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Ray Knight may have been the 1986 World Series hero, but when he departed after the championship season, Howard Johnson stepped into the third base position and became one of the best hitters in Mets history—not to mention one of the best in the league during his time.
Johnson, who is also known by his nickname, "HoJo," originally came to the Mets in exchange for Walt Terrell prior to the 1985 season. He batted .242 that year with 11 home runs and 46 RBI while platooning with Ray Knight at third base. In 1986, Knight got more playing time because Johnson had struggled at the plate for most of the season.
Johnson finished the 1986 season with a .245 average, 10 home runs and 39 RBI. He also did not play much in the postseason, as Ray Knight became the World Series MVP.
Knight was not re-signed by the Mets, however, and Johnson became the starting third baseman. He broke out in 1987 and batted .265 with 36 home runs and 99 RBI. He also added 32 stolen bases, as he and Darryl Strawberry became the first Mets to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season.
As a result, Johnson received 42 points in the MVP voting. His home run total also broke a 53-year-old record formerly held by Ripper Collins, for most home runs by a switch-hitting National League shortstop.
Johnson did not find the same success in 1988, but still managed to hit 24 home runs, despite driving in only 68 RBI and batting .230. Johnson struggled late in the season, though, and found himself playing shortstop sometimes in order to let the young Gregg Jefferies get some time at third base. He only had one hit in the NLCS that year.
Johnson then continued his trend of hitting very well in odd-numbered years. In 1989, Johnson had one of his two best seasons, made his first All-Star team and even started the game at third base.
His numbers that year were better than his 1987 numbers, as he became the third player in MLB history to have multiple 30 home run and 30 stolen base seasons. He finished the year with a .287 average, 41 doubles, 36 home runs and 101 RBI. He also had a career-high 41 stolen bases, 104 runs scored and a .559 slugging percentage. As a result, Johnson won his first Silver Slugger award.
Johnson then had a decent season in 1990. He batted .244 with 23 home runs and 90 RBI. He also had 37 doubles and 34 stolen bases. He played shortstop more often that year, and only batted .208 from the right side, which did not help his numbers.
In 1991, HoJo would again have a phenomenal season. He led the National League in both home runs and RBI with 38 and 117 respectively. The RBI total set a new Mets record that Bernard Gilkey would tie in 1996 (a record then broken by Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura in 1999). He made his second All-Star team and won his second Silver Slugger award. He also had 34 doubles, 30 stolen bases and a .535 slugging percentage.
Johnson would have gotten more MVP consideration, but the Mets as a team were so bad that year that Johnson was simply a one-man show. The one downside to this season was that Johnson also had 31 errors at third base, which led to him becoming an outfielder.
As the Mets' new center fielder in 1992, Johnson struggled at the plate and struggled with injuries. He finished with just a .223 average, seven home runs and 43 RBI. His season ended in August after he fractured his wrist.
The 1993 season did not go much better for Johnson or the Mets. Johnson finished that year with a .238 average, seven home runs and 26 RBI as the Mets lost over 100 games. After the 1993 season, Johnson's time with the Mets was up.
He played with the Rockies in 1994 and the Cubs in 1995, but struggled both years as a bench player. He did not make a major league roster in 1996, and decided to retire as a Met in spring training of 1997.
Since retiring, Johnson has been a coach, mostly within the Mets organization. He was most notably the Mets' first base coach, and later served as hitting coach in 2007, remaining with the Mets through 2010.
For many years, Howard Johnson was the greatest third baseman the Mets had ever had, at least until David Wright came up in 2004. He was one of the best power hitters in the league during his prime and was a consistent force on both very good and very bad Mets teams.
Johnson is someone who is well deserving of a Mets' Hall of Fame induction, and hopefully this will happen sooner or later.