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Home Runs Will Save Us

There was a clinching at Citi Field on Monday night. Nothing involving a Wild Card, except for the Mets assuring themselves at least one more evening keeping time at the pennant race party [1]. Nothing definitive for the previously surging Diamondbacks, either, except for confirming our suspicions that Wilmer Flores [2] would make us remember him at his best (winking and rounding bases). Nothing was clinched in the Cy Young derby though if anybody wants to vote Jacob deGrom [3] a second consecutive award, his seven innings of three-hit ball — Wilmer’s inevitable homer notwithstanding — represented convincing electioneering. Also, nothing was resolved in the blistering case of Syndergaard v. Ramos [4], wherein Wilson, we are reminded, is nobody’s personal catcher, yet he’s undeniably everybody’s community hitter.

What was clinched in the Mets’ 3-1 victory over Arizona [5] was that the Met with the most home runs this season will have more home runs than the Met with the most saves this season will have saves.

Got that? Allow me to elaborate.

Pete Alonso [6], the Met with the most home runs in any season, socked a pair to raise his total to 47. Breathe that in for a moment. A Met has 47 home runs. It was a big deal when Pete got to 42 [7]. Pete just keeps getting more. He has a shot at leading all of baseball at losing baseballs, which he’s already doing. He’s within reach of 50, which nobody anywhere used to hit more than maybe once per baseball generation. He can share the rookie record of 52 with Aaron Judge or, preferably, set a new one with 53.

For now, besides supporting deGrom in furthering what’s left of the Mets’ playoff push, Alonso has achieved the championship of Mets Home Runs vs. Mets Saves, an admittedly little-known competition. Basically, it’s known only to me…and now, you.

Here’s the deal. Early this season, around the time it became apparent that Alonso could set the Mets single-season home run standard, and I began tracking Pete’s progress versus Todd Hundley in 1996 and Carlos Beltran in 2006, I was struck by a related statistical note. Alonso, this rookie who wasn’t guaranteed to begin 2019 on the major league roster, had more home runs than Edwin Diaz [8], winner of the 2018 Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year Award (which, sadly, is a thing), had saves. Diaz saved 57 games for the Seattle Mariners. He was the kind of closer you could count on to pile saves up, which explained why his presence among us was initially considered a blessing rather than a curse. If the Mets had leads, Diaz would come in and protect them. We saw it early on, when the Mets won five of their first six games, and Edwin saved three of them.

Yet about a quarter-way into 2019, I noticed that Diaz’s save total, while reasonably healthy, had grown stagnant compared to the home run hurricane blowing out to all fields via the new slugger in town. In one sense, it was understandable. Diaz couldn’t save games the Mets weren’t winning, and the Mets weren’t winning all that many games. Meanwhile, an everyday player can hit home runs every day (more than one a day, as Alonso demonstrated Monday) regardless of whether his team winds up winning them.

On the other hand, it had been my core belief for the past thirty or so years that closers in Queens, no matter how unreliable we considered them, stack saves like farmers in the Midwest stack wheat. A decade of exposure to John Franco, who drove me and everybody else crazy, reinforced this notion because as much as we complained about him, boy he could stack saves, so how bad could he be? Never mind that the save already stood on shaky analytical ground if you gave it a few minutes’ thought. You could pick them apart, yet they were still saves. They were receipts showing that a game was won and that a relief pitcher entrusted with providing the effective relief necessary to seal it had done exactly that. They stacked up in the Elias silo. Stack enough and they’d give you an award named for Rolaids before it is eventually renamed for some Yankee.

Thus, I came to believe saves were cheap and home runs were precious, for while John Franco was saving game after game for teams that were mostly not very good through the 1990s, few Mets were hitting a ton of home runs. Once Darryl Strawberry left and Howard Johnson ebbed, there was Hundley with those 41 in ’96 and…well, that was about it. Even when the Mets picked up the power pace in the late ’90s and early ’00s, nobody surpassed Todd. That’s how you wind up with a franchise record that gets passed in August.

With me conceiving the save as a commodity and the homer as a gem, I sort of assumed we almost always harbored an established closer with more saves than we featured a slugger — whoever our top slugger of a given year was — with dingers. But that was just my impression. Was my impression correct? Or was it just something I thought without supporting evidence, like the thing about farmers stacking wheat?

I did a little digging on Baseball-Reference. It turned out I was a little off in my presumptions. Usually throughout Met history, the team’s leading home run hitter has had more home runs than the team’s leading save-earner has had saves. This was especially the case when the franchise was young, saves weren’t yet official [9], and nobody thought to automatically turn what few Met leads existed over to a designated reliever. In 1962, when Frank Thomas was swatting 34 homers out of the Polo Grounds and other mostly no-longer-with-us yards, Casey Stengel only had 40 wins to steer to a conclusion. Unsurprisingly, the 1962 Mets’ leader in retroactively calculated saves didn’t wind up with many. He practically didn’t have any. Craig Anderson notched 4, leaving Thomas 30 ahead in the HR vs SV category I’d just invented.

The entire Mets pitching staff recorded 10 saves that inaugural season. Roger Craig, who led the team in wins with 10, finished second in saves with 3, including the very first one notched by a Met, on May 6, versus the Phillies at Connie Mack Stadium. Craig entered in the twelfth, relieving Anderson, who earned the win after pitching four innings of relief himself, or long enough for Gil Hodges to break a 5-5 tie with a two-run single off Phils reliever Art Mahaffey. Between them, Roger Craig and Craig Anderson started 47 games, which hints at how little specialization was attached to bullpen duty in 1962. (Hell, Mahaffey started 39 games for the Phillies that year, winning 19 of them.)

Thomas only held his single-season home run record until Dave Kingman came along in 1975, but the one he has where topping Anderson is concerned stands to this day. No leading Mets slugger has outpointed the leading Mets saver so decisively since. The gap would close once Thomas was traded, the Mets got a little better, and relief pitching gained respectability — in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher (starting and relief) Ed Charles’s team-leading 15 HRs barely beat out Ron Taylor’s team-leading 14 SVs — but it wasn’t until 1972 when saves gained prominence for a spell. Tug McGraw led the Mets with 27 of them, whereas John Milner’s 17 homers were the most any Met hitter could manage; this was also the season when no individual Met mustered 100 base hits. Tug stuck it to the Hammer again the following year, thanks to his glorious late-season surge: McGraw 25, Milner 23.

These years turned out to be historical aberrations. It took incredibly wan hitting on the part of the Mets to elevate a closer to statistical advantage. For example, in 1977, when three Mets (Milner, Steve Henderson and John Stearns) shared the sorriest-ever Mets home run leadership number with 12, it wasn’t tough for Skip Lockwood to blow past them with 20 saves. In 1980, the year the Mets as a whole pop-gunned all of 61 homers, their leader was Lee Mazzilli, with 16. The door was open for new closer Neil Allen to eclipse that total with 22. The 1977 and 1980 Mets won 64 and 67 games, respectively, yet their most successful saver could post save totals that placed them in the league’s top five each year. No wonder saves began to seem easily attainable, the chip shot extra points of baseball.

The next time saves beat homers was 1984 was when Jesse Orosco’s 31 shattered Tug’s team record from ’72. A year later, the era of Gary Carter, Strawberry and Hojo fully kicked in, while Davey Johnson saw the wisdom in apportioning save opportunities between Orosco and Roger McDowell. Hence, the rest of the 1980s belonged to the sluggers. So did the early 1990s, even as Franco settled in with save after save, including a team record 33 in 1990.

Those were the first 33 in a Met tenure that would conclude with a franchise-best 276 saves, a total 24 above the Mets career home run standard of 252 set by Straw. Funny how comparable home run and save totals can be — and curious how in the Met world saves seem to have a knack for outnumbering homers once you’re lost amid Met history’s nooks and crannies.

Indeed, the tide turned in favor of the bullpen starting in 1994, very much a nook & cranny kind of year, when Franco’s 30 saves outdistanced Bobby Bonilla’s 20 home runs (and a strike precluded anybody from totaling anything else after August 11). Franco also defended the pen’s honor in truncated 1995, with 29 saves to Rico Brogna’s 22 homers in 144 games. Hundley’s career year made home runs the de rigueur statistical indicator in Flushing for a summer, but Franco was back at it again in 1997 and 1998. Maybe if Hundley were fully healthy or Mike Piazza had been obtained earlier than late May, it would have been a different story, but no, Johnny from Bensonhurst’s 36 and 38 saves those two seasons (each a new Mets mark) were more powerful than anything any slugging Mets catcher could produce.

You’d think Piazza, Met legend he was so rightly becoming [10], would have crushed his bullpen batterymates in this phantom competition, but that wasn’t Mike’s style. Sure, in 1999, with newcomer Armando Benitez taking over the closing role midseason and Mike challenging Todd’s standard, it was Piazza in a breeze (40 HR to 22 SV), but not so much in 2000 and 2001, for even as Mike was slugging just swell (38, 36), Benitez was at his shall we say best: 41 saves in ’00, then 43 in ’01, each of them a Mets record.

Then came the Home Run/Save Solstice. In 2002, Armando Benitez saved (or at least didn’t blow) 33 ballgames and Mike Piazza hit 33 home runs. We had statistical parity between our top closer and our top slugger. Peace in our time in this narrowly defined realm had arrived for the only time in Mets history.

After that, it was a bit of a see-saw. Armando left our part of town in July of 2003, but his good-on-paper 21 saves proved too much for any single Met slugger to equal let alone top. Beltran grabbed a one-homer edge on Billy Wagner in 2006 (41 to 40 saves); Wagner grabbed it right back in 2007 (34 saves to 33 home runs). When Wagner went down in August of 2008, Carlos Delgado poached the crown back on behalf of the sluggers (38 to 27); when everybody who could slug went down across the vast wasteland of 2009, Frankie Rodriguez created the largest lead savers ever enjoyed over sluggers to end a season (35 to 12, the latter figure belonging to unlikely team home run leader Daniel Murphy). Not that sluggers from other teams weren’t figuring out K-Rod by September, but that’s another story [11].

Jeurys Familia [12], who you may remember from such sentences as “Jeurys Familia may be the MVP of this team” and “I can’t believe Terry Collins didn’t use Jeurys Familia in the All-Star Game,” overpowered the power-hitters on his own team. Even in 2015, when Flores etched his name with the Met consciousness forever on the strength of a dramatic home run on July 31, presaging a stretch run whose skies were filled with the darn things. Even in 2016, when the Mets rode a penchant for the long ball [13] — seemingly to the exclusion of singles, doubles and triples — to a second consecutive playoff spot, their closer topped the best they could send to the plate. Yoenis Cespedes [14] (who you may not remember) whacked 31 homers? Jeurys Familia answered with 51 saves, by far the most in Mets history.

Just as the notion of topping 50 home runs boggled the mind of a fan who grew up when nobody produced 50 home runs, exceeding 50 saves, whatever you thought of saves…well, that was a ton of saves. And no Met had produced as many home runs as Jeurys Familia had accumulated saves, lending credence to that core belief that was the premise for my keeping track of this stuff: that at the uppermost level of a given Met roster in any season, saves were easier to attain than home runs were to hit.

Pete Alonso is not specifically targeting Familia’s 51 from 2016 in the mythical chase of large Met numbers by Met players tasked with clearly distinct responsibilities. Pete also wasn’t specifically taking on Diaz in 2019, except in my bookkeeping. Yet on Monday night, by going deep for a 47th time this year, the Polar Bear made sure Sugar couldn’t catch him, therefore clinching the Sluggers a 39th internal championship over the Savers, who have taken the title 18 times (plus that one tie). Good ol’ Edwin has been stuck on 25 saves for several weeks; he’s 22 behind Alonso with 19 to play.

Had Mickey Callaway asked the nominally defending Rivera Awardee to save deGrom’s win over the D’Backs; and had he somehow saved it; and had Diaz been suddenly imbued with the spirit of 1973 Tug McGraw and gone on to save every Mets game for the rest of 2019, including a Wild Card tiebreaker or two; and had Pete pledged to keep his shirt on for the rest of the season, then we could have been theoretically looking at a possible 47-47 deadlock between Diaz and Alonso, echoing the moment of saver-slugger détente between Benitez and Piazza. But that was never going to happen. There’s a better chance that Alonso will outdistance Diaz by a margin greater than the 30 by which Thomas put away Anderson way back in the dark ages of 1962.

In reality, when deGrom exited after seven innings, Callaway called on Seth Lugo [15], a.k.a. Six-Out Seth, to nail down a team victory that was more important than any particular personal achievement, actual or imagined. And Six-Out Seth, being Six-Out Seth, retired all six Snakes who attempted to bite him. It became the fifth save for Lugo, whose prescribed usage (two innings one night, no innings for the rest of the week, apparently) precludes him from catching Diaz for most saves by a Met closer this season under any dream scenario. That’s perfectly all right, though. The best sluggers generally hit the most homers, but as we’ve deduced over these past three decades, the reliever with the most saves isn’t necessarily your best bet to close a game.