The National League in 1997 was an interesting bird. The second-best team was the Florida Marlins, who won the wild card. The best team was the Braves – just as they had been in 1996, and 1995, (1994 was the strike year,) and 1993, and 1992, and 1991. And they would be again in 1998, and in 1999. The ’90s were their party, alright. Too bad it didn’t work out for them in the World Series department. Anyway, one of the oddest things about the 1997 NL is just how balanced it was; only 3 of the 14 teams were more than 5 games under .500. And of course, this was the middle of Selig-ball.
Incidentally, 1997 was probably the first season that I followed really heavily from start to finish. I had been following the AL from before the strike, at least a little. But, in the Brewers final year in the AL, I thought it was about time to start checking out the competition. And, of course, with 1997 being the advent of inter-league play, it was the perfect time to start learning. It was also convenient, for the purposes of this post, that I remember bits and pieces of this year. But, because we’re in the heart of Selig-ball, just remember that the numbers are going to be a LOT bigger all of a sudden, both for position players and pitchers. May your eyes adjust well!
The winner of the 1997 MVP was Larry Walker. Thank goodness – we haven’t had a Larry Walker discussion around here for a few YEARS now, believe it or not, but it’s time for another. Walker, had already been an established star in Montreal, with a .981 OPS and league-leading 44 doubles in the strike-shortened 1994 season. But, then he arrived in Colorado where Walker’s only impediment in the cool mountain air was his ability to stay healthy. His health dogged him throughout his career, but in 1997 Walker remained healthy throughout the season to rank third in doubles (46) and RBI (130), and second in R (143), H (208) and batting average (the last with a .366 mark that would’ve led the NL in most years; only ten season marks since 1938 are higher, among them Walker’s .379 two years later, and four times, including 1997, by Tony Gwynn). Fortunately for Walker, he ranked EVEN HIGHER in a few more big categories, leading the league in HR (49), OBP (.452), SLG (.720), and, obviously, OPS. Oh, and just for fun, he added 33 SB (tied for 7th). He garnered 22 of the 28 1st-place votes from the writers, so he had them convinced. (For the record, Walker’s road OPS of 1.176 was marginally HIGHER than the Coors-aided 1.169 he had at home in 1997.)
The NL’s RBI leader was Andres Galarraga, Walker’s teammate from their Montreal days and now again in Denver. The “Big Cat” drove in 140 to go along with 41 HR (3rd in the NL) and 120 R (4th). His SLG was also 4th as part of a .318/.389/.585 slash that gave him the 6th-best OPS in the NL. Frankly, though, it’s hard to see what would recommend him over Walker per se, but your mileage may vary.
Houston also had two interesting candidates. Both played all 162 games for the Central Division champs. Jeff Bagwell‘s line of .286/.425/.592 placed him fourth in both OBP and SLG, and 5th in OPS. Bagwell scored 109 (5th) and drove in 135 (2nd) while hitting 40 HR (tied for 4th). He also added 40 doubles, just for good measure. His teammate Craig Biggio had one of the most fascinating seasons of all time in 1997*. To start with, he scored 146 runs, then the most in either league since 1950 (tied with Rickey Henderson in 1985) and eclipsed since only by Bagwell’s 152 tallies in 2000. Biggio’s line was .309/.415/.501, good for the 9th best OPS in the NL, while playing stellar second base, stealing 47 bases (4th in the NL) and grounding into nary a double play (the last accomplished in a full length qualifying season just three other times since 1946, by Chase Utley last year, by Dick McAuliffe in 1968, and, inexplicably, by Rob Deer in 1990; Biggio, though, did it in a qualifying season-and-a-half, with a league-leading 744 PAs). For a capper, Biggio was also hit by 34 pitches, again leading the league.
*The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract article comparing Biggio’s 1997 to Ken Griffey Jr.’s 1997 is the single piece of writing that got me into sabermetrics as I perused the baseball books at the local Borders… which lets you know that this was not a recent event. 🙂
Colorado and Houston, though, weren’t the only teams with MVP candidates. Mike Piazza, the MVP runner-up, posted a similar slash to Walker’s (.362/.431/.638), but he did it while playing catcher… at Dodger Stadium. Of course, whereas Walker was considered a defensive stalwart, Piazza was often considered a liability. Nonetheless, 104 R, 124 RBI, and 40 HR (7th, 4th, and 4th) are hardly shabby.
Much like his godfather before him, Barry Bonds was a perpetual MVP candidate. His 1997 is just a textbook example of balance (as well as being a textbook example of awesome). With 123 R (3rd), 145 BB (1st), 101 RBI (15th), 40 HR (4th), 37 SB (6th), a .291/.446/.585 line (2nd in OBP, 4th in SLG), and 1.031 OPS (3rd), Bonds showed the range of his truly exceptional skills. Without the same home field advantage as Walker enjoyed, Bonds put up remarkably similar numbers.
Our final position player candidate is batting champ Tony Gwynn, just to make sure we get yet another team from the NL West in here. You’ll remember his name having shown up in the last post, which was about his season from 11 years before! Gwynn hit .372/.409/.547 in 1997, which were the 2nd/4th/2nd best slash numbers of his career and ranked 1st, 8th, and 8th in the NL, giving him the league’s 7th-best OPS. That .547 SLG was achieved despite only 17 home runs, as Gwynn stroked a 2nd-ranked 49 doubles, quite the accomplishment for a 37 year-old who was considerably heavier and slower than the player who averaged 40 steals a year a decade before (from 1986 to 1989). Gwynn’s 119 RBI was not only his career best (by nearly 30!), it was also tied for 6th in the NL, and the 97 he scored were a nice addition, and good enough for 10th in the league.
I never let our discussion here be completely devoid of pitchers, and it seems somehow morally wrong to leave the top-finishing pitcher off the list, especially one playing for the best team in the league. Greg Maddux ranked second in the NL with a 2.20 ERA and led the league in W-L% with a 19-4 record (those wins ranking second to teammate Denny Neagle‘s 20). Though not known as a strikeout pitcher, Maddux struck out 177 (9th) in his 232.2 innings (8th). His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 8.85, leading the league by over 3, and his WHIP of 0.946 was second.
The man who had the best WHIP and best ERA in the NL was Montreal’s Pedro Martinez. His 0.932 WHIP and 1.90 ERA led both leagues, as did his 13 complete games, all three marks ranking among the top four results of the 1990s decade. His 241.1 IP was 4th in the league and his 305 strikeouts ranked second (as you’ll remember from the 1986 NL post, 300+ strikeouts is kind of a big deal). Pedro’s 17-8 record doesn’t look so stellar, but when you consider that the Expos went 78-84, it suddenly doesn’t look so bad, especially considering that that .680 W-L% was 7th best in the NL in 1997. This is also one of those weird years in which the highest-finishing pitcher in the MVP vote (Maddux) wasn’t the Cy Young winner, as Martinez took the crown as the NL’s best moundsman, despite finishing 3rd among pitchers in the MVP vote.
Finishing between those two in the MVP vote was Curt Schilling, pitching for a truly wretched (68-94, worst in the NL) Phillies team. Schilling was second in strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.50) and posted a 2.97 ERA (9th). Considering his team, his 17-11 record was remarkably good, and he was a real workhorse, finishing third in the NL with 254.1 innings, less than 2 IP back of leader John Smoltz. Schilling’s 319 strikeouts not only led the league, but was then the 10th highest total of the century.
And, let’s be honest, I wouldn’t be Dr. Doom if I didn’t bring up Kevin Brown in one of his signature seasons. Brown was not mentioned at all in the awards voting, either for the Cy Young or the MVP, something of mystery considering his 6th ranked 237.1 IP (237.1), and fifth best 2.69 ERA. That ERA didn’t draw more attention, probably because it marked a decline of 0.80 runs from his astonishing mark the year before. Still, Brown was the best player on the second-best team in the NL, finishing tied for 5th in strikeouts with 205, and yielding home runs less frequently than anyone not named Greg Maddux.
So, what do you think? A position player on a middling team, a pitcher on a bad team or a pitcher on a good one? Someone I missed? The world of 1997 is a different one than today’s game, but no less intricate in determining the best player. Good 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!