Sunday, January 25, 2009

The All-Time NY Mets: 1960s Third Baseman

(originally posted 1/2/09 on Preaching to the Choir)

Let the debate begin.

I will start off by saying that I could agree with any of four different choices as the Mets' third baseman of the '60s ... but the calculations are what they are, and (even though I may feel somewhat of a conflict with my own results) a suitable honoree is declared at the end of this article.

The nominees for this coronation are found at the indispensable Baseball-Reference.com, which lists the most frequent starters by position for every year of every team's history. The Mets' starting third basemen for their first calendar decade are Felix Mantilla (1962), Charlie Neal (1963), Charley Smith (1964-65), Ken Boyer (1966), Ed Charles (1967-68), and Wayne Garrett (1969).

Let's start by dispatching the pretenders to the throne. Charlie Neal had a terrible season in '63, accumulating only 3 home runs and 18 RBI as the starting third baseman, and Wayne Garrett (though he would prove useful in the '70s) was even worse in 1969, totaling one home run and 39 RBI to go along with a .218 average in 400 at-bats. Garrett's figures calculate out to an almost unthinkably-low OPS+ of 56 (with 100 representing the "average" player) and a Batting Runs figure of -23.1 (the linear weights calculation).

Let's turn then to the leader in the traditional counting stats. Charley Smith hit 20 home runs in 1964 to lead the club, and recorded 62 RBI the next season, again a team-leading figure (he also led the '65 club in slugging percentage). But his low batting average combined with his unwillingness to take a walk to produce a cumulative on-base percentage of only .274--a certain killer to his candidacy. Still, if you like homers and RBI, you could make a case for Charley as the third baseman of the first decade.

Following Charley Smith as the Mets' starter was the once-great Ken Boyer, and if Ken had had one of his Cardinals years with the Mets, he would surely be your winner. But Boyer totaled just 14 homers and 61 RBI in his only full season with New York--pretty good but not outstanding for the '60s. He is penalized (perhaps unfairly) by beginning the next season with the Mets but being soon traded away, thus depressing his per-season totals (one of the components of the ultimate calculation). If you want to make a case for Ken Boyer as your third baseman of the '60s, I hear you.

Ed Charles was a platoon starter at third for the next three seasons, and is the obvious sentimental choice for the honor, most likely for being the third baseman when the Miracle Mets clinched the World Championship--the photograph of him leaping for joy as nearby Jerry Koosman vaults into Jerry Grote's arms is well-known. And he did have one pretty good year with the bat, too. In 1968 he smacked 15 homers and batted .276 in only 369 at-bats, making him the leader among our contestants for single-season OPS+ and Batting Runs. But in both 1967 and 1969, he was really pretty bad, posting an OPS+ of less than 80 in each season. Still, as the iconic third baseman of the Mets' first few years, you could make an argument.

That leaves us with Felix Mantilla. Even though he appeared in the Mets' first-ever Opening Day lineup as the shortstop, batting second, he spent most of the season at third, and his totals showed him to be the third-most valuable hitter on the team that year (behind outfielders Frank Thomas and Richie Ashburn). Using the NY Mets Hall of Records calculations (which include value relative to the team he played on as well as to the rest of the league), Mantilla posted the best single season of any 1960s Met third baseman as well as the best cumulative score for the decade. His '62 counting stats of 11 HR, 59 RBI, and a .275 average were all pretty good for the 1960s, even if they appear hopelessly pedestrian by today's standards. He was gone by 1963, traded to the Red Sox for three players, and in his three years with Boston, he crushed the ball, posting OPS+s of 133, 144, and 119. The Mets surely could have used that kind of production in their early years, as their own starting third basemen for the same seasons tallied OPS+s of 79, 91, and 89. An unheralded player, one of the Mets' earliest in their long record of poor trades, and your third baseman of the 1960s: Felix Mantilla.

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