If your jam was 1970s baseball… well, I’m sorry that we were only there one year. It’s not that the ’70s didn’t have their share of interesting MVP races. They certainly did! What they didn’t necessarily have was the years I was looking for: the ones with multiple good candidates, any of whom could be called the MVP.
Thankfully, if you’re a fan of ’70s baseball, you’re probably also a fan of ’80s baseball. And if you are, boy oh boy are you in for a good few posts. This is the first of SEVEN posts in which we’ll be examining 1980s baseball.
I’ve never been shy about being a fan of the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers have won four MVP awards – probably more than you’d think of for a rather moribund franchise, seeing as they’ve won only one pennant and no World Series. But of the four MVP awards, only one (Robin Yount in 1982, having the best shortstop season since Honus Wagner) is looked on historically as being without controversy. The other three are all open for debate. We’ll only cover this one in this series, though the other two are interesting, too, in my opinion.
1981 was the year of the first players’ strike (other than the mini-strike in 1972), and the one that split the season into two “halves.” This was, quite possibly, the dumbest idea in history. In order to make the second “half” count, it was decided that the teams with the best record in the first half would already be credited with winning the division. Then, every team had a shot at the postseason, if only they were to win their division in the second half. Oakland, the AL West winner in the first half, had the best record in the AL (64-45). Milwaukee, the AL East winner in the second half, had the second best record (62-47). So their presence in the postseason made perfect sense. However, the Royals made the postseason by finishing 4th in the AL West (by virtue of the second half AL West crown), and the Yankees also finished 4th in the East, but had already “won” the division in the first half. This mess, however, doesn’t even begin to cover the mess that was the NL. While that’s not our focus here, it’s just worth describing for poops and giggles. The Phillies won the East in the first half, while the Expos won it in the second. In the West, the Dodgers won the first half and the Astros the second. While there were no fourth-place teams making the playoffs in the NL, the Cardinals actually had the best record in the East and didn’t make the playoffs! “Surely,” you’re thinking, “that must be the worst of it.” But it’s not. Because the West’s best record, the NL’s best record, and in fact the best record in baseball belonged to Cincinnati, who also didn’t make the playoffs, because they played one game less than the Dodgers in the first half! That’s right – the eventual “World Champion” Dodgers went 36-21 in the first half, while the Reds had gone 35-21. The Reds therefore “finished” half a game out, but with a better record! This season was a mess, and should be stricken from everyone’s memory. Alas, the bizarre nature of 1981 was not limited to who made the playoffs. The individual awards were weird, too, particularly in the AL, where a 78 inning pitcher took home both major awards.
Rollie Fingers had a nice narrative going for him, and it should sound familiar from the last couple of posts. Milwaukee had been a team on the edge. They had won 93 games in 1978, but the Yankees won 100 and the Red Sox 99 (that extra win for New York courtesy of Bucky Dent in a one game division playoff), so the Brewers were left out. Milwaukee was even better in 1979, winning 95 – but the Orioles won 102. Then in 1980, they seemed to take a step back, but still won 86 games, enough to win a weak division. But the AL East was not a weak division as the Yankees won 103, and the Orioles won 100, so third place would again be the Brewers’ roost. Before the 1981 season, the Cardinals made one of the worst trades in the history of baseball (although I’ve never seen it on any of those lists of historically bad trades, I assure you, it belongs). St. Louis owned Fingers for only four days, acquiring him from the Padres on December 8th, but flipping him on the 12th with Ted Simmons and future (and infamously bad) Cy Young winner Pete Vuckovich for… basically Sixto Lezcano, who would go on to play one poor half-season as a Cardinal.
Fingers, already a five-time All-Star before joining the Brewers, had been a key piece of the A’s 1970s dynasty. Now, he was attached to a young team that was on the brink… and had suddenly burst through with the AL’s second-best record, and the franchise’s first playoff appearance in its 13th year of operation (12th in Milwaukee). Fingers, to his credit, was remarkably stingy in 1981. He went 6-3, saving 28 in 47 appearances (34 save opportunities) and 78 innings. He also had an ERA of only 1.04 (9 runs allowed all season!) and a shocking 0.872 WHIP. Had he qualified for the ERA title (he wasn’t particularly close to the 109 qualifying innings that would’ve been needed for a Brewer in this strike year), it would’ve been the lowest ERA since Dutch Leonard in 1914. This was the “batters against” line for Fingers in 1981: .198/.235/.277. Yikes.
Of course, still – 78 innings. And was he even the best player on his own team? Robin Yount was perhaps the best SS in baseball, and had a .273/.312/.419 slash, with 50 R, 49 RBI, and 10 HR (74, 73, and 15, prorated* to a full season; I’ll add the prorated numbers right after the actuals from now on, so you can tell what’s going on). Cecil Cooper had the 3rd-best batting average in the AL, hitting .320/.363/.495, his OPS placing 6th in the AL. He added 70 RBI (104), 60 R (89), 12 HR (18) and a league-leading 35 2B (52).
*”Prorated” in this case means that I took 162/(# of team games) * (stat). I realize that this is not the best way to figure out “pace,” but we’re not looking for “pace” here – we’re just trying to figure out how to translate these numbers so they don’t look so weird.
One of the intricacies of the strike-shortened season is that “league-leader” is a really bizarre category. And there was a four-way tie for the HR crown with 22, with each player having a career year. Alphabetically, the first was Tony Armas. Armas slashed .261/.294/.480 for the A’s, the team with the AL’s best record. To go with his 22 HR (33), Armas recorded 76 RBI (113; 2nd in the AL) and 51 R (76). Next of the 22-HR crowd was Dwight Evans who added 71 RBI (107), 3rd in the league, and 84 R (126), second in the AL. His 85 BB put him on pace for 128 free passes, a number seen only twice in the AL in over 20 years. Evans’s slash line of .296/.415/.522 placed him 16th, 2nd, and 3rd, respectively, in each of those categories, with his .937 OPS the top mark in the AL. Third of the four with 22 HR (32) was Bobby Grich, who slashed .304/.378/.543, the last of which led the league. His 56 R (82) and 61 RBI (90) were both outside the top 10, but his .921 OPS was second in the league – and that doesn’t depend on your teammates. The final HR champ for the AL in 1981 was Steady Eddie Murray. Murray also led the league with 78 RBI (120), scored 57 R (88), and slashed .294/.360/.534, the last of which was second in the AL (and his .895 OPS was third).
One other player to highlight would be MVP runner-up Rickey Henderson. Henderson posted a slash line of .319/.408/.437, good for the ninth best OPS in the AL, but also finishing fourth in average and third in OBP. Henderson had only 35 RBI (52), which doesn’t compare to the others, but isn’t too shabby for a leadoff hitter. He also walked 64 times (95), which was fourth in the league. But he led the league in two very important categories. First was R, where Henderson scored 89 (132), a prorated total that only one American Leaguer since 1950 (Willie Wilson with 133 the season before) had surpassed. The Man of Steal’s other league-leading total was, unsurprisingly, SB, with 56 (83).
I feel like I should add one starting pitcher, but the pitching wasn’t honestly that spectacular in ’81. I’ll go with Henderson’s teammate, Steve McCatty. McCatty had his best season BY FAR in 1981, going from workman-like starter to AL ace. It only lasted one year (one-ninth of his career), as he came back to earth in ’82. But in the strike season, McCatty was league leader with 14 W (21), 4 SHO (6) and a 2.33 ERA, while logging an impressive 185.2 IP (275), fourth in the junior circuit.
So, is it one of these guys? With the strike-shortened season, it’s really hard to say if these are even the right candidates, so this one may require a bit more research than usual. On the other hand, I think we’re getting to the years that more and more of our voters remember, so maybe it won’t take as much work as I think (we’re still before I was born here, so I rely on the rest of you for insight). Best of luck!
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!