Notes on a Midnight Massacre

Today I’m honored to feature a special guest post from The Common Man, who along with Bill of The Daily Something comprises one half of the excellent new blogging sandwich called The Platoon Advantage.  Travel back with Mr. Common as he explores the most notorious transaction of 1977…

by The Common Man

It’s called “The Midnight Massacre” and “the darkest day in New York Mets history.” June 15, 1977. In the span of 24 hours, the Mets made three deals and traded away two of their star players, Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman, both of whom were feuding with club management. Utility infielder Mike Phillips also got dealt. In return, the Mets brought back a great deal of younger, cheaper players, who they hoped could form the basis of the next decent squad.

Alas, this didn’t exactly work out, and the Mets lost 90+ games in six of seven seasons, and in the seventh (1981) they played at a 98 loss pace. It was a brutal stretch for a once proud franchise. The popular account of that day is that the Mets resigned themselves to the cellar in these deals, but is it true? In retrospect, exactly how badly did the trades of Seaver and Kingman hurt the Mets, what did they get back, and how much of a difference would those players have made?

First, I think it’s important to note that the Mets didn’t have to deal Seaver or Kingman. Indeed, they had just signed Seaver to a record contract, at 3 years and $675,000, making him the highest paid pitcher in the league, in 1976. Kingman was going to be eligible for free agency at the end of the year, but a New York based team should have had no problem extending him, if they had wanted him. The trouble, however, lay in the hands of M. Donald Grant, the Chairman of the Board for the Mets, who bristled at the idea of spending money. Indeed, in this second year of free agency, despite numerous holes in the lineup, the Mets made absolutely no moves of consequence in the offseason.

The only move they made to upgrade their offense occurred on April 26, when they traded for Lenny Randle, who had been suspended by the Rangers in Spring Training for fighting with manager Frank Lucchessi, and breaking the skipper’s cheekbone in three places. Not surprisingly, they acquired Randle dirt cheap. Aside from Kingman, the club had almost no power, and had absolute ciphers up the middle. Mets second basemen hit .259/.302/.334 as a group, which was bad enough, but their shortstops posted an unbelievable .189/.244/.234 mark (thanks largely to future Mets skipper Bud Harrelson). Meanwhile, the outfield was a shambles, 22 year old Lee Mazzilli struggled in center and a combination of rightfielders managed to put up just a .274/.331/.388 line. First base was also an abomination, as Ed Kranepool, John Milner, and others combined to hit .243/.316/.388.

If they Mets had made any moves to sign a free agent that winter, they would have dramatically improved. Prominent free agents included 1B Willie McCovey, 2B Bobby Grich, 3Bs Richie Hebner and Sal Bando, SS Bert Campaneris, and OFs Don Baylor, Reggie Jackson, Gary Matthews, and Joe Rudi, none of whom found their way to the Mets. As other teams improved, the Mets languished, and they suffered for it. The Mets would score just 3.62 runs per game, half a run less than the next worst team, and 20% below league average. The blame for this falls squarely on Grant’s shoulders, as he refused to authorize GM Paul McDonald to venture into the free agent market.

Seaver took offense to this obvious tanking by his team’s management, and complained in the press that Grant wasn’t even trying to entice free agents to The Big Apple, and that he had signed his contract with the understanding that the Mets were trying to win ball games. He requested a trade to one of four clubs, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Pittsburgh. This earned Seaver the ire of Grant and sportswriter Dick Young. Young became the team’s mouthpiece in the media, famously writing “In a way, Tom Seaver is like Walter O’Malley. Both are very good at what they do. Both are very deceptive in what they say. Both are very greedy.” Eventually, Young pushed too far, saying that Seaver’s wife was jealous of Ruth Ryan (Mrs. Nolan Ryan), after Nolan signed for more money than Tom.

Seaver demanded to be traded again, and the Mets acquiesced, sending him to the Reds for four players, OF Steve Henderson, SP Pat Zachary, IF Doug Flynn, and OF Dan Norman. With Flynn in the fold, they traded the redundant Mike Phillips to the Cardinals for IF-OF Joel Youngblood. Finally, they also sent Kingman out to the Padres for P Paul Siebert and IF Bobby Valentine.

Let’s use WAR (Sean Smith’s Baseball Projection.com’s version of Wins Above Replacement) to see exactly what the Mets gave up:

NAME 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982
Seaver 5.4 4.8 3.4 1.6 4.2 –.8
Kingman .5 2.6 3.8 .8
Phillips .1 0 .2 –.2 –.2 0
Total 6.0 7.4 7.4 2.2 4 –.8

Seaver was obviously the big asset dealt here. He continued to be a good pitcher, but his effectiveness fell until 1981, when the strike presumably helped him to rest and get healthy again. Kingman was such a headache he was waived by the Padres, picked up by the Angels, and dealt to the Yankees before the season was even up. He signed as a free agent with the Cubs that offseason, and then was dealt back to the Mets, ironically, for Steve Henderson. Phillips was a replacement level utility player and was largely of no consequence.

And what did the Mets get back?

NAME 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982
Steve Henderson 2.9 2.5 1.5 2.7
Pat Zachary .7 1.9 .6 3 .1 1.3
Doug Flynn –2.3 –1.3 –2.5 .9 –1.1
Dan Norman 0 –.1 –.5 –.2
Paul Siebert .2 –.3
Bobby Valentine –.7 .2
Joel Youngblood .3 1.2 3.7 2.8 1.2 –.4
TOTAL (w/o Flynn) 3.4 5.4 5.3 8.1

Actually, the Mets got back some pretty good players. Henderson and Zachary were solid, if unspectacular. Youngblood developed into a good outfielder and utility player. The major mistake in these deals, it would seem, was the decision to view Doug Flynn as an everyday player. Flynn was the team’s regular 2B across until after 1981, and even won a gold glove. But no amount of leather could make up for the fact that he had a .238/.266/.294 career line. He was just a terrible hitter, and never should have been allowed to start, and probably shouldn’t have been acquired in the first place, lest the acquiring team give in to temptation. If we exclude Flynn from the equation, the younger, cheaper Mets were only about two wins worse than the men they replaced in ’78 and ’79, and were six wins better in ’80. Even with Seaver and Kingman, the club probably still would have lost more than 90 games in each of those seasons.

The real failure of the Mets in the late 1970s and the early ‘80s was not in the players they gave away, but in the players they never brought in. Until after the 1980 season, the single biggest free agent of consequence they brought in was Elliot Maddox, who had slipped to being a 5th outfielder for the Yankees and Orioles in his late 20s. The club simply made it a policy not to play the free agent game and it cost them, until they started exploring the market before 1981. Even then, all they did was sign a 37 year old Rusty Staub to be their back up 1B and primary pinch hitter. The Mets behaved like collusion was on, even when collusion wasn’t on, having labeled all free agents pariahs. In fact, as near as I can tell the first real, consequential off-season free agent they signed was Vince Coleman in 1990 (which, obviously, didn’t work out real well). If the club had made even an attempt to enter the free agent market, they could have drastically improved the roster, and avoided playing such luminaries as Ron Gardenhire, Frank Taveras, Alex Trevino, Jerry Morales, and, well, Doug Flynn.

The only reason the club was competitive in the mid-‘80s was because of some incredible drafting and cagey dealing. Wally Backman and Mookie Wilson in 1977. Hubie Brooks in 1978. Darryl Strawberry in 1980. Lenny Dykstra (and Roger Clemens, who did not sign) in 1981. Dwight Gooden and Roger McDowell in 1982. Kevin Mitchell was an amateur free agent. Of the rest of the ’86 Mets, Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda, Sid Fernandez, Jesse Orosco, Tim Teufel, Howard Johnson, Ray Knight, George Foster, Gary Carter, and Keith Hernandez had all been acquired in trades that ended up being clear wins for the Mets. Which is a story for another decade.

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