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February 16, 2009
  
Position Retrospective: Second Base, Part II
by: Alex Nelson on Feb 16, 2009 5:01 AM | Filed under: Articles

A couple weeks back, I took a look at the Mets’ second base situation over the years, comparing it to those of other National League teams over the same time period. This time I’ll be looking at the individuals who manned the keystone sack for the team.

As before, I’ve considered several Baseball Prospectus stats, VORP and Fielding Runs to help me sort things out. Since second base is the first of the “range-y” positions—first base and catcher are more skill-oriented—I’ve opted to also consult Sean Smith’s TotalZone, historical Zone Ratings, and Ultimate Zone Rating, when applicable.

The Top Five Seasons

#5
The Year:
1984
The Cast: Wally Backman, Kelvin Chapman, Ron Gardenhire, cameo by Ross Jones

Backman didn’t hit for any power whatsoever, but he did hit .280 with a .360 on-base average, solid numbers for a second baseman. And Chapman, his primary backup, might have outperformed him, hitting .289/.356/.401 in 197 at-bats. Defensively, there’s some disagreement—TotalZone thinks the quartet did poorly, BP a few runs above average. The 1988 crew would likely take over here if you trust TotalZone, which is probably wise.

#4
The Year:
1970
The Cast: Ken Boswell, Wayne Garrett, Al Weis, Ted Martinez

When the Mets plugged Boswell into second base in 1967, they really began a team tradition. Instead of worrying overmuch about defense, they found a guy who could play it passably and could help the team out by getting on base a little bit. From Boswell to Luis Castillo, the team’s generally preferred guys with on-base ability to gloves. 1970 was Boswell’s best with the glove, however, and backup Wayne Garrett didn’t hit too badly either (.254/.390/.421).

#3
The Year:
1999
The Cast: Edgardo Alfonzo, Luis Lopez, and cameos by Melvin Mora and Roger Cedeno(??)

Wait, Roger Cedeno played second base? Anyone else remember that? It happened on July 2, 1999 in a game the Mets wound up losing to the Braves by a score of 16-0. Bobby Valentine, having burned through six pitchers decided to bring third baseman Matt Franco in to pitch. Luis Lopez shifted over to third, and the Mets decided to bring Cedeno in to play second.

Another Amazin’ centerfielder to make an appearance at second: Richie Ashburn, who actually made two in 1962.

Oh, and getting back to 1999: Edgardo Alfonzo was awesome.

#2
The Year:
1964
The Cast: Ron Hunt, Rod Kanehl, Bobby Klaus, Amado Samuel, Larry Burright

The numbers might not look like much, but as a whole the unit put up an OPS 22% better than the positional average. It was mostly thanks to Ron Hunt, who hit .303/.357/.406; Klaus was the next best hitter of the bunch at .244/.325/.340. Once again, however, defense is in question. TotalZone doesn’t like Hunt’s defense, while Fielding Runs do. The total difference is about 14 runs, which would be enough to push this season just below the 1999 group.

#1
The Year:
2000
The Cast: Edgardo Alfonzo, Kurt Abbott, Joe McEwing, and cameos by Lenny Harris, Melvin Mora, Jorge Velandia, David Lamb, and Matt Franco

No other season is remotely close. Alfonzo was a smooth fielder; he didn’t have the range to be great, but he rarely made errors and turned the double play pretty well. And at the plate, he was astounding: .324/.425/.542. Fonzie and Mike Piazza pretty much carried the offense for a team that went to the World Series. Remember when I said Alfonzo was awesome? Well, he was really awesome in 2000.

And the five worst, starting with the worst:

2004 (Roberto Alomar, et al.)
1977 (Felix Millan, et al.)
1972 (Ken Boswell, et al.)
1965 (Chuck Hiller, et al.)
1979 (Doug Flynn)

The first three seasons all have one thing in common: they all happened as a result of capable second basemen getting old early. Boswell wasn’t a star, but he was a fair platoon player, and his total inability to hit during his age-26 season was shocking. 1977 was Felix Millan’s last season, and 2004 was Alomar’s second straight disappointment in a Mets uni. 1965 was a case of Ron Hunt getting hurt and the Mets failing to replace him adequately, and 1979 was a case of Doug Flynn being Doug Flynn.

Top Seven Mets Second Basemen (Career)

1. Edgardo Alfonzo

After the 2002 season, the Mets had a decision to make. Edgardo Alfonzo had been a tremendous player between 1997 and 2000. He offered a superb approach at the plate, good contact ability, plus power, solid defense, versatility, and class on and off the field. But in 2001 back injuries limited him to a .243/.322/.403 line. He rebounded in 2002, hitting .308/.391/.459, but it was clear his power and range had significantly diminished. Fonzie was a free agent after that season, and the Mets made a competitive offer but let him walk to San Francisco. When he left, I can’t say I was heartbroken—I knew it was the smart business decision to let a third baseman with a bad back walk—but I was sorry to see him go.

In the end, I’m glad he did. I wouldn’t have wanted to watch him struggle day in and day out; he deserved better than that.

2. Ron Hunt

The hit-by-pitch thing wouldn’t happen until he moved on to San Francisco. As most of you probably are aware, Hunt was the first Met elected to start the All-Star game. While he did have a number of good seasons left in him after the Mets traded him to Los Angeles, the team did have Boswell, and Hunt did net them Tommy Davis who played great for the franchise in 1967. Davis was then flipped to the White Sox for Tommie Agee and Al Weis, two key cogs to the Mets’ championship run in 1969.

3. Wally Backman

I have Backman and Hunt very close. Backman, the franchise leader in games played at the position, played much longer, but wasn’t as valuable with the bat after adjusting for league context. Backman was also plagued by inconsistency, never posting two good seasons in a row. At his best, he was an on-base machine, but at his worst a total lack of power made him an offensive black hole. Neither player was particularly adept with the glove.

4. Jeff Kent

One thing that always shocks about Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino being traded for Carlos Baerga and Alvaro Espinoza is that Baerga was the youngest guy involved. The difference, of course, was the Baerga won a starting job in the second half of 1990 as a 21-year-old; Kent spent a few years longer developing in Toronto’s system.

Now it looks like a monumental mistake, but I do kind of understand the logic behind it. Joe McIlvaine obviously felt he was getting the younger player who was already a star in the deal, and Vizcaino was expendable due to the presence of Alfonzo. While Baerga was having a disappointing 1996, there was hope that his injuries would heal and he’d return to form. Instead, Baerga never really recovered and Kent emerged as a superstar in 1998 at the age of 30. To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t have expected that sort of performance from Kent, either.

5. Felix Millan

Past his prime as a fielder, Millan was still pretty durable and hit .280 or better in three of his five seasons as a Met.

My favorite Felix Millan story comes from Robert Whiting’s You Gotta Have Wa. Millan had injured his shoulder in 1977 during an on-field brawl with Pittsburgh Pirate catcher Ed Ott. The injury effectively ended his major league career, but he went to Japan, enjoying a successful 1978 season. Whiting writes:

One of them was Millan, a former Atlanta Braves and New York Mets second baseman, who was the quintessence of propriety. When he arrived in 1979 for his second year as a Taiyo Whale, he politely refused an offer to let him train as he wished and instead endured all the rigors of a Japanese preseason camp with his teammates. When he was benched on opening day, he sat quietly in the dugout, a shy smile on his face, intently watching the action. When he got his chance to play a week later, he went 4 for 4, won his spot back, and eventually won the batting title as well with an average of .324.

6. Tim Teufel

Was never the starter, but Teufel did form a few successful platoons with Backman in the 1980s. His best season was 1987 when he hit .308/.398/.545 in 299 at-bats.

7. Jose Valentin

Only had the one season, but it was the best defensive season the Mets have ever had from the position, and he did hit well after a brutal April. His only competition for the spot is Gregg Jefferies, who stuck around longer but was brutal defensively.

Worst Mets Second Baseman

Joe McEwing. Couldn’t hit, couldn’t field. But “Super” Joe only saw 123 games at the position. If you want someone with more longevity, look no further than Doug Flynn, who saw action at second in 530 games despite being a .238/.266/.294 career hitter. Like McEwing, his defense didn’t make up for his offensive shortcomings, either.

Best Defensive Second Baseman

As I alluded to above, the Mets have rarely had smooth-fielding defensive second basemen. Jose Valentin rates the best by all metrics, though it comes in a smaller sample size (138 games). Valentin had been a shortstop in Milwaukee where he was habitually underrated due to his propensity to make errors. His range numbers were always above average, however, so it’s not surprising that he’d become a stellar second sacker.

If you’re looking for a player with a longer career, Brian Giles was very good also, and if that still isn’t long enough, the vote probably goes to Alfonzo, by default. He was smooth and steady, though his range was somewhat limited.

Worst Defensive Second Baseman

Jefferies, and it’s not very close. Absolutely brutal. The Mets knew he wasn’t a second baseman, but they kept hoping he’d learn enough to be passable since he was athletic and the stick was so promising. Eventually the Cardinals got the right idea, moving him to first where he could concentrate on his bat (.335/.401/.487 in St. Louis).

Best Name

Always loved Chico Walker, whose real first name was Cleotha. Chico played 40 games at the position in 1992 and 1993. Played damn well in 1992, too.

Three fun facts about Chico Walker:

1. He homered in his last at-bat as a pro.
2. He is the uncle of NBA player Antoine Walker.
3. He is best known among Mets fans for making the last out for the Cubs in the game that clinched the 1986 division crown.


6 Responses to “Position Retrospective: Second Base, Part II”

  1. Comment posted by JamesSC on February 16, 2009 at 9:50 am (#930401)

    Instead, Baerga never really recovered and Kent emerged as a superstar in 1998 at the age of 30. To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t have expected that sort of performance from Kent, either.

    I celebrated that day as I always felt Kent was an albatross on our team, never really liked rooting for him. No one will ever be able to convince me that Kent didn’t start on some serious “performance enhancers” to turn into the “star” he did after leaving NY.

  2. Comment posted by Ramon on February 16, 2009 at 10:56 am (#930405)

    Very nice peice, Alex. Love the work.

    James, I could definately see Kent as a roider. He goes out West to Balco Land during the peak of the steroids era in 1997 at 29 years of age not having produced an OPS+ of higher than 110 with seasons where he played between 108-140 games for the Mets. Then he freakishly begins an offensive roll at 2nd throughout his 30s playing more games than ever to match offensive power numbers numbers that weren’t seen at the position since Rogers Hornsby during the 1920s.

    Finally, the whole rehashing of the Jeffries 2nd base saga has a present relevance with how many fans (myself included) and pundits have entertained the idea of moving Daniel Murphy there to take greater advantage of his stick. After being reminded of how badly that experiment went, I want to reconsider trying Daniel there.

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  4. Comment posted by Alex Nelson on February 16, 2009 at 12:33 pm (#930408)

    He goes out West to Balco Land during the peak of the steroids era in 1997 at 29 years of age not having produced an OPS+ of higher than 110 with seasons where he played between 108-140 games for the Mets. Then he freakishly begins an offensive roll at 2nd throughout his 30s playing more games than ever to match offensive power numbers numbers that weren’t seen at the position since Rogers Hornsby during the 1920s.

    You’re forgetting the strike. Playing 108 games ain’t bad when your team only plays 113.

    With regard to Kent, I spent some time “justifying” the trade, but there’s still a pretty good reason not to make it: Kent isn’t a problem for those mid-90s Mets teams. True, nobody liked him, but he was a plus hitter at the position even if he never improved a lick, and his defense was likely underrated. Any improvement is somewhat marginalized by the fact that they already had a good 2B/3B in Kent, and Baerga was obviously a riskier player due to the wrist injury.

    Finally, the whole rehashing of the Jeffries 2nd base saga has a present relevance with how many fans (myself included) and pundits have entertained the idea of moving Daniel Murphy there to take greater advantage of his stick.

    Second base is a position where a bad defensive player can cost you quite a few runs. Jefferies rates as one of the best offensive second basemen in team history, but when you’re losing 20+ runs a year due to your defense…

  5. Comment posted by fattlipp on February 16, 2009 at 12:51 pm (#930410)

    Re Best Defensive Second Baseman: Where does Doug Flynn fit in stat-wise? Wasn’t he a wizard with the glove? Or was that mere FO hype to try to justify the Seaver trade?

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  7. Comment posted by Alex Nelson on February 16, 2009 at 1:34 pm (#930414)

    @fattlipp:

    He’s roughly average.

  8. Comment posted by carltonvc on February 17, 2009 at 6:24 pm (#930629)

    How soon they forget. Worst deal, worst second baseman: Roberto Alomar. Like spitting against the wind.
    Just to refresh Fonzi had 189 RBIs v. Alomar’s 75 over the time Alomar spent with the Mets. Fonzi hit 30 points higher over the same time and had 58 more hits as well. I for one hated to see Fonzi go. He was integral in getting the Mets to the World Series in 2000, a home grown player and the Mets disposed of him like he was a rent-a-player. I took a long time to heal my disdain for the front office. Integrity and character that Fonzi displayed on and off the field does not come around too often and the Mets just dismissed that quality. But no, let’s get a guy that spits in the face of an umpire! Unforgivable!
    Funny how solidifying second base has resulted in the Mets getting to the fall classic.

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