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MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

Interesting history of Mets' cleanup hitters

d'Arnaud latest to join likes of Strawberry and Piazza at No. 4 spot in lineup

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MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

NEW YORK -- The year was 1971. Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Roger Maris were long gone, Bobby Murcer was assigned the third spot in the order, Thurman Munson batted second. Ron Blomberg, when he did play, batted fifth, and Reggie Jackson was busy making his star in Oakland, six years removed from the Bronx.

The New York Yankees' cleanup hitter was... (Hint: He choked up).

That's right, the man who batted in the No. 4 hole for the Yankees had his hands way up there, three or four inches from the knob. A left-handed catcher would have appeared less peculiar.

Roy White was the man. Yes, that Roy White, the almost welterweight switch-hitter who could hit a sacrifice fly on command -- he led the league with 17 in 1971. But he was in no way a slugger. He had hit 22 home runs the previous year. In '71, the Yanks' cleanup man hit 19. And he choked up.

Those were the years that Dave Righetti once identified as "the Horace Clark era." The Yankees were compromised, so White batted cleanup. He was well-suited to bat second, and could bat third. But to identify White as a cleanup hitter was akin to referring to "Baywatch" as a drama.

Even six years later when Billy Martin created a Yankees batting order by choosing nine small slips of paper from his Yanks cap, the cleanup man was Graig Nettles, who had led the American League in home runs the previous season.

* * * * *

Mets manager Terry Collins had Travis d'Arnaud bat fourth Wednesday night when his team engaged the Braves. Yes, that Travis d'Arnaud, the one who, before he was so assigned, had slammed 13 home runs in 405 big league at-bats. d'Arnaud has 76 homers on his Minor League resume, so he had been around the block -- and the bases.

The circumstances that prompted Collins to put his second-year catcher in unfamiliar territory certainly qualified as extenuating. David Wright and Daniel Murphy, the team's second- and third-most productive hitters, were absent from the lineup for the second straight night. So why wouldn't Collins have Lucas Duda and d'Arnaud move up one spot each? Duda had batted third 17 times previously, but he is slowly becoming a genuine No. 4 slot slugger. d'Arnaud had batted fifth in 30 games, 27 this season, before Wednesday.

Batting order assignment is a big deal only if it is allowed it to be. It was precisely that for Reggie, of course. All was right with No. 44 when a third, isolated 4 was his place in the offense. Ed Brinkman, the slender, light-hitting shortstop, didn't care all that much when Martin, then the Tigers' manager, tried his lineup-from-a-cap strategy in 1972. Most players claim their batting order address is mostly unimportant. And some actually feel that way.

As Collins said before the game Wednesday, d'Arnaud is "hitting fourth in the first inning tonight. After that, he's one of the nine." As it turned out, he did bat fourth in the first and popped out with a runner on base. d'Arnaud's other plate appearances came in the fourth inning (a 4-3 groundout as the second hitter) and in the seventh and ninth innings (6-3 groundouts, one leading off the inning, the other ending the inning). Either would have reached the outfield untouched if Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons didn't cover ground like a tarpaulin and throw like Elway.

"There were holes when I hit them, and he made them go away," d'Arnaud said.

Not that Collins had expected two long balls and a ground-rule double from his catcher. Indeed, he made the change only because he was forced to.

"I hope he doesn't take it for any more than what the situation calls for," the manager said before the game. "And that is, we know we've got some guys who couldn't play today, so we're going to put somebody else in the lineup. And Travis is swinging good.

Cleaning up
Rank Player Starts
1 Darryl Strawberry 599
2 Mike Piazza 554
3 Dave Kingman 410
4 Rusty Staub 346
5 Bobby Bonilla 336
6 Gary Carter 302
7 Cleon Jones 292
8 Ed Kranepool 271
9 Carlos Delgado 259
10 George Foster 246
11 Cliff Floyd 234
12 Carlos Beltran 233
13 Frank Thomas 221
14 Todd Hundley 206
15 Kevin McReynolds 195
16 David Wright 193
17 Art Shamsky 178
18 Ike Davis 165
19 Lucas Duda 152
20 Willie Montanez 123
Source: Elias Sports Bureau

"I hope he doesn't get carried away. As we sat and wrote the lineup today, we talked about leaving Lucas in the four-hole, and all of a sudden, 'Who are we hitting third?' Travis was brought up then. So either way, he was going to hit, we just moved some guys up because we've got some guys who couldn't play.

"I'm not making too much out of it. But certainly to be honest, it's a pat on the back to him that he's done what he's done offensively, that he's become a huge part of our offensive lineup. Hopefully he does what he's been doing, puts good swings on the ball hitting fourth."

* * * * *

The history of the Mets' cleanup spot is, well ... rather spotty. Ed Kranepool was something of a Roy White counterpart in that he started games as the cleanup hitter 271 times, and he was most productive when he hit pitches to the opposite field. Dave Kingman was the Mets' cleanup man in 410 games and had as much if not more raw power than either of the two players with more cleanup starts (Darryl Strawberry, 599; Mike Piazza, 554). And Kingman loved to bunt. So did Carlos Beltran (12th with 233 cleanup starts). George Foster (246) was a bust as the Mets' cleanup man.

Carlos Delgado (259) is widely considered to have been the most accomplished cleanup man in Mets history. But if Piazza hadn't batted third so often, he probably would have earned that subjective distinction. Todd Hundley (206) might have been the franchise's No. 1 in the cleanup spot had he twice been able to duplicate his stellar 1996 season. And anytime hitting is the topic and Rusty Staub (346 games) is mentioned, he is highly regarded.

There were others, of course, who might be forgotten because the Mets' cleanup hitters were not always noteworthy. How could Johnny Stephenson (one game) go unmentioned? His other distinction as an offensive player with the club was that he made the final out in Jim Bunning's perfect game on Father's Day 1964. And Dan Norman (one game) was acquired in the Seaver trade. And Billy Beane (one); yes, that Billy Beane. And Dave Schneck (nine games) who wanted to return to Vietnam. And Tsuyoshi Shinjo (15 games) because Bobby Valentine was outsmarting his counterpart. And Butch Huskey (77 games) because he could hit baseballs over buildings. Jesse Gonder (33) for reasons not apparent. Shane Spencer (six) because poor Art Howe had no alternatives. And Chico Walker (1) just because.

And Marv Throneberry (nine, yes nine games for the Marvelous One) because Casey had a sense of humor.

Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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