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, #43, Armando Benitez:
Listed on Baseball-Reference at 260 pounds, Armando Benitez is the heaviest player in Mets history. This is, of course, not totally accurate. Mo Vaughn reportedly tipped the scales at 275 pounds during his time with the Mets, but Baseball-Reference has him kindly listed at 225 pounds, presumably because he must have weighted that when he was a teenager. Or a child. Or with one foot off the scale. Benitez can still claim to be the heaviest pitcher in Mets history, at least until the 6’10”, 280 pound Chris Young makes a start at power forward this season.
More importantly, Benitez can also claim to be one of the most reviled characters in Mets history. There are a handful of former Mets that are always instinctively jeered: Jeff Kent was still booed loudly in 2008, twelve years after he left Flushing. I still cringe whenever I see Kenny Rogers’ name. Armando Benitez remains one of those unfortunate fellows — he’s not necessarily hated, but it does seem as if it’s a Mets fan’s civic duty to boo him. If you saw him in the street, you might shake his hand and tell him you were a fan, but between those white lines it’s open season.
Just looking at Benitez’ record, it’s hard to see immediately the reason why he’s remembered as such. His 159 ERA+ is the best in Mets history for anyone with 200 appearances, the great Tom Seaver being second with a 136 ERA+ and Jesse Orosco third with a 133 ERA+. Benitez recorded 41 saves in 2000, setting a franchise record, and then broke it the next year, saving 43 games in 2001. He successfully converted 86% of his save opportunities with the Mets (160 for 185), which is a better rate than his predecessor, John Franco (81%), and his followers, Braden Looper (81%) and Francisco Rodriguez (83%), and the same as Billy Wagner’s rate. Benitez was one of the better closers in Mets history, having the second most saves in team history and a handful of very good seasons. That’s why he’s on this list at #43, one of four relievers to make the cut.
That said, the way I see it, there are three reasons Benitez’ name remains a punchline:
1. As the ever insightful Gary Cohen said on air last season, “Except for up in the Bronx, every team’s fans hate their closer.” How many Mets closers are remembered fondly? Just the ones that won a World Series, Jesse Orosco, Roger McDowell, and Tug McGraw? It’s a thankless job. If you succeed as a closer, you were just doing your job. If you fail, you blew it for everyone. It’s easier to remember all the painful blown saves than it is the 1-2-3 ninths.
2. Benitez struggled with his weight. He wasn’t purposefully fat, like CC Sabathia, where it seems liked tree trunk legs are powering his fastball, or even charmingly fat, like David Wells, where it was all just part of the drunken kung fu act. Too often Benitez was just fat fat — you couldn’t even kindly describe him as having gravitas or anything like that. Weight is a double edged sword for pitchers. When things are going well for a larger pitcher, his weight is just part of his personality, making him all the more lovable and easier to relate to. When things are tougher, the weight becomes an indication of other things, that the pitcher is lazy or doesn’t care. If Santa Claus was out on the mound getting shelled, don’t think for a second someone wouldn’t question his desire. When Benitez struggled, it was easy to point to his weight and decide that he was soft or lazy — I think fragile was the word used most often.
3. Benitez blew half of his postseason save opportunities.
The third reason probably matters more than the first two — nobody seemed to play the “easily rattled closer” role better than Benitez. He blew just three games in the playoffs — and the Mets ultimately won two of them — but those three games, particularly Game 1 the 2000 World Series, probably outweighed everything else Benitez ever did with the Mets. Sometimes you only get one shot at immortality, and Benitez blew his a few too many times.
EDIT: And I’m not totally defending him here. If anyone deserves to be strongly, strongly disliked by Mets fans, it’s Benitez. BUT I am saying that the hatred might be a bit more than he deserves — without him, they might not have been in position for him to blow all those postseason saves.
That said, I now realize that I’ve always been far more forgiving of closers and relievers than most fans. I don’t remember hating Benitez or Franco, I always liked Wagner, and to be completely honest, I even sort of liked Scott Schoeneweis.