With the offseason now upon us, there are going to be days, weeks, and perhaps even months between now and February where there is simply nothing going on in the Mets blogosphere. So what’s the solution to these troubled days, where there is seemingly nothing to write about? Why, gimmick columns, of course!
The first series of gimmick columns you will be able to read right here at the newly-rechristened BlueAndOrange.net is the top ten offensive seasons in Mets history, position-by-position. Why only offensive? Defense is harder to quantify; it is only within the past few seasons that baseball numbers folks have been able to begin to develop reliable measures of a player’s defense.
Because we’re going back to the inception of the New York Mets, it’s hard for me to determine if, for example, Jerry Grote’s defense was good enough to justify his below-average bat behind the plate. The metrics simply do not exist. We can look at offense, because while the way we look at offense has changed since 1962, the numbers recorded are still pretty good.
I’m looking at some basic numbers; batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, some counting numbers. I did use OPS+ as a method of comparing similar seasons, because OPS+ can be a useful tool in breaking “ties,” so to speak; if two players have identical numbers in different seasons, but one has a higher OPS+, that player likely faced a harder hitting environment. A minimum of half the games played in that season at catcher were required to make the list.
This system does short change Gary Carter in particular, so I do want to stress that this is NOT a list of the top ten best catching seasons in Mets history. Simply looking at offense, here is what the top ten seasons in Mets history looks like at catcher.
Honorable Mention: John Stearns, 1982; Gary Carter, 1986
#10: John Stearns, 1978
Did you know that before John Stearns joined the team in 1977, the most home runs hit by a Mets catcher in one season was 8, by Duffy Dyer in 1972? For the first ten seasons in team history, the highest home run total hit by a Mets catcher was 7, and for the first fifteen seasons, that total was 8. Stearns hit 12 in 1977, and followed up with 15 in 1978. With Stearns only 26, it looked like he was ready to usher in a new era of Mets catchers who could handle the bat.
Sadly, this would be Stearns’ best season; he had other good seasons, but it looks like he had injury issues (just a guess based on games played after ‘78, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong in the comments). Stearns gets lost in the cracks by the catchers that followed, which is why I’m glad he made it onto the list at #10; for the first 23 seasons in Mets history, this stood as the benchmark for catchers, and he deserves some recognition for that.
#9: Todd Hundley, 1995
The first of three straight great seasons out of Hundley. Before 1994, Hundley was not much of a hitter. In 902 career at-bats, Hundley hit 19 home runs in the majors. He hit 16 in 291 at-bats before the strike ended the season. He still wasn’t much of a hitter, only hitting .237 with a .303 on-base percentage, but suddenly developed power he clearly lacked before.
While he hit one fewer homer in ‘95, his other hitting abilities caught up to this new power. The result was a much more complete season, hitting .280 with more walks and fewer strikeouts. In his age 26 season, he showed breakout potential for a team that needed an offensive star, and unlike Stearns, his career did not peak at 26 (it peaked at 28). Hundley’s 1995 season ushered in an era of great hitting Mets catchers; for the next eight seasons, Mets catchers would post an OPS greater than .900 every year.
#8: Mike Piazza, 2002
Another guy who will be making multiple appearances on this list, Mike Piazza will go down as the greatest offensive catcher in Mets history. This season was probably the last year Piazza was truly an elite hitter for a full season; the next two seasons would be marred by injury and the move to first base, and his 2005 season was nothing particularly special, at least by his standards.
It is almost sad looking at Piazza’s 2002; it was his last season with more than 30 homers, his last season with more than 90 RBIs, his next to last season slugging over .500 (he slugged .501 for San Diego in 2006), last season with more than 400 at-bats as a catcher. He even won his last Silver Slugger in 2002. Piazza would remain good after this season, but 2002 was his last year as an elite offensive player.
#7: Mike Piazza, 1999
Piazza only disappointed in 1999 compared to his otherworldy 1998 and 2000. His 40 home runs are the second-most by any Met in a single season. His 124 RBIs are a Mets single season record (tied this year by David Wright), although RBIs are a horrible stat. Piazza helped carry the 1999 Mets into the postseason for the first time since 1988, where they lost a heartbreaker to the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS. It feels like I am even shortchanging this season ranking it 7th, but that is a testament to the seasons that followed rather than an insult to this great season.
#6: Gary Carter, 1985
On one hand, Gary Carter is definitely getting short-changed on this list; if we included defense, his 1986 season would have found its way onto the list, and this season would be a top three season rather than a top ten season. It also feels like Gary Carter should be on here more, but the truth is, after 1985, his hitting declined sharply; he was merely good in 1986, and was not a good hitter after that point.
Still, this was a great year. Remember Stearns’ catcher record 15 home runs in 1978? Carter wrecked it, setting a Mets’ catcher record that stood for 11 years. While his numbers don’t look as good as those put up by Hundley and Piazza ten years later, I am giving him extra credit due to environment. It was harder for a catcher to hit up 32 homers in 1985 than it was for a catcher to hit 40 homers in 1996, so this feels like the right place to put Carter. His offensive ranking may be low, but Gary Carter was still one of the best players to put on a Mets uniform, and should be recognized as such.
#5: Todd Hundley, 1997
By this point, Hundley had established himself as one of the best hitters at any position in all of baseball. Yet, within a few years, Hundley would suffer an elbow injury that hastened the end of his Mets tenure, and his career was never the same. Of course, Hundley’s name popped up on the Mitchell Report as a player who received steroids from Kirk Radomski. Now, I’m not going to cast aspirations on Hundley, but here was a guy with 50 career home runs through 1995 who suddenly hits 41 and 30 out of nowhere? I’ll just say it looks fishy.
That said, Hundley had a fine year in 1997. He posted his career-best on-base percentage, thanks to greater respect by opposing pitchers (he drew walks at a level he would not again repeat). His lower extra base hit totals are deceptive; he had over 100 fewer plate appearances than he had in 1996. It’s arguable that this was actually his finest season, but…
#4: Todd Hundley, 1996
I’m going to give his 1996 recognition as his best. Why? First, he stayed on the field more; playing more games means he ultimately gave the Mets more. Then, there’s the team-record 41 home runs he hit, a team record he still holds today (though he now shares it with Carlos Beltran). Strangely, the Mets records for hits, singles, doubles, triples, and home runs in a season were all set in 1996 on a team that went 71-91. Hundley’s 74 extra base hits rank 7th in Mets history and are the most by a Mets catcher ever, which seems amazing considering the catcher who followed.
So why isn’t this season #1, or even top three? Well, take a look at these seasons:
#3: Mike Piazza, 2001
Spoiler Alert: Mike Piazza has the top three seasons on this list. I am sorry to ruin the suspense here, although I suspect most of you would have guessed that Piazza topped the list. Looking at his 2001, you can see what set him apart is similar to what makes David Wright great; his ability to hit over .300 consistently, with power and patience at the plate, drawing walks and finding his pitch to hit.
By that standard, 2001 was vintage Piazza; .300/.384/.573, fairly close to his career averages of .308/.377/545. Another 36 homers, 94 RBIs…this just feels like a typical Mike Piazza season, right around what your expectations for a good Mike Piazza season should be. Just think…if this is what a regular Mike Piazza season feels like, imagine what a really good Mike Piazza season looks like…
#2: Mike Piazza, 1998
Wow. The counting numbers don’t jump out at you, but look at those rate stats. Remember, Piazza spent the first six weeks of 1998 with the Dodgers, followed by a week with the Florida Marlins that I’m sure he will remember fondly. He played OK over those seven weeks, but once he came to New York, Piazza completely dominated.
What he did for that Mets team was more than just tear it up; he made them relavent again. The previous seven seasons saw the Mets trot out one bad team after another, with the morale-crushing strike thrown in just for kicks. The 1997 Mets drew just a shade over 1.75 million fans; the 1998 Mets drew just under 2.3 million. Piazza made the Mets matter in New York again. If Piazza had played the full season in New York, this season probably ranks #1. But since he didn’t…
#1: Mike Piazza, 2000
It’s a simple formula: full season + 1.012 OPS + 38 homers = best offensive season by a catcher in Mets history, in a position that looks safe for quite a while. He posted Mets highs in slugging percentage, just missed in on-base percentage, threw in 64 extra base hits just for good measure…Mets fans couldn’t ask for more (well, maybe more thrown out basestealers…).
The Mets have been blessed by some truly extraordinary hitting out of their catchers, particularly from 1995 to 2002. Granted, almost every team saw offensive explosions during those years, but what the Mets had was truly special. You could argue that Todd Hundley might be the second best hitting catcher in Mets history (somewhere, Gary Carter is FUMING right now), but unquestionably, #1 is Mike Piazza. It almost feels like the Mets are settling for second-best with the likes of Paul Lo Duca and Brian Schneider behind the plate after so many great years of Piazza, but it’s only because nobody could realistically compare to Piazza. The man was a hitting machine, as this list proves.