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The Helmet

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(originally published on 12/13/05 at

On December 20, 1996, Mets GM Joe McIlvaine engineered a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays that netted the Mets twenty-eight year old firstbaseman John Olerud and $5 million in cash in exchange for RHP Robert Person. Olerud had flirted with batting .400 back in 1993 before finishing the season with a .363/.473/.599 line, good for third in the MVP voting. Olerud was deemed expendable by Toronto in part because he had a bloated salary, but also because they wanted to keep Joe Carter and his rapidly-declining skills in the lineup.

Olerud was coming off a year in which he batted .274/.382/.472. The Mets firstbaseman that year, Butch Huskey, hit .278/.319/.435, a pretty poor showing for a position that is known for its power bats. John Olerud announced his retirement last week, but he leaves behind an indelible mark on baseball, and on the Mets in particular.

If someone were to ask who was the best hitting firstbaseman in the history of the Mets franchise, surely most everyone would say Keith Hernandez. Tough to go wrong with that selection, as Mex was a terrific hitter in addition to being a stellar gloveman. When we evaluate the batting portion of a ballplayer there are any number of measures we can draw from: ability to hit in the clutch (if you believe in that sort of thing), hitting homeruns, getting on base, hitting for average, etc. In reality, though, the two most important things a batter can do are, in order of precedence:

1) reach base (i.e. not make an out) 2) hit for power (i.e. drive in runs)

Here, then, are the ten best single-season on-base percentage marks for Mets firstbaseman:

                              YEAR      OBP    
1    John Olerud              1998     .447   
2    John Olerud              1999     .427   
3    Dave Magadan             1990     .417   
4    Keith Hernandez          1986     .413   
5    Keith Hernandez          1984     .409   
6    John Olerud              1997     .400   
7    Keith Hernandez          1985     .384   
8    Dave Magadan             1991     .378   
9    Keith Hernandez          1987     .377   
10   Lee Mazzilli             1980     .370   

Olerud was with the Mets for just three seasons (1997-1999), and all three of those seasons are among the top ten best in Mets history with regard to reaching base, including the top two overall. Keith Hernandez was no slouch in the OBP department, netting four spots of his own in the top ten. Not surprisingly, Olerud (and Hernandez) both rank among the very best at drawing walks:

                              YEAR      BB     
1    John Olerud              1999      125   
2    Keith Hernandez          1984       97   
3    John Olerud              1998       96   
4    Keith Hernandez          1986       94   
5    John Olerud              1997       85   
6    Dave Magadan             1991       83   
7    Lee Mazzilli             1980       82   
8    Keith Hernandez          1987       81   
9    Keith Hernandez          1985       77   
T10  Todd Zeile               2000       74   
T10  Dave Magadan             1990       74 

Once again Olerud is tops on the list, thanks to his ridiculous 125 walks in 1999. Olerud wasn't all walk and no hit, though. He owns the top two slugging percentage marks among Met firstbasemen, and once again all three of his seasons land in the top ten:

                              YEAR      SLG    
1    John Olerud              1998     .551   
2    John Olerud              1997     .489   
3    Rico Brogna              1995     .485   
4    Eddie Murray             1993     .467   
5    Todd Zeile               2000     .467   
6    John Olerud              1999     .463   
7    Dave Magadan             1990     .457   
8    Mo Vaughn                2002     .456   
9    Keith Hernandez          1984     .449   
10   Keith Hernandez          1986     .446   

Olerud is the franchise career leader among firstbasemen in AVG (.315) OBP (.425) SLG (.501) and OPS (.954). Further, he is the career franchise leader at any position in AVG and OBA, third in SLG (Piazza, Strawberry), and second in OPS (Piazza).

Olerud's biggest hit as a Met came on October 16th, 1999. It was the fourth game of the NLCS, and the Mets were trailing Atlanta three games to none in the series and 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth. Roger Cedeno led off the inning with a single off of John Smoltz. Rey Ordonez (!!) popped up a bunt to first, proving even more useless at the plate in the playoffs than he was during the regular season. Mike Remlinger replaced Smoltz and, after a Benny Agbayani strikeout, Cedeno stole second. Melvin Mora followed with a walk, and John Rocker emerged from the Braves' bullpen amid a chorus of boos and a torrent of batteries. A quick double-steal gave the Mets two runners in scoring position and set the stage for Olerud, who knocked a seeing-eye single beyond the dives of Walt Weiss and Bret Boone, scoring Cedeno and Mora and giving the Mets a 3-2 lead. A 1-2-3 ninth from Armando Benitez and the Mets had a new life in the series. The Mets would eventually lose the series 4-2, but Olerud's hit paved the way for one of the greatest postseason games ever played in Game 5.

On a personal level, John Olerud was my favorite player on my favorite individual Mets team (1999), and he exemplified the proverbial "talk softly and carry a big stick" mantra. Olerud retires with a career batting line of .295/.398/.465, and despite his short tenure with the Mets he deserves to be remembered as one of the best hitters -- firstbaseman or otherwise -- that the franchise has ever had.


Mon 03/13/06, 10:22 am EST


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