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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

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The Year of Not the Hitter

The Mets commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1964 World’s Fair at Citi Field Tuesday night. It involved a little too much Branden and Alexa, but the sentiment was solid and the theme was well executed: period songs, vintage video, even special at-bat graphics evoking the enormous futuristic attraction that kept Shea Stadium company in its infancy. Surprising historical awareness shown by management. Nicely done.

Yet the vintage year I walked away from the 3-0 loss to the Cardinals thinking about was not 1964 but the one that came a quadrennium later. These Mets, at least when they’re playing at home — and certainly when I go to see them (I’m 0-4) — are in the midst of a seasonlong salute to 1968.

Futuristic exhibition at 1964 World's Fair predicts how many runs Mets would score in 50 years versus Cardinal pitching.

Futuristic exhibition at 1964 World’s Fair predicts how many runs Mets would score in 50 years versus Cardinal pitching.

You’ve probably heard of The Year of the Pitcher. That was 1968 all across baseball, when the mounds were high, the hurlers intimidating and the numbers staggering. The shorthand version is Denny McLain won 31 games for the Tigers and Bob Gibson compiled a 1.12 earned run average for the Cardinals. If you’ve watched your Mets Yearbooks on SNY to excess, you’ll immediately recognize 1968 more specifically as The Year of the Mets Pitcher, when for the first time since there had been Mets, there was an abundance of talent at a given position and it happened to be the most important position on the field.

Forty-six years ago in Flushing, that meant young guns Seaver, Koosman, Selma, Ryan and McAndrew at the forefront, putting up zeroes as Met pitchers had never done before. Given what came directly after 1968, the emerging Met rotation has harbinger written all over it in hindsight. Dick Selma would be lost in the expansion draft, Gary Gentry would take his place and 1969’s unforeseen successes would serve to retrofit 1968 as the sign of things to come.

Left on the cutting room floor by the highlight filmmakers of yore was the part of the plot that didn’t sell season tickets, namely the dreadful Mets offense of 1968. In real time, though, it got noticed. In a sport where hardly anybody was hitting, the Mets were barely appearing at the plate. As a team, they batted .228, they slugged .315 and they on-based at a clip of .281. You know who was worse in the National League?

Nobody. The Mets’ OPS — an uncalculated metric back then, but one that exists for our consideration today — was a league-low .596. Only the Dodgers scored fewer runs. Nobody came close to striking out as often. The cumulative offensive numbness goes a long way toward explaining why a team that was fourth in the league in ERA (2.72) couldn’t win more than 73 games. Granted, 73 wins smashed the previous franchise high and spectacularly better days were mere months ahead…but my, the hitting was legendarily lousy.

Nobody personified the lack of attack like Tommie Agee, who was hit in the helmet on the first day of exhibition play by vicious Cardinal competitor Gibson and never fully found his footing. Gil Hodges tried him in six of eight spots in the order. None of them took for very long. The bottom line for the heralded acquisition from the American League was a .217 batting average, a .562 OPS, 17 lonely RBIs in 132 games and a sense that the Mets had yet to find a center fielder who could field and hit.

History’s verdict on Tommie Agee wasn’t rendered in 1968. A plaque bearing his name hangs in the Mets Hall of Fame because of what he did after 1968. The Mets won a championship largely because Tommie Agee dominated the first World Series game ever played at Shea Stadium, launching a leadoff home run that put the Mets up, 1-0, and hauling in two nearly impossible balls that could have conceivably have beaten them, 6-5. The Mets were in the World Series because of Tommie Agee as much as anybody. Here are the top six finishers in the Most Valuable Player voting in the National League for 1969:

1) Willie McCovey
2) Tom Seaver
3) Hank Aaron
4) Pete Rose
5) Ron Santo
6) Tommie Agee

McCovey, Seaver, Aaron and Santo are all in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rose, if not for an enormous personal shortcoming, would be, too. And right behind them was Agee, who hit 54 points higher and drove in 59 more runs than he had the year before. (Right behind Agee in the voting was teammate Cleon Jones; five of the six players directly behind Jones were also future Hall of Famers — Roberto Clemente, Phil Niekro, Tony Perez, Ernie Banks and Johnny Bench.) For one season that overshadowed all that came before and after it in his career, Tommie Agee resided comfortably among immortals.

Yet it didn’t make his 1968 any less disturbing while it was underway. Which, in turn, is to say that whatever the Mets are building in 2014 for 2015 and beyond, it can’t go up fast enough, because on nights like Tuesday, they look like they consist of 25 Agees of the not-yet Miraculous variety.

• The 2014 Mets, after one-eighth of a season, are batting .219, worst in the National League.

• The 2014 Mets, after one-eighth of a season, have struck out 189 times, tied for second-worst in the National League.

• Only one team’s on-base percentage is worse than the Mets’ .294.

• Nobody’s collective slugging (.311) or OPS (.606) in the N.L. is worse than the Mets’.

• The last Met to hit a home run in the Mets’ home park is now a Pirate. Since Ike Davis went deep to carry the day on April 5, the Mets have played six games at Citi Field. They’ve homered there not at all.

• The current active roster can claim four Citi Field home runs in 2014. Three others were hit on behalf of the Mets, but one (Davis’s) has gone to Pittsburgh, one (Andrew Brown’s) was sent to Las Vegas and one (Juan Lagares’s) sits on the disabled list.

Nobody in the Mets’ starting lineup Tuesday night finished the game batting as high as .300 or with an OBP over .350. Their heretofore hottest hitter, David Wright, came up with two on and one out in the ninth, the Mets down three. He was facing Trevor Rosenthal, who had just thrown seven consecutive balls and earned a visit from his pitching coach. There is no surer indication that strike one is on its way to the waiting batter.

Wright took strike one. Eventually he’d take strike three. The Mets’ next-best hitter, Daniel Murphy, then grounded out to end the game. Later Murph tipped his cap hard to Adam Wainwright, the perennial Cy Young candidate who stifled the Mets for seven shutout innings on four hits. Daniel had a point in implying there’s no shame in going down to a great starting pitcher. Not mentioned by Murphy was Kevin Siegrist, who pitched a spotless eighth, and Rosenthal, who completed the save despite his bout with wildness. Neither of them is Wainwright. Neither of them gave up a hit to the Mets.

Wright and Murphy aren’t problems, relatively speaking. Almost everybody else is. Travis d’Arnaud keeps coming around and he’s still at .182. Eric Young, who is a weapon when he’s on base, is at .222. Chris Young, who hit the only ball that appeared to have a chance to drive in a Met run or two until it disappeared into Matt Holliday’s glove, has settled in for the time being at .238. Lucas Duda, who has been in the major leagues for parts of five seasons now, looms as the lineup’s most compelling power threat, but won’t be used as a cleanup hitter because, according to Terry Collins, “we’ve put a lot on Lucas’s plate in the past week [and] I don’t want to pile on,” while Murphy, the cleanup hitter for the last several games, hasn’t hit a home run yet this season. Ruben Tejada had most of the night off. He’s at .204. He was spelled by Omar Quintanilla — .250 and dropping like a rock.

And erstwhile American Leaguer Curtis Granderson is slashing away at .116/.225/.217. It seems almost cruel to mention that. Then again, 20 games into the Mets’ 1968 season, Tommie Agee was doing demonstrably worse: .111/.152/.111. Of course Agee had been hit in the head by Bob Gibson in Spring Training.

Not sure what the deal is with Granderson, but all the promising young Met pitching in the world isn’t going to make us not notice he’s personifying the worst-hitting team in the National League. Curtis could sure use a 1969 soon. Then again, so could all of us.

19 comments to The Year of Not the Hitter

  • rich porricelli

    All true this tale-of-the-tape of woe…that Wright at bat in the 9th was the capper..and Granderson? Holy smoke can you just imagine what he will compile!! But Greg we still are a .500 club..? A clutch hit every now and then would be nice…

  • kd bart

    In 9 games on the road, the Mets have hit .257 as a team. Granted, 3 of them were against the woeful pitching that the D Backs offer but it’s still decent.

    In 11 games at home, the Mets are hitting a woeful .186. Never seen a team so spooked hitting in their own ballpark to the point where they rarely make,collectively, decent contact at home. Tons of strikeouts and weak fly balls.

    Maybe you can check with Elias but I’ve doubt the Mets have had more than 3 3+ hit innings at home so far this season through 11 home games and 100+ innings.

  • joenunz

    I suppose you’re saying that even if Keith coached the Mets like he does the Cardinals it wouldn’t matter…

    Top of the 8th Carpenter up with a man on first: “Let’s put the hit and run on”

    Oh Keith, you’re killing me!!

  • Dave

    I keep saying they need to turn over more personnel to get this home field monkey off their backs, but then they bring in new personnel and they can’t hit here either.

    The time has obviously come; tear down CitiField and build a replacement with a retro design that celebrates stadiums built in the 60′s. With blue and orange slabs of corrugated metal hanging in random patterns on the exterior.

  • Jack's Loge 23

    The Mets will have to play at a .563 clip the rest of the way to reach the 90 win level. Is this team up to the job?
    You’ll excuse me now, I have to catch the monorail to work.

  • Ken K. in NJ

    Not that I’m tracking this or anything, but after 69 At Bats, Granderson has 1 HR, 5 RBI and is batting .116. At the same point in his Met Career, Bay had 1 HR, 6 RBIs, and was batting .271.

    I have one vivid memory of Agee in 1968. Not sure which game, but a couple of friends and I are there, good seats, Loge near front.

    Agee strikes out at a critical point late in the game. From a row or two behind us, a guy we hadn’t heard a peep from up to that point, stands up and in the loudest, most booming voice I had ever heard, yells “Agee, You Suck!!”, and promptly sits down, never to be heard from again that night. Our whole section was chuckling, it was like he had finally reached his boiling point and couldn’t hold it in any longer. I can still hear him.

  • metsfaninparadise

    Not sure what the deal is with Collins and Duda, but it’s damned frustrating. Is Collins overcompensating for his previous managerial life by coddling the players? Either you have faith in the guy or you don’t. What is this reluctance to bat him 4th doing to his own confidence?

  • Penacious H

    This is more a q — It appears many opposing hitters CAN hit WELL at Citi field… Which makes me ask 2 q’s: 1/ why haven’t the METS IDed these guys and try to obtain them??? And 2) MORE importantly, WHY can’t the smart guys at Camp Sandy ID the characteristics that make hitters SUCCESSFUL at Not-Shea and tried to instruct the capable ones of hitting that way? For example, line drive gap hitters like the (oft injured) former #7? My only hope for Duda is that he does hot some liners (absent the speed, sadly). Can Murph do that some more? Anyone?

  • Matt

    I get nervous about all these Dave Hudgens articles going around. It’s like a weird propaganda thing. I really think that “hunting strikes” thing is complete BS. How about an FAFIF take on it? Unless I missed one…

    • I read them, too, and I nod along, thinking, “OK, get your pitch, basically…makes sense.” On paper sounds simple, or probably simpler than it is. Without knowing the internal machinations of how each hitter is coached, I’m hesitant to make proclamations that it’s a bad idea, but I get the sense (and not just from the results to date) that it doesn’t take into account individual differences — or it dismisses them in the name of organizational philosophy. If the Mets can craft eight everyday players in their system to come up to the big leagues and follow the instructions that have been set out, maybe it would be fantastic.

      Right now it reads like “get your pitch,” and nobody knows what they’re supposed to be looking for or swinging at.

  • The Jestaplero!

    This is 1968? I’ll take that, if it means…

    • If the Mets could work an algorithm that would allow them to hit not at all every other year because they could be assured of what precedent indicates would follow, then I’d take it, too. But until every potential ace is up from Vegas or arrived back from Twitter purgatory, they might want to hit a little just for propriety’s sake.

  • Kevin From Flushing

    I can excuse Wright taking the first pitch in that situation under the assumption he was thinking, “if it’s a fastball, I’m swinging.”

    It was a breaking pitch. Oh well.

    • I’m certainly willing to assume David Wright recognizes a pitching coming at him better than I would from where we were sitting — and I’ve surely moaned “how can you swing at the first pitch?” after bases-loaded pop-ups a thousand times — but boy, in that moment, it was frustrating.

  • 9th string

    Wasn’t the hallmark of the sabremetrics approach high on base percentage, low strikeouts, walks? If so, why have the Mets gotten so many hitters that strike out so often?

  • Lenny65

    In 1980 Maz led the Mets with 16 HRs, no one else even hit double digits. Will a Met reach 16 this year? While I’m mildly surprised at how well they’ve done thus far, this lineup is totally horrifying right now. Maybe the general downturn in BA and the uptick in strikeouts across MLB is a good thing for the Mets, they’re well-built for that particular trend. They’ll blend right in at least.

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