When the expansion draft rolled around on October 8, 1961, the one conceived to simultaneously create and cripple the New York Mets as a nominally competitive entity, George Weiss attempted to build a winning pitching staff from not too many wins. The seven pitchers he chose — Roger Craig, Craig Anderson, Ray Daviault, Al Jackson, Sherman “Roadblock” Jones, Jay Hook and Bob L. Miller — combined for 13 major league victories in ’61, providing the foundation for a team that would collect all of 40 in ’62. Hard to blame Weiss. It’s not like the eight established National League clubs were sharing with their newborn brethren anything resembling their most valuable arms.
Imagine how much more Casey Stengel’s first edition might have popped had it been bolstered by an 18-game winner. You know, Sandy Koufax won 18 games in 1961. Imagine the Los Angeles Dodgers exposing Koufax to the juniormost Senior Circuit clubs, the Houston Colt .45s conveniently passing on the heretofore inconsistent lefty and the Mets plucking the kid from Brooklyn as their first hometown hope. Perhaps it could have happened had the NL expanded a year earlier, when the 24-year-old’s lifetime mark was an indifferent 36-40 dating back to his 1955 bonus baby debut and, per Jane Leavy’s superb biography, “Koufax was ready to quit.” L.A. could have shrugged off what remained of his potential, Weiss could have taken a flier, Sandy could have reconsidered relaunching his career in Manhattan, and…
Such a scenario requires an amount of imagining so enormous that it would have to be expressed in Stengelese. You not only can’t imagine it, you couldn’t imaginate it. Koufax stuck with baseball, the Dodgers stuck with Koufax and, as Leavy put it, “he had his coming out party in 1961 along with JFK. Vigor and speed would be served.” Sandy threw eighty more innings than he ever had before (255.2), led the league in strikeouts (269, setting a new National League record) and brought his ERA down by nearly four-tenths of a run (3.52). The perennial prospect had finally arrived, on the verge of becoming the Sandy Koufax baseball fans of a certain age still find excuses to bring up. I found myself chatting the other day with a Mets fan who went to games at the Polo Grounds. I’m not sure how Koufax entered the conversation, but just as was the case in 1961, Sandy was suddenly there, blazing fastballs worth referencing a mere half-century and change later.
I imagine (or imaginate) my new acquaintance, eight years old in 1962, would have been pretty stoked to have had his new favorite team pick up this emerging 18-game winner. Nobody knew how much more emergence Koufax had in him: 111-34 in his next five seasons, strikeout totals that generated electricity from wind, earned run averages that required a jeweler’s loupe to properly discern. Actually, given that nobody in a Mets uniform would come remotely close to what Sandy Koufax achieved in pre-legendary form in 1961, the Mets fans of 1962 would have been giddy to have received whatever an 18-game winner could give them and take their chances with his immediate future. That we don’t respond the same way to an 18-game winner suddenly becoming a New York Met tells us three things:
1) There’s only one Sandy Koufax;
2) Jason Vargas isn’t him;
3) Jason Vargas won 18 games last year?
Yes, while we were focused on the Mets improving their 1962 win total by 30, Jason Vargas won 18 games last year, 56 seasons after Sandy Koufax compiled the exact same number. We can call it Vargas’s breakout season, even if it didn’t evoke that cusp-of-the New Frontier feeling Koufax’s did. First years of new presidential administrations ain’t what they used to be, just as the prestige attached to relatively gaudy win totals has diminished. For generations, eighteen wins was understood to be a very impressive output, though hardly standard-setting. When Koufax won 18 in ’61, five other National League pitchers, including future Met Warren Spahn, won as many or more. When Vargas won 18 in ’17, no American League pitcher topped him.
As Jeb Bush, in his doomed quest to be serving his first year as president in 2017 infamously requested of his unimpressed audience in 2016, please clap.
No impulse for applause? No wonder. We don’t much care about pitchers’ wins. We’re fine with them when they happen for our favorite starters, we make prideful hay from them if we can, but for the most part we are all Bill Jamesians now. We fancy ourselves analytically minded and reflexively dismiss a statistic that may only incidentally reflect performance. Vargas won as many games in 2017 as Corey Kluber and more than Justin Verlander and Chris Sale. Think we could get an even-up deal for any of those fellows by shopping Jason’s new two-year, $16 million deal around? Kluber, Verlander and Sale were 1-2-3 in AL pitching WAR. Kluber and Sale topped adjusted ERA+, strikeout/walk ratio, K’s per 9 IP, FIP…categorizations where Vargas was nowhere to be found. Verlander was a frequent Top Tenner and, oh by the way, pushed the Astros toward a world championship. For none of them would you go out of your way to stress their victory totals, voluminous though they may be. Plain ol’ wins are still easy to digest, but now they’re just as easy to ignore. So many metrics, so little time for the one that for more than a century emphatically denoted pitching glamour.
I forgot to mention that the only National Leaguer who won as many games as Jason Vargas last year was Clayton Kershaw, who also won 18 in ’17. We don’t have Kershaw. But we do have Vargas.
Getting an 18-game winner in advance of a coming season is something we haven’t done too often in Mets history. Between 2013 and 2014, the Mets added Bartolo Colon, late of an 18-6 mark in Oakland, which we may not have noticed since it was enough that he was Bartolo Colon. Eleven years earlier, T#m Gl@v!ne left Atlanta an 18-11 pitcher, about to transform into a 9-14 New York tourist. The Astros were fortunately anxious to rid themselves of 22-game winner Mike Hampton’s contract following his dominant 1999, the Mets more than happy to assume its obligations. Frank Viola was a 24-7 Cy Young Awardee as a Twin in 1988, but by the time he joined the Mets at the 1989 trade deadline, his most recent sample size was 8-12.
Usually when we add a pitching name as big as Bart’s, the armload of wins attached to the reputation has diminished from its peak. When Spahn was brought to Shea in 1965, our first Hall of Fame-bound Brave lefty — fourteen times a winner of eighteen games or more —was coming off a 6-13 season with Milwaukee. That’s kind of an extreme example, considering Spahn was older than Colon when became a Met. The trick is to get pitchers who will win 18 or more games in a season once you get them. Sometimes, however, you’re willing to try to wring a few more wins from pitchers who’ve done it before. Take Tom Seaver, who won plenty of games as a Met before masqueraded as a Red longer than we preferred. Tom went a Spahnnish 5-13 in 1982 before coming home and posting a proto-Gl@v!ne 9-14 in 1983. (It was still worth it.) Mickey Lolich landed at LaGuardia with a 12-18 record from Detroit in 1975 and produced only a run-starved 8-13 for us in 1976. (It wasn’t worth trading Rusty Staub for.) Twenty-game winners of yore Dean Chance and John Candelaria were, respectively, several and many years removed from their winningest heights when the Mets picked them up to lunge at division titles. Ray Sadecki’s 20-win past was distant when he became a Met six years after the fact, though it certainly didn’t curb his New York usefulness.
Bob Friend (1966) and Ralph Terry (1966-67) were less supreme than Supremes to us, as the Mets kept these erstwhile (1962) big winners hanging on. Doc Medich, a 19-game winner in 1974, ambled by for a September cameo in 1977, unencumbered by recent outsize success. Mike Torrez courteously separated his single 20-win season from his Mets tenure by eight years. David Cone first won more than 18 games as a Met in 1988 and last won more than 18 games for somebody else in 1998. When Coney returned to the Mets in 2003, his slate reverted to blank, as he was coming off a year of retirement. Orel Hershiser was more than a decade beyond his megawin prime when he joined the forces of good in 1999. Likewise, Randy “No Relation to Roadblock” Jones hadn’t been Cyworthy in ages at the moment he became a 1981 Met. Aces still in range of their prime as they became our concern included Johan Santana (15-13 for the 2007 Twins); Pedro Martinez (16-9 for the 2004 Red Sox); and Bret Saberhagen (13-8 for the 1991 Royals). They were generally more effective as Mets than the average former 18-game winner-turned-Met, but like every pitcher mentioned in this and the preceding pair of paragraphs, they all had seasons in their past when they won at least 18 games.
Which means if you cover one eye and squint with the other, this array of luminaries, à la Sandy Koufax, all have something in common with Jason Vargas.
Vargas indeed won 18 games last year. Lolich hadn’t won as many as 18 since 1972, yet the coming attractions portion of the ’75 highlight film made the case that Mickey was gonna be as important to the rise of the ’76 Mets as Seaver, Matlack and Koosman. Win a lot of games somewhere, they’d edit montages for you. Vargas won more games than Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard combined; more than any current Met has ever won in a season; more than any Met since R.A. Dickey won 20 in 2012; and exactly as many as Seaver in ’70, Ojeda in ’86 and Gooden in ’88. Yet in the wake of his signing, we seem to be viewing him as not much more than a depth guy. We have a plethora of talent guys, theoretically forming a rotation whose skill set is dazzling…save for the ability to definitely stay healthy. No pitcher comes with such a guarantee, and ours sport spotty attendance records. So depth is a pretty desirable commodity.
You may remember Jason from his first burst of promise as a 2005 Marlin or his very slight stint as a 2007 Met. He started two games for us pre-Collapse, one a repeatedly aired Mets Classic, though it should be noted that game qualified for its lofty status based on the Mets’ ability to dig out of a hole dug for them by their 24-year-old spot starter. He left us in December of 2008, wrapped inside the bundle of personnel designed to deliver unto us J.J. Putz (mission accomplished). You may be relieved, if you’re a postseason grudgeholder like me, to recall he didn’t have anything to do with the Royals beating the Mets in the 2015 World Series, as he was injured that fall. He probably enjoyed the outcome a little too much, considering he was an inactive Royal, but it’s tough to hold that against him.
The veteran southpaw couldn’t promise he’d take the ball every fifth day in 2015 and 2016, when he was submitting to and recovering from Tommy John surgery. In 2017, at 34, he was a new man, or at least pitched for a while like he had a new left arm. Eighteen of his 85 career wins occurred last year. His WAR, while not up there with the Sales, Klubers and Verlanders, was the best he’d ever posted, 3.4, according to Baseball-Reference’s calculus. For perspective, deGrom’s was 4.4 and every other Mets pitcher’s was hideous. Most beautifully, there was that every-fifth-day dependability that no Met starter besides Jacob demonstrated in 2017. Jason started 32 games, one more than deGrom, a bushel more than every non-deGrominational Met. Vargas was dynamite in the first half, less so in the second half, but the pitching coach he credits for molding him into an All-Star in Kansas City, Dave Eiland, happens to our pitching coach. It’s February, when pitching coaches are geniuses at spotting and correcting flaws. Let’s have a little faith that when Eiland is finished fixing Harvey, he’ll smooth the rough edges off Vargas.
We care about team wins. We don’t reject any based on the identity of the individual officially credited for securing them. Go nine if you can. Go five and give way to bullpenning if that’s Mickey Callaway’s method of modern love. Plow through seven innings of five-run ball as Vargas did on May 17, 2007, against the Cubs, but do be sure to tell your teammates to score five in the bottom of the ninth to win, 6-5. I left Shea giddy that day, no more than vaguely cognizant that the winning pitcher was not particularly solid citizen Ambiorix Burgos, who raised his Mets record to 1-0. I’m pretty sure I applauded most if not all of T#m Gl@v!ne’s 61 wins as a Met (I dedicated 2003 to pettiness and grouchiness, none of which I regret). We get a kick out of one man’s W column rising into the high teens, even if we fully appreciate that every number tells only part of the story, with wins revealed as representing no more than a dubious fraction thereof.
You don’t have to out-and-out embrace the Mets getting a guy who won 18 games last year just because he won 18 games, but you have to adore the 32 starts. Jason Vargas doesn’t quite fit within the ideal of the Mets home-schooled, somehow still youthful rotation, but I do believe he’s worth editing the montage for.