Whenever I think of Kevin Mitchell, I think back to an excerpt from Jeff Pearlman’s book The Bad Guys Won: A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo Chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, the Kid, and the Rest of the … Put on a New York Uniform–and Maybe the Best:
[Mitchell] went to his hotel room, grabbed a baseball bat, and returned to the court, anxious to bash in Strawberry’s skull, as well as those of the players—Met prospects Lloyd McClendon, Randy Miligan, and Mike Davis—who broke up the brawl. While Mitchell was gone, Miligan picked Strawberry off the ground, dusted him off, and offered a word of advice. “This Mitchell guy is crazy,” he said. “He comes from the ghetto, and he will kill you.” The players, Strawberry included, dashed off before Mitchell could come back to finish the job.
You did not fuck with Kevin Mitchell.
Sometimes I wonder what those Mets teams in the late 80s would have looked like if Mitchell would have remained with the team after ’86. Of course, Mitchell played a big role in Game 6 of the ’86 World Series (you know, the whole Bill Buckner thing) when he singled off of former minor league bunkmate Calvin Schiraldi with two outs in the 10th, so any rational Mets’ fan sees him as a hero regardless of all else.
Kevin McReynolds was more consistent over his career, producing solid if not spectacular numbers from 1987-91, but he wasn’t Mitchell, and seeing as they were traded for one another they’ll always be compared.
Honestly, though, any discussion of Mitchell has to start with this:
If you told me that Mitchell won the NL MVP award in ’89 simply because of that catch, I would believe it. In ’89, if you told me anything about Mitchell I would have believed it. He was that good, and he coasted to his only MVP, beating teammate Will Clark, in the process. Mitchell that year took home 93% of the first-place votes, though going by fWAR Clark was worth 1.2 more wins, and the discrepancy is even larger (8.6 to 6.9) with bWAR. Still. I don’t care, and this is from someone who was also a big Clark fan.
Mitchell was, by and large, a very good player. Over the course of his career, he accumulated 29.6 fWAR (29 bWAR), but if we conveniently lop off the years after he went to Japan to play for the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, we still end up with the same 29.6 fWAR but his career looks a whole lot more favorable.
Between 1986 (when he played regularly) and 1994, Mitchell averaged a 144 wRC+, with his lowest coming in 1992 during a horrible season in Seattle. You know what left fielders topped him in that regard? Barry Bonds. That’s it. He tied with Rickey Henderson for second. In a nine-year span (one where Mitchell was borderline unplayable and barely above replacement level in ’92) only the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history and arguably the greatest player in baseball history (the greatest I’ve ever seen anyway) topped him in wRC+. Too new school for you? Ok. He’s second to Bonds in total home runs (259 to 220) and third in RBIs and OPS. That’s for left fielders. For all batters, Mitchell is 5th in wRC+, 8th in home runs and OPS, and 21st in RBIs. He’s also 27th in total fWAR during that time, just ahead of Bobby Bonilla, Roberto Alomar, and Mark McGwire.
Really, though, perhaps the best way to appreciate Kevin Mitchell is looking at him in comparison to a few other players of his era. According to Baseball-Reference, the players most similar to Mitchell are Gus Zernial, Wally Post, and Jason Bay. I don’t know too much about Zernial or Post, but seeing as both started their respective careers in 1949, I thought it might be more relevant to include Zernial, Bay (a contemporary player), and the man he was traded for way back in ’87 McReynolds.
Since Mitchell was best known as a slugger, the most obvious place to start is home runs.
Zernial and Mitchell essentially ended up with the same career home runs, and if you look at the break downs by season, the resemblance in career arcs is pretty uncanny. McReynolds’ steady pace held his own, but a few big years in early 30s put Mitchell ahead for good. Here are those home runs broken down by season.
If we look at ISO, a measure of raw power, while all were above average, I think it’s safe to say that Mitchell was the leader here, but Bay’s early production makes this much closer than I thought it would be.
Finally, if we’re looking at pure offensive output, we have to look at wOBA.
Career, Mitchell had a .380 wOBA, which of the four is the best. Going by other offensive measurements, he surpassed all four in ISO, wRC+, and fWAR. In other words, going by his most similar comps, Mitchell was a bad man.
But, I know what you’re thinking. That’s all sabermetrics nonsense. That doesn’t tell me what my tradition-loving heart really wants to know. Ok. Let’s just look at the traditional numbers and see what they tell us.
Since baseball isn’t entirely about offense, unless of course you’re a DH, let’s take a quick look at the defensive numbers. Note that below the first three measurements come from Baseball-Reference and are as follows: Rtot is the number of runs, above or below average, the player was worth; RF/G is Range Factor / G, where putouts + assists is divided by games played; lgRFG is the league Range Factor / G. Defense comes from Fangraphs.
Well, Mitchell and Bay weren’t exactly known for their defensive skills, and it shows. Interestingly enough, when he was coming up, Mitchell was known for his all-around skills and his ability to play multiple positions. Once again, from Pearlman’s book:
In the 5-3 series-closing win, Mitchell hit leadoff for the first time in his life and played shortstop for the first time in his life too. He did both with aplomb: a fourth-inning homer off Tudor and an errorless game in the field. Carter immediately anointed Mitchell “World B. Free” (after an NBA player with the strange appellation) because, he says, “Mitch could play any position on the globe.”
In his early years, Mitchell was a good defender, but as the years passed and his waistline increased, Mitchell’s defense diminished in turn. But, let’s never forget his one-handed catch, one of the most memorable catches in MLB history.
What are we to make of Mitchell’s career, though? He was a two-time All-Star, won an NL MVP, and finished his career with 234 home runs, good for 241st overall. In the strike shortened season of ’94, he finished second in the NL in OPS (1st in ’89), which is saying something considering the offensive barrage put on by Bonds, Matt Williams, Jeff Bagwell, et al. Honestly, any metrics I describe will have ’89 listed, so let me just break down that season really quickly: 1st in total bases, home runs, OPS, OPS+, slugging percentage, RBIs, runs created, extra base hits, and intentional walks; he won the Silver Slugger, was voted Major League Player of the Year, and was tied for 6th in bWAR.
Mitchell never had a year quite like ’89, but then again, as far as legacies go, he was integral to the Mets winning their last World Series title, and along with Clark led the Giants to the ’89 World Series against the Oakland Athletics. For those two seasons alone, Mitchell had a pretty distinguished career.