Lefty Jerry Koosman was overshadowed by Tom Seaver in New York, was stuck on some of the worst Mets teams ever, and then labored in relative obscurity for some average (at best) Minnesota Twins teams, before finishing his career with the White Sox and Phillies.
He has a darn good career stat line; 222 wins (tied for 67th place all-time) and 209 losses, 3.36 E.R.A., 2556 strikeouts (26th all-time), a good strikeout to walk ratio, 140 complete games, and 33 shutouts (tied for 85th all-time). He averaged 225 innings per season – he places 43rd all-time in total innings pitched – and faced an average of 940 batters per season during the 17-year period when he was a regular starter.
Koosman had some great seasons for the Mets from the years 1968-76 and a couple of very effective seasons with the Twins teams in the late ’70s, but two of his more interesting seasons came at the end of his string in New York, during the 1977 and 1978 seasons.
For those of you who don’t know, or who have tried to forget, 1977 was the year that saw the Mets, under the “guidance” of M. Donald Grant, trade Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds, a move that was the last in a series of putrid, penny-pinching moves that finally ruined the Mets. Seaver was arguably the best pitcher in baseball at the time – and had been for the past ten seasons – but the Mets were too cheap to pay him what he wanted. So they gave away the future Hall of Famer for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Dan Norman, and Steve Henderson. But that’s another story for another time.
In 1977, Koosman was 8-20 with a 3.49 E.R.A. for a team that went 64-98. A 20 game loser!
I forget who said this – I think it may have been A’s manager Billy Martin on Brian Kingman – but I heard the defense of a pitcher who had a lot of losses in a season that went along the lines of “Do you know how well a guy has to pitch in order to lose that many games in a season?” There’s no better season to use as an example of this “defense” than Koosman’s ’77 performance.
In 32 starts Koosman pitched 226 innings and faced 940 batters – right at his career average – and struck out 192 batters, the second highest total of his career. So there was nothing wrong with Jerry.
Here are some other great stats for Koos from 1977. Despite being a 20-game loser, Koosman led the National League in strikeouts per game (7.62), was sixth in the league with total strikeouts (192), was fifth in opponents batting average (.232), and finished just out of the top five in fewest hits allowed per game (7.8). Jerry Koosman deserved much better than an 8-20 record, baseball fans.
If you go by the statistical whizzes at Baseball Prospectus, Koosman’s stats adjusted for the league norms change his record to 14-11 with a 3.41 E.R.A. My bet is that on an average team of the time – forget about adjusting stats to try and make up for the fact that the Mets were a team that had their hearts ripped out by the Seaver trade – Koosman pitched well enough to win at least 17 games.
Koosman’s results were due more to the horrid nature of the Mets teams of the late ’70s than they were to any problems that Koosman had as a pitcher. Forget wins and losses, it’s amazing that his pitching line was as good as it was. The Mets’ everyday lineup in 1977 was littered with names of the obscure – and that’s an insult to real litter – with only Lee Mazzilli and an over-the-hill Joe Torre being recognizable to all but only the most avid Met fans. Looking at the roster – even today – I get the big nausea.
The 1977 Mets lineup was an opposing pitcher’s dream as they flailed their way through the league for a .244 batting average and 88 home runs while scoring only 587 runs – which works out to about 3.6 runs per game. You can see that the Met pitchers had little margin for error.
How bad was the Mets offense? They were last in the league in batting average, last in runs scored – by far – and last in almost every meaningful offensive category.
But for as bad as 1977 was for the Mets, Koosman and the fans, 1978 was even worse as the Mets finished at 66-96.
It’s hard to believe that things could get worse for Jerry Koosman in 1978 but he had a 3-15 record to show for his 32 starts. His pitching line isn’t much different than it was during his good and great seasons; 3.75 E.R.A., 235 innings pitched, 986 batters faced, a few less strikeouts and about the same amount of walks. Once again, the problem wasn’t with Jerry, as the Mets were one of the worst teams in the league and ranked at or near the bottom of the heap in every offensive category.
His Baseball Prospectus adjusted stats bumped his record to 9-13 with a little bit higher E.R.A. But a better lineup would have done more for Koos than some adjusted stats, as the Mets offense produced almost identically “offensive” numbers for the 1978 season as they did in 1977. As a matter of fact, the Mets averaged 3.74 runs per game, which was over a tenth of a point lower than the Mets pitching staff’s E.R.A. for the ’78 season, which was one of the best team E.R.A.’s in the league.
These two seasons should be referred to as “The Lost Seasons” for everyone associated with the Mets, but especially for Jerry Koosman. Here’s the pitching line for the two seasons: record 11-35, 3.62 E.R.A. where his team scored an averaged of 3.6 runs per game, he averaged 176 strikeouts for these two seasons which is better than his career average of about 150 per season, and he pitched every 5th day without fail.
If you look at his career record of 222-209 and make even the most conservative adjustment along the lines of what the Baseball Prospectus calls for during these two seasons, the Koos’ numbers change enough to make him 234-200, which would move him into about the number 55 spot for all-time wins. I’m a firm believer that if the Mets weren’t so horrid during the late ’70s Koosman would have had closer to 250 career wins and would have finished with less than 200 losses as well.
He probably still wouldn’t be considered a Hall of Famer but you have to admit that with somewhere around 245 wins and 190 losses Koosman becomes more of a guy that fans remember and better appreciate and is less of a “Oh yeah, he pitched with Seaver” kind of guy.
Looking at Koosman’s 1979 20-13 year for the 82-80 Twins you’ll see that, for all practical purposes, he was the same pitcher and put up almost the same numbers that he did during his “Lost Years.” The big difference is that in 1979 the Twins averaged 4.7 runs per game, which gave Koos and his 3.38 E.R.A. a much better than fighting chance during each one of his 37 starts.
Jerry Koosman was traded from the Mets to the Twins after the 1978 season, and unlike the Seaver trade, the Koosman trade provided dividends for the Boys from Shea. In return for Jerry Koosman, the Mets got Jesse Orosco, who had a fine career in the majors and, in one of the most memorable moments in the team’s history, got the final out as the Mets won the 1986 World Series.
With just a decent offense in New York, Koosman wouldn’t have had the pressure on to be perfect, but would have put the pressure on the opposition to scratch out some runs. There’s no telling what the Koos could have accomplished with a little more support.