The Top 50 Mets of All Time: #37 Wally Backman

Walter Wayne Backman was selected by the Mets in the first round -- sixteenth overall -- of the 1977 amateur draft out of Aloha High School in Aloha, OR. As a 17-year-old he was assigned to Little Falls of the New York Penn League and was dominant at the plate, hitting .325/.395/.451 in 255 at-bats. He earned a promotion to Lynchburg of the Carolina League in 1978 and continued to show impressive on-base skills, though his power dipped below .400 where it would remain for the duration of his professional career.
Year  Team         Lg   Age  Lvl   AB  XBH  BB  AVG/OBP/SLG
-----------------------------------------------------------
1977  LittleFlls   NYPL  17  A-   255   18  28  325/395/451
1978  Lynchburg    Caro  18  A+   494   31  74  302/396/395
1979  Jackson      Tex   19  AA   404   18  35  282/344/349
1980  Tidewater    IL    20  AAA  400   21  87  293/421/363
1981  Tidewater    IL    21  AAA   59    4  10  153/281/237
Backman moved up to Double-A Jackson in 1979 where his walk rate declined a little and his power declined a lot. He picked up just eighteen extra-base hits in more than 400 at-bats, but he was still young for the league and was clearly on the fast track to the bigs. He reached the top of the minor league ladder in 1980, starting that season in Triple-A Tidewater. His plate discipline was outstanding, drawing 87 walks in 400 at-bats and posting a gaudy .421 on-base percentage. His power was virtually non-existent, but his on-base skills were terrific, especially for a scrappy middle infielder.

The Mets were impressed with Backman, and called the 20-year-old up to The Show when rosters expanded in September 1980. Backman rewarded their faith by hitting .323/.396/.355 in 110 plate appearances with the big club.

After spending much of the spring fighting for attention, Backman began the 1981 season in the majors as a reserve infielder. He stuck around for the first two months of the season, starting just five games and appearing mostly as a pinch hitter or late-inning defensive replacement for second-baseman Doug Flynn. Backman was optioned back to Tidewater on June 8 to make room for an extra pitcher on the active roster.

Four days later the MLB Players' Association voted unanimously to stop showing up to work altogether, beginning a work stoppage that would last until August 10 and ultimately wipe out 713 big league games. This shouldn't have mattered to Backman, who was no longer earning a Major League paycheck. However, Backman was irked by the Mets' handling of his roster status and went on a strike of his own, much to the surprise of the Mets. Backman was frustrated with the minimal playing time he saw with the Mets, particularly with his lack of action at shortstop. Backman took a few days to clear his head before eventually rejoining the Tides on June 20.

Backman played out the season at Triple-A Tidewater, hitting a meager .153/.281/.237 in 59 at-bats. Doug Flynn was traded to the Rangers following the 1981 season, opening a hole at second base that Backman was only too eager to fill. He appeared in 96 of the team's first 113 games, starting most of them and hitting .272/.387/.372, a line that was very consistent with his recent minor league performances. He hit for decent average, had very good on-base ability, but brought nothing to the table power-wise. In a league that reached base at a .327 clip, Backman's skillset had plenty of value.

Unfortunately for Backman, his bicycle-riding skills didn't compare to his on-base skills, as he fractured his left clavicle during a bike ride with his wife, Margie, following the Mets' game on August 13, 1982. Backman would spend the remainder of the season on the disabled list. When he returned to camp the following spring he found himself in a battle for the starting second base job with Brian Giles, who took over full-time after Backman's injury. The competition boiled down to your classic bat vs glove conundrum: Backman could hit but was something of a liability with the glove; Giles was a solid defender but didn't hit much, posting a .210/.270/.312 line in Backman's absence in 1982.

Giles would win the starting job out of camp, with Backman reluctantly playing the role of backup and late-inning pinch hitter. Backman struggled with the inconsistent playing time, hitting just .129/.182/.129 in 34 plate appearances through May 13. Four days later the Mets sent him back to Triple-A Tidewater to get some more playing time. Backman knew the drill, and he pulled no punches:

"I'll go and play hard, but at the end of this season, I hope the Mets trade me or release me so I can make a deal with some other team. I really need to get away from this organization. There's no place for me here."

-- New York Times (5/18/83)

To Backman's credit, he took his demotion seriously, hitting .316/.422/.371 in 361 at-bats and helping the Tides to the International League Championship. When training camp opened in late winter of 1984, Backman again found himself in a dogfight for the starting job at second. The incumbent Giles might have had a leg up in the competition, but Backman had the inside track for the position, even if he didn't realize it at the time. His manager at Triple-A in 1983 was a big proponent of on-base percentage, and he recognized that a player with Backman's speed and plate discipline would be extremely valuable at the top of the order. So, when Davey Johnson was promoted to manage the big club in 1984, he knew exactly who he wanted playing second and batting leadoff for him.

Johnson acknowledged Backman's defensive shortcomings, but overall he liked what he was getting:

"He's not the smoothest or prettiest thing at second base, but he's not afraid to get dirty. He still has to learn to make the play and get out of the runner's way, like a matador. And, at bat, he'd put his chin on home plate if he thought he could get hit by the ball and get on base."

-- New York Times (2/23/84)

Year  Age   PA     XBH  BB  AVG/OBP/SLG   EQA  WARP3   VORP
--------------------------------------------------------
1980   20  110    2  11  323/396/355  .283    1.0    5.8
1981   21   42    2   4  278/350/333  .271    0.5    1.6
1982   22  312   18  49  272/387/372  .287    3.4   14.4
1983   23   45    1   2  167/205/214  .140   -0.4   -4.1
1984   24  499   22  56  280/360/339  .279    5.4   21.4
1985   25  574   30  36  273/320/344  .257    5.0    9.4
1986   26  440   21  36  320/376/385  .287    4.3   23.0
1987   27  335    7  25  250/307/287  .228    0.6   -3.4
1988   28  347   12  41  303/388/344  .294    4.6   18.1
Given a full season to strut his stuff at the big league level in 1984, Backman did what he always had: he hit for average, he drew a bunch of walks, and he stole some bases (32 to be exact). He had just 22 extra-base hits in 436 at-bats, but he was a disruptive force at the top of the lineup, frequently reaching base so guys like Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry could knock him in. After losing ninety games or more in six of the previous seven seasons (the seventh of which was the strike-shortened 1981 campaign), the Mets won 90 games in 1984, and Backman was a big part of it.
1985 brought the Mets their highest win total -- 98 -- since their championship season of 1969. It was a mixed year for Backman, though. He went to spring training for the first time not worrying about fighting for a job, and he finished the season with 574 plate appearances, more than he had in any previous professional season. Unfortunately, his walk rate was the lowest of his career and his final batting line of .273/.320/.344 amounted to an OPS that was 12% below the league average. The rest of the lineup hit, though, and the Mets fought the Cardinals for the NL East crown into the last week of the season before ultimately falling three games short.

Despite his disappointing 1985 season, Backman sought a raise the following winter, from $200,000 to $425,000. The Mets countered with $325,000, and the two sides went all the way to arbitration, where the arbitrator ruled in the Mets' favor. Things didn't get any better for Backman once camp broke, because his one season of job security became a distant memory when the team acquired Tim Teufel from the Twins on January 16, 1986, in exchange for Billy Beane, Bill Latham, and Joe Klink. Teufel had started at second base for Minnesota the previous two seasons, and the Mets saw him as a right-handed platoon partner for Backman, a switch-hitter who was often overmatched from the right side of the plate.

Johnson eventually split Backman and Teufel's playing time according to a fairly strict platoon, with the former seeing mostly righties and the latter starting almost exclusively against lefties. It worked out well for Backman, who hit .320/.376/.385 in a league that hit .258/.327/.389. Meanwhile, Teufel hit right around the league average at .247/.324/.369. The Mets ran away with the NL East title, and Backman saw plenty of action once the postseason got under way.

In the NLCS against the Astros, Backman started at second base in four of the first five games, but he played a key role in the sixth and final game of the series, a game that he began on the bench. He drew an intentional walk as a pinch hitter for Teufel in the ninth inning and stayed in the game until its completion following the sixteenth inning. He drove in the Mets' fourth run of the game, a go-ahead RBI single that scored Darryl Strawberry from second in the top of the fourteenth. Houston tied the game in the bottom of the inning on an improbable solo shot by light-hitting Billy Hatcher.

Backman wasn't finished, as he would work out a walk from Jeff Calhoun in the top of the 16th. He eventually came around to score the Mets' third run of the inning -- ultimately, the game's winning run -- on a Lenny Dykstra single. Jesse Orosco allowed the Astros to come as close as 7-6 in the bottom of the sixteenth before striking out Kevin Bass to send the Mets to the World Series. Backman would hit .333 with a .429 on-base percentage in the World Series, scoring four runs and helping the Mets to their first championship since 1969.

Despite a terrific offensive season in 1986, Backman and the Mets appeared headed for arbitration again. Backman asked for $600,000, the Mets countered with $500,000. The two sides eventually avoided the process by agreeing to a three-year, $1.95 million deal with individual salaries of $550,000, $650,000 and $750,000 for the 1987-1989 seasons.

With his shiny new contract in tow, Backman hit the field in 1987 and had arguably the worst season of his career. He appeared in 124 games, batting .250/.307/.287 in a league that hit .263/.332/.410. He spent a couple of weeks on the disabled list in June with a left hamstring pull and missed the season's final eighteen games with a severely sprained right wrist.

Backman returned to the team healthy in 1988 and had a fine bounceback year. He hit .303/.388/.344, leading the team's regulars in batting average and on-base percentage (backup first baseman Dave Magadan's .393 OBP bested Backman's slightly). Once again he split time with Teufel at second base, though Teufel's .234/.306/.352 batting line was nothing to write home about. However, Backman fought the injury bug again, missing fourteen games in late August and early September with a right hamstring pull. The Mets made the playoffs again, losing a gut-wrenching seven-game series to the Dodgers that saw Backman hit .273/.333/.318 in 22 at-bats.

Despite a good season with the bat in 1988, Backman found himself on the short end of a numbers game, with young middle infielders Gregg Jefferies and Keith Miller pushing him from below. Backman knew his time share at second base would only continue to dwindle and, seeing no better alternative, asked the Mets to trade him. On December 7, 1988 they did just that, shipping Backman to the Twins for a trio of minor leaguers who would never have as much as a cup of coffee in the big leagues. Despite seemingly getting what he wanted, Backman didn't take the news lightly:

"That's all I ever wanted, to be an everyday player. But it's an empty feeling: 10 or 12 seasons in the Mets' organization. It might bust me up in a couple of days. This was my family for 12 years.

It's funny, you're nothing one year, the way I was after 1987, the first bad year I had. They couldn't have given me away a year ago. Now, I have a good year and I'm gone."

-- New York Times (12/7/88)

Backman stuck around for five seasons after being dealt from the Mets, playing for four different teams in those five years. He posted a solid .292/.374/.397 line for Pittsburgh in 1990, good enough for a 117 OPS+. His production dropped off fairly precipitously after that and Backman was out of the league after appearing in just ten games for the Mariners in 1993.

The Mets didn't really know what to do with Backman early in his career, but he stuck around long enough to make significant contributions to two playoff teams. Too, without his key at-bats in Game 6 of the NLCS the Mets might have had to face Mike Scott in a decisive Game 7. Backman was never a phenomenal player, and his lack of power left him entrenched at the top of the lineup. Fortunately for him as well as the Mets, Backman could hit for average and had a firm grasp of the plate, working out enough walks to provide plenty of value to the teams he played for.

Sources

Wally Backman at Baseball-Reference.com
Wally Backman at Baseball Prospectus
Wally Backman at The Baseball Cube
Wally Backman at Fan Graphs

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