Hey HHS folks! Dr. Doom here. I love Captain America – an odd thing for the REAL (fictional) Dr. Doom to say, perhaps, but true nonetheless. In fact, as I type this, I’m wearing a Captain America t-shirt. And you, Steve Garvey, are no Captain America. But Captain America or not, Mr. Garvey is at the center of this next post.
Well, that’s my opinion anyway. Whether you share it or not, it’s time to dig in on the 1974 NL MVP race!
Now, I realize that this is our fourth trip to the NL in five posts. But AL fans, have no fear – by the time we’re done with this series of 14 posts, fully half of them will have been from the junior circuit.
But, on to 1974. In the wake of the Watergate scandal America had lost its naïve, innocent belief in the inherent goodness of politicians, disco was king, and yadda yadda yadda, etc. etc. No one cares. The Dodgers had the NL’s best record, going 102-60, and never trailed in their division after April 14th. Even though the defending NL West champion Reds nearly caught them (trailing by only 1½ games as late as September 14th), overtaking the Dodgers was never really more than a pipe dream, with LA taking the season series over Cincinnati 12-6. Have you noticed how many non-races we’ve had in this process so far? It seems that many elections of the type I’ve been highlighting are characterized by an MVP choice from a runaway pennant winner, with more statistically deserving candidates further down the ballot.
As I’m sure you’re used to by now, the Dodgers, as the top team in the NL, were VERY well-represented come MVP-voting time. Three of the top five vote-getters were Dodgers. The winner was, of course, Steve Garvey, the charismatic, young, good-looking defensive wizard at 1B. Garvey, it’s worth remembering, was not yet the celebrity player he became. After playing in only 114 games the year before, 1974 was Garvey’s first season as the full-time, ironman player he would become. The Dodgers didn’t know it then, but Garvey’s breakthrough season would become very familiar for the remainder of the decade. Take a look.
While those are nice numbers, and especially nice as an average season, they don’t exactly scream MVP. However, the BBWAA had to find a way to explain the Dodgers leapfrogging the Reds, and this new, young player seemed to make the difference – and that may be all the explanation that was needed.
But, of course, the other Dodgers who showed up in the voting were an interesting pair. Finishing 3rd in the MVP vote was Mike Marshall, that season’s Cy Young winner. Marshall pitched in a remarkable 106 games, still the record total despite relievers today who routinely average an inning or less per game (as was the case for Salomon Torres, with 94 games in 2006, and for Pedro Feliciano, with 92 games in 2010). Marshall’s average, though, was very nearly 2 innings of work per appearance, totaling a starter’s workload of 208.1 IP, with a 15-12 record and 2.42 ERA, while saving 21 games. The other Dodger to acquit himself well in the voting was Jim Wynn. Wynn was a great but under-appreciated-in-his-own-time player, whom many statheads will now argue (possibly with some exaggeration) was a near-HOF-caliber player. Wynn had 104 R, 32 HR and a career-high 108 RBI, while slashing .271/.387/.497 in what was arguably his career year. Wynn’s (unadjusted) .884 OPS was sixth best in the league – not bad for a 32-year-old in Dodger Stadium!
There were two candidates from Cincinnati, and they’re names that’ll sound awfully familiar – Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan. Cincinnati disappointed by falling from NL champs to missing the playoffs. But it’d be hard to blame Bench or Morgan. Let’s begin with the former. Johnny Bench was already established as one of baseball’s best players, owner of two MVP awards and leading the league in HR and RBI in each of those seasons (1970 & 1972). But, of course, in both of those years, the Reds were division (and ultimately NL) champs, compared to a second-place finish in 1974, albeit with a very solid 98-64 record that would claim a division crown in many a year (had the Reds been in the NL East, they would’ve topped the Pirates by 10 games). Bench managed to play a remarkable 160 G by catching 137, playing 3B 36 times, and manning 1B 5 times (I realize that doesn’t add up; he started 129 times at C and 30 at 3B, entering as a reserve or moving around during the game on the other occasions). Bench was the league-leader in RBI (129) and TB (315), and finished 2nd in HR (33), R (108), and 2B (38). His slash line of .280/.363/.507 was good enough to give him the 7th-best OPS in the NL, all while continuing to be the greatest catcher in history.
Morgan, on the other hand, was just beginning to emerge. Already a perennial All-Star, in 1974 Morgan placed himself firmly in the discussion of the best player in the senior circuit. Morgan’s .427 OBP was tops in the league, he scored 107 R (3rd on the Reds, 4th in the NL), and his 22 HR (which sounds like a pretty decent number for a middle infielder to a fella like me raised on Selig-era baseball) was actually 10th best in the NL (that total ranked 37th in the NL in 2016). Morgan also knocked in a respectable 67 – not bad for a top-of-the-order guy (he batted 2nd 97 times, 3rd 43 times, and 8th or 9th the rest of the time, presumably pinch-hitting). He started only 140 games, which hurt his numbers in comparison to the other candidates, all of whom (with the exception of the Pirates’ players I’ll mention below) basically played full seasons. Morgan’s .293/.427/.494 slash was good for the NL’s second-best OPS, his 120 walks also ranked 2nd (just six behind Darrell Evans‘s majors-leading total), and his 3rd place total of 58 stolen bases might’ve made more waves if not for the exploits of one Lou Brock.
The rest of the serious candidates for MVP were all from different teams, so we’ll take them one at a time.
First up is the St. Louis candidate, Lou Brock. For the eighth time in 9 years (and the final time in his career, believe it or not), Lou Brock led the NL in stolen bases. Only, in 1974, Brock didn’t just lead in stolen bases, he lapped the field with a total of 118 thefts (which has since been topped only once) that was twice as many as runner-up Dave Lopes, and which broke both the modern (Maury Wills‘ 104 total in 1962) and post-1887 (Billy Hamilton‘s 111 mark in 1889 & 1891) single season records (the AA’s Hugh Nicol and Arlie Latham both surpassed Brock’s total during the 1887 season; their marks and Hamilton’s were aided by the practice prior to 1898 of also crediting stolen bases for advancing extra bases on a hit). Brock finished the year with 753 career stolen bases, passing Eddie Collins during the season for 3rd place all time to trail only Hamilton (914) and Ty Cobb (now acknowledged as 897, but at the time thought to be 892). Brock also slashed .306/.368/.381, scored 105 and drove in 48, with 25 doubles and 3 round-trippers.
Next is young Mike Schmidt of the Phillies. The previous year, Schmidt’s true rookie season (following a 13-game cup-of-coffee in ’72), he had played in 132 games and struck out 136 times – which is not, as you may know, any good (more especially back then). Though he batted only .196 (then the lowest mark of the live ball era in a 400 PA rookie season, and eclipsed since only once), Schmidt did show some promise with 18 HR. Still, I have to imagine it was Schmidt’s defense that was the cause of any excitement Phillies’ fans may have had entering ’74. But in 1974, Schmidt exploded onto the scene. He led the NL in HR with 36, knocked in 116 (2nd), scored 108 (also 2nd), had 310 TB (again 2nd), and slashed .282/.395/.546, with that SLG leading the NL, and the OBP placing him 4th. Not bad for a 24-year-old defensive wizard at 3rd base! I would venture to guess that Brock’s base stealing exploits, as well as Philly’s sub-.500 finish (80-82, but portending better things to come), may have made Schmidt a less attractive candidate than he might otherwise have been.
Finally, Eastern Division champ Pittsburgh needed a representative somewhere near the top of the MVP vote, and the honor of the best showing fell to Al Oliver, with a 7th place finish in the balloting. Oliver finished second in the league with a .321 average, but added only 33 walks for a relatively pedestrian .358 OBP. Though Oliver homered only 11 times, his 38 doubles helped him to a decent .475 SLG mark that was complemented nicely by 96 R and 85 RBI. Honestly, though, if you were to tell me that you were moved more by Willie Stargell (league-leading .944 OPS) or Richie Zisk (100 RBI, 30 2B, 8th in OPS), I wouldn’t begrudge you that.
So, who’s the winner? One of these guys? Someone else (there are plenty of interesting down-ballot choices, and I hardly mentioned any pitchers)? Only you* can decide!
*Technically, the BBWAA already decided. But we’re making our own choice, here. 🙂
DIRECTIONS: Please list 5-10 players on your MVP ballot (ballots with fewer than 5 candidates will be thrown out). Ballots will be scored as per BBWAA scoring (14-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1). Strategic voting is discouraged, though unenforceable, so please just don’t do it, as the goal here is to (somewhat) mimic the BBWAA process. The post will be live for about a week; please discuss and vote whenever you’d like, but there will be no vote changes, so don’t vote until you’re sure you’re ready!