Monday, November 26, 2007

Kevin Mitchell and the Case for Chemistry

I recently read The Bad Guys Won which is an extremely light-weight chronicle of the 1986 Mets. Not surprisingly, its model of baseball is quite different from the statistical model of the sport that I have been paying attention to lately, and it is full of stuff about how the Mets success was related to their in-your-face attitude and particularly strong performances were triggered by vendettas or special showings of character. It views the raucousness and looseness of the clubhouse as a primary factor in the team’s success, and one could get the impression that the pitching and hitting were incidental. Another view would be to say that they were a group of very good players, who happened to spend most of a championship season boozing and skirt chasing—and consider the boozing and skirt chasing, not as a reason that they won a championship, but as a factor in their not having won more. Although, as The Bad Guy’s Won points out, the major factor in the Mets having not repeated was that team was quickly disassembled after 1986.

One of the guys who comes out well in that book is Kevin Mitchell. Mitchell was a versatile rookie and valuable contributor on the 1986 Mets; he was also a former gang member with gold-teeth and scars form gunshot wounds. In the early ‘80s, when they were both prospects, he tried to murder Daryl Strawberry over a game of pick-up basketball and he was a central participant in most of the brawls that the ’86 team were involved in. (a future post will discuss the change in standards for troubled, African-American rookies and will be called “Kevin Mitchell Makes Lastings Milledge Look Like a Punck”)

In a move that has to be recognized as an exceptional piece of baseball jack-assery, even from the franchise whose history includes the Midnight Massacre, Mitchell was traded for Kevin McRynolds after the championship season. The logic behind this move was awful: management perceived Mitchell as a corrupting influence on Strawberry and Gooden and wanted him away. As far as it is possible to tell about these things, that seems not to have been the case at all: Mitchell seems not to have had much to do with Strawberry and Gooden off of the field, and indeed, to have mainly put his troubled past behind him. The author of The Bad Guy’s Won sees the move as a fiasco because Mitchell was a beloved clubhouse presence and a “gamer.” They see the loss of a well-liked player, who was the unofficial club-house barber and always “played hard” and “wanted to be there” as indicative of a trend that would rob the team of its character and leadership and prevent it from winning further championships; they mention in passing that Mitchell would go on to win an MVP. McRynolds, who they obtained in exchange for Mitchell, performed well but not exceptionally over the next couple of years.

I would venture to say that the reason not to have traded Mitchell was because he was a rookie with a 124 OPS+, who could play every single infield and outfield position. That is a really valuable player. If 1986 Kevin Mitchell were available in 2007, and the Mets were able to get him in a package for Pelfry and Gomez I would be extremely happy. I think it is easy to be a good clubhouse presence when you OBP .344 as a rookie and hit 22 doubles to go along with twelve dingers; one wonders if the Mets were more hurt by the loss of their unofficial barber or the loss of an extremely versatile defensive player, showing all the signs of developing into a dangerous big-league hitter.

Mitchell’s stats from 1986 show a likely future MVP candidate; stories about his volatility and past show a player whose latter years might indeed be marred by “an indifferent attitude as well as other distractions.” However, while Mitchell would eventually win an MVP and latter sport an attitude that took away from his play, all the evidence is that he fit in very will with the Mets of 1986. Teammates from ’86 still speak of him fondly, and The Bad Guys Won contains much evidence that he had found a comfortable place on the club. Mitchell was a key part of the rally that ended in the grounder through Billy Buckner’s legs, and one wonders if his latter “bad attitude” had its origins in his “gangster past” or in his rejection by the club for which he had performed well and fit in with his teammates and coaches. One gets the feeling that once the Mets shipped him off as a bad influence, Mitchell was treated as such by all of the clubs that he eventually played for, until their perceptions eventually came to match the reality. Indeed, the case for chemistry is resurrected somewhat when one considers that if Mitchell had stayed a Met, he might have gone on to be even better. It is really too bad that the Mets let him go in a trade that they came up with out of racism and stupidity.

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