Part 8 of our Hall of Fame series explores the career of David Cone. You can find the first seven parts at the links below.
The Mets acquired Cone in a steal of a trade with the Royals prior to the 1987 season. In that trade, the Royals sent Cone and Chris Jelic to the Mets in exchange for Rick Anderson, Mauro Gozzo, and Ed Hearn. Cone only threw 99.1 innings, both in the rotation and out of the pen, for the Mets in 1987. He then enjoyed a strong five-year run with the team, averaging a 16-9 record, with a 3.00 ERA (85 ERA-), a 2.83 FIP (78 FIP-), 228 strikeouts, 8.94 K/9, 3.17 BB/9, 0.62 HR/9, and 5.1 fWAR in 229.0 innings pitched per year from 1988 to 1992 (including the eight games he played for the Blue Jays in 1992). Cone led the National League league in both strikeouts and K/9 in 1990 and 1991, and in FIP in 1991.
The Mets made one playoff appearance during Cone’s tenure with the team. In 1988, Cone pitched in the NLCS with mixed results, getting knocked out early in a Game 2 loss to the Dodgers, but then finishing a Game 3 win by pitching a scoreless ninth. He then came up huge for the Mets in Game 6, throwing a brilliant complete game in which he gave up just one run on five hits, six strikeouts, and three walks to force a Game 7. You can watch highlights of Cone’s performance in the clip below:
The Mets traded Cone for Jeff Kent in late August of 1992. It was a trade that was nearly as bad for the Mets as their trade for Cone five years earlier was good. Cone would go on to enjoy some of his best years with the Blue Jays, Royals, and Yankees, while Kent got his feet wet in the big leagues with the Mets. Cone returned to the Mets in 2003 for a brief five-game stint before retiring as one of the more underrated starting pitchers in major league history.
The case for
In parts of 17 seasons, Cone went 194-126, with a 3.46 ERA (84 ERA-), a 3.57 FIP (85 FIP-), 2,668 strikeouts, 8.28 K/9, 3.53 BB/9, 0.80 HR/9, and 56.0 fWAR. He had an excellent 11-year peak from 1988 to 1998 in which he averaged a 15-8 record, with a 3.12 ERA (78 ERA-), a 3.26 FIP (80 FIP-), 196 strikeouts, 8.52 K/9, 3.32 BB/9, 0.70 HR/9, and 4.5 fWAR in 206.2 innings pitched per year for the Mets, Blue Jays, Royals, and Yankees.
Cone accumulated several awards and honors throughout his career. For example, the right-hander garnered five top-six finishes in Cy Young Award voting, and won the award with the Royals in 1994. Cone also made five All-Star Teams and had two top-10 finishes in MVP voting. He was routinely among the league leaders in various pitching categories throughout his prime, leading the league in strikeouts twice, K/9 three times, and wins, winning percentage, FIP, and innings pitched one time apiece. He currently ranks 22nd on baseball’s all-time strikeout list.
Within his outstanding body of work, Cone had a number of memorable individual performances throughout his career. On October 6, 1991, he struck out 19 Phillies at Veterans Stadium in the Mets’ last game of the regular season. Only three pitchers—Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood, and Randy Johnson—have struck out more batters in nine innings of work. Here are all 19 of Cone’s strikeouts in that game:
On July 18, 1999, Cone threw the 16th perfect game in major league history against the Expos at Yankee Stadium, with Don Larsen looking on from the stands. You can watch the last out of Cone’s perfect game in the clip below. A few years earlier, Cone made a perhaps equally inspiring no-hit attempt when, on September 2, 1996, he made his return from surgery to remove an aneurysm near his right armpit, which sidelined him for four months. In his return game against the Athletics, Cone threw seven innings of no-hit ball before manager Joe Torre pulled him from the game as a precautionary measure. (The A’s would finally get their first and only hit with one out in the ninth inning off Mariano Rivera.)
In addition to his regular season success, Cone built up an extensive track record in the postseason. The righty won five World Series rings—one with the Blue Jays in 1992, and four with the Yankees in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000. In his 111.1 innings pitched in the playoffs, Cone went 8-3, with a 3.80 ERA, 94 strikeouts, 7.6 K/9, 4.7 BB/9, and 1.0 HR/9. Among his many big postseason moments were five World Series starts, two of which he made with the Jays and three with the Yankees. Remarkably, Cone’s team won all five World Series games that he started.
One example was Game 3 of the 1996 World Series. After the Braves took an early 2-0 series lead, Cone came up big for the Yankees with six strong innings of one-run ball. Cone won that game to get the Yankees back in the series, which of course they eventually won. You can watch highlights of Cone’s Game 3 performance below:
As for Cone’s place among the all-time greats, JAWS ranks him as the 60th-best starting pitcher of all time. Cone places ahead of 18 Hall of Fame starters, including Don Sutton, Whitey Ford, Dizzy Dean, and Catfish Hunter. He also ranks higher than non-Hall-of-Fame greats like Dave Stieb, Tim Hudson, Tommy John, Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt, and Jim Kaat. Of the 59 pitchers ahead of Cone in JAWS, the overwhelming majority of them (44 out of 59) are in the Hall.
The Mets have always been an organization built on starting pitching. Of all the players who have pitched for the Mets, four—Warren Spahn, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, and Tom Glavine—are in the Hall of Fame. By career JAWS, Cone ranks ahead of every other pitcher in Mets history. This includes (in order) Bret Saberhagen, Kevin Appier, Orel Hershiser, Johan Santana, Dwight Gooden, Jerry Koosman, Frank Viola, and Kenny Rogers. Only Saberhagen is within three JAWS points of Cone. None of the others is particularly close to him, or anywhere near the average Hall of Fame starting pitcher.
Cone’s proximity in JAWS to the game’s best starting pitchers is a testament to how good—and how underrated—he really was. While Cone is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate on numbers alone, his Cy Young Award, perfect game, and five World Series rings are the type of intangibles that could get an otherwise borderline candidate over the line.
The case against
Cone’s biggest impediment to reaching Cooperstown is a lack of longevity. The right-hander had his first very productive season in 1988 at the age of 25, and his last in 1999 at the age of 36. He reached the 200-innings plateau only eight times. By comparison, none of Cone’s Hall of Fame contemporaries Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, or Tom Glavine reached the mark fewer than 14 times. As a result, Cone did not accumulate enough innings to reach either of the traditional milestones—namely, 300 wins or 3,000 strikeouts—that many Hall of Fame voters like to see.
Cone’s lack of sustained dominance also took a toll on his JAWS. His 53.0 JAWS ranks well below the average Hall of Fame starting pitcher’s score of 62.1. By JAWS, Cone ranks behind 44 of the 62 starters in the Hall, including Jim Bunning, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, and Jim Palmer, who are below the average Hall of Fame starter, but still ahead of Cone. Cone also ranks behind non-Hall-of-Famers like Luis Tiant, Kevin Brown, Rick Reuschel, and Mike Mussina. While Cone would not be the weakest starting pitcher in the Hall, he would be decidedly in the bottom tier.
Prospects for induction
Cone’s first year of eligibility was 2009, when he got the support of just 3.9% of Hall of Fame voters. He did not reach the 5.0% needed to stay on the ballot for another year. His next opportunity for consideration will be in 2020, and every third year after that, by the Expansion Era Committee.
Cone’s prospects for induction appear dim at this point. That said, like some of the other players we profiled—John Olerud and Robin Ventura, for example—Cone had a tremendous career that in some ways has flown under the radar. Hopefully, future opportunities for Hall of Fame consideration will allow sports writers and fans alike to reexamine and celebrate that excellent career.