Friday, February 24, 2006

There's a legacy to batting third in Queens

Davey Johnson met with the media after acquiring second baseman Tom Teufel from the Minnesota Twins in December of 1985. One telling comment Davey had was this:
"You make trades for your line-up."
The Mets left camp in April of 1985 intending to platoon second basemen Kelvin Chapman and Wally Backman and bat them second behind Mookie Wilson. When Chapman struggled, he was banished to Tidewater and we went with the switch-hitting Backman at second. But Backman struggled from the right side, hitting less than .200 for the season.
Among other things, the old NL East was stacked with lefthanded starters. And Davey had seen Teufel play for the Toledo Mudhens in 1983 where he was player of the year in the International League. The platoon suited both players. It enabled them to play their strengths and gave Davey another player to use off the bench late in the game.
Teufel proved to be as ordered, batting over .300 for the season, the majority of it against lefthanded pitching. He made his value apparent early, homering off John Tudor in the pivotable four-game sweep in St Louis in April.
But the importance of who hit first and second in Met line-ups in the mid-eighties was made even more manifest by the man who hit third, Keith Hernandez. Only Tony Gwynn put together the type of numbers that Hernandez put together from 1984 through 1986. I maintain that Hernandez would be in the Hall of Fame had he not begun suffereing from recurrent hamstring pulls starting in 1987. I imagine these began as a result of his back which finally forced him into retirement early in the 1990's.
Hernandez particular dominace, aside from his defensive prowess, was his proficiency at batting third in the order. It is here from which his legacy was secured, and one in which Met fans remember him for. Hernandez was about winning and not his personal stats, and was a master at moving baserunners. He thrived when a runner was at first, taking advantage of the hole on the right side like few could. He also executed a hit-and-run as well as anyone. In 1985, his best as a Met, with the team behind in the final three innings there was no better player at getting a lead-off walk to start a rally.
So in Flushing, herein lies the expectation from anyone who hits third. After his departure, Gregg Jefferies, Dave Magadan and Howard Johnson among others tried, but could never live up to the Hernandez standard. It was only when a Mike Piazza in his prime came to New York did any other hitter live up to it. And it took one of the best right-handed hitters of our generation.
This spring will be time for experimenting with the order by Willie Randolph. Hitting Paul Lo Duca second I'll bet will be discarded early, as his stats last year from the two spot were lacking. This will enable him to moved down into the order to sixth or seventh and being the best thing for the team. Having Lo Duca hit second places a burden on him early in the game when he needs to be communicating with the starter. Its no secret that Jason Veritek has maintained its better for the Red Sox he hit further down in the order as his focus is on working with the pitching staff. Varitek's leadership skills are well known around the game. This may well prove to be true for LoDuca as well.
I've often maintained we made a mistake not hitting Juan Samuel second after his 1989 acquisition from the Phillies as his best lifetime stats we're from this slot in the batting order. But this was during the time the club was putting all their eggs in the Gregg Jefferies basket. Carlos Beltran's stats reflect the same as Samuel's. Beltran's elevation to second in the order would leave the best candidate to hit third as David Wright.
With speed on base and power behind, visions of a season that compare to those of the great one's in Hernandez and Piazza could mark the beginning of a new era. These visions though are tough to fill with the standards for comparison being those to these Hall of Famer caliber players. Along with the wants of dominate starting pitchers of days gone by is that of whomever bats third in the Mets line-up.


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