This is the one the Mets got right. After drafting Steve Chilcott over Reggie Jackson and then Tim Foli over Thurman Munson, the Mets had the first overall pick in the 1980 draft, and they selected Darryl Strawberry, a high school player so good he was dubbed the black Ted Williams.
The Mets needed to nail that pick because more than anything, they needed hope. Strawberry came to the Mets on the heel of Grant’s Tomb and was brought to the team by a new ownership group with a new GM Frank Cashen. To help turn the franchise around, they needed to nail this pick. It soon became evident they did.
Strawberry was first called up to the Mets in 1983, less than three full seasons after being drafted. He’d hit his first career homer to the opposite field marking the first of what was a Mets record 26 homers from a rookie:
During that 1983 season, Strawberry would set nearly every Mets offensive rookie record and nearly all of them stood for almost 40 years. In that season, he’d become the first ever Mets offensive player to win Rookie of the Year. Mostly, as noted, he presented a sense of hope. That season not only brought Strawberry, but also Keith Hernandez. Finally, the Mets had top end talent to help bring the Mets to true contenders.
Strawberry had all the tools to be a great baseball player. Power, speed, and an incredible arm. While there personal issues which held him back from realizing his full potential, he was a great player with the Mets providing them with a threat in the middle of the lineup.
While he improved in the 1984 and 1985 seasons and was named an All-Star, it was really the 1986 season where we saw Strawberry become all he could be. This began a three year period where he was possibly the most feared slugger in the National League. During that time, he led the National League in homers and wRC+, and he led all the majors in SLG.
It wasn’t just that he hit homers. He was also getting important hits for those Mets teams. Quite possibly, the first truly big homer in his career was in Game 3 of the 1986 NLCS. The Mets were trailing 4-0 in the bottom of sixth, and they were facing falling behind 2-1 in the series with Mike Scott returning for Game 4. In that inning, after the Mets scored their first run, Strawberry hit a game tying three run homer off Bob Knepper.
As big as that homer was, Strawberry hit an even more dramatic homer in Game 5. In the bottom of the fifth, Nolan Ryan was no-hitting the Mets. In that game, Ryan was throwing the type of no-hit stuff which would eventually make him a legendary Hall of Famer. He would only give up two hits that day. Fortunately for the Mets, one of those hits was a Strawberry homer:
This should not be understated. If not for Strawberry’s two homers in this series, it is very likely the Mets don’t win that series. The same can be said for Strawberry’s drawing two key walks in Game 6 which led to runs being scored. It was also his lead-off double in the 16th which led to the pennant clinching rally.
Like most of the Mets, it took Strawberry some time to get going in the World Series. The sensitive Strawberry was always upset he had been taken out of Game 6, and he was upset he didn’t get to contribute to that rally. Notably, Kevin Mitchell had come up in his spot in the order as he had been double switched out of the game in the ninth. He would make up for it in Game 7 by hitting an absolute moon shot in the eighth inning and taking his time around the bases:
The Mets would not return to the World Series after that, but even with his personal life falling apart, it is difficult to blame Strawberry for that. Over the ensuing two years, he again was an All-Star, and he would finish in the top six in MVP voting.
In 1987, he and Howard Johnson became the first Mets to join the 30/30 club. When Strawberry accomplished the feat, he became the first ever left-handed hitter in the National League to accomplish the feat. He was the first to do it in any league in the post World War II era.
As big as an accomplishment as that was, he was even better in 1988 leading the league in homers, SLG, OPS, OPS+, and wRC+. Remarkably, that would land him his first ever Silver Slugger award. To this day, it is still surprising Strawberry didn’t win that award. After all, he was great from day one pulling off incredible feats like hitting the roof of Olympic Stadium on Opening Day:
At that time, there was arguably no better player in all of baseball than Strawberry. While we always see his career for what it wasn’t, Strawberry was definitively on a Hall of Fame pace during his time with the Mets.
When Strawberry was a Met, he made seven straight All Star Games. The one time he didn’t was his rookie year, and that year, he was the Rookie of the Year. From 1987 – 1990, he was in the top six in MVP voting three out of four years with two of those years being third or better.
In terms of Mets history, believe it or not, he is the best hitter in franchise history. Out of everyone who has played at least 500 games, his 143 wRC+ is still best. The same can be said for his 252 homers and his 108 intentional walks. Overall, he is either first or second in many categories, and he is top 5-10 in almost all of them.
This makes him the second best Mets position player of all-time. It makes him the best right fielder and left-handed hitter. It also makes him the best Mets player to ever wear the number 18.
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
(7) Jon Matlack – After drafting players like Les Rohr and Steve Chilcott, he was a first round draft pick the Mets got right. Won the 1972 Rookie of the Year Award. Three time All-Star and Mets only player to win the All-Star MVP award. Had a 1.40 ERA in the 1973 postseason. Led league in FIP in 1974.
(10) Tommie Agee – First ever Mets player to win a Gold Glove and Comeback Player of the Year. In some ways, first true center fielder in team history. Hit a 480 foot homer in Shea Stadium which was immortalized by a sign where the ball hit. Led Mets in OPS during 1969 NLCS. In Game 3 of the World Series, he led off the game with a homer, and he would make one of the famed catches of that series making a diving grab robbing Paul Blair of an extra base hit. His game was dubbed by Sports Illustrated as “The most spectacular World Series game that any center fielder has ever enjoyed.” Twice finished in the top 20 in MVP voting.
In 1966, the Mets made what was perhaps their worst decision in franchise history. With the first overall pick in the draft, the Mets selected Steve Chilcott. It was the worst decision in franchise history not only because Chilcott never played in the majors. It was the worst decision in franchise history for the reasons why the Mets didn’t make the obvious pick.
No, the Mets passed on a player named Reginald Martinez Jackson, or as you better know him, Reggie Jackson. This wasn’t a case of a player being overlooked for another player. No, Reggie was widely seen as the best player in that draft as was evidenced by the then Kansas City Athletics selecting him with the second overall pick in the draft. The Mets didn’t pass on Reggie because they felt stronger about Chilcott than other organizations (although they might have). They didn’t pass on Reggie because they believed he wasn’t suited for New York (turns out he was). They didn’t even pass on him because they felt there was an organizational need for a catcher (they didn’t with Jerry Grote aboard). No, the Mets passed on Reggie for the dumbest reason of all – racism. It turns out the Mets didn’t like the fact that he was dating a Hispanic woman.
When Reggie Jackson got his opportunity to exact revenge upon the Mets, he did. Reggie was the MVP of the 1973 World Series. While the Mets were floundering in the late 70’s, barely getting over a million fans to Shea Stadium, actually lower in other years, Reggie was leading the Yankees to the 1977 and 1978 World Series. In 1993, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a Yankee.
Meanwhile, Chilcott flamed out at 23, in part, because he suffered a shoulder injury. Chilcott became an unfortunate footnote in MLB history as the first ever first overall pick not to make the majors. It’s worth nothing that the Mets did eventually get the first overall pick right when they picked Darryl Strawberry in 1980. It’s also worth nothing that no first overall pick made the Hall of Fame until this summer when the 1987 first overall pick, Ken Griffey, Jr. will officially be enshrined in Cooperstown.
Overall, the MLB draft is full of hits and misses. It’s natural for players to be compared with the players who were drafted above and below them. Drafting in major league baseball is an inexact process. We were reminded of that this past weekend with Jose Fernandez shutting down the Mets, while the player drafted immediately before him, Brandon Nimmo, is still developing in AAA. However, we can live with decisions like Nimmo over Fernandez as there were sound reasons to draft Nimmo over Fernandez. If Nimmo continues his current development, he will become an effective major league player. That’s a lot more than anyone can say about Chilcott.
It’s important to keep the Reggie Jackson/Steve Chilcott situtation in mind each and every draft. There are busts, and there are players who exceed expectations. The only thing you can ask of your team is to have the right process in place when making draft picks. The Mets didn’t have the right approach in 1966. Presumably now, even in the absence of Paul De Podesta, the Mets have the right process in place. As such, we know the Mets are going to make a decision based upon the proper criteria. Accordingly, we know that the Mets are about to make a much better draft pick than the one they made in 1966.