Howard Johnson is one of the great third basemen in New York Mets history. It’s something I think all fans can agree on. He hit for tremendous power and mixed in a ton of stolen bases. Johnson was a vital part of the Mets in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
One aspect of the great HoJo’s game that was never a strength was his defense. Whether at third base, shortstop, or in the outfield, Johnson was never a Gold Glove candidate.
In 1992, a season signaling the end of any competitive baseball in Queens, Johnson made the switch from starting third baseman to becoming the club’s center fielder. The results were not good.
Howard Johnson’s great years for the Mets were now in the past
Members of the 1986 Mets all seemed to get old together. Even those no longer with the club had already retired or fallen off by 1992.
This Mets team looked vastly different than even the last to appear in the playoffs in 1988. It was a lineup featuring Eddie Murray, Bobby Bonilla, and Vince Coleman. Only a few leftovers remained from the glory days, Johnson being one of the most notable.
The transition wasn’t entirely new for Johnson. He had played a little outfield previous to 1992. However, he had not played in the much tougher center field since he was with the Detroit Tigers.
Coleman and Darryl Boston had shared center field duties the year prior. Neither were particularly good which pushed the Mets to try something new. An injured shoulder and some poor defensive results from him at third base factored into the decision. I can only imagine if social media was around back then how many people would question putting an injured shoulder in center field. It’s not exactly an easy throw.
Among the poor metrics Johnson posted, he had a -2.7 WAR on defense which combines all three outfield positions. In center field, he had a -25 Rtot. I’m not sure how to put this in a comparable context. Simply put, it was bad.
The 1992 season was a poor one for the great HoJo. A year after leading the National League with 38 home runs and 117 RBI, his bat faded. He hit only 7 home runs and drove in 43 runs while batting .223. He wasn’t much better in 1993, his final season with New York. In that final year with the Mets, Johnson moved back to third base.
Fortunately, Johnson’s time in center field isn’t the first, second, third, or even one-hundredth thing fans think about when they see his name. It took my barely-old-enough-to-remember-1992 self a random look at Johnson’s career for some new Mets knowledge to even know this ever happened.
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The Mets made a lot of poor decisions in the early 1990s with their roster. Among them, moving one of their greatest off the hot corner and into the outfield is one of them.