This time, we examine the National League of 1986. I’ll get to the pennant race (which I normally start with) in a moment, but I want to begin by saying something about the MVP voting of 1986. This was the year of the aging player. The vast majority of the players who show up here were stars already in the late-1970s, yet hung around long enough to still be in play in 1986. And, to their good fortune, when some of them had a resurgence, the NL was weak enough that their good-but-not-great performances were enough to stand out.
The second-place teams in each league won 86 in ’86, which I guess would’ve been fine if the division winners hadn’t won 96 and 108 games. There was no race to speak of in either division, with the Astros pulling away in late July and the Mets having the division sewn up by May Day, by which point they already had a 5-game lead after having taken over first place for good on April 22nd. The Mets finished the season with 108 wins – matching the ’75 Reds with a number that hadn’t been seen in the NL since the 1909 Pirates! To this day, only those Pirates and the 1906 Cubs have won more games in the National League than the 1986 Mets.
For those record-setting Mets, the two players who showed up in voting were perhaps not the two people most associated with that team. While most everyone thinks of those Mets’ young studs Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, the two players who finished 3-4 in MVP voting were Gary Carter and 1979 NL MVP Keith Hernandez. Carter was renowned as the best defensive catcher outside of Johnny Bench, probably in major league history (indeed, there are certainly those who consider Carter to be Bench’s superior). Carter had come to the Mets prior to the 1985 season, and received a lot of credit as a veteran leader who helped to pull together an up-and-coming team to produce one of the most dominant single seasons in baseball history. By 1986, Carter’s best days were behind him. Nevertheless, he could still rake for a catcher. While .255/.337/.439 may not seem that good to us, that’s a solidly-above-average hitting performance from a key defensive position. While he scored only 81 R, Carter finished third in the NL with 105 RBI, and his 24 HR from behind the plate were nothing to sneeze at.
Hernandez, long before being exonerated by scientific evidence of a second spitter, was also in his decline phase, and ALSO credited with bringing veteran leadership to a young bunch of talented hooligans. He had arrived midway through 1983 as a player, like Carter, who had been very productive throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s. ALSO like Carter, Hernandez had a reputation as perhaps the greatest defensive player of all-time at his position (indeed people were even MORE convinced of this in Hernandez’s case than in Carter’s). Hernandez did what he did best in 1986: hit lots of doubles (34), drove in some (83), and got on base a lot (a league-leading 94 walks, leading to 94 runs, 5th-best in the league). He hit .310/.413/.446, finishing 5th in average and falling a few thousandths of a point behind Tim Raines for the lead in OBP (Raines was also at .413).
Dave Parker of the Reds was yet another late-70s star (and former MVP, having won the NL’s award as a Pirate in 1978) having somewhat of a resurgence in 1986. After an outstanding 1985 in which he led the NL in several major categories (2B, RBI, and TB), Parker picked up where he left off, though admittedly not as effectively. With a .270/.330/.477 line, Parker managed to finish second in the NL in RBI with 116. He also scored 89 (this was in a year in which only two players scored 100), and also finished second in HR with 31. While he had once been a fleet-of-foot outfielder with a killer arm, Parker was now a prototypical aging slugger: lead-footed, sore-armed, and carrying a powerful, heavy bat.
Representing Parker’s former “fast outfielder” prototype was Montreal’s Tim Raines. Raines had broken into the majors in 1979, but wasn’t really a star until he stole 71 in the strike year, so he, like the others, was already established, playing in his sixth All-Star Game in 1986. Raines won the batting title and had the NL’s best OBP in 1986 (.334/.413/.476), leading to the second-best OPS on the senior circuit. He stole 70 (third in the league – it was a different time!) and was caught only 9 times. His 62 RBI and 9 HR were the expected totals for a leadoff man of Rock’s caliber, with his 35 two-baggers ranking 6th. He scored only 91, but as mentioned above, that was a good enough total in 1986, tying for 8th in the NL.
The final of the older players having a banner 1986 was MVP Mike Schmidt. Schmidt’s Phillies finished a surprise 2nd in the NL East, but so far back you couldn’t see them in one of those “objects may be closer than they appear” mirrors. Nonetheless, Schmidt was his usual stalwart self with his final really big year. He won his 8th (and final) NL home run crown, hammering 37 to go along with a league-leading 119 RBI. He hit .290/.390/.547, with the batting average a surprising 9th in the NL, the OBP 3rd, and the slugging and OPS ranking first in the circuit. Schmidt also scored 97 runs to rank third in the league. As was his custom, Schmidt was clearly no stranger to the upper reaches of the leaderboard.
Tony Gwynn is finally a player of a different type – new and up-and-coming. The first-ballot Hall of Famer broke onto the scene in 1984, leading the Padres to the World Series as he paced the league in hits for the first time, and won his first of eight batting titles. 1986 would see him lead the league in runs (107) and hits (211) while also showing a bit of a power stroke, with 33 2B and 14 HR, to go along with 59 RBI. For those of us who grew up watching late-career Tony Gwynn, it may be a surprise to note the 37 bases he stole in 1986. He was third in the league in hitting, fifth in OBP, and put up a very nice .329/.381/.467 line, placing him seventh in the NL in OPS.
There are two more “new-ish” faces to consider in 1986 MVP voting. First up is Houston first baseman Glenn Davis. The former #5 overall pick never quite lived up to that promise, but his runner-up MVP finish for the NL West champions marked the first of four straight very solid seasons of 25 2B, 25 HR and 85 RBI that were the more impressive for coming in the pitcher-friendly Astrodome. Making his first All-Star team in ’86, Davis scored 91 while driving in 101 (one of only four players to reach triple digits). His 32 doubles and 31 HR (tied for second) bespoke a good power hitter, affirmed by his SLG which was fourth in the NL and part of a solid .265/.344/.493 slash, good for a 9th best OPS. However, it would be his teammate of whom legends were spoken in 1986.
Mike Scott is a problem for me, because I always think of “The Office” when I see his name. But that’s neither here nor there. Instead, it’s worth talking about his performance on the field. Scott had gone 18-8 with a 3.29 ERA in 1985, having shaved over a run off his ERA while increasing his workload by 67 innings from the year before. He added another 54 innings in 1986, pitching a league-leading 275.1 IP, and shaved yet another run off his ERA, with a league-leading 2.22. Get used to the hyphenated construction “league-leading,” because that’s the best way to describe Mike Scott’s 1986. Although he went “only” 18-10 (3rd in W), the Cy Young winner tossed 5 shutouts (1st) and struck out more than four times as many as he walked (4.25, 1st in the NL), resulting in a miserly .923 WHIP that paced the senior circuit by .135, more than a full baserunner per game better than the Giants’ Mike Krukow in second place. Indeed, Scott truly showed that he had arrived with his league-leading 306 strikeouts to become (then) just the 11th pitcher of the century to fan 300, joining Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Rube Waddell, Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Sam McDowell, J.R. Richard, Steve Carlton, Mickey Lolich and Vida Blue.
While (all-but-confirmed) rumors of his scuffing of baseballs abound, Scott’s season was truly one for the ages. But does it measure up to the offensive performance of the other players here? That’s for you to decide. 1986 was one of those weird years where there are a BUNCH of guys (Kevin Bass, Von Hayes, Eric Davis, Steve Sax, Lenny Dykstra) who don’t really seem that different from the candidates I’ve listed above. But you’re welcome to challenge that assertion and look at these or other candidates more closely. Best of luck picking the 1986 NL 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!