Opening Day 2011 will be the 50th Opening Day in Mets history. To honor that, around here we’ll be counting down the top 50 Mets in team history, one every weekday from now until we’ve done ‘em all. Today, #12, Cleon Jones:
Baseball-Reference has a fun toy, called “neutralized batting,” on its player batting pages. That is to say, “fun” if you’re a baseball nerd. It lets you take any player’s batting statistics, and then see what they look like in any park, in any year. Ever wondered what Ed Kranepool’s 1966 season might look like had he hit in Coors Field in 2000? Want to see it anyway? Here you go:
Kranepool’s actual numbers from 1966:
.254/.316/.399, 16 home runs, 51 runs, 57 RBI
Kranepool’s numbers at Coors in 2000:
.316/.385/.488, 21 home runs, 81 runs, 91 RBI
A 62 point jump in average, 5 more home runs, and 34 more RBI, just for moving from 1966 Shea to 2000 Coors. Wasn’t that fun? Well, maybe it wasn’t that much fun.
But I do want to make a point about Cleon Jones’ 1969 season, one of the great seasons in Mets history. Maybe not the greatest season — I agree with Joe Posnanski in the Amazin’ Avenue Annual that Carlos Beltran’s 2006 is better — but it is one of the greatest. Considering that it helped power the 1969 Mets to a World Championship, you could argue that it’s the most important season in team history. There were plenty of Mets having good years in ’69: Jerry Koosman had a good one, going 17-9 with a 2.28 ERA. Tommie Agee had a good year, hitting 26 home runs and playing a good defensive center field. Tom Seaver had a great year, going 25-7 with a 2.21 ERA and 208 strikeouts, winning the Cy Young and finishing second in the MVP vote. But Cleon Jones, who finished seventh in the MVP voting, was just as good as Seaver, something that isn’t immediately apparent in the numbers.
Playing left field, Cleon Jones hit .340/.422/.482, with 12 home runs, 92 runs, and 75 RBI — that looks like a good season, but not necessarily a great one. .340 is a great average, but John Olerud hit .354 one year for the Mets. .422 is a great on base percentage, but Olerud (twice), Edgardo Alfonzo, and even Rickey Henderson have all bettered it since. In a single season, Daniel Murphy has hit 12 home runs, Gregg Jefferies has scored more runs, and Richie Hebner has driven in more runs. And countless players have had good hitting seasons playing left field. Jones’ 1969 doesn’t jump out as an all time great Mets season. It just looks like another good year from a left fielder.
But 1969 was a different era than today’s game — teams scored fewer runs, the ballparks were bigger, and baseball was just coming out of the “Year of the Pitcher.” With runs at a premium, it was easier to put up impressive pitching numbers, and harder to put up impressive batting numbers. So let’s play with the batting neutralizer again. Stick Cleon Jones in a fair park with runs being scored like it’s 2010, and his season looks like this:
.356/.440/.506, 13 home runs, 101 runs, 82 RBI
Hitting like that in 2010, Jones would have ran away with the league’s batting crown, led easily in on base percentage, and his .506 slugging percentage would be higher than David Wright’s mark. Jones would be an obvious MVP candidate, maybe winning the award over Joey Votto. The relatively low RBI total would hurt him, but his on base percentage and good defense would get the sabermetric lobby pushing hard for him.
Now, let’s do the same thing with Tom Seaver. Seaver’s 1969, in a neutral park in 2010:
20-8, 2.56 ERA, 260 IP, 197 strikeouts, 87 walks
That’s basically Roy Halladay’s 2010 season, give or take a few innings and strikeouts, and adding on about 50 walks. Seaver is definitely a Cy Young candidate, but could lose to Doc on this one. Seaver’s 1969 season was Cy Young good, but it wasn’t historically good, either. He had several other years that were better.
But you can see, with Jones and Seaver, adjusting for the time period, it’s not the difference between .340/.422 and 25-7, 2.21 ERA anymore. It’s really the difference between .356/.440 and 20-8, 2.56 ERA. I’m not saying Jones was better than Seaver, or vice versa — Baseball-Reference has them both at 7.6 wins above replacement. They were both great in 1969, the Mets co-best players. But some of those MVP votes that went to Seaver may have been deserved by Cleon Jones, the best left fielder in franchise history. He deserves more credit for those Miracle Mets.