I am an introvert by nature, but if you want to cover the prospect beat you often have to go up to complete strangers, usually scouts who will be a bit wary of your intentions, and see if you can get a remark or two. I don’t know that I’m more successful at it than most, but over the last few years I like to think that I've at least gotten competent.
This past July I was in Lakewood to catch Savannah on their sole road trip above the Mason-Dixon line. Primarily I was there to catch Domingo Tapia, who did not disappoint despite a rather mediocre line in the box score. I felt that I had a pretty good feel for him as a prospect, but I wanted to do my due diligence and see if I could get a line or two from a professional talent evaluator. After unsuccessfully trying to get something on the record from a Blue Jays scout (not a surprise, the Jays’ organization is notoriously tight-lipped), I decided to change tactics.
Frank Viola was the Gnats’ pitching coach, and he was just finishing up a side session with Michael Fulmer while I was flailing around trying to get something more than "it's a big arm, isn't it?" from Mr. Toronto Scout. Now, generally minor league pitching coaches aren't the most objective sources. For example, based on his SNY interviews, Marc Valdes seemed to think everyone on the Cyclones pitching staff in 2012 had multiple plus pitches, but Viola liked talking about his guys and from his remarks sounded more like a straight-shooter.
I strolled down to field level as Viola headed towards the mound to toss some batting practice, and there was only a short window for me to try and get his attention. I didn't even manage a meek gesture or greeting, and that was that. I knew the reason why immediately, and it stung. I was intimidated. I've had no problem striking up conversations with players, scouts, front office types, reporters, other prospect guys — whoever, really. I mean, I'll talk baseball with just about anyone, a fact which has helped me successfully navigate many wedding receptions.
But here's the rub, if I ramped the subjective component of this list up to eleven, the Top 10 would something like this:
1. R.A. Dickey
2. Gary Carter
3. Frank Viola
4. Josh Satin
5. David Wright
7. Rey Ordonez
9. Buddy Harrelson
10. Bobby Jones
Maybe that would have led to a more interesting list to some, and if I can pen 2,500 words on Steve Trachsel, you can bet I'm good for 3,000 on Hisanori Takahashi. (#17, in case you were wondering) However, I don't know that I would be particularly good at interviewing any of the above about what Domingo Tapia needs to do to improve his sequencing.
Actually, that's not entirely true. I'd love to talk pitching with Bannister, and I'd talk just about anything with Josh Satin, but Viola is so associated with a time and place to me that being within fifty feet of him made me feel like an eight-year-old once again. That same eight-year-old who was in the market for a new favorite Met.
"Frank Viola is perhaps the only member of the early 1990s Mets that no one ever said anything bad about."
- Steven Goldman, Baseball Prospectus: "The Line-up Card: Nine Memories of Frank Viola"
By the time Frankie V was traded to the Mets at the trading deadline in 1989, he was already a star. The 29-year-old Viola had won over 100 games for the Twins and anchored the staff that won the 1987 World Series. Viola was the only starter on the ‘87 team to post an ERA under 4.00, and while 36-year-old Bert Blyleven may have been the nominal ace, it was Viola that started games 1, 4, and 7 of the Fall Classic against the Cardinals. He went 2-1, but the pair on the positive side of the ledger were pretty impressive: eight innings of one-run ball in Game 1, and eight innings of two-run ball in the series clincher. Viola was awarded the World Series MVP for his performance and likely still doesn't have to buy a drink in the Twin Cities.
That’s a pretty tough act to follow, but Viola might have been even better in 1988. He won 24 games for a Twins squad that finished second to the Bash Brothers A’s and was a near-unanimous choice for the AL Cy Young Award, garnering 27 out of 28 first-place votes. All told, Viola was worth 15 wins above replacement between 1987 and 1988, more than any AL pitcher not named Roger Clemens.
So how did Viola find his way to New York less than a year later? Well, he struggled in the first half of 1989, though his 3.79 ERA was still above-average in the hitter-friendly Metrodome, and the Twins found themselves looking up at .500 as the days started getting shorter. Meanwhile, the Mets were in a dog fight in the NL East with Montreal, St. Louis, and Chicago and had suddenly found themselves absent an ace, as Doc Gooden went down with a shoulder injury in July. It was a logical match, and the Mets parted with a king’s ransom to procure the left-hander. New York sent back swingman Rick Aguilera, pitching prospects Kevin Tapani, David West, and Tim Drummond and a player to be named later — Jack Savage, for all you completists out there.
It really felt like Viola should have been a Met all along. He grew up on Long Island, pitching for East Meadow High School and then at St. John's alongside John Franco. In college he famously faced off with Yale's Ron Darling in a pitcher's duel immortalized by Roger Angell in the New Yorker and referenced roughly once a week on the SNY broadcast. This was a long overdue homecoming. Unfortunately, the trade didn't work out for the Mets in the short term as the Cubs heated up along with the Chicago summer and ended up besting New York by six games in the East. Viola’s numbers improved a bit, helped out by spacious Shea Stadium, but in 1989 at least, he failed to salve the loss of Doc Gooden.
If you happened to catch a broadcast of an R.A. Dickey start in the latter half of 2012 (and if you didn’t, why are you on this site exactly?), you probably know what happened next. Until Dickey’s magnificent 2012, Frank Viola was the last 20-game winner for the New York Mets. But even without the gaudy win total, it would still be a great season. By bWAR it was the 12th most valuable single season by a pitcher in Mets history, and the years ahead of Viola’s are a who’s who of Mets pitching greats. Viola’s 2.67 ERA (141 ERA+) was fourth in the NL and his 249 2/3 innings pitched led the league. The 1990 squad again finished second, possibly costing Viola a second Cy Young as the award went to Doug Drabek of the division-winning Pirates.
Viola would struggle again in 1991, posting a 3.97 ERA (92 ERA+), which was his first below average mark since 1986, while the Mets cratered to fifth place in the NL East with more dark days ahead. Viola was a free agent at the end of 1991 and would sign with the Red Sox. He bounced back in 1992 with the Boston and was classic Viola in 1993, though he would only pitch 183 innings, the first time he failed to finish 200 frames since his rookie season. He made six more starts with the Red Sox in 1994 before suffering an elbow injury that necessitated Tommy John surgery, effectively ending his major league career.
So there you have it, a Cy Young-worthy season, plus a season and a half of roughly average work, and that clocks in at #39. I'll repeat my usual boilerplate about this being a young franchise that has often failed to keep good players around for long periods of time (fare thee well, R.A), and Viola is particularly helped out by a system that maybe rewards great seasons a bit too much. By raw bWAR he’d be tied for 45th most valuable Met in franchise history with John Milner. However, Viola is helped out most by the subjective element. A simple generated list of weighted WAR is uninteresting to me, so I moved guys up or down based on ‘soft factors,’ perhaps if they had iconic performances or were closely tied to great Mets teams or were Armando Benitez. As for Viola? Well, he gets an extra boost from his 6 bWAR 1990 season, but most of his lift is due to the same reason I hesitated to interview him in Lakewood as a South Atlantic League pitching coach. He was my favorite player when I was eight.
There’s probably no rational reason for it, to paraphrase Louis C.K., children pick their favorite baseball players based on no criteria, but I can think of three reasons why perhaps this happened.
In ascending order of likelihood:
1. Despite being cursed with right-handedness, I’ve always had an affinity for southpaws in sports. For example, my favorite pro bowler growing up was Mike Aulby.
2. 1987 was the first year I followed baseball. Granted, I was five, but I remember reading about the Twins/Cardinals series in the sports pages and I think I even watched some of the games at my grandmother’s. I was rooting for the Twins (obviously) and to this day that ’87 squad is one of my favorite non-Mets teams.
3. I played the cello. His last name is viola. Eight-year-olds are kind of lame, man.
By the 1990 season my initial favorite Met, Gary Carter, had moved onto the Giants, breaking my seven-year-old heart, and while I liked HoJo and Darryl and Doc, I didn’t really come to appreciate them until I was older. Again, eight-year-olds are kind of lame. Regardless, I was in the market for a new favorite player, and it just ended up being Frank Viola. I don’t have any regrets. Viola was awesome in 1990. He had a great mustache and an even better Starting Line-up action figure which I absolutely made my mother buy for me at Caldor. Anyway, Viola ranks 39 on this list when maybe he deserves to be more like 42 or something. I'll sleep okay at night.
Oh, there was also this:
I didn't factor the awesomeness of this baseball card into my ranking system, but perhaps I should have.
One last thing about Frankie V, since we just got through another year of arduous Hall of Fame talk. You can make a case that Viola was a better pitcher than Jack Morris. He had more career bWAR (43.7 to 39.3) and his much higher peak puts him five points and sixty spots ahead of Morris by Jay Jaffe's JAWS stat. If you prefer the soft factors, Viola actually won a Cy Young award, and his third place finish in 1990 matched Morris' best performance in Cy Young voting. And like Morris, Viola had a signature Game 7 performance to clinch a World Series. Morris had the advantage of staying healthy long enough to log 1000 innings more than Viola and pick up an extra 80 wins in the process, but at no time in his career did he approach the heights that Viola did in '87 and '88. Now I'm not arguing that Viola was a Hall of Famer, but Morris will spend the full 15 years on the ballot, while Frankie got just 2 votes in his first and only crack at it. I do wonder what would have happened if Viola hadn't gotten hurt in 1994, as his numbers through age 33 compare quite well with future Hall of Fame southpaw Tom Glavine. Of course Glavine would go on to pitch another nine seasons and win 120 more games while Viola got hurt, but having sixty percent of a Hall of Fame career is no shame at all.
Like many of the great pitchers of the 1980s not named Jack Morris, Viola's career has fallen through the cracks some. I'll admit he had even slipped my mind some before it was announced that he was to be the 2011 Brooklyn Cyclones' pitching coach. As we're coming up on a run of good players on bad teams, I always feel like these are the guys that get underrated on lists like this. We can recite the entire 1986 Game 7 starting line-up from memory, but memories of guys like Viola, Dave Magadan, Craig Swan, and Lee Mazzilli tend to recede into the aether. It's a shame, because Viola's 1990 season should be celebrated as more than just a footnote in 2012. For if there's one thing Mets fans quickly become aware of, it's that the bad seasons will likely outnumber the good. So we need to keep a place in our hearts for those that make the down years a little more palatable.
Frank Viola is back at Savannah this year as the pitching coach, so I'm definitely going to have some questions for him in April about Gabriel Ynoa's slider. Eight-year-old me will just have to sit this one out. That's okay, he probably won't believe what thirty-year-old me is doing anyway.