Best Mets Of All Time: No. 22 Al Leiter
The Mets have won two World Series with Donn Clendenon and Ray Knight being the MVPs of those series. Aside from being Mets, one thing that links them is they both wore the number 22. However, while each have their own special place in Mets history, the best Mets player to ever wear the number was Al Leiter.
After being the starting pitcher in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, Leiter was shipped out as Wayne Huizenga ordered a firesale of the team. Leiter, who grew up a Mets fan in New Jersey, would get to live out his childhood dream of pitching for the Mets. On that note, before there was Todd Frazier, Leiter was the Mets player from Toms River, NJ.
The Leiter trade was a significant step for the franchise. Not only did it come at a steep cost which included AJ Burnett, but it was an indication the Mets were looking to take the next step forward after a surprising 88 win season in 1997. Leiter went from a star studded rotation in Florida to the Mets ace.
In that 1998 season, he was 17-6 with a 2.47 ERA, 1.150 WHIP, and an 8.1 K/9. Using the stat ERA+, Leiter’s 1998 season was the best by any Mets pitcher not named Dwight Gooden, Jacob deGrom, or Tom Seaver. Put another way, it was the best season by any Mets left-handed pitcher, a group which includes Tom Glavine, Jerry Koosman, and Johan Santana.
While Mike Piazza got much of the publicity for that season, and deservedly so, by WAR, Leiter was the second best player on that Mets team. It should be noted he was the pitcher who was on the mound when Piazza first came to the Mets. The two of them became friends, and Leiter was one of the reasons Piazza stayed.
Leiter would not be able to replicate his 1998 success in a Mets uniform, but he would go on to put together a great Mets career. While it may not have been his best season, Leiter would come up big time and again.
After the May firings of Bobby Valentine‘s coaching staff, Leiter won six of his next seven starts to help get the Mets from one game under .500 at the beginning of June to 11 games over just one month later. That helped turn the 1999 season from a forgettable one to one of the most special ones in team history.
When the Mets were staring down a late season collapse for the second straight year, Leiter helped right the ship by beating the Braves to allow the team to tie the Reds atop the Wild Card standings to force a play-in game. Leiter would get the ball, and he would turn in what was arguably the greatest regular season pitching performance in team history:
In a game the Mets absolutely had to have, Leiter put his best performance in a Mets uniform pitching a two hit shut-out on the road against the Reds to send the Mets to the NLDS. One interesting note is that while this is classified as a one-game playoff, it is considered a regular season game.
One of the reasons this is interesting is because despite some truly great performances in the postseason, Leiter never won a postseason game with the Mets. Mostly, it was due to some bad luck like when he lost Game 3 of the NLCS when the greatest infield of all-time allowed an unearned run in the Mets 1-0 loss. To be fair, his teammates picked him up in Game 6.
In 2000, for the first time in his Mets career, he was not the designated ace. That didn’t matter all that much as Leiter had a great season making the All Star team while going 16-8 with a 3.20 ERA. Things would not be as difficult for the Mets this year as they easily made the postseason.
In typical Leiter hard luck fashion, his gem in Game 2 of the NLDS went by the wayside when Armando Benitez blew the save. Still, Leiter’s performance was important as it helped right the ship after an opening game loss, and it helped propel the Mets to the NLCS. In the NLCS, Turk Wendell vultured a win.
In that World Series, Benitez yet again blew the save in Game 1 costing Leiter a win. That series did not go the Mets way, and they were forced to win a Game 5 to send the series back to Yankee Stadium. In that Game 5, Leiter gave everything he had to try to will the Mets to victory. Being a terrible hitter, he would even try to bunt his way on to drive home a run. Sadly, he was out of gas after 142 pitches, and his defense just couldn’t get to that one ground ball.
The Mets never reached those heights again during Leiter’s tenure. However, he had one more big moment left in the tank.
Many forget this now, but after the 9/11 attacks, it was Leiter, the local kid from Toms River, NJ, who was handed the baseball when the Mets returned to action in Pittsburgh. He received a no decision after limiting the Pirates to one run over seven innings.
One really important note here is Leiter is the last Mets player to ever wear a First Responder’s cap. On the one year anniversary, Leiter cycled through the caps for each of the first responder agencies pitching a complete game shutout against the Braves.
In Leiter’s final few years with the Mets, they never got back to the postseason, but Leiter still remained a very good pitcher for the team. Notably, he never had a losing record for the Mets, and he won 10+ in his seven years with the Mets with a 3.42 ERA. He would also accomplish some truly astonishing feats.
In 2000, he won the Roberto Clemente Award. In 2002, he became the first Major League pitcher to defeat all 30 teams. In one he probably wants to have back, he was the last ever pitcher to lose a game to the Montreal Expos. Overall, he became of the best pitchers in Mets history.
In fact, he could make the claim as the best ever left-handed pitcher. On that note, among Mets pitchers who have thrown at least 1,000 innings, only Jacob deGrom and Seaver have a better ERA+. Overall, Leiter is in the Mets top 1o in wins, GS, IP, strikeouts, WAR, and ERA+. He should be in the Mets Hall of Fame, but for now, he is going to have to settle for being the best Mets player to ever wear the number 22.
3. Curtis Granderson
4. Lenny Dykstra
5. David Wright
6. Wally Backman
7. Jose Reyes
8. Gary Carter
9. Todd Hundley
10. Rey Ordonez
11. Wayne Garrett
12. John Stearns
13. Edgardo Alfonzo
14. Gil Hodges
15. Carlos Beltran
16. Dwight Gooden
17. Keith Hernandez
18. Darryl Strawberry
19. Bob Ojeda
20. Howard Johnson
21. Cleon Jones