Before the New York Mets of the 1980s were the “Bad Guys” they were led by the “Bad Dude.” Don’t forget about John Stearns.
When New York Mets fans think about the great catchers in team history, they ponder over a very specific set of names. Mike Piazza, Gary Carter, Jerry Grote, usually in that order.
Some Mets fans will point to specific seasons like Paul Lo Duca’s 2006 or Travis d’Arnaud‘s 2015. But oddly enough, fans don’t seem to remember the years of John Stearns.
The “Bad Dude” was with the Mets from 1975-84. He’s probably most famous in the minds of fans as the guy the Mets acquired in the Tug McGraw trade.
It’s an unfair moniker for the catcher. He was a player ahead of his time. A high on-base percentage catcher who didn’t hit for the best average or best power. Simply speaking, he would fit perfectly in the modern game.
Spending time in Queens during two separate decades, the four-time All-Star was underappreciated by the fans for his outstanding play.
Stearns grew up in the Philadelphia Phillies farm system, having made his major league debut with them in 1974. The Phillies didn’t possess much room for their top catching prospects though, as they already employed a stud young player behind the plate in Bob Boone.
So they did the smart thing and traded Stearns. The Mets, fresh off a disappointing 1974 season, were looking to move on from their stud reliever McGraw. A deal was struck and neither team looked back.
The 23-year-old Stearns became the backup to Grote. He played in 59 games in 1975 to awful results. Stearns ultimately hit a paltry .189/.268/.284. This horrid display cost him his backup job in 1976.
If it wasn’t for a strong season in the minors and an awful year from Ron Hodges, Stearns may have never received another chance. Late in 1976, the Mets handed the reigns to Stearns.
In 32 games, he hit an astounding .262/.364/.379. That was just a precursor of things to come from the young catcher. The Mets were so impressed that they benched Grote and handed Stearns the starting job in 1977.
Stearns became the catcher the Mets were hoping for in 1977. He earned his first All-Star bid after surprising the league with a .289/.385/.484 slash line in the first half of the year.
Stearns looked like he was one of the best players in all of baseball at that point. Sadly, his numbers were dragged down by an abysmal second half. Stearns would hit .251/.370/.397 in his first season as a starter. Nonetheless, he proved to be a strong defensive catcher behind the plate.
As strong as his 1977 campaign was, his 1978 season was his magnum opus. Stearns missed out on a second All-Star selection that year despite a strong first half, hitting .265/.369/.396. Unlike 1977, Stearns was able to maintain his strong season. He finished the year hitting .264/.364/.413.
His 5.6 fWAR in 1978 was third among catchers in MLB behind only Carlton Fisk and Ted Simmons. It was the second-best fWAR season by any Mets hitter to that point. Only Cleon Jones’ 1969 was better. It also became the fourth-best fWAR season by a Mets catcher in franchise history. Only Gary Carter’s 1985 and Mike Piazza’s 1998 and 2000 seasons were better.
At just 26-years-old, Stearns looked headed for superstardom. That all came crashing down in 1979 though. Stearns started strong yet again, earning his second All-Star appearance, but another awful second half led to his first below-average season. Stearns hit just .243/.312/.355.
Stearns looked ready to bounce back in 1980, hitting .291/.354/.377 in the first half and earning his third All-Star appearance. He looked like the superstar version of himself again, and then the injuries commenced.
Stearns suffered his first serious injury in 1980 when a broken finger ended his season. The setback kept him out into the beginning of the 1981 campaign.
When he returned in 1981, he was good but not his elite self. As Stearns was finding his groove again, but an MLBPA strike shortened the season.
Stearns returned in 1982 fully healthy and was once again back to dominating the league. He hit .300/.356/.425 in the first half of the season, earning his fourth and final All-Star appearance. Elbow tendinitis would end his season shortly after the second half began though. Despite that, Stearns’ 3.3 fWAR led the Mets that year.
Stearns never fully recovered from the tendinitis. He only played in 12 games in the 1983 and 1984 seasons combined. He retired the offseason after the latter year and the Mets traded for Carter, tragically ending the playing days of the elite catcher whose career was never truly able to get off the ground.
The Mets’ greatest forgotten catcher
Injuries shortened what could’ve been a fantastic career for Stearns. With that said, Stearns is the second-best catcher in Mets history. Only Piazza put together a stronger multi-season run than he did.
Even Carter failed to live up to those expectations. He had a terrific 1985 but failed to play the same way after that. Carter gets the boost from serving as the locker room’s leader for the 1986 World Series team, but Stearns was the better catcher overall.
There’s even an argument that if Stearns had not become injured, he could’ve challenged Piazza for the top spot. In Stearns’ two injured All-Star campaigns, he was on pace to add 2.9 and 4.6 fWAR seasons to his ledger, respectively.
If he never gets hurt, Stearns is likely the catcher on the 1986 team and becomes an iconic figure in the history of the franchise. Instead, he’s just another footnote.
So here’s to the “Bad Dude,” the greatest forgotten catcher in the history of the Mets.