Remembering Tom Seaver

As the month of August gave way to September, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history fell victim to a combination of Lewy body dementia and Covid-19.

Tom Seaver was likely the best pitcher it was ever my privilege to watch. His fastball, powered by the bets use of powerful legs of any pitcher ever, was dominant, and he threw it with such consistency and accuracy that a hitter who wasn’t aggressive at the plate against him would find himself in an 0–2 hole very quickly.

But try and gear up for that fastball, and he’d throw a slider that looked for all the world like a mistake pitch right down the middle until it seemed to dive into the dirt. Seaver also had an outstanding 12-to-6 curveball that forced hitters to bend the knee, and something sort of like a knuckle curve, a slow and deceptive pitch that seemed to tease its way past a hitter.

There’s a reason Tom Seaver struck out 3,640 hitters and led the league in strikeouts five times.

Pitching from 1967 to 1986, Seaver’s career bridged the last era of the great starting pitchers and the beginning of the age of the closer. Four-man rotations were still the norm, but when there was no off day for a while, many teams had a “swingman” who would be slotted in for the occasional start, along with his duties as a reliever.

The best starters still completed many of their games (Seaver would not have a season of less than ten complete games until his twelfth year in the league, 1978), but it was no longer expected that starting pitchers would “finish what they started” lest their outing be considered a failure.

Seaver’s strikeout total is remarkable on its own, and in context. When he retired, he was third all-time on the strikeout list, behind only Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton, two of his contemporaries. What makes the totals for all three men interesting is that when they pitched, strikeouts were less common than they are in the current game.

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The top 30 seasons for strikeouts by a better have all come after Seaver retired. In 2019, the average team struck out 8.81 times per game. In 1986, Seaver’s last season, that number was 5.87. Over the course of his career, it varied between 4.75 per game and 5.99. Hitters simply played more to contact in those days, simply trying to put the ball in play. It was an era where hitters were sharply divided between sluggers and contact hitters, when small ball was practiced much more widely. Love it or hate it, strikeouts were certainly harder to come by. But Seaver racked up more than any pitcher who had come before him.

Unfairly Maligned in the Post-Season

I was just about to turn three years old when the Miracle Mets won the World Series in 1969. But I was old enough by 1973 to watch the Mets pull off another upset, beating the Big Red Machine, the Cincinnati Reds, in the National League Championship Series (when Pete Rose, already showing what a total jackass he was, sucker-punched Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson, who was roughly half his size) and damn near beating the dynasty Oakland A’s, taking them to seven games before finally succumbing to what was a far more talented team.

Seaver was unfairly labeled by some as a guy who wasn’t a “big game pitcher” because he was the so-called “losing pitcher” (sorry, but pitchers don’t win or lose games, teams do, but that’s a debate for another day) in Game 6, when the Mets had a chance to put the A’s away and take the Series. This was added to the fact that Seaver had also “lost” Game 1 in 1969, the only game the Baltimore Orioles won in that Series. He had also “lost” Game 1 of the 1973 NL Championship Series.

This was, of course, sheer nonsense. In 1969, it’s true that a 25-year old Seaver got hit pretty hard in Game 1 of the World Series, but he came back in Game 5 to pitch ten innings of 1-run ball against an Orioles team that featured Frank Robinson and Boog Powell, among other strong hitters.

In 1973, against the Reds in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, Seaver pitched the whole game, striking out 13 with no walks issued. He shut out the dominant Reds lineup for seven innings, and even knocked in the Mets’ only run in that game with a second inning double. Leading 1–0 in the bottom of the eighth, however, Seaver started to tire and surrendered a homerun to Pete Rose. With the score tied 1–1 in the bottom of the ninth, and Seaver due to bat third in the following inning if it got that far, manager Yogi Berra stuck with his ace. But Seaver gave up a game-ending homerun to Johnny Bench.

Baseball is a funny game, though. Seaver got to come back against the Reds in Game 5, with a chance to send his team to the World Series. He didn’t pitch nearly as well as he had in Game 1, issuing five walks, and only striking out four, but also only allowing two runs, and the Mets coasted to a 7–2 victory.

In the World Series, Seaver started Game 3, and the Mets lost, but you could hardly blame him. Against a powerhouse A’s lineup (and it bears mentioning that, while the Mets had some good hitters like Rusty Staub, Cleon Jones, and John Milner, they were not a very good offensive team), Seaver went eight innings, giving up only two runs, striking out 12 and walking just one. The A’s would eventually win 3–2 in 11 innings when Campy Campaneris drove in Ted Kubiak with a single off Harry Parker.

Seaver would start Game 6, and the Mets would lose, but Seaver still allowed only two runs in seven innings. Catfish Hunter didn’t exactly pitch better than Seaver, but he faced a much weaker lineup and so surrendered only one run.

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Seaver pitched well again in his only post-season appearance for a team other than the Mets, but only got into the one game as the 1979 “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates swept the Reds out of the NLCS.

It is entirely unfair to look negatively at Seaver’s post-season performance. In 61.1 post-season innings, he posted an ERA of 2.77 (plus one so-called “unearned” run — another subject for another day), struck out 51 and walked only 16 batters. He went up against some of the most potent offenses of his era in the 1969 Atlanta Braves, 1969 Orioles, 1973 Reds, 1973 A’s, and 1979 Pirates and still put up those numbers.

Defining the Mets

For me, growing up in New York City in the 1970s, Tom Seaver was Mr. Met, much more so than that stupid-looking mascot they have. As a Yankee fan, this was not something that endeared Seaver to me.

But the greatness of Seaver on the mound was unmistakable, even to a child, and, yes, even to a child who loathed the Mets. At that time, watching anything other than Yankees games was less of a thrill for me. I liked baseball in general, but it just wasn’t the same without a rooting interest. But if I looked at the pitching matchups that day and saw that Seaver was taking the mound, the next thing I went to check was whether Channel 9 was showing the Mets game. Yes, kids, in those days, not all the local games were televised.

If Seaver’s greatness epitomized the Miracle Mets of 1969 and the “Ya Gotta Believe” Mets who, despite going just 82–79 in the regular season beat one historically great team to get to the World Series and came within a hair of beating another one to win it all, his departure from Queens epitomized the down side of the Mets too.

In 1977, the Mets had fallen on hard times. Their manager, Joe Frazier, was fired when the Mets started the season 15–30, replaced by 36-year old Joe Torre, who was not prepared for the job. An offense that had never been the team’s strength was descending into horror, as veterans like Jerry Grote and Ed Kranepool saw their skills decline and young players like Lee Mazzilli and Mike Vail disappointed. The middle infielders, Felix Millan and Bud Harrelson stopped hitting entirely. But it was the pitching staff that was the biggest disappointment. Jon Matlack had a terrible year, Jerry Koosman pitched fairly well, but inconsistently, and Craig Swan got hit regularly. Young Nino Espinosa showed some promise and Seaver was his usual steady self, but it simply wasn’t enough to overcome a lineup that would see three players tie for the team lead in homeruns…with 12.

On June 15, general manager M. Donald Grant became perhaps the most reviled figure in Mets’ history. He looked at his team and recognized that there was not enough talent there, and not much in the minors on the way. So, he decided to use his greatest asset to acquire a bevy of young talent. He traded Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for pitcher Pat Zachry, second baseman Doug Flynn, and outfielders Steve Henderson and Dan Norman. He also traded away all-or-nothing slugger Dave Kingman, in what was known as the “Midnight Massacre.”

All of New York was outraged, even the Yankee fans. Seaver was traded for a guy who had tied for the Rookie of the Year award the year before, and a bunch of no-names. Shea Stadium was nicknamed “Grant’s Tomb.” The Mets would finish 1977 with 98 losses, an angry fan base, and a dismal future.

Although the 32-year old Seaver was leaning toward the downside of his career by 1977, he was still one of the top pitchers in all of baseball. For the rest of the year, he pitched like his classic self, posting a 2.34 ERA, and Mets fans did a slow burn as his quality pitching combined with a potent Reds lineup to give him a 14–3 record in Cincinnati. He was never again the truly incredible pitcher he had been in his best years with the Mets, but he gave the Reds a few good seasons, and even had one more flash of greatness in 1985 with the Chicago White Sox.

The truth is, Grant really didn’t make a bad deal. Seaver and the Mets were wrangling over Seaver’s contract, a situation that was fraught due to the new free agency system that team were still adjusting to. Grant might not be remembered so badly if the worst-case scenario of this deal hadn’t come about.

The deal didn’t look bad on paper. Zachry was coming off a very promising rookie year, and although he had gotten off to a poor start in ’77, he was only 25. In fact, he was a slightly above average pitcher for most of his Mets career, but the awful teams he pitched for meant his won-loss record didn’t reflect it. Flynn was an outstanding fielder and looked like a reasonably capable slap hitter. This was an age when most middle infielders didn’t hit much, and Flynn had posted fairly good batting averages in both 1975 and ’76 in limited playing time behind Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion, and Pete Rose. His bat simply fell off a cliff in New York and never recovered.

Dan Norman was a roll of the dice, but he was only 22 and there was some hope that he might develop significant major league power, something the Mets were desperate for. It never happened, but again, Norman was the least important cog in this deal. The big one was the other outfielder, Steve Henderson, and for a while, it seemed like he was just what the Mets were hoping for.

Henderson looked like a dynamic player with star potential. He had a solid batting eye, a bit of power that could develop into a 20-homerun type (a strong benchmark in those days) and reasonable athleticism, which, the Mets hoped, would mean his defense would improve with time.

But it never came together for him. He was unable to stay healthy and played in 100 games only four times in his 12-year career. He was always a good hitter, but never a great one. He was not a natural power hitter and often went into slumps when the Mets tried to push him to hit more homeruns, which didn’t help with fans who saw Seaver every time they looked at Henderson. His defense remained terrible. When the Mets finally gave up on him in 1981, they traded him to the Cubs to get Dave Kingman back. That ending was appropriately poetic in a darkly comic way that suited the Mets of that era perfectly.

All the players the Mets got for Seaver were huge disappointments, but this is always the gamble with young players. Whether it’s scouting or stats, the future can never be fully predicted. Still, the outcome of the Seaver deal for the Mets was the worst-case scenario, and it really was reasonable to expect to those four guys to be a decent return for Seaver, just in terms of overall player quality. It just didn’t work out that way, and that’s why you don’t trade a generational talent, especially when he’s all your fans have to cling to.

Tom Seaver would briefly return to the Mets in 1983. By this time, he was a league-average pitcher, but the move was about repairing the breach with the fans that was still scarring the franchise, six years later. Unfortunately, even that got screwed up when the Mets left him unprotected in the free agent compensation pool and he was drafted away by the Chicago White Sox, for whom he’d have the aforementioned one last very good year in 1985.

Is he the greatest?

Seaver must be on any short list of candidates for the greatest pitcher ever. He does very well by the standard old-school metrics. He also is in the inner inner circle in advanced metrics.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen four of the top 10 pitchers in pitching Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Seaver, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Greg Maddux. Seaver is behind only Roger Clemens in WAR. In Win Probability Added, I’ve seen seven of the top 10, the four I mentioned, plus Jim Palmer, Pedro Martinez, and Mariano Rivera. Seaver is fourth behind Clemens, Maddux, and Rivera.

Leaving Rivera aside (he’s just a completely different category from the starters), Pedro doesn’t have the longevity to match Seaver, and Palmer wasn’t nearly in his class. Clemens, Maddux, and Johnson could all make the case with Seaver. In my view, Clemens was the best of this bunch, but that brings up the whole PED issue (still waiting for any actual evidence against Clemens on that score, but that is also a debate for another day). For me, Seaver edges out Johnson and Maddux, but a reasonable case can be made for any of them.

Seaver was the pitcher of my youth. I watched Clemens, Maddux, Martinez, Johnson, and certainly Rivera a good deal more than Seaver just because I could with expanded TV coverage. But I saw Seaver as a kid, and I saw him in an era of baseball that was, for my money, a far superior one in terms of enjoying the game. And that’s why I’ll stick with Tom Seaver as the greatest pitcher I’ve ever seen.

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