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The Year of Not the Hitter

The Mets commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1964 World’s Fair [1] 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 [2] 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. [3]

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 [4] won 31 games for the Tigers and Bob Gibson [5] 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 [6] would be lost in the expansion draft, Gary Gentry [7] 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 [8], 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 [9] 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 [10]
2) Tom Seaver [11]
3) Hank Aaron [12]
4) Pete Rose [13]
5) Ron Santo [14]
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 [15]; five of the six players directly behind Jones were also future Hall of Famers — Roberto Clemente [16], Phil Niekro [17], Tony Perez [18], Ernie Banks [19] and Johnny Bench [20].) 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 [21] went deep to carry the day on April 5 [22], 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 [23]’s) was sent to Las Vegas and one (Juan Lagares [24]’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 [25], came up with two on and one out in the ninth, the Mets down three. He was facing Trevor Rosenthal [26], 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 [27], then grounded out to end the game. Later Murph tipped his cap hard to Adam Wainwright [28], the perennial Cy Young [29] 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 [30], 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 [31], who is a weapon when he’s on base, is at .222. Chris Young [32], 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 [33]’s glove, has settled in for the time being at .238. Lucas Duda [34], 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 [35] 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 [36] had most of the night off. He’s at .204. He was spelled by Omar Quintanilla [37] — .250 and dropping like a rock.

And erstwhile American Leaguer Curtis Granderson [38] 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.