I am excited to kick off a new series today, “Baseball’s Best of the Worst.” This is Part I of a twelve-part series analyzing those unfortunate players who performed well on otherwise terrible teams. Almost every last-place team seems to have one of them, and their efforts are usually forgotten by all but that team’s biggest fans.
My colleague, Graham Womack of the baseball blog, “Baseball Past and Present,” will be co-authoring this series with me, on a weekly, alternating basis.
The six players I will focus on in this series have all played since 1961. Graham’s focus, then, will be on half a dozen players from pre-1961 baseball. We have decided not to concern ourselves with splitting up the A.L. and the N.L., so ultimately, it is possible that one league or the other will end up being featured more prominently than the other. So be it.
Graham and I have been in contact with each other regarding co-writing a series together since before Christmas. This is the topic we have come up with. We decided to keep the entire series here on my blog to avoid possible confusion for our readers, and, speaking for myself, the writers. Graham’s first post will be featured next Friday, January 21st.
We hope you enjoy this series. If you have any suggestions about players you would like to see featured, please drop us a line.
Now, without further adieu, here is our initial offering.
The 1977 New York Mets are underrated as one of the worst teams in Mets history. Almost everyone knows that the pre-1969 Mets were God-awful, but the decade of the ’70’s also featured some of the worst efforts, or non-efforts, that New York’s National League franchise ever produced.
There are actually several reasons, though, why the ’77 team stands out as a tragic example of how a Major League baseball team is quite capable of kicking its fans in their collective teeth, and appearing not to notice. Specifically, given that the Mets had played better than .500 baseball in three of their previous four seasons, including a trip to the ’73 World Series and a couple of respectable third-place finishes, it seemed reasonable to assume that the ’77 Mets would be a competitive ball club.
For one thing, the Mets were returning with one of baseball’s best rotations: Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Jon Matlack, as well as promising young starters Nino Espinosa and Craig Swan. Bob Apodaca and Skip Lockwood provided above-average relief help in the bullpen.
The Mets defense also appeared solid, with the exception of Dave Kingman in left-field. Young catcher John Stearns provided above-average speed behind the plate, and 22-year old outfielder Lee Mazzilli appeared to be a future star.
Very quickly, however, things began to unravel in Gotham. The Mets, under manager Joe Frazier, stumbled out of the gate with a 15-30 record. Then, on June 15, 1977, the unthinkable happened. The Mets traded their 32-year old franchise player, Tom Seaver, for four young prospects, none of whom were to make much of a mark on Major League history. Then they also traded their only legitimate power-hitter, Dave Kingman, to the San Diego Padres.
Thirty-six year old Joe Torre, now a player-manager, took over the helm in his very first shot at managing. He didn’t have much left to work with.
In the previous off-season, however, the Mets did manage to pry a young third baseman named Lenny Randle from the Texas Rangers for a player-to-be-named later.
Lenny Randle was no prospect. He was going to be 28-years old in ’77, and few Mets fans had any idea what to expect.
But, as it turned out, Lenny Randle provided spark on a team whose guts had just been ripped out by upper-management. He gave Mets fan a reason to keep watching their team long after it was obvious that ’77 was a lost season.
Randle’s statistics for the 1977 were not spectacular, but he was the best the Mets had to offer that year.
Randle led the team with a .304 batting average. He led them in stolen bases with 33. He also led the Mets in on-base percentage (.383, tenth best in the league), and in hits (156), triples (5) and runs scored (78). His 4.2 WAR was the highest on the team.
Defensively, he played the position more like a middle-infielder. His Range Factor per nine innings was a solid 3.06, 4th best in the N.L.
Although Randle’s power numbers were terrible, accumulating just five home runs and 27 RBI, Mets fans understood that Randle’s job was to get on base and make things happen.
But Randle turned out to be little more than a flash-in-the pan. He performed poorly in Flushing in ’78, then bounced around between the Yankees, Cubs, and Mariners for the next several seasons, until his retirement in 1982 at the age of 33.
In 1983, Randle became the first American major league player to play in Italy, where he won a batting title by hitting .477.
On a really good Major League baseball team, Lenny Randle would have been a nice complementary ballplayer. On the 1977 Mets, however, he was the star attraction on an abysmal team.