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The Mets’ Rise And Fall With Doc Gooden And Darryl Strawberry

By most measures, 1983 was yet another miserable summer in New York for what had become the National League’s worst franchise. The Mets finished dead last in the NL, 23 games out of first place, and came in under 70 wins for the seventh consecutive season. Worse yet, ace pitcher Tom Seaver, easily the Mets’ best player to that point in franchise history, was snapped up by the White Sox after the season because general manager Frank Cashen neglected to protect him from inclusion in the free-agent compensation pool.

But 1983 also had bright spots. In addition to the midseason acquisition of 1979 NL co-MVP Keith Hernandez, the Mets had in their minor-league system a pair of prospects who would soon dramatically improve the team’s fortunes. Those players — outfielder Darryl Strawberry and pitcher Dwight “Doc” Gooden — are the subject of a 30 for 30 documentary that premieres tonight on ESPN, and their story highlights how quickly superstar phenoms can help remake a franchise in tatters.

It also underscores how, just as quickly, everything can evaporate.

Strawberry was the first of the Mets’ two whiz kids to reach the majors, early in that otherwise ill-fated 1983 season. When he arrived from AAA Tidewater on May 6, the Mets were 6-15 and 10 games out of the NL lead. Things would get worse before they got better. During his first month in The Show, Strawberry hit just .164 and struck out once every 2.5 at-bats. But five weeks into his career, he finally started to figure out big-league pitching: From June 7 onward, Strawberry posted a .936 OPS (on-base plus slugging) — better than eventual league MVP Dale Murphy. After the season, Strawberry was named the NL’s Rookie of the Year.

Gooden didn’t make his debut until the following season, but he quickly proved to be Strawberry’s equal as a prospect. In his first two months of major-league action, Gooden struck out 73 batters, one of the highest totals ever in a pitcher’s first nine career starts:1

PLAYER TEAM IP ERA WHIP BB SO
Kerry Wood CHC 53.1 3.04 1.14 27 85
Herb Score CLE 72.0 2.88 1.29 45 82
Jose DeLeon PIT 71.0 2.03 0.92 27 80
Stephen Strasburg WSH 54.1 2.32 1.07 15 75
Hideo Nomo LAD 57.0 2.84 1.26 34 75
Masahiro Tanaka NYY 64.0 2.39 0.97 8 73
Dwight Gooden NYM 51.1 3.68 1.25 25 73

Only includes pitchers for whom their first nine games were starts.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

And he was just getting started. Those strikeout-happy first two months actually were the worst stretch of Gooden’s rookie year; he would post a 2.27 ERA from June onward and finish the season second in the voting for NL Cy Young and first in the Rookie of the Year race. Gooden’s rookie campaign was so dominant that, according to FanGraphs’ wins above replacement, it was the most valuable debut season by any player — pitcher or otherwise — since 1901:

WAR
YEAR PLAYER AGE TEAM BATTING PITCHING TOTAL
1984 Dwight Gooden 19 NYM 0.2 8.3 8.5
2001 Albert Pujols 21 STL 7.2 0.0 7.2
1939 Ted Williams 20 BOS 7.1 0.0 7.1
1911 Pete Alexander 24 PHI -0.4 7.2 6.8
2015 Kris Bryant 23 CHC 6.5 0.0 6.5
1977 Mitchell Page 25 OAK 6.2 0.0 6.2
1943 Lou Klein 24 STL 6.1 0.0 6.1
1942 Johnny Pesky 22 BOS 6.1 0.0 6.1
2001 Ichiro Suzuki 27 SEA 6.0 0.0 6.0
1949 Don Newcombe 23 BKN 0.3 5.6 5.9
Most WAR in a player’s debut season, 1901-2016

Does not include players who, by rule, retained Rookie of the Year award eligibility into subsequent seasons.

Source: Fangraphs

Thanks to another 25-homer, .800-OPS season from Strawberry and a strong performance by Hernandez (who finished second on the team — and 14th among NL hitters — with 5.7 WAR), the 1984 Mets ended the season with 90 victories, a 22-game improvement over the previous year.

It was the start of a turnaround unlike just about any in modern baseball history. If you’d taken those ghastly 1983 Mets and built a simple regression model predicting how many games they’d win over the next five seasons — based on things like how many WAR they had on the roster (not many); how young their batters and pitchers were2 (not very); and the size of the market in which they played3 (large, but cramped by the crosstown Yankees’ slice of the New York media pie) — you’d have guessed the Mets would win about 77 games per season from 1984 to 1988. In reality, they averaged 98 wins a season over that span, the second-biggest positive differential between forecast and fact since the NL adopted the 162-game schedule in 1962:

paine-doc-and-darryl-3

Those five seasons were the apex for Doc and Straw. Strawberry had the effortless power and discerning eye of a young Reggie Jackson. He could also run, swiping at least 25 bases every season from 1984 to 1988. Among a stellar class of young outfielders in the mid-to-late 1980s that included Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines and Tony Gwynn, Strawberry was staking his claim near the top of the list.

Gooden, meanwhile, was a monumental talent, at his peak one of the most dominant pitchers this side of Pedro Martinez. In 1984 — at age 19! — Doc’s fielding independent pitching (FIP) was 1.69, still the seventh-lowest (relative to the league) ever in a single season. He followed that up with a 1.53 ERA as a 20-year-old, the 12th-lowest (again, relative to league average) ever recorded in a season.

It was one of the most masterful stretches by a pitcher ever, and it helped Gooden produce the 20th-best pair of back-to-back WAR seasons by a pitcher in major league history, all before his 21st birthday. It also included the bulk of a magical 50-start span that stretched from late in the 1984 season into early 1986, during which Gooden allowed an infinitesimal 1.38 ERA, struck out 4.6 batters for each one he walked and led the Mets to a 41-9 record when he took the mound.

During that five-year run, the Mets won at least 90 games every year, breaking the mythic 100-win barrier twice. They won the World Series in 1986 and came within a game of going to another in 1988. And Doc and Darryl were the driving forces. They finished 1-2 on the team in WAR over that span and became the 20th-most-productive pair of teammates under age 26 in baseball history.

YEAR TEAM PLAYER 1 CAREER WAR PLAYER 2 CAREER WAR TOTAL WAR
1913 DET Ty Cobb 63.4 Donie Bush 21.3 84.7
1958 MIL Eddie Mathews 45.2 Hank Aaron 28.4 73.6
1914 BOS Tris Speaker 48.0 Joe Wood 25.0 73.0
1958 NYY Mickey Mantle 61.2 Andy Carey 11.2 72.4
1941 NYY Joe DiMaggio 46.0 Joe Gordon 22.4 68.4
1922 STL Rogers Hornsby 57.5 Austin McHenry 10.3 67.8
1913 WSH Walter Johnson 45.8 Clyde Milan 21.4 67.2
1921 NYY Babe Ruth 57.7 Bob Meusel 8.0 65.7
1977 TEX Bert Blyleven 53.0 Jim Sundberg 11.7 64.7
1962 CIN Frank Robinson 43.4 Vada Pinson 20.8 64.2
1914 WSH Walter Johnson 53.8 Chick Gandil 10.4 64.2
1935 NYG Mel Ott 53.6 Hal Schumacher 10.5 64.1
1957 NYY Mickey Mantle 52.4 Bill Skowron 11.3 63.7
1934 PHA Jimmie Foxx 55.9 Pinky Higgins 7.4 63.3
1912 PHA Eddie Collins 36.4 Frank Baker 26.6 63.0
1913 PHA Eddie Collins 45.4 Jack Barry 17.0 62.4
1929 NYY Lou Gehrig 40.2 Tony Lazzeri 20.9 61.1
1985 NYY Rickey Henderson 41.8 Dave Righetti 17.2 59.0
1932 NYG Mel Ott 33.2 Freddie Lindstrom 25.5 58.7
1988 NYM Dwight Gooden 33.8 Darryl Strawberry 24.9 58.7
Best under-26 combos in MLB history

Ages as of July 1 of the season in question.

Source: Fangraphs

With Gooden and Strawberry blossoming into megastars, the Mets seemed poised to build on their ’86 Series victory and form a full-blown dynasty. But the duo’s on-field accomplishments were masking a variety of personal demons — issues that would ultimately derail their careers and dash New York’s hopes of long-term dominance.

Gooden and Strawberry were both products of alcoholic fathers; Darryl’s was abusive, Doc’s was relentlessly overbearing. And practically from the start of their pro careers, the two plunged into their own cycles of violence and substance abuse. Both men built an ugly legacy of violence against women. Gooden missed the Mets’ 1986 World Series parade because of drugs and tested positive for cocaine the next spring, the opening entries in a long list of personal problems. Strawberry clashed with teammates and spent multiple stints in rehab for drug and alcohol addiction. Gooden contemplated suicide; Strawberry relapsed into drug use even after recovering from cancer. They became the faces of decadence, wasted talent and the full range of cultural pathologies attached to star athletes in the roaring 1980s.

For a time, both players were able to perform well despite the personal turmoil. (Each was able to produce at least 6.5 WAR — the mark of a strong All-Star or borderline MVP — in 1990, even as their off-field lives were crumbling.) But ultimately, neither player’s career lived up to the expectations set in their early careers. Depending on which WAR variant you use,4 Gooden’s career total fell about 10 wins shy of what could have been expected from similar players as a young pitcher. Likewise, Strawberry missed the career WAR totals of his comparables by 22 wins.

Just as the emergence of Gooden and Strawberry fueled the Mets’ surprising turnaround after the 1983 season, their twin downfalls contributed to the Mets’ collapse in the early-to-mid 1990s. After the 1990 season, when Doc and Darryl led New York to a 91-71 record in their last year together, the same next-five-years prediction model from above would have expected 87 wins per year from the Mets’ 1991-95 seasons. Instead, the team averaged 73 victories over that span, the 17th-biggest shortfall of the 162-game era.

Strawberry bolted to the Dodgers as a free agent in November 1990 and made the All-Star team his first season in LA, but he was never the same again. Gooden stuck around in New York for a few more years before a drug suspension cost him the entire 1995 season and ended his tenure with the club. And the Mets had the worst record in baseball from 1991 to 1996.

It was a stunning collapse for all parties involved and a reminder of how fragile a gifted core of young superstars can be. Just as quickly as extraordinary talent can breathe new life into a flagging franchise, it can also pave the way for disappointment, leaving a generation of fans wondering what might have been.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Sadly, we can’t say exactly where it ranked among a pitcher’s first nine starts because Baseball-Reference.com’s game finder tool can only search within a pitcher’s first nine career appearances, whether as a starter or in relief. In the table below, I limited the search to pitchers for whom all of their first nine appearances were starts.

  2. Weighted by WAR.

  3. Based on both long-term franchise payroll trends and metro-area population, divvied up for multiteam cities according to the process my colleague Nate Silver used here.

  4. Aside from 1985, FanGraphs’ version of WAR held Gooden in higher regard than Baseball-Reference’s in 10 of Gooden’s first 11 MLB seasons.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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