The Mets Hit Parade

Olerud and Ordóñez: from the Sublime to the Ridiculous

You heard it here first. The best hitter in baseball is playing in New York at this very moment. The worst hitter in baseball is also playing in New York. And neither of them play for the Yankees.

If you thought the Mets were duller than C-SPAN— a boring bunch of pseudo- contenders that couldn't even be spiced up by a dash of erstwhile bad citizens like Bobby Bonilla, Armando Benitez, and Rickey Henderson— think again. Get beyond the .500-ish record and the Halloween-in-June uniforms and you'll see both the sublime and the ridiculous in the Mets lineup.

The Best: Have you been paying attention to John Olerud during the first two months of the season? Well, you should have. The man with the prettiest swing in the game is quietly having a season for the ages.

If you read the agate type, you might have noticed that Olerud leads the majors in on-base percentage (OBP). Which is a little like saying that Mark McGwire led the league in home runs last year. A third of the way through the season, Olerud boasts a .502 OBP. Think about that.

In the game of baseball, a hitter walks up to the plate with one goal in mind— getting on base (I'll leave the discussion about sacrifices for another day). And he also knows that God, Euclid, and Alexander Cartwright have doomed him to fail far more often than he will succeed.

Not so for the 1999 edition of John Olerud. Over the first two months of the season he has headed to first base (or second, or third, or home) more often than he's headed back to the dugout.

How special a feat is this? Well, in this century 13 guys have hit .400. Only 11 have gotten on base at least half the time— posted an OBP of .500 or better— for a full season. (And for the nitpickers among you, on-base percentage does not include fielders' choices or reached on an error— just hits, walks, and hit by a pitch.)

And lest you think Olerud is merely taking advantage of loose-armed pitchers, he's also hitting .357 with a slugging percentage of .618. Does this make him the best hitter in baseball? In my book it does. You could make an argument for Larry Walker, but remember that Shea Stadium is not Coors Field.

Can he keep this up? Probably not. After all, no one's hit the magic .500 mark since Ted Williams in 1957. But what Olerud's doing with that minimalist Mark Rothko swing of his is no fluke. In 1993, when he was at the heart of the Blue Jays attack, he posted an OBP of .473 and won the batting title with a .363 average. Last year, he hit .354, a Mets team record, and the highest batting average by a New York player since Mickey Mantle hit .365 in 1957.

And some of baseball's best measuring sticks can be found only a few lockers away. Rickey Henderson is third on the all-time career walks list (behind only Babe Ruth and Ted Williams), and Olerud owns a better career OBP. And for the past season and a half, he has relegated the great Mike Piazza, as surefire a Hall of Famer as we've seen in this town in four decades, to being the second-best hitter on the team.

With this kind of frontline talent, why aren't the Mets making a real run at the weakest Atlanta Braves team in recent memory? Read on.

The Worst: Rey Ordóñez is, by contrast, the ultimate rally killer. He is the black hole where innings go to die. He is, any way you care to slice it, the worst-hitting regular in major league baseball. He is the anti­John Olerud.

His .242 career batting average may not seem so bad on the surface— after all, Mark McGwire's only a .264 hitter. But Ordóñez's average is emptier than Strom Thurmond's head. He's never walked 25 times in a season, or had 25 extra base hits— a mere six weeks' work for Mr. McGwire.

Ordóñez's career production number (slugging percentage plus on-base percentage) of .568 is by far the worst of any regular in major league baseball, and he has been last or second from last in that category in all three seasons he's played. Actually, only one other player, Delino DeShields, has posted a season production number below .600, the baseball equivalent of a combined 400 on the SATs. Ordóñez, who posted a .501 mark in 1997, has never been over.600 for a full season. Let's just call it the Ordóñez Line.

So far this year, he stands at .605, only one short slump away from continuing his unrivaled streak of ineptitude. To put it another way, manager Bobby Valentine has two pitchers, Dennis Cook (.649) and Allen Watson (.640), with substantially better career production numbers than his starting shortstop (see chart).

Oh, and did I mention that he's also one of the worst base stealers in baseball, having been caught 14 times in 29 attempts during his career? "But," the argument goes, "his defense makes up for his offense." Not exactly. Ordóñez may very well be the flashiest fielder in the majors, but that doesn't make him the best. Judging his defense based on how many times he's made SportsCenter is like judging a hitter by how many tape-measure home runs he hits. Did you ever vote for Mark Whiten on your All-Star ballot?

Sure, Ordóñez has a couple of Gold Gloves— baseball writers watch SportsCenter, too. But defensive statistics tell another story, and it's not a pretty one. STATS, Inc., in an attempt to come up with a better way to rate fielders, has devised something called the "zone" rating. It essentially counts the number of balls hit into your area and reports the percentage of them that you turn into outs— almost like the defensive equivalent of on-base percentage. Ready for a shock? Last season, baseball's Human Highlight Film had a zone rating of .896, which placed him 18th— fourth from last— in that category among regular major league shortstops. And over the last three seasons, his .933 average puts him a point below the major league average. Which means that not only can Omar Vizquel and Barry Larkin out-field and out-hit Ordóñez, but so can Jay Bell and Royce Clayton. To his credit, Ordóñez has been above average in 1999, but Ozzie Smith he ain't. (Olerud, by the way, who's never mentioned in the same breath as Don Mattingly and Keith Hernandez, actually owns the best zone rating of any first baseman in baseball, both last year and over the three previous seasons.)

There's a good news/bad news aspect to this for Mets fans. The good news is that, shockingly, many of the Mets' young players are following Olerud's lead: Edgardo Alfonzo, Roger Cedeno, and Luis Lopez (Ordóñez's potential replacement) are all flirting with .400 OBPs. The bad news is that combined, they probably don't make up for the runs that Ordóñez is costing them.

The worse news, of course, is that even with Olerud as an archetype, Valentine seems destined to keep reflexively writing Ordóñez's name in the lineup in the hopes that he'll suddenly turn into Derek Jeter like he was supposed to. If only Valentine would take a lesson from The Phantom Menace: Don't believe the hype.


Hit like a pitcher? He wishes.

Mets shortstop Rey Ordóñez is not only the worst hitter among everyday players, the Mets have a couple of relief pitchers who should probably pinch hit for him.

.SLG .OBP .PROD
Dennis Cook (p) .361 .288 .649
Allen Watson (p) .345 .295 .640
Rey Ordóñez (ss) .291 .277 .568
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