THE 8TH BEST TRADE IN METS HISTORY
* December 7, 1984: New York Mets trade Walt Terrell to the Detroit Tigers for Howard Johnson.
When people talk about the stars of the 1980s Mets, the names Carter, Hernandez, Gooden, and Strawberry tend to come to mind. All of those guys were critical members of those teams, but when you look at actual performance Howard Johnson was as good as any Met who played during that era. From 1987 to 1991, Hojo hit 157 home runs and knocked in 475 runs. Johnson could run as well, and he stole over 200 bases with the Mets.
Howard Johnson was one of the best fastball hitters I ever saw. The BA was never great, in nine seasons with the Mets his average was .251, but he was dangerous as hell. Howard had that rare combination of speed and power. And in 1991, he put together one of the greatest single-seasons in Mets history, leading the league in HRs and RBIs (38 and 117 respectively). He also stole 30 bases. Unfortunately, the team was in decline, finishing 5th in the NL East with only 77 wins.
True, but Johnson was also on the 1985 through 1988 teams that were in annual pennant races. He did have a very rough 1988 NLCS, no doubt about that.
Another issue for Hojo was that instead of being left alone to play third base he was shifted around a lot over the years to places where he did not belong. That included some questionable time in the outfield, which frustrated Mets fans. It was an example of the team’s trying to fix one thing and breaking another, and it didn’t help Hojo any.
Yes, I’d forgotten about those moves with Hojo. He played a lot of shortstop from 86-90, then the outfield experiment kicked in during the 91-92 seasons. The Mets seem to have a tradition of that, moving guys to where they don’t belong, then getting sour on those same players. I want to talk about Walt Terrell, and pay tribute to him a little bit, and not only because he had the distinction of being involved in not one but two of the Mets all-time greatest trades. This was a guy who squeezed the last ounce of success out of an otherwise unimpressive skill set. By some miracle, or through pure force of will, Walt Terrell won 111 games across 11 seasons in the major leagues (placing him in a tie for 477th place on the all-time wins list). Not bad for a guy who wasn’t very good.
Walt “Terrible,” as some affectionately called him, was a bulldog, and the definition of a workman-like pitcher. He threw a sinking fastball, slider, and palmball. In 1984, Walt tied with Dwight Gooden for most starts and put up a credible 3.52 ERA — better than Ron Darling, better than Bruce Berenyi, better than Ed Lynch. Cashen shipped him out anyway. There were young arms on the way and Terrell’s stock was high. For the Tigers over the next three seasons, his won-loss record stood at 47-32. And the amazing thing, it was an almost impossible feat that rocket scientists and sabermetricians today can’t explain. A cursory investigation of Terrell’s peripheral stats — the ones that tell the true story of a pitcher’s ability — suggest that he had no right pitching in the major leagues.
Terrell’s career SO/9 was a seemingly untenable 4.2. Very few MLB pitchers survive with such a low rate. When Walt won 15 games in ’86, losing only 10, he struck out less than four batters per nine innings. He walked 4.1 for an SO/BB ratio of 0.95. Career-wise, he gave up more hits than innings pitched. Terrell became known for his “gallant efforts” rather than actual wins. He was Chuck Wepner. Nevertheless, Terrell was a useful guy to have on the staff. An innings eater. In ’87 with the Tigers — a season when the Mets’ rotation was decimated by injuries — Terrell was arguably the #2 pitcher for the first place, 98-win Tigers, winning 17 games and logging 244 innings.
That is a wonderful tribute, Jimmy, and I’m sure the Terrells will read it proudly. But Howard Johnson was a much better player than Terrell, which is why this trade is on our list. My fondest memory of Walt Terrell is that we dealt him for Howard Johnson.
Ha! It’s fascinating to me how all of the trades we’ve discussed (Leiter, Clendenon, Delgado) seem to echo and reverberate against the team’s present situation. By ’84, the Mets clearly had young arms coming through the pipeline. Gooden, Darling, and Fernandez had arrived. So the Mets traded their workhorse starter, who was only ordinary, for a hitter who would help the team for the next 9 seasons. I know that Dillon Gee is a little better than Walt Terrell, but there’s validity in the relative comparison. Not only for their ability as pitchers, but for their relative place in the organization.
If there is one thing about this trade that does not echo the team’s present situation, it is how active the Mets were when building their teams in the 1980s. Yes, the Mets had the pitchers you mention above. They also were expecting a big year out of Bruce Berenyi, who they had traded for at the 1984 deadline. Berenyi hurt his shoulder and flamed out early in 1985. The following offseason the team turned around and traded for another starting pitcher, Bob Ojeda. My point being, the team made moves, and counter-moves. They reacted to the situation at hand and the goal was simple — add talent.
Yes, Sandy’s approach has been quite different. I think of his job performance as similar to an old lady sitting on a bench, waiting for the bus to arrive. She sits, and waits, and sucks on hard candy. Every once in a while, she leans over and looks down the road, hoping that bus will arrive. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. And maybe when it comes, she decides the price is too high so maybe she’ll hitchhike. In the Mets case, Sandy is patiently waiting for all those great players in the minor league system. Until then, suck on a butterscotch.
I have shared my doubts that Sandy Alderson is up to the current job at hand. I have no doubt that it is a very challenging job. The amount of “support” that Sandy is getting from his owners leaves a tiny margin of error.
No doubt that the Wilpons are the big problem here. I just don’t want to place Sandy Alderson above fair criticism because his job is hard. By the way, Howard Johnson was just named hitting coach for the Seattle Mariners, a role he performed for the Mets until he was replaced in December, 2010, by The Man Who Cannot Be Fired.
I’m pretty sure Howard is going to be telling those players that if they get a fastball they can handle don’t be afraid to take a rip.
Hojo never was.
To quickly recap on Hojo, since I spent so many column inches on Walt Terrell. Here are his numbers as a Met:
- Games: 1,154
- AB: 3,968
- HR: 192
- RBI: 629
- RUNS: 627
- SB: 202
- BA: .251
- OBP: .341
- SLG: .459
I’ll take those numbers in exchange for Walt Terrell any day of the week. Howard was the 12th overall pick in the 1979 Draft. It was a lousy year for amateur talent. The Mets grabbed catcher John Violette 11th overall. After the first couple of years after the trade, the early consensus was that the Tigers — coming off a 1984 World Series Championship — were the big winners in that deal.
Sparky Anderson seemed to lose faith in Johnson during the 1984 season. The switch-hitting Johnson played part-time for the Tigers for three years, and had opened the season as their regular third baseman. But as the season progressed, he sat in favor of guys named Marty Castillo, Tom Brookens, and Darrell Evans. Sparky Anderson did not use Hojo in the playoffs, and gave him only one AB during the World Series. Commented Anderson at the time, in a remark that struck some as veiled criticism, ”He’s one of those intense young boys. I didn’t want to put him in a pressure situation without more experience. But one day he’ll be a great player.”
Hojo played part-time for the Mets in 1985 and ’86, and hit about .250. It took time for that trade to turn into a winner for the Mets. Even while building for the present, Cashen had his eye on the future. And in this deal, he came away with the more talented player.
“We gave up a front-line starting pitcher for him, so you’d better believe we thought he had that type of potential. He had shown greatness in the minor leagues, and all he had to do was believe that he could do it up here.”
For readers late to the party, here’s links to past discussions of All-Time best trades: