When the New York Mets picked up Al Leiter prior to the 1998 season, I’m not sure they thought they were getting the gem they ended up with. Leiter was already 32 and coming off a World Series victory with the Florida Marlins but it was hardly the best season of his career.
In the 1997 regular season, Leiter was 11-9 with a 4.34 ERA in 27 starts. He wasn’t very good at all in the postseason. He had series ERAs of 9.00, 4.32, and 5.06 leading up to the World Series.
The Mets were not getting a number one guy for their rotation. Up until this point, his career included a 60-53 record and very average 4.01 ERA. Somehow, they seemed to stumble onto one of those late-blooming veterans.
Al Leiter’s first year with the Mets was marvelous
Leiter pitched the second game of the season for the 1998 Mets and took the loss at Shea Stadium against the Philadelphia Phillies. A very average outing that included 6 innings and 3 earned runs, it wasn’t a fair sign of things to come.
He rebounded nicely in his second start on the road against the Chicago Cubs with his first Mets win. The two runs (1 earned) he would give up to the Cubs that day would be his final of April. Leiter proceeded to toss 7 shutout frames against the Cubs at home, 7 more versus the Cincinnati Reds on the road, and finally 6.1 more against the Houston Astros down in Texas.
The month finished with Leiter owning a 1.15 ERA. It would take until a start on July 29 for him to go above 2.00 again.
As a fan of 1990s baseball more than any other era—hey, it’s when I grew up—I enjoy looking at the stats Leiter put up in year number one with the Mets. He has workhorse numbers with only 28 starts logged. A midseason disabled list stint limited his total innings to 193 which in today’s standards would be tough to get from a guy going 32+ outings.
The Mets may have missed the playoffs in 1998 but they clearly won the Leiter deal. He finished 17-6 with a 2.47 ERA—both career-bests that would hold for the rest of his career. Any control issues he had in the past seemed to have subsided, too. After leading the league in walks back in 1995 and 1996, he lowered his rate to just 3.3 per nine innings.
For his efforts, Leiter was awarded the sixth-place in the Cy Young vote. It was only the second time in his career he would get any consideration. The winner would end up in the hands of future Mets pitcher Tom Glavine whose 2.47 ERA matched Leiter’s. For what it’s worth, Leiter out-WARed him with a 6.7 WAR to Glavine’s 6.1. That’s not to say Leiter would have won the Cy Young if we knew about WAR back then. Competition was strong.
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Leiter would continue pitching for the Mets and provide them with exceptional years. None, however, would compare to his 1998 debut. The lefty from Toms River would go on to help lead the team to the postseason in back-to-back playoff appearances in 1999 and 2000. It was the first time any Mets clubs ever made consecutive trips to the postseason.