Saturday, March 11, 2006

Respect To The Straw
By Ben Valentine

Friday night I was debating baseball Hall of Fame credentials with Zach and some interesting names came up, Fred McGriff, Albert Belle and Don Mattingly. Zach argued for the first two on the list, and though I personally think only Belle belongs.

However, as we were discussing Mattingly, another guy came up. One that is never discussed in the same breath, yet definitely should be. That player would be my favorite New York Met of all time; Darryl Strawberry .

Now, I’m not saying he’s worthy of the Hall and yes, you could certainly call me bias, but contrary to what most Yankee fans will tell you, he’s a far better candidate than Donnie Baseball. Incredibly, because of his drug problems, people have forgotten how good of a player Strawberry was in the prime of his career. He was better than a lot of borderline guys who always get Hall talk, like Andre Dawson, Mattingly and yes, is even comparable to the late Kirby Puckett.

I’m far too young to remember what Strawberry was like back in the mid 80’s but from what I gathered, he was not all that pleasant to be around. Maybe that’s why he was cheated out of the MVP award, not once, but TWICE, in back to back years.

In 1987, Strawberry posted one of the most remarkable season’s you’re going to see for that 80’s era. He posted splits of .284/.398/.583 while jacking 39 home runs and STEALING 36 bases! He scored 108 runs and drove in 104. He walked 97 times that season. This was at Shea Stadium, which is by no means friendly to hitters. Do you know where the Straw finished that season in MVP voting?

Sixth.

SIXTH?! If he put that type of season up in this offensively dominated era he’d finish better than sixth. How did he end up that low?

The writers loved Andre Dawson’s 49 home runs. Never mind that he posted an on base that was 70 points lower than Strawberry that year. And that Straw stole 25 more bases. Oh and Dawson scored 18 less runs. But hey, that’s somewhat forgivable. As Tom Glavine once said, “Chicks dig the long ball.”

How about the fact Ozzie Smith finished second?! Ozzie didn’t even hit a home run that season, had an OPS that was over 200 points LOWER than Darryl and had just six more steals than him. I can see all those Ozzie defenders now; “but you can’t quantify his defense.” Maybe not, but I doubt he was anywhere as close to as valuable as Strawberry was in 87, where he excelled at EVERY aspect of the offensive game.

Only one player who finished ahead of Strawberry in 87’ had a better OPS, Jack Clark. But Clark was a first baseman and a corner outfielder who gives you that much is more valuable. The only player who actually could make a case is Eric Davis of the Reds, who incredibly jacked 37 homers and stole 50 bases, all while posting a .990 OPS. (.009 higher than Darryl). I’d argue that at Shea however, Darryl’s season is just a hair better.

Then the biggest travesty; 1988. In 88’, the Straw again jacked 39 homers, while posting splits of .269/.366/.545. He stole 29 bases, scored and drove in 101 runs each. This time he finished second to Kirk Gibson, he of game one of the 88’ series fame. Gibson’s splits: .290/.377/.483. He hit 25 home runs, stole 31 bases, scored a 106 runs… and get this, drove in a measly 76! 76 RBI… for the whole season! So, to recap, he had a lower OPS (Strawberry lead the league), and didn’t even drive in 100 RBI! But Gibson was popular with the media, so it gave him the edge over Strawberry. This is part of the reason “number of MVPs” has to be taken with a grain of salt for Hall balloting.

(As a side note, people still try to justify this! My friend Aaron once told me it made sense Gibson won the MVP because Strawberry would never have hit that home run off Dennis Eckersley! His exact words: Gibson hits big home runs, Strawberry would have been sniffing coke somewhere. This is why this post is necessary.)

Overall from 1983-1991 Darryl Strawberry was one of the best players in baseball. His average season in that span? 31.1 homers, 92.4 RBI, 83.1 runs and 22.3 stolen bases. His splits? .262/.358/.516. (Not all that off from his career numbers of .259/.357/.505… just shows how little he played baseball after 91) This was in an era where offense wasn’t what it is now… when hitting 40 homers was akin to hitting 50. Mind you Andre Dawson’s career splits are .279/.323/.483. Despite playing eight more full seasons than Strawberry, Dawson has just 103 more home runs. Strawberry meanwhile was in the top ten in slugging percentage every year from 83-90 (though two years he did not have the necessary ABs to qualify). He finished top ten in RBI six times and top ten in homers every year between 83-91.

Unfortunately for Darryl, he succeeded so fast and so early that people expected him to be one of the greatest of all time. Had he put up 8 seasons like that from the ages of 25-33, rather than 21-29, he would get far more respect. Or if he had been knocked out of the game for reasons other than drugs. But because he brought it on himself, people have no sympathy. That doesn’t make his career any less impressive than Mattingly’s or Puckett’s, it just appears that way.

So say what you want about the talent he wasted because of drugs, or what a jerk he was back in the day. When comes right down to it, the guy was dominant. He was one of the best players in the 80’s. Better than Mattingly, better than Dawson, Gibson, Jose Canseco and yes, light years more valuable to the Mets than Ozzie Smith was to the Cardinals. Kirby Puckett’s career splits are .318/.360/.477. Puckett had 4 more years of top quality baseball than Strawberry, but at their best, Darryl was a better player. This isn’t to bash any of the players named before; they were all great. It just goes to show that Strawberry was certainly in their league, and for quite a while as well.

No, Darryl Strawberry isn’t a Hall of Famer. But he’s a lot closer than most people think. And as a guy who remembers feeling a sense of awe every time number 18 strode to the plate with that tall, wire like frame of his, twirling his bat in a circle and unleashing that uppercut swing of pure power and electricity, it brings a smile to my face to see him stack up so favorable with those the world considers great.

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