He was the odd duck of the 1986 Mets’ rotation, the one who didn’t quite belong. He wasn’t homegrown like Doc Gooden or Rick Aguilera, nor was he a young pitcher shrewdly bought on the cheap, like Ron Darling or Sid Fernandez. And despite being the oldest by three years, he wasn’t a part of the 1985 rotation either, having been brought over from Boston during the offseason. He wasn’t a power pitcher in any way shape or form, unlike each of his fellows—Roger Craig once said that he "couldn’t cut me if he hit me on the lip with a fastball." No, Bob Ojeda didn’t blend in at all, but he might have been the best pitcher the Mets had in their best season.
While the other four starters had relatively easy paths to the big leagues—all were high draft picks who quickly evolved into well-regarded prospects to various degrees—Ojeda had trouble just getting noticed. He was left-handed, but he was also short, slight, and had trouble cracking the upper 80s with his fastball. Scouts weren’t terribly impressed. Two years toiling at a community college in Visalia, California, surely didn’t help, and Ojeda went completely undrafted in 1978. He was signed as a free agent by the Red Sox on a scout’s recommendation based on a performance several years earlier, one in which Ojeda had no difficulty getting noticed for once: "I hit six batters in a row," he recalled years later. "Maybe that’s why he recommended me—I wasn’t afraid to pitch inside."
Whatever the reason, it immediately turned out quite well for Boston. In 1979, Ojeda asserted himself as a legitimate prospect, going 15–7 with a 2.43 ERA in the Florida State League. There were concerns—he wasn’t getting swings-and-misses, and the control was good, not great—but the Red Sox were so impressed that they had Ojeda skip Double-A entirely, sending him straight to Pawtucket in 1980. He didn’t have a great season, but he held his own and even earned a trip to Boston when sophomore righty Chuck Rainey succumbed to arm trouble in July. Ojeda returned to Triple-A in 1981 and was superb, posting a 2.13 ERA before being recalled to the majors for good. As a rookie with the Sox, Ojeda hinted at what he was capable of, going 6–2 with a 3.12 ERA over 66.1 innings, albeit with a dreadful 28:25 strikeout-to-walk ratio, suggesting he’d been quite fortunate with regard to batted balls in play. The 1982 season wasn’t as happy for Ojeda: his BABIP rose 100 points, leading to an ERA more than two runs higher. He also quarreled with manager Ralph Houk, and his season ended when he pulled a leg muscle slipping in the shower, the first of several bizarre injuries that would follow him throughout his career.
Ojeda rebounded in 1983, spending the next two seasons in the middle of the Red Sox’ rotation, a tick better than a league-average pitcher. Unfortunately, a tick above league-average wasn’t quite good enough after Roger Clemens and Al Nipper impressed as rookies in 1984, joining mainstays Bruce Hurst and Oil Can Boyd. Their emergence meant the 27-year-old Ojeda was already the oldest member of the rotation. After the team signed veteran Bruce Kison, new manager John McNamara decided to put Ojeda in the bullpen, hoping to give some support to the team’s Achilles’ heel. In one regard it worked; Ojeda was lights out in the bullpen. But it turned out that the 35-year-old Kison had nothing left in the tank, so McNamara moved Bobby O. back into the starting five after a couple months. Ojeda failed to impress his new skipper in his old role, and he continued to be outspoken in his discontent at being yanked about, so the team put him on the market during the offseason. The Mets bit, receiving Ojeda and a trio of pitching prospects for a quartet of their own prospects, headlined by top pitching prospects Calvin Schiraldi and Wes Gardner. McNamara figured he was finally getting the dominating reliever he so wanted, just for the price of a malcontent fifth starter. Most executives around the league thought Mets GM Frank Cashen had been rooked.
In New York, Ojeda blossomed as the team’s fifth starter, proving to be the perfect change-of-pace from the rest of the Mets’ power-oriented rotation. As a pitcher, he was nearly the exact opposite of the other four pitchers, who worked almost invariably with either fastball–curve or fastball–slider combinations, the exceptions being Aguilera and Darling, who’d also mix in splitters. But Ojeda? To say he worked fastball–change would be a giant misnomer. Unlike most pitchers who rely on a change—Tom Glavine, for example—Ojeda didn’t use his to break up the monotony of fastballs; he used the fastball to interrupt a steady diet of changeups instead. It was expert use of a limited instrument, a fastball that couldn’t touch 88. Once asked if he’d like to have Randy Myers’s left arm instead, Ojeda laughed, "Not if I had to have his brain, too!" A dig at a teammate, yes, but no less true: Ojeda succeeded thanks to a more cerebral approach. But he also needed some help, and one of the biggest keys to Ojeda’s new-found success in New York may have been his catcher:
"Once Bobby left Boston and came to New York, I really tried to get him to work inside, to throw more fastballs inside. Everyone is so reluctant to throw inside at Fenway Park, because you know if the batter hits a pop-up to left field, it’s going to be a home run. What really improved Bobby when he came to the Mets was that he started throwing those inside fastballs, and he had that great changeup, probably the best of anyone I ever caught."
While Gary Carter was ever one to toot his own horn, he did have a point—so many changeup pitchers never learn to pitch inside and let fear relegate their offerings to the outer half of the plate—and Ojeda did come to rely on Carter’s advice and superior knowledge of the senior circuit.
As well as Ojeda fit in on the field, he may have been an even better fit in the clubhouse. An intense competitor on the mound, Ojeda was easygoing and convivial off it, and like most of his teammates, he wasn’t averse to unwinding after a game with a drink or two. That tendency got him into trouble one night in Houston, when Tim Teufel and Ron Darling tussled with a couple of security personnel at a bar. The security guards turned out to be off-duty police officers, and Teufel and Darling were arrested for aggravated assault on an officer, while Ojeda and Aguilera were charged with hindering an arrest. The charges against Ojeda and Aguilera were eventually dropped, but not before the media had a field day with the incident and all men’s reputations were somewhat tarnished. Despite the blemish, Ojeda still pitched like an ace instead of a fifth starter, finishing the season with an 18–5 record and a 2.57 ERA, second-best in the NL.
He was just as brilliant in the playoffs. In Game 2 of the NLCS, Ojeda pitched a complete game, holding the Astros to just one run on ten hits. He also started the pivotal Game 6 that lasted 16 innings, though he wasn’t as effective, allowing three runs in five innings of work. The World Series, however, gave Ojeda an chance for revenge against his former employers. He took the hill in Game 3, and his changeup kept the Red Sox off-balance the whole game. He allowed just one run in seven innings. "That game was the most proud I’d ever been on a baseball field," he’d later remark. "Because I didn’t like the Red Sox. I had new friends, real friends. I had teammates who would fight and bleed for me. To do something important for my guys was awesome." Ojeda’s second start of the Series was another iconic game in Mets’ history: Game 6, the Bill Buckner game. He tossed six strong innings in the no-decision. His final playoff numbers were 2–0 with a 2.33 ERA.
Ojeda was rewarded with the Opening Day start in 1987, but the season was a disappointment on the whole. In late May, he underwent surgery on his pitching elbow to free a pinched nerve and clean out some bone chips, ending his season. Without Ojeda, the Mets’ rotation, which also lost Aguilera, Fernandez, and Gooden for long stretches at a time, suffered and the team quickly fell out of the race. Ojeda came back strong in 1988 despite a mediocre 8–12 record, posting a 2.88 ERA that marked him the club’s second-best starter. Unfortunately, tragedy struck the day the Mets clinched the division crown: Ojeda severed his finger with an electric hedge clipper in a gardening mishap, ending his season and jeopardizing his career. The digit was reattached after five hours of microfracture surgery. An emotional Ojeda was upbeat afterwards: "I know I’ll pitch. This is nothing compared to what I went through last year after my elbow operation." It did mean the Mets were without one of their best pitchers for their playoff series with the Dodgers, a series they ultimately lost in heart-breaking fashion.
Ojeda did return in 1989, but he wasn’t really the same. His 3.47 ERA doesn’t look too bad by today’s standards, but after adjusting for Shea Stadium it was well below the league average, and things weren’t any better in 1990. He began the year in the bullpen—Frank Viola’s arrival the previous season gave the Mets six starters—and although he eventually climbed back into the rotation, he didn’t pitch well and butted heads with new manager Bud Harrelson. The 1990 season would prove to be Ojeda’s last in the Big Apple—that December, he was traded to the Dodgers for former Met Hubie Brooks. His time in the spotlight as a Met was brief, but he was plenty effective. Among pitchers with 500 innings from 1986 and 1990, Ojeda ranks tenth in the National League in ERA+, sixth in shutouts, and tenth in walk rate. It doesn’t add up to a great pitcher, but it does add up to a good one.
He would pitch pretty well for the Dodgers in 1991 but that would be the last above-average season of his career. He departed for Cleveland after the 1992 season, where his career would once again take a tragic turn. In March 1993, he joined teammates Tim Crews and Steve Olin on an evening boat ride in Clermont, Florida. Crews, behind the wheel, was drunk and struck a pier. Both Crews and Olin were killed, and Ojeda narrowly escaped with his life and major facial lacerations. He spent most of the season on the DL. He joined the Yankees after the season but was released in May 1994 and retired.
After his playing career ended, Ojeda stayed away from the game until the Mets brought him back as a pitching coach for the Brooklyn Cyclones in 2001. He was promoted to Binghamton the following season, though he left the organization with hard feelings upon being passed up for the big-league pitching coach job for Rick Peterson. Those feelings didn’t last long, however, and he returned as an SNY studio analyst in 2009.
* * *
I do want to spend a quick moment talking about the rankings. The backbone of the rankings were determined by WAR, which, despite many limitations, remains the best way to quickly assess the value of players across generations. However, WAR is not the only component to the rankings, as a certain subjective factor was needed to determine a player’s "Mets-ness." Did the player contribute to a pennant? Did he define an era? Did he participate in an iconic moment? Is there any reason why WAR might be undervaluing his Mets career? Ojeda draws high marks for the first question, but ultimately falls a little short in the others; he just never captured Mets fans’ imaginations in quite the same way as his teammates did.
Finally, I thought it might be fun to compare the No. 50 Met to the No. 50 player of other organizations since 1962. I haven’t included franchises younger than the Mets, and this is jut a straight WAR ranking from 1962 through 2010. Previous incarnations of the Top 50 lists invariably draw remarks over how pathetic the Mets’ players are, but really everybody’s 50—except the Dodgers’—is in the same ballpark.
|Dave Martinez||White Sox||RF||10.2|
|Daisuke Matsuzaka||Red Sox||SP||9.8|
Player most similar to Ojeda: Neagle—both were left-handed changeup pitchers who had two very good seasons with the teams in question and otherwise fought injuries and ineffectiveness. Matsuzaka is also pretty similar in terms of career shape but is otherwise nothing like Ojeda.
* * *
Jeff Pearlman is not one of my favorite writers around, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad writer, and his book The Bad Guys Won! is the best book yet written about the ’86 Mets. It is the source of Ojeda’s quote about Game 3.
Peter Golenbock’s Amazin’: The Miraculous History of New York’s Most Beloved Baseball Team was the source of Gary Carter’s opinion on the reason for Ojeda’s success.