Mets Through the Years: Catchers
March 19th, 2012 by slangon

Being that this is the 50th Anniversary of the existence of the Mets, I’m taking a look at the guys who have played each position for the team throughout the years. In cardboard form, of course. Now, since I don’t want to sit here and scan 1,000,000 cards so that I can show every single dude that played at least 1 inning at first base, I’m going to stick to the guys who were the main contributor at each spot.

This is the second post in this series. So far we’ve covered the men who have served as the manager of the Mets. Today we’re going to look at the catchers, because like the late, great Casey Stengel said, “You have to have a catcher because if you don’t you’re likely to have a lot of passed balls.”

Like many upstart franchises, the Mets didn’t have very stable presences at certain positions, catcher being one of them. Chris Cannizzaro gets the nod for having played the most catcher for the Mets in 1962, but just barely. He started 42 games for the Mets that year and played a total of 376.1 innings. Sammy Taylor also started 42 games for them but only logged 362.1 innings. In addition to those 2, Joe Ginsberg, Harry Chiti, Hobie Landrith, Joe Pignatano and Choo Choo Coleman also spent time behind the dish for them.

The position stabilized a little bit the next year, with Choo Choo Coleman taking the lions share of the catching duties. He started 66 games that season for a total of 613 innings while Jesse Gondor who came in second started 30 games for a total of 248 innings. If you notice, I haven’t mentioned anybodies offensive stats yet. My momma always told me if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Jesse Gonder inherited the tools of ignorance for the 1964 season, starting roughly half of the games at catcher. Chriss Cannizzaro was still floating around as a backup as was Hawk Taylor. The Mets started to get a little offensive production out of their backstop with Gonder as he hit a respectable .270 that year with 7 homers and 35 runs driven in. As an aside, this particular card was my oldest Mets card for years and years. I got it as a kid from the local card/comic book shop with my paper route money.

Chris Cannizzaro retook the majority of catching time after the Mets traded Jesse Gonder halfway through the 1965 season for outfielder Gary Kolb. Predictably, the offensive output of the Mets catching spot took a nosedive. Yogi Berra also started 2 games behind the plate for the Mets that year.

1966 marked the first time in their existence that the Mets had a good young catcher thanks to their acquisition of Jerry Grote during the 1965-66 offseason. Grote was regarded as one of the better defensive catchers of the time and although he didn’t exactly light up the record books, he did average over .250 during his time with the Mets. He spent the next 12 years with club, serving as their main catcher for the majority of that time.

1972 marked the only time during Grote’s 12 year run with the Mets that he didn’t spend the most time catching thanks to a series of injuries. Duffy Dyer, who had been with the Mets as a backup catcher since 1968, held down the fort for most of the year.

Grote had surgery to remove bone chips in his right elbow during the 1972-73 offseason and was back in action in 1973. He would hold his post for the next 3 seasons. It’s funny, by the way, how when you haven’t looked at a card in a while you sometimes notice things that you were inexplicably blind to before. Like today, scanning this ’73 Grote card, I noticed that he had a black armband on his jersey. I didn’t think that anyone associated with the Mets died during the 1973 season, but then it occurred to me that the photo would’ve been from either spring training or from the prior year. This doesn’t look like a spring training shot to me, and of course Gil Hodges passed away in 1972.¬†Apparently, that was the first time in their history that the Mets honored someone with ties to the organization in such a way. Going back to check, I realized that out of the 27 cards in the 1973 Mets team set, 9 show the black arm bands, including the team card.

John Stearns took over most of the catching duties in the 1977 season, even though Grote was still on the team until being traded in late August. He had been with the team since the 1975 season, but this was his first year as the main catcher. He hit .251 with 12 dingers and 55 RBI. He was also the Mets representative on the All-Star team that year. He continued to be their main backstop for the next 2 seasons.

Although John Stearns was still productive enough to make the All-Star team again in 1980, he did miss a chunk of time with injuries which meant that Alex Trevino got the most playing time at catcher that season. Needless to say, Alex Trevino did not make the All-Star team.

Stearns was back behind the plate in 1981 and 1982. Once again he provided solid defense and fairly good offense, good enough for another All-Star berth in 1982.

1983 saw the Mets on the verge of coming out of the dark age that was the late 70’s/early 80’s. They had a bunch of good young talent coming up, they had traded for veteran first baseman Keith Hernandez and they had made Ron Hodges their main man behind the dish. That last point has absolutely nothing to do with the Mets starting to turn things around. Hodges had actually been with the team since 1973, but this was the first and only time in his career that he was used as the main catcher.

Mike Fitzgerald took over as the main catcher for the 1984 season. I realize that this is a 1985 Topps, but I don’t own the 1984 Topps Traded card of Mike as a Met. Astonishingly, Mike’s .242/.288/.306 slash line was the Mets best choice out of all their catchers that season.

Things turned around pretty quickly for the Mets when Gary Carter came over from the Expos after the ’84 season. In his first season with the Mets, he hit .281 with 32 taters and an even 100 RBI. That was by far by far by far the best offensive effort by any Mets catcher to that point. Gary held it down behind home plate from 1985 through 1988 even though his production got a little worse each year. I guess even a bad year from Gary Carter is better than what you’d get from most guys, though.

Lyons was part of the Mets team since 1986, but I guess when you have a future Hall of Famer ahead of you on the depth chart, you don’t get too much playing time. The door opened for him though due to Carter’s steep decline in production. Although Lyons’ .247/.283/.340 slash line in 1989 wasn’t spectacular, it did beat Carter’s .183/.241/.275 that year.

Although Mackey Sasser never had the power of Gary Carter, he did consistently hit in the high .200’s/low .300’s pretty much every year that he was on the Mets. 1990 was the only time during his 5 seasons in New York where he was the primary backstop. Before that he was blocked by the presence of Carter and after that season he developed a strange psychological problem where he was unable to throw the ball back to the mound. He would routinely walk the ball back to the pitcher after every pitch. Oddly, he had no problems throwing the ball to second to get base stealers.

After Sasser lost the starting job due to his head problems, the Mets signed veteran free agent Rick Cerone during the 1990-91 off season. He basically served as a stop-gap until the team could bring some help up from the minors.

That help came in the form of young Todd Hundley. Although Todd had played a few games with the team in 1990 and 1991, the starting catcher job was all his from 1992-1997. During that time, Hundley was twice named to the All-Star team, set the Mets current single season home run record (which has since been tied by Carlos Beltran) and even made a cameo appearance on Saturday Night Live. He also hit a home on Opening Day every year from 1994-1997.

A week after being traded from the Dodgers to the Marlins, Mike Piazza was traded to the Mets and remained the face of the franchise for the next 8 years. Not to disparage what Gary Carter accomplished in New York, but Piazza is easily the best catcher the Mets ever had. Hell, he might be the best position player they ever had. For my money, he’s a surefire Hall of Famer and with any luck he’ll go in as a Met.

Piazza’s reign behind the plate was interrupted in 2003 by a groin injury that gave Vance Wilson a chance to play regularly. Obviously he never provided the offense of Piazza, but he was known as a good defensive catcher, especially when it came to throwing out runners, which was an area Mike struggled with. This also might be the only time you’ll ever see a Vance Wilson card shown on any blog, anywhere. Soak it in, my friends.

(Geez. A Vance Wilson card followed up by a Jason Phillips card? I’m really pushing the envelope here.) Although Piazza was back and healthy for the most part in 2004, in an effort to reduce the strain on his knees and maybe prolong his career, the Mets experimented with splitting his time between catching and first base. Piazza actually started 66 games at first and only 49 behind the plate. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most successful experiment ever. Because of that experiment, though, Jason Phillips logged the most time behind the dish.

Mikey P. was back behind the plate for the 2005 season, which, sadly, was his last in a Mets uniform. I was pretty bummed to see him go, but at the same time, it was one of those situations that I completely understood why he was going. His final year in Flushing was a pretty good one for anyone else, but a down one for him. He hit .251 with 19 homers and 62 RBI.

Anyone coming into a franchise to fill the shoes of someone like Mike Piazza obviously has their work cut out for them. The Mets signed Paul Lo Duca for the job and I personally thought he did pretty well. In his first year on the club, he hit .318 with 5 dingers and 49 runs driven in, mostly from the #2 spot in the order. I also liked him because he brought a fieriness that the team seemed to have been lacking since the the ’86 Championship era. I think the Mets could use a guy like that these days.

After 2 years of Lo Duca, having Brian Schneider don the tools of ignorance was a bit of a shock. Not that he was that terrible, mind you. It was more that Paulie was such a big character and personality, the blandness of Schneider was a little overwhelming. Not too often you can say a guy was overwhelming in his blandness. Schneider was the Mets main catcher in 2008 and split time in 2009, and if there’s one thing I can say about him, he caught a lot more balls during that time than he didn’t.

The Mets were pretty firmly entrenched in sub-parness by 2009. I guess that’s how you end up getting excited about a 28 year old rookie catcher who hits .260 with 7 homers and drives in 40 runs. I do remember Omir Santos being one of the few things I enjoyed about the 2009 season, though. It probably had more to do with that homer he hit off of Jonathan Papelbon than anything else. Or maybe his first Major League homer, which also happened to be the first Grand Slam hit in Citi Field. Or maybe because he was named to the Topp All-Star Rookie team. Ahh,who am I kidding? Omir Santos was awesome. For a year.

For 2010, the Mets signed Rod Barajas to take over the majority of catching duties, as well as Henry Blanco to act as his backup. That left Omir Santos with a one way ticket to AAA Buffalo. On May 7, 2010, Barajas hit a walk-off 2 run homer to beat the Giants in the bottom of the 9th. The next day, Henry Blanco was filling in for Barajas and did the same thing except this time it was a solo shot to bust up a tied game in the 11th. Apparently that’s the only time in Major League history that two catchers for the same team hit consecutive walk-off home runs, as if that were a real record.

If there’s any positives about the state that the Mets are in these days, in my eyes, it’s the trend towards youth and home-grown talent. Those 2 factors (with a healthy sprinkling of “he comes cheap”) are what brought the Mets current main catcher to the team. Josh Thole spent a good amount of time with the team in 2010, presumably to allow him time to play alongside veteran catchers like Blanco and Barajas. The following year, the catching job was firmly in Josh’s hands and seems like it will remain there for the foreseeable future.

So there we have it. A look back at the guys who’ve donned the tools of ignorance for the New York Mets over the past 50 years. There’s been a total of 22 players who’ve fallen into the category of main catcher for the team. Although Jerry Grote caught the most games as a Met, at 1,176, I think it’s safe to say the Piazza was the greatest of all Mets backstops. During his 8 seasons in New York, he hit .296 with 220 homers and drove in 655. He is currently in the Top Ten in Mets franchise history in career batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs scored, hits, total bases, doubles, home runs, RBI’s, singles and intentional walks.

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