one of the all-time underrated efforts by a Met: his 5 scoreless innings in Game Six. But the Sox touched him pretty good in the series. He nearly gave back the lead in Game 7.
I wonder if the series performance and the '87 off-year were fatigue related.
To say nothing of his brief stint in the outfield against the Reds. Who knows how that affected him.
To Mike and Crank: I've written extensively over at my own blog, ....gettingpaidtowatch..con on these issues. First, with McDowell: A hernia had been detected by Dr John Olichney in Roger's physical exam in late February, but it was considered to be non-operable at the time. He awakened a few weeks later during spring in terrible pain and his hernia was repaired in New York soon afterwards. Recall that Davey Johnson's staffs consisted of ten pitchers, and he used McDowel alot and had a tendancy to do so throughout his entire Mets tenure. Probably too much in fact. McDowell's ineffectiveness in the 1986 series against Boston can be directly attributed to his brilliant, yet exteremly long outing in Game six against the Astros. He was spent, and Davey knew he'd be burning McDowell. But he was going for the win then and there not wanting to face Mike Scott the next day.
I've always speculated that Roger's hernia was as result of the manner in which he followed through. McDowell was an excellent fielder and after following through would always leap into an infielder's stance. This load over the years possible pulled the hernia through.
As far as fielding though, McDowell-along with Ron Darling, were so adept at fielding that we could stay back at first and thrd on bunt situations as both were excellent at fielding them and making plays.
Bobby Ojeda started having elbow pain during the 86 season and perhaps even prior to that. And he pitched with considerable pain for quite some time.
Nice comments, Bob. Agree with all you say. Makes sense.
And your thoughts on McDowell & Darling remind me of something I was fortunate to see on those Mets teams: pitchers who could really hit, bunt, run the bases, and field their positions. Even Sid, who was uncharacteristically weak in the fielding, bunting, & baserunning departments, had a really nice singles-hitting stroke. Gooden, Darling & Aguilera could flat-out hit for pitchers, and I remember Davey using Darling to pinch-run on numerous occasions.
Hell, even Orosco could hit, although he rarely got the chance. But we all remember the butcher boy in game 7!
INteresting comment about Roger and his follow through. Tom Seaver also had an exaggerated one, ready to field, and he was among the best fielding pitchers I remember. Of course, I remember Tom Terrific as a teenager who could do no wrong. My dad said the same kind of things about the Babe (he saw him in the late 20's--sigh).