Unfairly Hated: Armando Benitez

There is something unfair about being a closer. If you do your job well, no one remembers you. When you fail, even slightly, it is all your fault. It is why more often then not, fans do not have fond memories of their closers.

On December 1st, 1998 the Mets made a great trade. The Mets dealt Todd Hundley and in return got Armando Benitez and Roger Cedeno. Hundley had no place with the team. A month earlier, the Mets gave Mike Piazza a seven-year contract and he was left without a position.

Over the course of five seasons with Baltimore, Benitez had earned himself a reputation for being a hard thrower and a hothead. During a May 1998 game in Yankee Stadium, Benitez drilled Tino Martinez in the back with a fastball. Most assumed it was on purpose. It led to a massive brawl. Players were throwing punches and it even spilled into the Orioles dugout. This is virtually unheard of in baseball brawls. After the game, Orioles manager Ray Miller apologized and many of Benitez’s teammates were not happy with what he did. While it was clear that Baltimore didn’t want to hold onto him, it was only after the season that they traded the flamethrower.

The Yankees-Orioles brawl of May 1998

The role of Mets closer at the time belonged to John Franco. Going into the season, he was just shy of 400 saves. Benitez dominated as a setup man early on. When Franco went down with a midseason injury, Benitez took the role and never relinquished it. By the end of the year, Benitez had put up arguably the best numbers the Mets have ever gotten from any reliever.  

So how good was his 1999 season? In the entire history of the Mets, there have been 36 times in which a pitcher got at least 20 saves in a season. Here is how Benitez ranked in 1999 among those pitchers.

Simply put, Benitez was unhittable in 1999. While the righty was at the top of his game in 1999, he was still great in his other years with the Mets. In five seasons in Queens, Benitez had an ERA+ of 159 and a WAR nearing 2.0 per the season. This is fantastic by reliever standards.

When compared to the top 10 saves leaders in Mets history, one can make the case that Benitez was the best closer in franchise history.

Benitez leads all Mets closers in WAR per season, ERA+, strikeouts per 9 innings, hits per 9 innings and saves per season. He was second in ERA. Even if you don’t want to call him the best closer in franchise history, he isn’t far behind.

In addition, from 1999-2003, Benitez was arguably a top 5 closer in baseball. He pitched in more games than any other closer. In fact, during this time period, Benitez was significantly better than hall of famer Trevor Hoffman.

When all is said and done, everyone knows why Benitez was hated. There are only so many times you can blow leads in a must win game before fans turn on you.

The first example of this came in 1999. In game 4 of the NLDS, Benitez came in with two on and outs in the 8th. The Mets had a one run lead. He gave up a double to give Arizona the lead. Luckily, the Mets tied the game in the bottom half and then Pratt hit an epic homer in the 10th for the win. Most fans would have forgotten this moment if he didn’t do it again in the NLCS. In a do or die game 6, Benitez couldn’t hold a lead in extra innings. The Mets eventually lost on the infamous Kenny Rogers walk, and the season ended.

While one can justify that Benitez was being overused in 1999, the blown saves in the 2000 postseason were far worse. Down 1-0 in the NLDS, Benitez was handed a three-run lead in a critical game 2. He promptly gave up a three-run shot to JT Snow and the Mets found themselves tied in the 10th. With clutch hitting and a guts performance by Franco, the Mets pulled off a heart stopping win. When the Mets finally made it to the World Series, Benitez came in to close out game 1. The Mets had a one run lead, but he couldn’t hold it. The Mets never really recovered from that inning as they lost that game and later the series.

The final straw came in late September 2001. The Mets entered a three game series at Shea with the Braves. The Mets were 5.5 games out of first place. After taking the first two, the fortunes of the season seemed to have turned. A win in the finale and the Mets would have been just 2.5 games out with 12 to play. Benitez was handed a 4-1 lead in the top of the ninth. With two outs and one on, things fell apart. Benitez gave up a two-run dinger and then continued to meltdown until the tying run came in to score. The deflated Mets lost two innings later and the team was unable to get back into the race.

Benitez reacting to his meltdown on September 23, 2001

To conclude, we need to face the facts. Benitez was a great closer. Without him, the Mets would likely not have made the postseason in 1999 and 2000. The fact that he was lights out most of time should not be overlooked. However, the failures he had were gut wrenching. It is a sad way to be remembered.

(David Weiss is a lifelong Mets fan. He has lived in Israel since 2008 and runs the Facebook page Jewish Mets Fans.)

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