Saturday, July 4, 2020

Too Bad the Bat Didn't Come With Instructions

There have been plenty of light-hitting players that have played for the New York Mets organization. Their teams in the early 70s always seemed to feature great starting pitching, Tug McGraw, and a bunch of guys with .220 batting averages and single-digit home run totals. An extra base hit was an offensive explosion in that era.

As bad as those teams were, the ones the Mets fielded in the late 70s through early 80s kicked things up a notch by featuring light hitting and bad pitching. Honestly, to this day it shocks me that they never produced a 100-loss season to add to the 5 from the 1960s. It wasn't for lack of trying, however. They lost 99 games in 1979, 98 in 1977 and 97 in 1982. They just couldn't make it under the hump to achieve that sublime level of infamy.

There were a lot of anonymous ballplayers that passed through in those years. There was a pitcher named Mike Bruhert that started 22 games for the 1978 Mets that I can't remember a single thing about, even though I watched plenty of Mets games on tv. He wasn't great, and 1978 was his only season in the majors, but I can't call up a single memory of the guy. There was first baseman Willie Montanez, who managed to compile stats while rarely seeming to come up with a big hit. There was Ellis Valentine, who came to the Mets as an over the hill 26-year-old in a trade that cost them Jeff Reardon.

If there was one player that has come to be associated with those bad Mets team as much as anyone, it was a young infielder named Doug Flynn. He came to the Mets as a piece of the Seaver trade in June of 1977, when the Mets essentially threw in the towel on trying to be good again for a while. He left town in 1982 in a trade for pitcher Jim Kern, who the Mets turned around and dealt with pitcher Greg Harris and catcher Alex Trevino for George Foster. Coming and going, those were two of the most defining trades of that era.

During the 5 seasons Doug Flynn was with the Mets, he put up some of the worst offensive seasons of any Mets starters, even going back to those bad offensive clubs from the 60s and early 70s. His first season with the Mets in 1977, Flynn had an offensive line of .191/.220/.220 in 300 plate appearances.

I like using OPS+ as a quick way to evaluate a hitter's season. Basically it combines a player's on-base percentage and slugging, adjusts it for the ballpark played in, and then normalizes the number across the entire league. An OPS+ of 100 would be average, 110 would be 10 percent better than league average, 90 would be 10 percent worse than average. Flynn's OPS+ with the Mets in 1977 was 22. That's an incredibly bad number, but considering Flynn batted under .200, and his on-base percentage and slugging percentage were .220, the number makes sense.

Flynn would do better as a hitter in the other 4 seasons of his Mets career - hard to imagine being worse - but no one ever accused him of being a good hitter, or even mediocre. Flynn's career took place at the end of an era when defense was valued over offense for infielders. He played in roughly the same time frame as Mario Mendoza, the Pirates shortstop who gave his name to the Mendoza Line, the .200 average that at least conferred a bit of dignity to a glove-first infielder. For all of his futility at the plate, Flynn was an accomplished second baseman and shortstop. He was a very good athlete. He won the Gold Glove for NL Second basemen in 1980, and was surehanded and steady in the field. He was also pretty fast, hitting 26 triples in his 5 years in New York.

When it came to hitting, however, Flynn was consistently and remarkably bad. He never hit under .200 for the Mets after that first season, but only made it over .250 once, in 1980. Flynn never managed to have an on-base percentage over .300 with the Mets, in fact he only achieved that feat three times in his 11-year major league career. The first two were his first two years in the majors with the Reds in a part-time role, the other time was his final season with just over 50 at bats. He only put up a slugging percentage of over .300 twice in his five years in New York.

In 1980, in arguably his best offensive season in New York, Flynn only managed 17 extra base hits on the season in just over 450 AB: 9 doubles, 8 triples and 0 home runs. His OPS+ was 70 that season, which still meant he was 30% below average for the league. Still, it was the only time in his career that he put up an OPS+ of 70 while appearing in over 100 games.

The following season, 1981, was his last as a Met. He fell back to .222/.247/.292 with only 17 extra base hits. His OPS+ fell to 54. The era of the good glove/no hit infielders was winding down as clubs searched for more offense. After being traded to the Rangers in the Kern trade after the season, Doug Flynn wound up being sold to the Expos that August.

Flynn spent the rest of 1982, 1983 and 1984 as the starting second baseman for some bad Expos clubs, putting up typically low offensive numbers. In the off-season of 1984-1985 the Expos acquired 3B Vance Law from the White Sox and converted him to second base. Doug Flynn was released by the Expos in June of 1985, was picked up by the Tigers and spent some time on their bench as he accumulated his last major league playing time at age 34. The Tigers released him the following spring and he retired from baseball.

Doug Flynn has taken a lot of heat from Mets fans over the years, but he wasn't a bad ballplayer for his time. The premium for infielders, particularly middle infielders, was on defense. As Flynn's career progressed, fewer clubs were willing to sacrifice offense for slick fielding. Wally Backman (and whoever he was platooning with) took over second base after Flynn departed and gave the Mets much more offense without too big of a hit defensively.

If Flynn's career had started a decade later he would have likely been a utility man in the majors, given the ability to play second and shortstop well. No way anyone would have given him a starting role with those offensive numbers. He wouldn't have made it in a platoon, either. His lifetime numbers against lefties barely topped his numbers against right-handers. His lifetime OPS against LHP was a still quite lowly .593. For his 11-year career Doug Flynn slashed .238/.266/.294, good for a career OPS+ of 58. For comparison, that lifetime OPS+ is only 17 points higher than the career average of the afore-mentioned Mario Mendoza.

Day in and day out, Flynn gave the Mets excellent play from the second base position. Unfortunately, having Doug Flynn batting eighth meant there were essentially two easy outs in a row at the bottom of the Mets' batting order. I remember if their were two outs and Flynn was coming up, I wouldn't hesitate to leave the room for a snack or bathroom break. I used to wonder how such a gifted athlete could be such a bad hitter. It was Doug Flynn who first brought home to me that hitting is a very different skill than anything else that happens on a baseball diamond.

At least going by his Wikipedia page, Flynn has led a successful and fulfilling post-baseball life. He's been in banking, done some amateur singing, part-time broadcasting, and beat cancer. Good for him, he always seemed like a nice guy and I have nothing against him. I'm just glad that I never have to see him hit again.

That's it for me today. Thanks for spending some time here this holiday weekend. Please stay safe, stay well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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