The Top 50 Mets of All Time: #48 Kevin Elster

Like Rey Ordonez at #50 on this list, Kevin Elster's career value with the Mets -- and much of the reason he made this list at all -- is primarily a result of his stellar play in the field. While not a great hitter, Elster hit well enough to keep his bat above replacement level, which made up for the fact that he logged fewer innings than Ordonez.

Elster was selected by the Mets in the second round of the 1984 January amateur draft (regular phase*) out of Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California. He was the 28th player chosen overall and eventually signed a minor league contract with the Mets on May 21st of that year. The Mets assigned him to Little Falls of the New York-Penn League where he appeared in 71 games and showed good plate discipline but little pop.

Year  Team         Lg   Age  Lvl  AB  XBH  BB  AVG/OBP/SLG
----------------------------------------------------------
1984  LittleFalls  NYPL  20  A-   257  13  35  257/350/342
1985  Lynchburg    Caro  21  A+   224  16  33  295/388/429
1985  Jackson      Tex   21  AA   214  15  19  257/322/346
1986  Jackson      Tex   22  AA   435  24  61  269/363/340
1987  Tidewater    IL    23  AAA  549  48  35  310/355/439
Elster began the 1985 season with the Lynchburg Mets of the Carolina League and maintained his solid discipline at the plate while improving his batting average and adding a few more extra-base hits. He spent a half-season in Lynchburg before a promotion to AA and the Texas League, where he quickly showed why the Mets were so eager to take him with their second pick in a mid-winter draft normally reserved for college dropouts. He struggled with his batting average and his plate discipline regressed somewhat, but at 21 he was still awfully young for double-a ball. He returned to Jackson for the 1986 season and, though his walk rate returned, his batting average was nothing special and he still hadn't developed any power. He was called up to the Mets when rosters expanded in September and appeared in nineteen games with little to show for it. He *did* make the Mets' postseason roster that year and had three at-bats in the NLCS and a fourth at-bat in the World Series, all of which ended with another out on the scoreboard.

1987 was a new year and with it came yet another new level of minor league ball to engage. At age 23 with the Tidewater Tides, Elster finally broke through. His batting average cracked the .300 mark and, though his walk rate decreased, he hit for much more power, raising his ISO from .071 to .129, an increase of 82%. He was called up for good in September of 1987, played in five games in September and October and became the Mets' starting shortstop the following April after Rafael Santana was shipped across town to the Yankees.

Year  Age   PA     XBH  BB  AVG/OBP/SLG   EQA  WARP3   VORP
--------------------------------------------------------
1986   21   33    1   3  167/242/200  .156    0.3   -1.8
1987   22   10    2   0  400/400/600  .341    0.2    1.6
1988   23  450   21  35  214/282/313  .235    3.9    1.2
1989   24  508   37  34  231/283/360  .249    7.4   11.3
1990   25  352   30  30  207/274/363  .237    3.5    3.7
1991   26  394   24  40  241/318/351  .254    3.6    7.5
1992   27   18    0   0  222/222/222  .148    0.0   -0.9
Elster's overall value as a Met is a result of the accumulation of several so-so years and one very good year, WARP-wise. Elster was never above average offensively with the Mets, but he was always above replacement (which is still really bad, but it's something that Ordonez could never say). Elster was a very good defensive shortstop in his time with the Mets. The numbers say so, our memories say so, and Ron Darling, who lauded Elster's defense on SNY multiple times this past season, says so. That fact was punctuated by his then-league-record-setting streak of 88 consecutive games without an error in 1988 and 1989.

Elster got off to a slow start with the bat in 1990, even by his own standards. His early struggles that year frustrated Mets' management, but they also frustrated Elster.

"It's starting to become a big deal, and I'm not here to make people mad. I have doubts, just like all people. And I have, just like most people, moments when they hit hard ... The public likes to judge, and stats are what people like to judge with. It's been brutal. I got to .220 and thought I could get to .250 and maybe then get people off my back. To just get cold again is the worst thing that could have happened."

-- New York Times (7/31/90)

Bud Harrelson, the Mets' manager at the time, downplayed Elster's mysterious lapses at the plate.
"He's not, I repeat, an enigma. And how weak, after all, is his .210? He's got 44 r.b.i. and a .365 slugging percentage. Is he doing his job? Yes. Would we like him to be different? Yes. Am I going to be patient? Yes."

-- New York Times (7/31/90)

Ignoring the somewhat contradictory redundancy of citing both RBI and SLG in a single argument, Harrelson was clearly at a loss to explain Elster's ineptitude at the plate. A week later Elster was placed on the disabled list due to shoulder pain which was subsequently treated by the team's physician as anti-inflammatories for what was diagnosed as a muscle imbalance. On August 28th, after his shoulder pain showed no signs of improvement, Elster got a second opinion from the now-famous Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Alabama, who found "loose fibers" in his shoulder and recommended surgery to repair the structure of the joint. The surgery was performed and Elster missed the remainder of the 1990 season.

Elster rehabbed the shoulder that offseason and it appeared likely that he wouldn't be ready for the start of the 1991 regular season. At the last minute Harrelson decided that Elster, who was champing at the bit to return, would heading north with the club and begin the season on the active roster. Despite being off the disabled list and with the big club, Harrelson named Howard Johnson the starting shortstop to begin the season. Elster got his first start of the season on April 14th as Johnson rested and he made the most of his opportunity, smacking a single, double, and a homerun. Elster started four of the next six games, after which Harrelson announced a surprising realignment of his infield: Elster had won back the starting shortstop job, HoJo would slide over to third and Gregg Jefferies would shift to second, bumping Tommy Herr, who was hitting just .184 at the time, from the starting lineup.

Things were fine for Elster until he injured his groin during a May 5th game against the Giants. He was eventually placed on the disabled list retroactive to May 6th with a groin strain. In the beginning of June we began to hear rumblings about Elster's shoulder again as he started bouncing throws to first with some regularity, particularly late in ballgames. Elster downplayed it at the time.

"The truth is that it is 100 percent healthy. There is no hurt, and with every day of work, it gets stronger. If anything, it gets tired near the end of games. Remember, we've got to keep this in perspective. I wasn't even supposed to be ready to be in the lineup at all by now, and I've been in it from the start of the season. If you ask me, it feels better than it did before it got hurt."

-- New York Times (6/1/91)

Elster, who hit .194/.250/.284 in June and .176/.263/.275 in July, finished the season strong by hitting .297/.357/.422 in September. Despite the promising conclusion to the season for Elster, the Mets prescribed rest for him that offseason in an effort to give his weary shoulder some time to recuperate. Elster showed up for Spring Training in 1992 rearing to go, but his shoulder balked, and he found that he was unable to throw on consecutive days without considerable strain on the shoulder. When the team broke camp in April, no one knew what to expect out of Elster. He appeared in six games in the first two weeks of the season, didn't hit a lick, and was placed on the disabled list on April 13th.

Elster missed the remainder of the 1992 season following surgery and became a free agent that winter. He finally reached the big leagues again in 1994 when he signed with the Yankees, but he saw very little action until he surfaced with the Rangers in 1996 and blasted 24 homeruns and 58 extra-base hits. He kicked around the league for a couple of years, was out of baseball in 1999 but came back again in 2000 with the Dodgers to hit .227/.341/.455 in 220 at-bats.

Elster's career was clearly derailed by shoulder problems, so there's no telling what his career arc might have looked like were he able to stay on the field. He wasn't much of a hitter when he was healthy with the Mets, though he developed some power later in his career that would certainly have served him well had he done so a little earlier. He was a link in the long chain of outstanding defensive shortstops that the Mets have had, and he provided sterling glovework behind a number of pitchers who appear higher than him on this list.

Sources

Kevin Elster at Baseball-Reference.com
Kevin Elster at Baseball Prospectus
Kevin Elster at The Baseball Cube

Annotations

"From 1966-86, baseball had two Drafts (January and June). The January Draft was reserved for college dropouts and junior college players. There were also "Regular" and "Secondary" phases in both months. The Regular Phase covered players who'd never been drafted; the Secondary Phase was for players who had been drafted in the past, but had gone to college instead of signing. Confusing? You bet. MLB wisely changed the structure in 1987, folding all four phases into one June Draft." (Source = About.com).

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