Friday, February 20, 2009

The All-Time NY Mets: 1970s Shortstop

When we took a look at the third basemen of the sixties a little over a month ago, we noted that the player who spent the most time at the position in the expansion year of 1962 (Felix Mantilla) played only one year with the club, and although there were several successors who posted similar seasons, no one was really any better than the first-year starter.

When we studied the shortstops of the sixties just last week, we observed a similar phenomenon. The player who spent the most time at the position in the expansion year of 1962 (Elio Chacon) played only one year with the club, and although there were several successors who posted similar seasons, no one was really any better than the first-year starter.

When we looked at the third basemen of the seventies, the man who stood out above all the competition was the incumbent from 1969 (Wayne Garrett), whose longevity and relative competence enabled him to stare down a troop of really mediocre challengers.

Now we're examining the shortstops of the seventies. Will the pattern continue to hold? That is, will the incumbent (Bud Harrelson), who was far and away the most durable Met shortstop of the decade, pile up enough raw counting stats to turn away his eventual successors? Here's a clue: Yes.

First let's turn to the invaluable to determine our field of competitors. Buddy Harrelson, of course, was the starter from 1970-74 and again in 1976-77. Mike Phillips saw most of the action in 1975, Tim Foli in 1978, and Frank Taveras in 1979.

Let's commence by disposing of Mike Phillips, which is sort of a sad thing, because he really wasn't a bad little player, at least as far as the hitting prowess of Mets shortstops is concerned. But Mike was a utility man through and through; 1975 was the only season in his 11-year career that saw him garner as many as 300 at-bats, and the sole reason for that abundance of plate appearances in '75 was that Harrelson missed virtually the whole year with injuries. Phillips did have kind of a knack for stroking triples--he led the club in three-baggers in both '75 and '76, and was tied for sixth on the club in triples for the entire decade, despite a total of only 731 at-bats with the Mets.

Likewise let's dismiss Tim Foli from the proceedings. Tim was sort of like the David Eckstein of the '70s--scrappy and pesky, well-respected, but not a particularly good player according to the more advanced metrics. Foli's season as the Mets' starter was virtually indistinguishable from his career line, at least as far as his percentage stats are concerned: his 1978 numbers were a .283 OBP, .320 slugging, and a .257 batting average, which bundled into an OPS+ of 72.

In early 1979, Foli was traded along with a minor-leaguer for fellow shortstop Frank Taveras, who was regarded as a more accomplished offensive shortstop than the Mets had fielded in years, mostly by virtue of his lofty stolen base totals with the Pirates--he had led the league in 1977 with 70. Frank continued to steal bases, swiping 42 with the Mets in '79, though he was also caught 19 times, barely reaching the break-even point of value for his efforts. His hitting stats were also empty--no walks, no power. In fact, in over 4,000 career at-bats, Frank managed only two home runs.

I mentioned last week that, until Jose Reyes arrived, the Mets never had a shortstop that could hit a lick. As a demonstration of that assertion, I printed a table of OPS+ and Batting Runs numbers for each year's starter. Just for fun, let's do it again for the seventies.

1970: Harrelson: 79 –13.0
1971: Harrelson: 79 –14.1
1972: Harrelson: 68 –15.2
1973: Harrelson: 86 .–5.3
1974: Harrelson: 80 .–4.5
1975: Phillips: .77 –12.6
1976: Harrelson: 91 .–0.9
1977: Harrelson: 34 –24.8
1978: Foli: .....72 –16.1
1979: Taveras: ..78 –20.9

Once again, no starting shortstop for the Mets posted a Batting Runs figure even as high as zero! At the risk of beating a dead horse, here are the "triple crown" stats for Mets shortstops of the '70s: best season total in batting average, .263; best season total in RBI, 42; best season total in home runs … one. For the decade of the seventies, Mets starting shortstops totaled eight home runs. For the decade.

Back to the chart. We see Bud Harrelson posting the best season OPS+ of any starter for the decade, with his 91 in 1976; he also had the second-best and the third-best seasons, and the fourth-best and fifth-best. Harrelson also had the best season in Batting Runs with –0.9 in 1976 (sigh), and also the second-best and third-best totals.

According to more traditional measures, Buddy was also the man. Twice in the seventies he was named to the NL All-Star team, and three different years saw him receiving votes for the National League MVP award. One remarkable season saw him draw 95 walks (which would stand as the club record for nearly fifteen years), and his stolen-base rate dramatically improved in the '70s (91 steals against only 27 times caught).

If it seems like faint praise to name Bud Harrelson the shortstop of the decade, that's not intended. He was a warrior for the Mets for a long, long time. He stole a bunch of bases, took a lot of walks, and by all accounts was a splendid defensive shortstop. If he wasn't Jose Reyes … well, neither was anyone else for the first forty years of Met history. Bud Harrelson, worthy hero--you are the Mets' All-Time Shortstop of the Seventies.

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