Remember how I seemed obsessed with the National League in the 1960s? Well, the American League in the 1980s was undoubtedly even more confusing. Today’s target is 1985.
1985 featured a rarity – two good division races in one league. Following a three-game sweep on the road to the Tigers, Toronto led the AL East by 3 with three to play… against the 2nd place Yankees. The Yanks took the first, and a Yankee sweep would win the division. Of course, Toronto won game #161 to wrap things up, but that’s nearly down to the wire. In the West, with seven to play, the Royals trailed the Angels by a game, but were ready to face the division leaders in a four-gamer in Kansas City. The Royals took three out of four to go up two games, entering a weekend homestand against Oakland. Simply taking two games from the A’s would win the division… which they promptly did, wrapping everything up in game #161. But hey – both divisions were in play on the penultimate day of the season, so that’s not so bad.
In this post, I’m going to highlight 8 players, but they actually come from 6 different teams. This is unusual, if you’ve been paying attention to my posts before. Something about the voters and the year made it a little different, and also tended to make it clear that one candidate was abundantly better than the others.
We’ll begin with the MVP selection: Don Mattingly. Mattingly led the AL in TB with 370 (most in MLB since Jim Rice‘s 406 in 1978) and in RBI with 145 (most in the AL since 1949) for a team that came up just short in the division. He also led the league in 2B (for the second straight year) with 48. While Mattingly was not known as a major power hitter, he banged out 35 HR (his career high) and slashed .324/.371/.567, which was the 3rd best average and 2nd best SLG in the AL, adding up to the 2nd best OPS, as well.
The 3rd-best OPS in the AL belonged to Mattingly’s teammate, Rickey Henderson – though he did it really differently. Henderson’s .314/.419/.516 line (4th/4th/7th) was beautifully symmetrical, with each part almost exactly .100 apart. Henderson was 4th in the league in walks with 99 free passes. He legged out 28 2B, smacked 24 HR even managed 72 RBI – not bad power numbers for a leadoff hitter, to put it far too mildly. But with Rickey, those are never the numbers we’re looking for, are they? Henderson stole 80 bases in 90 attempts, leading the league by 24 steals (but finishing only 9th in CS, even though no one was within 20 attempts of him) while scoring a league-destroying 146 R, 30 more than anyone else. To put those R in perspective, it was the highest total since 1949 (Ted Williams with 150) and has been topped since only once (Jeff Bagwell with 152 in 2000).
Leading the majors in SLG and OPS was George Brett, third baseman for the West division and eventual world champion Royals. Brett’s .335/.436/.585 slash also featured the league runner-up marks in BA and OBP to go with a career best 30 home runs and triple figures in R (108) and RBI (112), the latter marks ranking fourth and fifth respectively. It didn’t quite match his 1980 MVP season, but was perhaps the second-best season of a first-ballot Hall of Fame career.
Another third baseman figured among the AL’s best that season; Wade Boggs was Brett’s equal (or maybe his superior) on defense, and was the man who prevented Brett from leading the league in all three slash components. Boggs led the league in batting (.368) and OBP (.450), while slugging .478, giving him the 4th-best OPS in the AL. Not only did Boggs bang out the hits (a majors leading 240, including 42 2B, third in the league), he also walked 96 times (5th in the league) and scored 107 R, his third of seven straight century run totals. Never a power hitter, Boggs smoked only 8 HR but did contribute 78 RBI, the second best total of his career.
While 1985 was Boggs’ first of 12 straight All-Star selections and first of four straight top 10 finishes in the MVP vote, another perennial All-Star and MVP contender turned in his usual stellar campaign. Eddie Murray recorded his 5th straight All-Star selection and fifth straight top 5 MVP finish (like Boggs, Murray would never claim the MVP title) with a very Murray-like 37 2B and 31 HR, good for 111 R (3rd) and 124 RBI (2nd). Murray slashed .297/.383/.523 for the league’s 5th-best OPS, as the O’s hung on for the final above-.500 season in their long run of excellence (after 18 straight winning campaigns, Baltimore would reach the .500 mark only once in the next 5 seasons, and only 6 times over the next quarter century).
With an OPS nearly identical to Murray’s was the man who’s been said to have the greatest outfield arm in history, Jesse Barfield. Barfield led the Jays to their first East division championship, whacking 34 2B and 27 HR to go with 94 R and 84 RBI, good for 7th in the MVP vote, just ahead of teammate George Bell (Barfield’s iron-gloved outfield partner posted similar counting stats but trailed Barfield by 98 points in OPS).
Finishing ahead of Barfield in the MVP voting was Angels closer Donnie Moore (who would die tragically by his own hand just four years later). Moore was only 8-8, but saved 31 while pitching 103 innings in 65 G with a stellar 1.087 WHIP and 1.92 ERA. The crazy thing about the Angels is this: there really wasn’t anyone having a great year for them in 1985. Seriously – go look at the stats if you have to. For a team that was still in it in the final weekend of the season, it’s really hard to explain how they did it when no one on the team was particularly good. Moore was at least stingy in allowing baserunners and runs, so he seemed to get the voting support from the Angels lobby. Oddly, though, while he was the top MVP vote-getter among pitchers, he finished tied (with two others) for 7th in the Cy Young voting. So… people didn’t think he was that good a pitcher, but he was super valuable. I guess.
While another relief pitcher, Dan Quisenberry, was mentioned in the voting (a very Quiz year: league-leading 84 games, 129 IP, 2.37 ERA, 1.225 WHIP), I can say with a high degree of certainty that he was not the best pitcher on his team. That title belonged to the final player I’ll highlight in this post, Bret Saberhagen. Saberhagen was just beginning his great-in-odd-years but bad-in-even-ones pattern. His strikeout to walk ratio was tops in the league (4.16). More importantly, though, the Cy Young winner went 20-6 (2nd in W and W-L%) with a 2.87 ERA (3rd) and a league-leading 1.058 WHIP.
Is our MVP in the group I’ve shown you? Or is someone else the choice? Who is your 1985 AL MVP?
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!