MMO Flashback: Changing the Dynamic, One Catcher at a Time
With the recent acquisition of Travis d’Arnaud, the Mets added one of the top two catching prospects in the minors, the other being Mike Zunino. Could d’Arnaud be the next great Mets catcher to lead the team to a World Series as Jerry Grote, Gary Carter and Mike Piazza once did? It’s a good question and one that will be answered in the years to come. Catching is the subject of today’s MMO Flashback, so please enjoy this article by Taryn “The Coop” Cooper. It was originally published in our MMO 2012 Mets Annual last spring.
1969. 1973. 1986. 2000.
Tom Seaver. Rusty Staub. Tug McGraw. John Franco. Keith Hernandez. Darryl Strawberry. Tommie Agee.
Steve “Hendu Cando” Henderson. Ron “The Dive” Swoboda. Endy “The Catch” Chavez. Robin “Grand Slam Single” Ventura.
While the Mets storied 50 years have included characters and some pivotal moments, their pitching staffs have boasted several homegrown greats like Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan and Doc Gooden, and adding more through trades. Yet, there are forgotten men that have been the backbone to making those pitchers successful.
Nope, not their pitching coaches.
Their battery mates. Their catchers.
Conversely in Mets history, while there’s been quite a bit of homegrown pitching talent throughout the years, the catcher has been somewhat overlooked. Perhaps they took Casey Stengel’s “You’re gonna need a catcher, or you’re gonna have a lot of passed balls” too much to heart by not developing strong catchers in their own history.
By trading for top-shelf catchers at the time, the Mets had championship runs where the catchers who made the difference were Jerry Grote, Gary Carter and Mike Piazza. Without a strong catcher or the man in the 2 position on those teams, the outcome might have been completely different.
Finally, what did they all have in common, besides the position they played?
They either won a championship or went as far as the World Series with the Mets.
Gerald Wayne Grote was traded to the New York Mets on October 19, 1965, in exchange for Tom Parsons by the Houston Astros. The Mets didn’t get “good” or even “great” until a few years later. Who knows how the pitching in those years would have developed had the catcher been as green as they were?
In 1967, some rookie by the name of George Thomas Seaver quickly became the ace of the staff. The addition of Jerome Martin Koosman a year later added the one-two punch that would become the linchpins of that staff. Grote certainly wasn’t known for his bat; .256/.321/.329 in his 12 years with the Mets, and in the “championship years” (arbitrarily ruling between the years of 1969 – 1973) .253/.314/.326.
His defensive stats, though, provide a clearer view of how he helped the team. During those years, he ranked above league average in caught stealing percentage, and ranked in the top five of all catchers in each year except one in range factor.
The Mets famously came together strong in those years, but the value of a good defensive catcher is underrated, as is Jerry Grote’s value to those teams.
Gary Edmund Carter was already a legend for the Montreal Expos when he was traded to the Mets on December 10, 1984. While fan favorite Hubie Brooks was included in the deal to Montreal, no one could argue that this deal meant business. Frank Cashen was serious about adding a big bat to the lineup, and there was no doubt that Carter could fit that bill.
Prior to joining the Mets, Carter had already established himself as a long ball hitting catcher who had the rare ability to not only call a good game, but couple strong defense in addition to being a threat with the bat.
The Mets historians show that the trade for Keith Hernandez changed the dynamic of the 1980s Mets. Yet, the addition of Gary Carter thrust them over the top, towards two NL East titles and one World Series championship. In his first two seasons, .269/.352/.465 was his line along with 56 HRs and 205 RBIs. Those were a lots of runs batted in!
He ranked in the top five in the first four seasons with the Mets in range factor as well, but his caught stealing percentages went down in his years with the Mets. We could then argue that Carter’s bat helped propel the Mets to their championship year in 1986, as he hit .276/.267/.552 with 2 HRs and 9 RBIs in the World Series.
Michael Joseph Piazza flitted between the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he had a very strong career, to the Florida Marlins shortly prior to being scooped up by the Mets via trade on May 22, 1998. While he got off to an infamously slow start in New York, his bat won over the naysayers. The Mets were in the Wild Card race almost to the very end, thanks in part to Piazza’s .348/.417/.607 with 23 HRs and 76 RBIs. It’s hard to argue that Piazza’s bat didn’t change the culture, and led the Mets to offer him a 7-year contract.
Piazza was certainly not known for his defensive prowess, but he more than made up for those deficiencies with his bat. He hit 78 HRs and 237 RBIs with a line of .313/.379/.594 in years where the Mets made the postseason.
While replacement Todd Pratt provided the dramatics for Game 4 in the 1999 NLDS, an injured Piazza’s whopping .167 BA probably didn’t help the team matters in the rest of the series. I wonder how far the team could have gone had he been healthy in 1999.
Tough to argue that the team wouldn’t have gone as far as they did without Piazza’s bat in 2000, as his bat was on fire in the NLCS, (.412 BA, with 2 HRs and 4 RBIs) but he did come back down to earth during the World Series (.273 BA also with 2 HRs and 4 RBIs). While Piazza provided the last breath long fly ball out in the 2000 World Series, the team’s overall line was pretty atrocious during that series: .229/.284/.343. In fact, Piazza was the one of the few glimmers.
Mike Piazza is as close to a first ballot Hall of Famer as there is (depending on how the baseball writers view him, though), but his time with the Mets was very special as there were points his bat proved to be the difference maker in the team being just a Wild Card “okay” team to a full-blown playoff “why not us?” team.
In the Mets championship years and World Series runs, the catchers provided some sort of “it factor” for success. Whether it was helping groom a young pitching staff, provide much needed offensive support in the lineup and back up on the field, or simply carrying the offense on their backs, Jerry Grote, Gary Carter and Mike Piazza could very well have been the change agents on those teams.
About the Author: Taryn Cooper
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