Dwight Gooden, the Mets’ hurler who helped exhume the team from Grant’s Tomb and brought Shea Stadium back to life in the mid-’80s, is celebrating his 50th birthday today. When Gooden was at his peak three decades ago, the baseball cognoscenti agreed that his first three seasons in the major leagues were among 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 under-appreciated 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 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, Roger Clemens, Bob Welch and Dave Stewart – pitchers who combined to win 909 games over their long and successful major league careers.
The Mets averaged nearly 99 wins a season from 1984 to 1986, with Gooden accounting for 58 of the team’s 296 wins in those three campaigns. Although several stints on the disabled list caused Gooden to miss significant time in 1987, 1989 and 1991, Doc still won 74 games in the five years immediately following the team’s championship in 1986.
Averaging 27 starts per season from 1987 to 1991 should have allowed other National League pitchers to finish well ahead of Gooden in wins, but that never happened. In fact, only Doug Drabek won more games in the Senior Circuit than Dwight Gooden did during that five-year stretch, as seen in the chart below.
When Gooden was at his best from 1984 to 1986, he was the league’s premier strikeout pitcher, fanning 200 or more batters in each of his first three seasons and averaging nearly 250 Ks per year. Gooden’s propensity for throwing strike three earned him the nickname Dr. K, but just because he wasn’t leading the league in strikeouts from 1987 to 1991 as he did in his first two seasons didn’t mean he was no longer frustrating batters at the plate.
In his fourth through eighth seasons in the big leagues, the good Doctor struck out 797 batters. Only one pitcher in the National League had more strikeouts than Gooden did during those five “post-dominant Doc” seasons – his teammate, David Cone, who won two strikeout titles of his own in 1990 and 1991.
There’s one last thing that won’t show up in a boxscore or a chart that helps assess Dwight Gooden’s value to the Mets after his first three historic seasons with the team. During the five-year period from 1987 to 1991, Gooden was outstanding at helping the Mets win games that immediately followed a loss, thereby preventing the Mets from suffering through extended losing streaks.
In Gooden’s 137 starts during those five years, 65 of them came after a loss by the team. The Mets’ record in those 65 contests was 41-24, giving the team a .631 winning percentage in post-loss games started by Doc. When any other starting pitcher took the mound immediately following a Mets loss during that five-year stretch, the team’s record in those games was 147-148, for a .498 winning percentage. That’s how valuable Gooden was to the team after he had supposedly lost his ability to dominate hitters.
Dwight Gooden never had a winning percentage under .650 in any season from 1987 to 1991, while the Mets never posted a winning percentage above .625 in any of those five campaigns. The entire team stopped being as great as they were in 1986, but not Doc. He just continued to find ways to win. If anything, he was one of the main reasons why the team continued to be competitive for as long as they did, until the bottom fell out in the early ’90s.
Today is Doc’s 50th birthday, making it a perfect day to look back at how golden he was not just during his first three seasons with the Mets, but in the years immediately following the team’s World Series championship. The baseball pundits might say Gooden wasn’t the same pitcher after 1986, but that didn’t make him any less valuable to the Mets. The numbers don’t lie. Doc Gooden never lost his ability to be among the best pitchers in the league even when his club stopped being one of the best teams in the league.