>Dar-ryl. Dar-ryl. Dar-ryl.

>I asked for, and received much Mets news yesterday, and no Bengie Molina to boot. Thanks to the powers that be.

The New York Mets elected (selected?) four to their Hall of Fame: Darryl Strawberry, Doc Gooden, Frank Cashen, and Davey Johnson. I’m hoping they’ll also get around to retiring Mike Piazza’s number sometime soon – the franchise is coming up on it’s 50th anniversary in two years, and they’ve only retired the number of really one player, Tom Seaver.* That might reflect the overall quality of the players on Mets teams over those 50 years more than anything else, but if there is another one worthy, it’s Piazza. However, this Hall of Fame induction is a great, non-bumbling start by the Mets.

*I’m sure someone else has noticed this: Tom Seaver has aged in an eerily similar fashion to William Shatner. They’ve both become bloated, red, suit-with-no-tie, still-awesome versions of their younger selves. Maybe that’s what happens when you retire to California.

I thought I’d take this space here to honor one new inductee, one Mr. Darryl Strawberry, by asking and answering an question: What was Darryl Strawberry’s most valuable season as a batter for the Mets?

Straw played 8 seasons for the Mets, and it’s easy to narrow the field down to three candidates:

A. 1987 – 640 PA, .284/.398/.583, 39 HR, 32 2B, 104 RBI, 108 R, 36 SB

B. 1988 – 640 PA, .269/.366/.545, 39 HR, 27 2B, 101 RBI, 101 R, 29 SB

C. 1990 – 621 PA, .277/.361/.518, 37 HR, 18 2B, 108 RBI, 92 R, 15 SB

It seems simple enough right away, and it doesn’t even look that close – in 1987, Strawberry hit for the best average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage of career, tied for the most home runs of his career, hit the most doubles, most runs scored, second-most RBI, most steals, most walks, most hit by pitch. That’s clearly his best offensive season, at least in a vacuum.

But baseball seasons aren’t played in vacuums – context is necessary. 1987 and 1990 were significantly more favorable offensive environment than 1988 was for Darryl. That changes the context of all these numbers – and Nic Cage taught us that “numbers are the secret to everything.”*

*I didn’t even see “KNOW1NG”, but I found that one line in the previews hilarious  – “numbers are the secret to everything”, said in the Nicholas Cage side-of-the-mouth fashion. At this point, I find every Nicholas Cage preview amusing. No idea why. I enjoy his previews so much that I’ll go so far as to propose that Nic Cage should stop making entire movies and instead just focus on making 2-3 minute previews, because the previews are always more entertaining. Then, if a particular preview tests well with audiences, he can go ahead and make an entire movie out of it. In fact, I would probably pay to see just 90 minutes of Nicholas Cage previews instead of an actual movie.

Throughout the 1980’s, home runs per game slowly climbed up to 1.81 in 1986, and then jumped up to a then-all-time-high of 2.12 per game in 1987 – I don’t know why that big jump happened, but it did. The entire National League slugged .410 in 1987. The league OBP remained around the all time average of .330, but home runs had gotten out of control. You know, relatively speaking that is – things would get much crazier in the mid-1990’s if you so recall. Supposedly the strike zone was slowly shrank during much of the 1980’s, until it finally got so small in ’87 that essentially every pitch became crankable – Andre Dawson unexpectedly and famously hit 49 home runs in 1987. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the power went out in 1988 and 1989. The end of the 80’s was a strange time. Context is needed, and Baseball Reference comes to the rescue as always.

Baseball Reference has a number, called “AIR”, that measures how favorable conditions were to hitters or pitchers for a particular year. It works similar to park factors, with 100 representing an average run scoring environment, below 100 favoring pitchers, and above 100 favoring batters. For example, the “AIR” of 1968 Dodger’s Stadium was 75, heavily favoring pitchers, while the “AIR” of 1999 Coors Field was 138, indicating that it was a hitter-happy theme park. BR lists an AIR number for each year of a player’s career based on the league and park played in. Strawberry’s AIR fluctuated between 90 and 96 for most of the 1980’s, until 1987 when it finally jumped to 102, favoring Straw over the pitcher for the first time in his career. The baseball powers that be changed something in between the 1987 and 1988 seasons – I’m guessing that they opened up the strike zone again. Whatever they did, Strawberry played in overwhelmingly pitcher friendly environments for 1988 and 1989, with an AIR of 85 in 1988 and 86 in 1989 – which was about as lopsided as things were for hitters in the 1960’s – before everything bounced back to normal levels for 1990, with an AIR of 98.

Now you can see that comparing 1987 to 1988 directly is problematic, and also that Strawberry’s 1990 season is no longer a real candidate for his best offensive year. The 1990 version of the NL is similar to the 1987 one, and Strawberry’s 1987 was stronger in all areas than 1990. We can throw 1990 away, leaving the candidates as ’87 and ’88. But now knowing about the change between ’87 and ’88, we still need a better way to compare those two seasons.

We can first simplify things by just looking at Starwberry’s “runs created” for the two years, using runs created because runs are the primary currency of baseball. Straw created 132 runs in 1987, compared to 111 in 1988. But, again, that’s in two different environments. It’s like comparing apples and oranges, or Bengies and Yadiers. The problem remains that we are trying to compare performances from two drastically different seasons, even though they happen to be consecutive ones.

Baseball Reference has another useful tool that you can use to “neutralize” a player’s statistics. It adjusts for things like the home park of the player, the offensive levels of the time and the league, things like that. If we take Darryl Strawberry’s 1987 and 1988 seasons and neutralize them to average environments, i.e. change everything to average run levels, and take him out of Shea and stick him in an average park, we get something that looks like this:

1987 – 656 PA, .297/.413/.611, 42 HR, 34 2B, 107 RBI, 111 R, 38 SB, 136 runs created

1988 – 672 PA, .295/.396/.595, 44 HR, 31 2B, 121 RBI, 121 R, 33 SB, 134 runs created

The twenty run gap tightens up to a two run gap, but the nod still goes to 1987, even with these adjustments. It’s close, but 1987, even with all kinds of adjustments, is still Darryl’s best season in terms of runs created.   

However, I said we’re looking for Strawberry’s most valuable Mets season, not the one in which he created the most runs. There is a difference. Though runs are the currency of baseball, they are only good for buying wins, and the price of a win – like milk and gasoline – changes from year to year. If every team is playing 4-3 games, runs become more valuable than if everyone is playing 7-5 games. So, 100 runs created in homer-happy 1987 buys fewer wins than 100 runs created in 1988, because the runs created in 1988 had more value in the low scoring environment. Baseball Reference has one final stat to help us out: batting wins, which converts Strawberry’s adjusted batting runs into wins.

1987: 4.8 batting wins
1988: 4.9 batting wins

So, even though Darryl Strawberry created less runs in 1988 than he did in 1987, the runs he created were of greater value. 1988 was Strawberry’s most valuable season with the bat, although it’s so close that one probably wouldn’t be wrong either way.

You probably noticed that all was much more an exercise in, “things in baseball can sometimes change dramatically” than about Darryl Strawberry, so here’s a few more things about Darryl:

If yo
u want to know Strawberry’s most valuable seasons overall, now including defense, baserunning, ect. the historical WAR list looks like this:

1987 – 6.7 WAR
1990 – 6.5 WAR (most of this comes from defense. Historical WAR has Straw as a poor fielder for every year in his career except for 89 and 90, where he is rated as a spectacular defender. That seems a little odd to me. I think ’88 was probably a better year than this, but I’ll keep the list in WAR order.)
1988 – 5.9 WAR

MVP voters disagreed, saying that 1988 was Straws most valuable season, the year he finished highest in MVP voting. Strawberry finished second behind Kirk Gibson in ’88, while teammate Kevin McReynolds finished third. Andrew Galaraga, who that year quietly finished first in hits, total bases, doubles, wOBA, second in slugging and VORP, and third in batting wins, came in seventh because he played for a .500 team in Canada.

A couple of newspaper articles from 1988 mention how there was no run away candidate for the MVP, like there was the year before when Andre Dawson hit 49 home runs. Looking back now, I’d guess that there was no such obvious candidate because offensive levels had dropped off so much between 1987 and 1988 that a great year in ’88 looked nothing like a great year the season prior. Actually, the 1-2 finishers in the 1987 voting, Dawson and Ozzie Smith, finished with 2.4 and 7.1 WAR respectively – Smith got absolutely robbed, but plenty of other people can and have told you that already. Dawson got the majority of votes for the home runs, which are shiny and impressive.

If you go back and use historical WAR for 1988, Gibson and Will Clark tie for first with 7.1 WAR in ’88, the same as Ozzie Smith’s WAR in ’87 – Clark also finished first in VORP. Of course, the Gibson choice wasn’t made based on yet-to-be-invented WAR or VORP or even a statistic at all, but for things like perceived gut, hustle, being a good cheerleader and so forth. Strawberry was hurt by not exactly being a model citizen, first getting fined by Davey Johnson in spring training and later being investigated for collusion in the fall because he reportedly told a friend he would sign with the Dodgers when his contract ran out, among other things. And then he did sign with the Dodgers when his Mets contract ran out in 1990. So there’s that. WAR says Gibson had a better year than Strawberry, and they both played on good teams that year – it’s hard to argue against him. The Gibson choice was probably correct, even if it was made for the wrong reasons.

Now that I’m thinking about things, Strawberry was treated a lot like Jose Reyes is now, wasn’t he – a great young player that fans always wanted more from. Reyes “never does enough, never gets on base enough, never hits in the clutch, is injury prone, never steals a base in an important spot, he has terrible baseball instincts” – you’ve heard it all before. Reyes has ridiculously been booed, and Straw was booed for most of August during his fantastic ’88, though Strawberry got it much worse than Reyes did because he didn’t have the infectious smile and was — surly, is maybe the way to put it? A lot of Reyes’ and Strawberry’s value come from quieter things – Strawberry got on-base plenty despite his low batting average, Reyes is a good defensive shortstop on top of “being the igniter.” Fernando Martinez is my pick for the next “never-good-enough” player to be under-appreciated by fans.

Now though, all is forgiven on both sides. Strawberry shows up on SNY on occasion and is a member of the Mets Hall of Fame. Sometimes you do find your way back home.

Oh yeah. He was on the Simpsons, too.

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