In my lifetime, there have been precisely two good Mets second basemen. One is Jeff Kent who stuck around for three seasons after the Mets traded David Cone for him, but the absolute best of the group was Edgardo Alfonzo. Sentimentally I want to add both Tim Teufel (a childhood favorite) and Wally Backman (if for no other reason than this), but Kent and Alfonzo were atop a very sad list.
That Alfonzo and Kent both played second for the Mets in 1995 and ‘96 is interesting only in the fact that Kent was traded to Cleveland for Carlos Baerga in ’96 and somehow Alfonzo ended up playing third with a washed up Baerga manning second. So, instead of having an infield of Alfonzo, Rey Ordonez, Kent, Tim Bogar (John Olerud came along in ’97), and Todd Hundley (Mike Piazza in ’98), the Mets fumbled around for a few more years until 1999 when the infield turned into the best in baseball.
It’s always surprised me that Alfonzo remains largely forgotten by Mets fans, buried somewhere in the late 90s by Ventura’s heroics or Ordonez’s amazing defense and in the early aughts by a Clemens rage filled bat toss. These are iconic images for all of baseball, not just the Mets, and by and large Alfonzo’s contribution to those teams becomes little more than a statistical curiosity when scanning the Mets leaderboards. Alfonzo ranks just above Piazza in Mets career fWAR (28.5 to 27.9), but who would imagine that? He’s ninth on the Mets all-time list in fWAR, behind the likes of Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, and David Wright. That Alfonzo did it in only eight years as a Met is the amazing part.
Alfonzo was only a part-time player from 1995-96, and as 22-23 year old he played well enough to remain on the team, but his real coming out was in 1997 when he led the Majors in fWAR for third baseman, owing to an across the boards improvement offensively that saw his BB% spike (6.1 to 10.5) along with BABIP (.294 to .335) and his slash line go from .261/.304/.345 to .315/.391/.432. He was 13th for the NL MVP, an injustice when looking back all these years later, but a gigantic step forward professionally. Not coincidently Alfonzo spent the entire season playing third. ’98 saw his fWAR drop to 3.0, still good but not elite, which saw his BABIP revert to earlier years.
Still, in those two years, Alfonzo was 5th in the Major Leagues in total fWAR for third basemen, third or fourth in the NL depending on how you regard Jeff Cirillo and the Brewers move to the NL in 1998. In the offseason, Steve Phillips, the Mets GM at the time, signed Ventura to man third, and Alfonzo moved to second.
Let’s just say Phillips knocked that one out of the park.
It’s not an overstatement to call the ’99 Mets the best I’ve ever seen. I don’t have any hard numbers to back that statement up, and honestly, I refuse to allow reason and statistical analysis to ruin my memories. It’s good enough for you to know that both Ventura and Ordonez won Gold Gloves (Pokey Reese won the GG for 2B, but Alfonzo finished first in fielding percentage at .993), Alfonzo and Piazza won Silver Slugger awards, Olerud had a slash line of .298/.427/.463 and was worth 5.8 fWAR, and Ventura, Piazza, and Alfonzo finished 6-8 in the MVP race. So, yeah. That infield was out of this world good, and if you want to crunch your “numbers” and attempt to destroy what little Mets joy that remains, go right ahead. You can leave me out of it.
You could forgive Mets fans if coming into 1999 they were less than excited about the upcoming season. The Mets had finished ’98 with a record of 88-74, losing the last five games of the season to finish one game back from a three-way tie for a Wild Card berth with the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants. That they lost two of those games to the lowly Montreal Expos and got swept by the bully Atlanta Braves galled all the more. The Mets hadn’t been to the playoffs since ’88 (which, oh by the way, it’s still ridiculous that Darryl Strawberry didn’t win MVP), and if anyone picked any team other than the Braves to win the East then they hadn’t been paying attention.
This isn’t meant to be a history of the ‘99 season, but know that Alfonzo was a huge reason why that team finished 96-66 (6 ½ back in the East, their best record since ’88 and nearest they had come to winning the division since 1990) and beat the Cincinnati Reds in a one-game playoff to advance to the NLDS against the Arizona Diamondbacks. It was in that series when Alfonzo cemented himself as a Mets hero in my book, hitting three home runs and driving in six, but that entire season he played great. He posted his highest fWAR of his career at 5.9 (topped only by his 6.4 in 2000), and he played a solid second base, even considering he was relearning on the job. He hit the most home runs that season (27) and his second highest OPS (.886) and his wRC+ of 127 is 27% better than league average.
In 2000 he was even better, hitting a ridiculous .324/.425/.542 with a wRC+ of 150! He was one of the key players on the only Mets team to make it to the World Series since 1986. In the 1999-2000 postseasons, Alfonzo hit .260/.339/.480 with four home runs, 17 RBIs, and more than a few key hits.
He spent two more years with the Mets, playing so-so in 2001, but switching back to third in 2002 and posting the fourth highest fWAR (5.0) in the Majors. He signed with the Giants prior to 2003, a team that won 100 games, but Alfonzo was pretty much done as an elite player. He was respectable in 2003-04, but he played below replacement in ’05 and was out of the Majors soon after.
So, how do we assess Alfonzo’s career? As stated previously, as a third baseman, between 97-98 only four players out ranked him in fWAR, and as a second baseman, between 1999-2001, only Roberto Alomar and Jeff Kent earned higher than his 18.7 fWAR. Compared to the league averages for third base from 1997-98, Alfonzo earned over 4.3 additional fWAR, and from 1999-2001 he earned a whopping 9 additional wins.
Above, the median will provide a more accurate representation of teams’ wins earned at the time due to the wide range between the haves and have nots.
Even compared to the incredible numbers posted in the late 90s, Alfonzo was well above average for the time and deserves to be remembered. However you look at it, during the years when he started for the Mets, Alfonzo was incredible.