You’re going to notice a pattern here: whenever a reliever wins an MVP, I’m going to give it the sideways eyes and have us re-examine, because… I’m just not sure I buy relievers being that valuable.
So that leads us to 1984. I feel like every time I look at one of these years, the BIG story in baseball is something going on in the other league. We looked at the AL in 1981, when the NL was the real mess. We looked at the NL in 1967, when the greatest pennant race in history was in the AL. Finally, with 1984, we rectify that trend.
THE big story in baseball in 1984 wasn’t that fabulous young rookie pitching for the Mets; it wasn’t the Cubs trying to get to the World Series; it wasn’t a young Padre team that came sort of out of nowhere to win their division. No, the story of 1984 was absolutely and unequivocally the Detroit Tigers. I think most fans know about the Tigers white-hot start to the season. Detroit began the year 35-5. But more than that, they never trailed in the division race. They took over first place all alone following their fourth game of the season, and they never looked back. Even though they cooled off a little (let’s face it – no one’s going to win 87.5% of their games all year, essentially what the Warriors were in basketball this year), they were so relentless that their largest lead of the season (15 games) came in the final week of September, and they also matched their largest difference from .500 (+46 games) on the last day of the season. To call them the “prohibitive favorites” would be to put it too mildly. Why those Detroit teams never became a dynastic franchise is a book worth writing. Not by me, but I would read such a book. Regardless, this team had a TON of talent, and it all coalesced perfectly in this one transcendent year.
And when awards time came, it was obvious to anyone who follows awards voting patterns that a team THAT good (104-58) is probably going to be given a truckload of awards at the end of the year. Of course, what was odd about this one was that they went to one man. What was odder was that the man in question was a relief pitcher named Willie Hernandez. Hernandez was fifth on his team in innings (140.1) in spite of making no starts (ten other pitchers made at least one start). He appeared in 80 G, so average an inning and two-thirds per appearance. Hernandez was about 21 innings shy of competing for the ERA title and, had he done so, his 1.92 ERA would easily have led the league. The same can be said for his .941 WHIP. Oh, and he also went 9-3 with 32 saves. Unsurprisingly, as has been the case in a couple of these posts before, Hernandez follows the narrative of the new player to the team who helps push thing “over the top.” The Tigers had been stuck between a .519 and .568 winning percentage (83 to 92 wins in a full season) since 1978, destined to remain stuck in or about 3rd place in the standings. They had finished as low as fifth, but finished second in ’83, so were making positive strides. If the voters chose to believe that Hernandez was a key piece of the puzzle in turning them into a 100+ win team, it would be consistent with what we saw in the last three of these posts, too. Look, I would never say anything to claim Hernandez was bad in ’84 – remember that the point of the years I chose for this exercise is not to look at necessarily “bad” choices – it’s to look at years where there could have been many right answers. Perhaps you feel that Hernandez was the right answer in ’84.
The problem with Hernandez is that he may not have been the most valuable Tiger in 1984. There are cases to be made for at least three others. But before we get to them, let’s digress a little and take a look at Aurelio Lopez, Hernandez’s fellow reliever. Lopez pitched only 3 fewer innings than Hernandez in 9 fewer games. His ERA was, admittedly, worse (2.94 compared to 1.92). Yet he struck out 94, close to Hernandez’s 112, and posted a 1.169 WHIP, a solid mark though not in the class of Hernandez’s 0.941 score (the difference is about two extra baserunners per 9 IP). And, his 10-1 record was similar to but better than Hernandez’s 9-3 mark. I think baseball fans today often parody the writers of the past as being blind to anything beyond the W-L record. Yet, in similar workloads, it’s clear that the voters understood that a slightly better record wasn’t everything in this case.
Okay, since it wasn’t too hard to make the case that Hernandez had the edge over Lopez, let’s move on to the three other Tiger candidates for MVP. Taking them alphabetically, we begin with Kirk Gibson. Gibson had the highest MVP-vote finish in ’84 of any of the non-Hernandez Tigers. He batted .282/.363/.516 for the 10th-best OPS in the AL. He scored 92 and knocked in 91 while banging 27 HR. This was his first full season (he played 149 games; his previous high was 128 the year before, and in the four seasons before that he played more than a half-season only once, with 83 games in the strike-shortened 1981 campaign). Still, Gibson was well on his way to staking his claim which I think it’s fair to say he still holds: greatest player in the All-Star Game era to never make an All-Star team. Chet Lemon didn’t show up in the MVP voting at all, which is a bit surprising. Playing CF well is hard enough; doing so while hitting .287/.357/.495 (for the 12th best OPS in the AL) with 20 HR is even harder. He added 77 R, 76 RBI, and 34 2B to round out his season. The final Tiger I’m going to highlight is Alan Trammell. Trammell was, of course, the third best shortstop in the AL East… but of course, that also made him the 3rd best shortstop in baseball, as that’s what happens when you’re in the same division as Robin Yount and Cal Ripken, Jr. But in ’84, Trammell really had quite a year. Playing in only 139 games (which may have held him back from a higher MVP finish), Trammell batted .314/.382/.468 (5th best average in the AL), with his OPS the 13th best in the AL (note how close together all these Tigers were). Trammell matched Lemon with 34 2B, plus hit 14 round-trippers to go with 69 RBI and 85 R.
The Tigers weren’t the only team with candidates, though. The runner-up in the voting was, shockingly, Kent Hrbek. Hrbek finally put it all together playing for his hometown Twins* in 1984, putting together the AL’s 5th-best OPS with a .311/.383/.522 slash – the batting average ranking 7th in the league, and the SLG ranking 5th. Hrbek added 27 HR and 31 2B, 80 R, and 107 RBI for a team that reached .500 after losing 100 games just two years earlier.
*Bill James once said that the Reds seem to have more “homegrown” players than anyone else. But seriously: Hrbek, Paul Molitor, Dave Winfield, Joe Mauer, Jack Morris, Glen Perkins, Jim Eisenreich, Terry Steinbach – almost every single very good player from that state has had SOME time with the Twins.
Another candidate was the man finishing 3rd in the voting: Dan Quisenberry. Quisenberry ranked in the top-3 in Cy Young voting every year from 1982-1985. Quiz, known as one of the best relievers of his era, led the league in saves in all four of those years. In many ways, of the four, 1984 was his worst year. But at his worst, Quiz was still among the best; his 44 saves (one shy of the single-season MLB record he had set the year before) may not sound out-of the ordinary now (and in fact would not be, even within a few years), but it was considered a pretty remarkable number in 1984. He also reached that number pitching 129.1 innings in 72 G, which are both numbers that don’t make us think “closer” today, but were good numbers for the role they called “fireman” back then. Never a strikeout artist, Quisenberry excelled at keeping runners off the basepaths. In particular, his stingy 12 walks allowed stick out – less than one per nine innings! His strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.42 was better than any qualifying pitcher, even though his strikeout total was rather pedestrian (2.9 per 9).
Two more candidates come from the land of the pinstripe. The first we’ll look at is Donnie Baseball himself, Don Mattingly. Mattingly, whose Yankee career (1982-95) coincided exactly with the longest World-Series-appearance drought in franchise history (I always felt bad for the guy for that reason – he never even got to enjoy the one part of being a Yankee that’s supposed to be a birthright, particularly for a player who stays there more than a decade). In 1983, Mattingly had actually played more outfield (48 G) than first base (42 G). But in 1984, he was handed the starting job at first, and boy how he grabbed that opportunity. He lapped the field in winning the AL batting title with a .343 average (second place was the man we’ll get to in a minute), and his .537 SLG was second in the league. Not only were his 207 H best on the junior circuit, but so too were his 44 two-baggers. He scored 91, drove in 110, and clouted 23. Adding in his OBP (.381), Mattingly came up juuust shy of the OPS title, having the second-best number in the league, just .002 behind Dwight Evans. Mattingly’s teammate Dave Winfield is worth discussing, too. Winfield was fourth in OPS with a .340/.393/.515 line, those slash components ranking 2nd, 4th, and 8th in the league, respectively. Winfield was also the only 100-100 man outside of the cozy confines of Fenway, scoring 106 and driving in 100. He knocked 19 out of the park and added 34 off the wall.
Finally, we get to our last two candidates, who hail from Baltimore. As is always the case in a year in which there’s no uber-candidate in the AL in the 1980s, Eddie Murray must be considered as the MVP. He had a usual Eddie Murray season: 97 R, 107 RBI, 29 dingers. His slash of .306/.410/.509 ranked 8th/1st/10th, and his OPS was tied with Mattingly for 2nd in the league. An extenuating circumstance is this: from 1968-1983, the Orioles finished in 1st or 2nd every year but two (3rd in 1972 and 4th in 1978). They had just won the World Series in 1983. So when they fell back to 5th place in the crowded AL East (going 85-77), it must’ve come as a shock to the voters. Perhaps that’s why Cal Ripken, Jr., the reigning MVP finished worst of any player to receive votes for MVP. Ripken was still the best defensive shortstop in the AL, probably by a large margin. That alone seemingly could’ve made him a candidate. But the fact that his batting line (.304/.374/.510) was nearly identical to his MVP season the year before (.318/.371/.517) should’ve made it a near-certainty that he would get serious consideration in the voting. His OBP was 13th, the other two slash categories were 9th, and he was 8th in OPS. Ripken scored 103 and drove in 86. His 37 2B were 4th, and only 12 players in the AL hit more than his 27 HR, and (duh) he played every game (as did Murray, actually).
1984 was a weird year. I’ve presented a lot of candidates, but it’s worth digging deeper, too. So, is it one of these guys? Some I haven’t mentioned (like Alvin Davis, the outstanding Rookie for the Mariners, or one of the Blue Jays having a good year), are also worth checking out. Could it be one of them? I look forward to this discussion, particularly as we get closer and closer to the baseball that more and more of us actually watched. Happy discussing!
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!