Opening Day 2011 will be the 50th Opening Day in Mets history. To honor that, around here we’ll be counting down the top 50 Mets in team history, one every weekday from now until we’ve done ‘em all. Today, #47, Lance Johnson:
A difficulty in making this sort of list is figuring out where players who were great in short bursts belong. Comparing the Mets’ career of Bernard Gilkey with that of Rusty Staub is like trying to compare Guns N’ Roses’ recording output with Tom Petty’s. As you probably know, Guns N’ Roses had one unbelievable moment (one of my favorites, Appetite for Destruction), and churned out a couple of followups that failed to even approach the first high (Lies, Use Your Illusion I & and the slightly better II), before disappearing, never to return as they once were. On the other hand you have Tom Petty, who, while having several very good albums, doesn’t have any single LP that stands out as an all time classic. That said, if you flip through his discography, you can find one or two songs on every album that remain classic rock staples to this day. Same comparison with Gilkey and Staub: You can have the brief 1996 brilliance of Gilkey, or the extended very-goodness of Staub in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s a question of quality against quantity.
Only it’s not quite as simple as just adding up all the numbers. One MVP season is more valuable than two half-MVP seasons, sort of (but not really) like how having a roster with nine MVP quality position players is more valuable than having a roster of eighteen half-MVP quality position players — because you can only use nine players at a time anyway. Big seasons are the ones that can push a team from .500 into playoff contention — Cleon Jones’ monster 1969 was a big part of that Met team’s unexpected success — so when making this list, great years were given extra weight.
In 1996, an otherwise terrible Mets team had three players have MVP-type seasons: the aforementioned Gilkey, Todd Hundley, and Lance Johnson. The strength of the outfielders’ years have propelled them onto this list. (Remember, we’re looking for the most valuable Mets, and not the best loved, so the duo’s relatively short Mets’ careers fail to significantly hurt them. Though, of course, they didn’t get very high on this list anyway.) Gilkey’s ’96 season was better, but Johnson’s was one of the stranger seasons in baseball history.
How strange? There have been just two players in baseball history to record 200 hits, 50 stolen bases, and 20 triples in a single season: Ty Cobb did it three times for the Tigers in the 1910s, and Lance Johnson did it for the Mets in 1996. Johnson led the majors in hits and triples in ’96; he also led all center fielders in putouts, and saved 17 runs defensively (as measured by Baseball-Reference’s Total Zone, though we’ll get into that tomorrow). To top it off, he batted leadoff, started in center, and played all nine innings of the All Star game, recording three hits and robbing one from Albert Belle. Some kindly and/or slightly misguided writer even listed him on an MVP ballot. It was a crazy year for Mr. Johnson, who, at bat for at bat, is the best triples hitter in post-WWII baseball, having the highest ratio of triples to plate appearances since the big war. In the middle of the steroid era, Lance Johnson partied like it was 1917.
Here’s what I’ve learned about Lance Johnson that is important: If you ever see a Mets trivia question, and the answer could be Lance Johnson … the answer is probably Lance Johnson. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve seen a fan at a Mets game have a chance to win a prize if he or she can name the “Mets player with the most triples in a single season,” and their choices are Jose Reyes, Mookie Wilson, and Lance Johnson. And they always seem to go with Mookie, as I scream, “NOOOO! LANCE JOHNSON!” in vain. Well, thinking about it more, I can remember the number of times: one. It happened one time. But Johnson does hold the Mets single season records in hits and triples, has the most multi-hit games in a single season, and his .326 batting average is tops among Mets players with at least 1000 trips to the plate. And to top it off, Johnson spent just a season and a half in Queens on a bad team, making him a somewhat obscure player — thus the perfect trivia answer.
So when in doubt, guess Lance Johnson. It could save your life.*