Baseball historians will say that Dwight Gooden‘s first three seasons in the major leagues were some of the best by a young pitcher in the game’s history. Gooden took the mound 99 times from 1984 to 1986, going 58-19 with a 2.28 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 35 complete games, 13 shutouts and 744 strikeouts – reaching 200 or more strikeouts in each season.
But after off-the-field problems came to light prior to the 1987 campaign, Gooden went from being Dr. K to being Dr. Just OK. Or did he?
From 1987 to 1991, Doc’s numbers were clearly not the same as they were during his first three seasons. But they were still pretty darn good. In his fourth through eighth seasons with the Mets, Gooden went 74-34 with a 3.39 ERA and 1.23 WHIP, striking out 797 batters, completing 22 games and tossing eight shutouts. He also finished in the top five in the Cy Young Award voting twice. (Gooden was fifth in the Cy Young balloting in 1987 and fourth in 1990.) He accomplished all of this from 1987 to 1991 despite making fewer than 28 starts in three of the five seasons.
Perhaps his greatest and most underappreciated accomplishment occurred in 1991. After seven consecutive seasons of winning 87 or more games, the Mets finished under .500 in ’91. But Gooden still managed to finish with a 13-7 record, 3.60 ERA and 150 strikeouts in only 27 starts. In 15 of those 27 starts, Gooden allowed two earned runs or fewer, but received losses or no-decisions in six of the games, mainly because he was surrounded by a putrid offense.
Keith Miller (.280) and Gregg Jefferies (.272) were the only players with 300 or more plate appearances to finish the year with a batting average north of .260. Howard Johnson (38 HR, 117 RBI, 108 runs) was the sole Met with more than 16 homers, 74 RBI or 65 runs scored. Gooden basically had to help himself when he was in the game, as he batted .238 with three doubles, a homer, six RBI and seven runs scored in only 63 at-bats. His .333 slugging percentage was higher than the marks posted by Mark Carreon (.331 in 254 AB), Vince Coleman (.327 in 278 AB) and Garry Templeton (.306 in 219 AB).
In the five seasons immediately following the 1986 World Series championship campaign, when Gooden supposedly went from being a great pitcher to just being a very good pitcher, the right-hander’s winning percentage was .685 in 137 starts. That was the highest winning percentage for all pitchers who made 100 or more starts from 1987 to 1991. The rest of the top five included Dave Stieb (68-34, .667), Roger Clemens (94-48, .662), Bob Welch (88-42, .662) and Dave Stewart (95-56, .629) – pitchers who combined to win 909 games over their long and successful major league careers.
Despite his dropoff in strikeouts following the 1986 season, Gooden’s 797 Ks from 1987 to 1991 was surpassed by just one pitcher in the National League – his teammate, David Cone. Cone struck out 945 batters over the five-year stretch. Gooden’s 74 wins was also second in the NL to Doug Drabek, who won 77 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates from ’87 to ’91.
One other thing that Gooden was great at from 1987 to 1991 was something that never showed up in the boxscore. During those five years, Gooden was outstanding at helping the Mets win games immediately following a loss, thereby preventing the Mets from suffering through extended losing streaks. Doc started 65 games following a Mets loss from 1987 to 1991. The Mets were 41-24 in those games.
Today is Dwight Gooden’s 49th birthday. It’s been nearly three decades since he rocketed onto the major league scene with his blazing fastball and devastating curveball as a rookie in 1984. It’s also been almost two decades since he threw his final pitch as a member of the New York Mets.
From the ages of 19 to 21, Gooden was arguably the best pitcher in the game. Then, as his off-the-field habits started to come to light, he failed to approach his otherworldly numbers from 1984 to 1986. But that didn’t mean he stopped being a great pitcher. In fact, no one in baseball gave his team a better chance to win from 1987 to 1991 than Gooden, and only a handful of pitchers sent as many opposing batters back to the bench without putting the ball in play than Doc did.
Just because he wasn’t leading the league in strikeouts and threatening to throw a no-hitter in every start didn’t mean he wasn’t the Doctor anymore. In fact, he continued to operate with surgical precision for quite some time after the 1986 campaign.
Doc Gooden never stopped being great on the mound. It’s a shame that some people thought his greatness just wasn’t good enough.