The first great defensive season in New York Mets history came from Bud Harrelson’s glove in 1971.
Four times in New York Mets history a position player finished the year with a defensive WAR above 3. Rey Ordonez bested everyone with a defensive WAR of 4 back in 1999. Twice, Juan Lagares topped the number 3.
To find the fourth, we have to travel back to 1971. In that season, shortstop Bud Harrelson had one of the truly great defensive seasons in Mets history. It still holds up today.
With a WAR of 3.1, Harrelson’s 1971 defensive performance is tied for third place with Lagares’ 2014 number. The only WAR anyone cared about in 1971 was over in Vietnam. Fortunately, Harrelson had enough people watching him to know his glove-work was worth a Gold Glove.
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It was in this 1971 season when Harrelson earned his first and only Gold Glove. Always a plus defender in each full season he spent with the Mets, he was finally awarded this honor when he outdid every other year of his career.
By 1971, Harrelson had grown a lot from the 32 errors he made in 1967—the first full season playing the position. Even though other metrics of his were positive, it’s hard to ignore the abundance of errors he was making.
In this memorable defensive season, Harrelson cut his errors down to 16. It’s not an incredibly low number by today’s standards. Fifty years ago, it was not uncommon for even the best shortstops to make this many.
The league’s fielding percentage at shortstop in 1971 was .968. Harrelson beat it by ten points, ending the year at .978. It wouldn’t end up as the best of his career, but a few other defensive numbers of note did show up as career-highs. Notably, his 17 total zone total runs above average.
Baseball was a much different game back then. Harrelson finished the year hitting .252 with only 22 extra-base hits. He didn’t even smack a single home run. Yet somehow he still received some very minor MVP consideration with the 22nd spot on the final tally.
This, of course, may have come as the result of a New York writer showing some respect to one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. Harrelson also received very mild MVP consideration two other times in his career.
Never a standout performer at the plate, Harrelson was a big leaguer for one reason only: his glove.
In this particular season, he helped to further earn him a spot on the National League All-Star team. It also didn’t hurt that he was quite a popular player with Mets fans.
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Almost fifty full years have passed since Harrelson’s awesome defensive year. All of the advancements in training and equipment haven’t done enough for too many men to pass him either. This year will always remain the first great defensive season by a Mets player.