Mets Through the Years: Center Field
October 2nd, 2012 by slangon

Ugh. This is going to be close.

In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the New York Mets, I’ve been looking at the primary players at each position throughout the teams history. We’ve already looked at the managersOpening Day starting pitcherscatchersfirst basemensecond basemen,shortstops, third basemen and left fielders, as well as all of the Mets’ All-Star representatives. Today, we’ll be looking into the players who’ve patrolled center field for the Metsies, in cardboard form, of course.

For the first 4 years of their existence, Jim Hickman called centerfield home for the Mets. Of course, since for the first 2 years of their existence they called the Polo Grounds home, Jim was treading the same turf that was once patrolled by none other than Willie Mays. His stats probably don’t jump out at most people, but to anyone familiar with the early Mets, he was actually pretty good. During the 4 years he was playing center, he averaged around .245 or so, hit roughly 13 homers and drove in around 50. He also has a couple of Mets firsts. He was the first Met to hit for the cycle as well as hitting 3 homers in one game. He also drew the first walk and was the first hit batsman in Shea Stadium history. Additionally, he hit the last home run ever at the Polo Grounds.

1966 saw Jim Hickman revert to more of a utility/pinch hitter role. That cleared up center field for Cleon Jones. He played center for the ’66 and ’67 seasons before moving to left. His real rookie year in 1966 (I say “real” because Cleon is one of those guys that appears on about 17 Rookie Stars cards) saw him hit .275, drive in 57 and score 74 runs. That was good for 4th in Rookie of the Year voting. After 1967, he moved to left to make room for the guy who won the A.L. Rookie of the year in 1966.

The Mets traded for Agee during the 1967 offseason and immediately made room for him in center. Even though he only had 2 full seasons under his belt at that point, he already was bringing 2 All-Star appearances, a Gold Glove award and the aforementioned Rookie of the Year trophy to Queens. He played center for the Mets from 1968 until 1972 and during that time he averaged .262, hit 82 homers and drove in 265 runs. Although he didn’t fare so well in the ’69 Series, he clobbered the Braves in the NLCS that year by hitting .357 with 2 home runs, 4 RBI’s and 2 stolen bases over the course of 3 games.

After the departure of Tommie Agee, Don Hahn took over center fielder duties for the next 2 years. He was a very light hitting but versatile outfielder. He wasn’t going to do much at the plate, but he was never going to embarrass you in the field. Don was traded after the ’74 season as part of package deal with the Phillies that got the Mets this guy…

Del was quite an upgrade offensively from Don, but let’s be honest, pretty much anything would be an upgrade. Del had a bit of a Jekyll & Hyde stay during his 2 seasons with the Mets. In 1975, he hit a robust .294 with 10 homers. In 1976, he dropped to .228 with only 5 dingers. And that’s how Del Unser got shipped off to Montreal.

Little known fact: the word “handsomely” was coined in the late 70’s and came about because of the prolific use of the term “Handsome Lee”. From 1977 through 1980, Lee Mazzilli played center field for the Mets. Considering how terrible those teams were, he was one of the few standout players, averaging in the high .200’s to low .300’s and usually swatting about 15 or so homers. He was also good for about 30 steals per year.

After the team shipped Maz off to Texas, Mookie Wilson took over in center. Always a fan favorite, during the 5 years that he was the main center fielder, he was also incredibly consistent. From 1981 to 1985, his batting average only fluctuated from .271 to .279. That’s pretty damn consistent. He also used to own pretty much every speed based record in Mets history (until Jose Reyes came along that is).

Much to the chagrin of George Foster, Lenny Dykstra took over in center after Mook got hurt and never really gave him his job back. He held down the center field post from 1986 to 1988. His best year as a full time Met was in their Championship 1986 season, when he hit .295, got on base at a .377 clip and slugged .445. He also famously hit a home run in the first at-bat of Game 3 of the Series in ’86, with the Mets down 2 games to none.

After Mets management decided to blow up the ’86 Championship team, they shipped fan favorites “Nails” Dykstra and Roger “Hot Foot” McDowell to Philly in exchange for Juan Samuel. As if being the reason that 2 beloved player are gone wasn’t bad enough, Samuel never lived up to the hype after coming to New York, hitting just .228. The Mets sent him packing to Los Angeles after the end of the season.

Daryl Boston was picked up off of waivers to play center for the 1990 season, giving the Mets a 2/3 All-Dar(r)yl outfield. He had a pretty decent year, hitting  .273 for the Mets with 12 long balls and 45 RBI’s. He also stole 18 bases and scored 65 runs for them.

Vince Coleman got the lion’s share of starts in center for the 1991 season. I’ve already covered how disappointing his time in Queens was compared to what he did in St. Louis, so we’ll skip that part. I will say that out of the 3 years he was with the Mets, he did pick things up a little bit after being moved to left field.

Hojo took over center in 1992 and had a real down year, especially after his 1991 season. In ’91, he had a .259/..342/.535 stat line as compared to his .223/.329/.337 line in 1992. He also went from 38 homers and 117 RBI’s in ’91 to just 7 and 43 in ’92. (I’m also kind of shocked at how well this card scanned. Normally I can never get hologram cards to scan well.)

The Mets put Ryan Thompson in center for the 1993 and 1994 seasons. He was a pretty speedy guy, stealing 26 bases in 1993 and 59 in 1994. That probably would’ve been more useful if it weren’t for his barely over .300 OBP (.302 and .301, respectively).

The Mets signed free agent Brett Butler before the ’95 season and he was pretty darn good for them until they shipped him off to the Dodgers in August. During his brief stopover in Flushing, he hit .311, stole 21 bases and hit 7 triples. He went on to lead the league in 3-baggers that year with 9. He also looks curiously like Danny Murphy in this picture.

1996 was Lance Johnsons only full season with the Mets and man, was it a good one. He hit .333 that year with 50 stolen bases and 117 runs scored. He led the league in hits with 227 and triples with 21. Those are both still Mets single-season franchise records. He also drove in 69 runs from the lead-off spot. He was on track for another great year in ’97, but the Mets traded him to the Cubs for Brian McRae, Mel Rojas and Turk Wendell before the end of the season.

Carl Everett took over center field duties for 1997 after Lance Johnson left. Although not as dynamic a player as Johnson, Carl did have a bit more pop in his bat, hitting 14 home runs and 28 doubles in 1997. He also had a bit of speed, swiping 17 bags in 26 attempts. He was traded to Houston after the ’97 season.

The above mentioned Brian McRae more of a 4th outfielder in ’97, but had a pretty good year when he took over center in ’98. He hit .264 that year with 21 homers and 79 runs batted in. He also stole 20 bases and scored 79 runs. His performance dropped off in the ’99 season and he was sent to Colorado in August.

Jay Payton took over in center for the 2000 and 2001 seasons. He had cups of coffee with the team in ’98 and ’99, but 2000 was his first full season. He was a pretty big piece of the Mets World Series run that year, hitting .291 with 17 homers and 62 RBI’s. That put him 3rd in Rookie of the Year voting. Although he didn’t do much in the NLDS and NLCS, during the World Series he picked up 7 hits in 21 at-bats including a home run off of Mariano Rivera.

The Mets shipped Payton to the Rockies halfway through the 2002 season. Timo Perez ended up with enough starts in center down the stretch to earn the title of “main center fielder”. It ended up being his best year as a Met. He hit .295 with a .437 slugging percentage.

The Mets had something of a revolving door in center field in 2003 with 8 different guys spending time at that position. Timo and Jeff Duncan both led the pack with 41 starts, but Jeff gets the nod because he logged 366 innings to Timo’s 332.2. He only played 69 games in the Major’s between ’03 and ’04 and called it a career. I guess his .194/.291/.245 stat line from 2003 tells us why. I’m sure the fact he actually brought those numbers down in 2004 really cements the story.

The Mets remedied their center field problem in 2004 by signing free agent Mike Cameron. Although his average dipped a bit from his career norms, he had a career year in home runs with 30. He also drove in 76 runs and scored 76 runs. There’s some nice symmetry right there.

For as nice a free agent pick up as Mike Cameron was, the team really made a splash by signing Carlos Beltran to a 7 year deal before the 2005 season. It seems like a lot of people (fans and media alike) feel like Beltran didn’t live up to his contract, or was somehow a disappointment during his time on the Mets. I couldn’t disagree more. In a little less than 7 seasons, he averaged .280, hit 149 home runs, drove in 559 and scored 551 runs. He also stole exactly 100 bases while getting caught only 16 times. He was also named to 5 All-Star teams and won 3 Gold Gloves and 2 Silver Sluggers. To top it all off, when he finally was traded last year (as a rental player, mind you), the Mets got back Zack Wheeler, who’s pretty much the gem of the farm system and hopefully a big part of the teams future. Somehow, I feel like all that vastly outweighs one lousy at bat that ended with a really wicked curve.

Beltran ended up missing a large chuck of 2010 with injuries so Angel Pagan filled in as their center fielder. Crazy Horse was coming off of a nice 2009 season which saw him hit .306 with 22 doubles, 11 triples and 54 runs scored. He had another fine season in 2010. He hit .290 with 11 homers and 69 RBI’s as well as 80 runs scored. He also swiped 37 bases. Even though Beltran was back in 2011 (or at least the first half), the team moved him to right and kept Pagan on in center. I don’t know if was the pressure of “officially” being named as everyday center fielder or what, but his numbers dropped across the board. That coupled with some pretty bone-headed base running mistakes prompted the team to ship him off to San Francisco in exchange for…

Torres was supposed to fill 2 holes for the Mets this season. First, he was going to replace Angel Pagan in center field, which he did quite capably. Second he was supposed to fill the void left by Jose Reyes’ departure at the lead-off spot. That part hasn’t worked out so well. Between missing a large chunk of the season early on and just never getting it going at the plate, Torres has only gotten 159 plate appearances at lead-off this year, during which he’s only hit .173. At this point, after the way the Mets season has shaken out, it’s kind of hard to criticize individual performances, but Andres has got to step it up next season.

So that’s that. Over their history, 24 players have played center for the Mets. Mookie Wilson has played the most games there, with 907. Looking back, it’s pretty easy for me to pick who I think is the greatest Mets center fielder ever. Although there’s been some pretty great players at that position, I think it’s a no-brainer to say that no one has been better than Carlos Beltran. Yeah he might not have been as popular as Cleon or Mookie or Nails, or made it to the World Series, but it’s really hard to argue with the numbers. Besides, have you seen that pitch that Wainwright threw? It was nasty.

One Response to “Mets Through the Years: Center Field”

  1. That Hojo card did scan quite nicely. Luck of the light, I assume, but still pretty awesome.

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