The Mets have been fortunate to be gifted by some pretty good first basemen, not only offensively but defensively as well. Keith Hernandez, John Olerud, Dave Magadan…all could handle the glove as well as the stick. That said, we don’t care about defense here. We’re just looking at offense. And offensively…those three stack up pretty well compared to other Mets’ first basemen. Here is a list of the top ten first base seasons in Mets history, looking strictly at offense.
Note: because the catcher piece wound up being so long, I have decided to split these up into two parts, not only to make them easier to read, but to drag this out even further to get even more mileage out of this gimmick column. Win/win, in my opinion.
Honorable Mention: Donn Clendenon, 1970; Lee Mazzilli, 1980; Ed Kranepool, 1971; Dave Magadan, 1989
Donn Clendenon, a former Pirates slugger, put together his last big year in the majors for a third place Mets team in 1970. Lee Mazzilli is more famous for being an outfielder, but logged 88 starts at first in 1980 and obliterated the Mets first basemen stolen base record while he was at it (he had 41; next highest is John Milner in 1974 with 10). Ed Kranepool has many Mets career batting records because he played more games as a Met than anybody in history; 1971 was one of six seasons out of 18 where he was an above average hitter. It was 1989 when Dave Magadan wrested the first base job away from Keith Hernandez, and he acquitted himself well; he would peak as a hitter in his next season.
#10: Keith Hernandez, 1985
Get used to seeing Mex on this list – he appears more times than any other Met. His first appearance on the list is a pretty typical Keith Hernandez season; his career lines were .296/.384/.436/.820, so add a home run or two and you’re right there. The ‘85 Mets were a curious mix of guys having their best Mets seasons (Gary Carter, George Foster, Doc Gooden) and some really bad hitting at 2B, 3B, and SS. Keith Hernandez, in a way, stood out by being normal; he just chugged along and did what he always did, which is play an excellent first base, hit for a high average, walk at an above average pace, and hit doubles like it was nobody’s business.
Going through the seasons, one thing I came to appreciate about Hernandez is that while he never hit home runs like a first baseman is supposed to, he would always have 30 or more doubles every year. Those doubles add up, and added to his on-base percentage, which was regularly in the high .300’s/low .400’s, plus first base defense well above the rest of the league, Keith was really able to make up for the fact that he never hit 20 homers a year. Put Mex at third base, and the lack of home runs is considered more acceptable, and he might make the Hall of Fame, or at least would still be on the ballot. Alas, he will have to settle for being one of the best Mets of all time.
#9: Carlos Delgado, 2008
A lot of folks think Carlos Delgado lost out on an MVP award because the Mets didn’t make the playoffs. I am not one of those people, but that said, Delgado’s 2008 has to be the most remarkable year on this list. Going into June, Delgado’s career looked to be over. After a disappointing 2007 campaign, Delgado opened 2008 in a dreadful slump, and a Mets team expected to win the NL East was miles out of contention, sitting well below .500. Rumors were going around that Delgado would be released at the All Star break, and his future looked to be very much in doubt.
Then, Willie Randolph got fired.
Now, I’m not saying that one event has to do with the other, but Delgado took off after Willie’s departure. Delgado completely destroyed the National League in the month of July, to a tune of .357/.445/.714/1.160. He cooled off a little in August and September, but continued to hit the living daylights out of the ball in a way he hadn’t in over a year. If we were ranking top ten half-seasons in Mets history, Delgado’s second half of 2008 may very well rank #1. Alas, we have to count his abysmal first half as well, so Delgado’s 2008 only ranks 9th.
#8: John Olerud, 1997
This was Olerud’s first season with the Mets, and it was a good one. The 1996 Mets, despite good production out of guys like Bernard Gilkey, Lance Johnson, and Todd Hundley, chose not to rest on their laurels, going out and upgrading at first base from Butch Huskey, Rico Brogna, and Roberto Petagine (total OPS at first base: .742) to a guy who had finished third in the MVP race as a 24 year old just four years earlier. And all it cost them was Robert Person. Pretty good deal, right?
A lot of folks look at the Mike Piazza deal as a turning point in Mets history, but it really began with the Olerud acqusition the year before. The lineup in 1997 saw fewer holes than the year before. Bernard Gilkey and Lance Johnson took steps backwards, but Olerud, Huskey (now in right field) and Todd Hundley helped the offense score even more runs than they had in 1996. Throw in surprisingly good pitching out of Rick Reed and Bobby Jones, an improved bullpen, and a managerial upgrade from Dallas Green to Bobby Valentine, and you have a 17 win improvement over the previous year. The stage was set for improvement, and it was started by the acquisition of John Olerud.
#7: John Olerud, 1999
If there is anything I hope to achieve with this list, it is that John Olerud may very well be the most underrated Mets position player ever. This list doesn’t even factor in Olerud’s great defense and all three of his Mets seasons still make the top 8. The reason Olerud is so underrated is that he only played three years in New York; imagine how much different Mets history had been if they had re-signed him after 1999? He had four more pretty good years in Seattle; at worst, the Mets still make the World Series with Olerud instead of Zeile, they probably win 4-5 more games in 2001 (which wouldn’t have put them in the playoffs but they’re still competitive), and keeps them from trading for Mo Vaughn in 2002.
Add those four above-average years to Olerud’s resume, and people are talking about him as the best first baseman in Mets history, and he is much more fondly remembered around here. It’s too bad. Still, there was a lot to like about Olerud’s last year in New York. High on-base percentage (second highest in club history), high number of walks, 58 extra base hits for a guy not considered a slugger…other than speed, there wasn’t an area of the game of baseball that Olerud did not excel in 1999. After this season, the Mets would not have a regular first baseman who could give them Olerud production until they traded for Carlos Delgado in 2006.
#6: Carlos Delgado, 2006
Hey, speak of the devil! Carlos Delgado’s arrival in 2006 gave the Mets middle of the order slugging they had lacked for years. Add Carlos Beltran’s resurgence, and suddenly this was a Mets team that had some power; the 2006 Mets hit 25 more home runs than the year before. Delgado was a big reason for that, as his 38 homers were thirteen more than the combined total of his predecessors in 2005. Throw in 56 points of on-base percentage and 138 points of slugging, and there’s no question that Carlos Delgado once again made first base an offensive position for the Mets. Much like John Olerud in 1997, his arrival was a big factor in this team’s turnaround from its previous year.
I often wonder about Delgado’s legacy. His 2006 was very good on a pretty good Mets team, but it was a small step down from his previous seasons, and he wasn’t the “star” of that team; the stars were Beltran, Wright, and Reyes. Then there was the disappointing 2007, and the incredibly slow start to 2008, which saw many Mets fans boo him vociferously. Then came the second half of 2008, where he was hitting exactly like the Toronto version of Delgado, and when fans really started to come around on him in a way they hadn’t in 2006 or 2007. Delgado should be one of the most fascinating players to watch in 2009; history says that he probably can’t do that 2008 second half again, but if he’s drawing walks and hitting for power out of the 4 hole, he will still be a valuable member of this team.
Up Next: The Top 5