Remember baseball in 1998? I sure do. There’s all that stuff about America falling in love with baseball again. I’m not sure how true it is, but if it’s a lie, it’s an awfully fun one in which a couple of sluggers are tasked with reinvigorating Americans’ love of their national pastime following the bad taste left by the player strike four years earlier. Playing the roles of dual protagonists, of course, were Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, making their run at Roger Maris‘s single-season home run record. But that’s an NL story. We’re here to talk about the American League. And in the American League in 1998, the big story was all about one team: the New York Yankees.
Of course, there was expansion in 1998. Each league added a team. And we’ve seen the Yankees take advantage of that situation before – I’m looking at you, 1961 – to have a great record. The 1998 Yankees were no different, CRUSHING opponents. The average score of a Yankee game, and I’m not making this up, was 6-4. They led the league in Runs Scored and (fewest) Runs Allowed. They even made a run at the single-season wins record, which had stood almost unchallenged since the Cubs set it in 1906. The Yankees wound up 114-48, a record so ludicrously good that it just “looks wrong” when you see it written out.
The Yankee heroes in 1998 were two men, including perhaps my personal, all-time favorite Yankee. Bernie Williams always seemed like a cool guy – played great CF, good hitter, plays the guitar. And in 1998, Williams had perhaps his signature season. He won his first (and only) batting title, hitting .339, while finishing out his slash line with a .422 OBP (2nd) and .575 SLG (10th), good for the second-best OPS in the AL. Williams hit 26 HR, drove in 97 and scored 101. In a normal year, if a centerfielder hits like that for a team that wins over 100 games, he gets to spend the rest of his career with the letters “MVP” attached to his name. But 1998 was the heart of Seligball, and so Williams finished 7th in the voting, and second on his own team.
The Yankee who won the affection of the voters even more so than Williams was their young shortstop, Derek Jeter. Jeter was now in his third full year in The Show, and two years removed from his Rookie of the Year win for the 1996 World Champs. Jeter batted .324/.384/.481, giving him the 5th-best average in the AL, and paced the junior circuit with 127 runs scored. He even managed 84 RBI, despite hitting in the second spot in the order almost exclusively (145 of his 149 games; he also had three leading off, and one from the last spot, the latter a 9th inning PH appearance in an early September loss to the White Sox). Jeter compiled 301 TB, which is pretty remarkable for a shortstop, and did so largely on the strength of being 3rd in the league with 203 hits, while mashing 19 HR. Oh yeah – and he stole 30 bases because, you know, why not? Like Williams, Jeter’s totals, in most if not ALL of the other years we’ve covered, when posted by a shortstop on a 100+ win team, would’ve won the MVP. But, unfortunately for Jeter, being a young shortstop with a big bat was hardly unique in 1998.
The Mariners’ Alex Rodriguez (who was robbed in the 1996 AL MVP vote, an election I chose not to highlight because I don’t think it was interesting enough, since Rodriguez so CLEARLY deserved to win) shared a similar profile to Jeter (with whom he would later share the left side of the Yankee infield). Rodriguez had regressed somewhat in 1997 after his monster rookie season (in which he finished behind Jeter in the RoY voting, but crushed him in MVP votes). In 1998, though, he was a beast with a .310/.360/.560 slash that was good for 123 runs scored, just shy of Jeter’s leading total. But while Jeter had decent pop for a SS, Rodriguez could flat-out mash: 42 HR (7th) and 124 RBI (5th) were numbers that boggled the minds of people in 1998, as those were simply NOT shortstop numbers. As good as Jeter’s 301 TB was, it paled in comparison to Rodriguez’s 384 total that ranked 3rd in the league. Add in 46 SB (4th) and you have an unstoppable shortstop on the rise. Alas, after three straight winning seasons (and making the playoffs two of those years), the Mariners’ return to mediocrity (with a 76-85 record) made Rodriguez seem a lot less attractive to the voters (or maybe the MVP voters just got a sneak peak at his centaur mural and got weirded out).
Even though two young shortstops with that much talent would seem to be enough in one league, there were those who felt that neither Jeter nor Rodriguez was the best SS around. Nomar Garciaparra (whose name has something to do with being “Ramon” backwards), with a runner-up finish in the MVP vote, actually finished ahead of the other two young shortstops. Garciaparra hit .323/.362/.584 (6th in average, 8th in SLG), and pounded 37 2B and 35 HR for the team with the AL’s second-best record. All of that was good for 111 R (9th), 122 RBI (9th) and 353 TB (6th). Keeping in mind that all three players had excellent defensive reputations (Jeter did have a positive rField score in ’98, a feat he duplicated only one other time in his career) and you begin to see why the debates of the “best young SS in the AL” were so much fun in the late-1990s.
Now we move to some of the players of the type we most associate with ’90s baseball: the gargantuan slugger. Garciaparra’s teammate and 1995 AL MVP Mo Vaughn (a controversial selection, but one I chose not to highlight) was, in some ways, the player who best personified the one-dimensional slugger of the late 1990s. He finished 5th in the league with 360 TB, while slashing .337/.402/.591 (2nd/6th/6th), good for the AL’s 5th best OPS. The Hit Dog, who was naturally left-handed but threw right because that’s how his mom taught him (if my memory of a Sports Illustrated for Kids issue from the mid-to-late-1990s is correct), scored 107 and batted in 115. That he did all of this in Fenway Park as a lumbering, nigh-on-defensively-incompetent first baseman is a factor for the voters to consider.
The man whom Vaughn controversially defeated in the 1995 AL MVP vote was Albert Belle, then of the Indians, but a member of the White Sox in ’98. Belle was a highly-sought-after free agent prior to the 1997 season, following three consecutive top-three MVP finishes. After a down year in 1997, he recovered nicely to become the player the ChiSox had hoped they’d signed. Belle nearly became a member of the very exclusive 400 TB club, totaling 399 to lead the AL. He also nearly repeated his unique 50-50 season of ’95 (that’s 2B and HR), with 48 2B and 49 HR, both totals ranking second in the league. Belle batted .328/.399/.655 (3rd/7th/1st) to post a league best OPS of 1.054 (the only AL player above 1.000), proving that the most skilled sluggers of the ’90s could hit for average, too. He also scored 113 R (7th) and pounded a career best 152 RBI (2nd).
When Belle left Cleveland to pursue playing with big-bopper Frank Thomas in Chicago, he left behind our next candidate, Manny Ramirez. Ramirez is best known for driving in runs, and he did that in 1998 with 145 (4th). His 35 doubles in the cool Cleveland air led the Indians to a division title, while his 45 HR (t-4th) and 108 runs didn’t hurt anything, either. Not yet the hitter for average he would later become, Manny made his second All-Star Game (and the first of what would become 11 consecutive) on the strength of his batting line of .294/.377/.599, that SLG mark ranking 4th in the league, and the OPS standing 9th.
Perhaps not quite as “big” as the last three hitters, but with even more power, was the reigning MVP, Ken Griffey, Jr. The Kid’s 1998 season (120 R, 180 H, 33 2B, 3 3B, 56 HR, 146 RBI, 387 TB) was eerily similar to his MVP totals of the year before (125 R, 185 H, 34 2B, 3 3B, 56 HR, 147 RBI, 393 TB). But while Griffey stayed the same, the league around him got better. His only black ink in 1998 was his 56 homers, and it took him more PAs to get to his 1998 numbers, which is never great for the percentages. Admittedly, it seems a little harsh to use the phrase “not great” about a player hitting .284/.365/.611 (3rd in SLG, 8th in OPS). But, while he wasn’t leading the league in a lot of categories, he was near the league lead in many of them, ranking 4th in R, 3rd in RBI, and 2nd in TB. Plus, he managed 20 SB.
A player similar to Griffey in physique and stats was the MVP himself, Juan Gonzalez. Gonzalez already had an MVP under his belt from 1996 (meaning I’ve profiled the last three MVPs in this post), and in ’98 he did what a lot of MVPs do – lead the league in RBI for a playoff team. His 157 RBI were the most in the AL since 1949 (as were Sammy Sosa’s 158 RBI in the NL). He also cracked 50 2B to lead the league, while his none-too-shabby 45 HR (4th), 193 H (6th) and 382 TB (4th) produced 110 runs and the AL’s 2nd-best OPS, part of a .318/.366/.630 line (10th in average, 2nd in SLG). In the warm air of Texas, the raw numbers looked awfully good to voters, who gave Gonzalez the distinction of a second MVP, something he can brag about in his brochure.
Rounding out the top ten was a player who doesn’t at all fit the mold of “young SS” or “big bopper”. Ivan Rodriguez was a defense-first catcher with some pop on a first-place team. The future HOFer and next season’s MVP was known at the time as something terrifying, with an arm unlike anything ever seen, legitimately calling into question the once unquestionable defensive supremacy of Johnny Bench. Rodriguez led the league for the third consecutive year (and would lead the next three, as well) by throwing out 56% of would-be base-stealers. His offensive game was starting to come to the fore with a .321 BA (9th) that was complemented by solid marks in OBP (.358) and SLG (.513) to produce 88 R and 91 RBI despite playing only 145 G – (admittedly, a lot for a catcher, but notably fewer than the other players to whom he was being compared). 21 HR and a fairly-shocking 40 two-baggers rounded out an impressive season.
Since I always take the opportunity to highlight a couple of pitchers, I’ll do that quickly here, even though no pitcher finished in the top ten in MVP votes. There are really only two candidates – a couple of fellows named Roger Clemens (who finished 11th) and Pedro Martinez. You can guess which is which by looking at their lines:
20-6, 2.65 ERA, 234.2 IP, 33 G, 33 GS, 78 RA, 271 K, 961 BF, 1.095 WHIP
19-7, 2.89 ERA, 233.2 IP, 33 G, 33 GS, 82 RA, 251 K, 951 BF, 1.091 WHIP
Spoiler: the top line is Cy Young winner Clemens, who won the pitching Triple Crown for the second straight season.
Scott Erickson led in innings (Clemens 3rd, Martinez 6th) and David Wells in WHIP (Martinez was second, Clemens third), but it was Clemens and Martinez who were 1-2 in basically all the important categories, so it was obviously between the two of them as to who was the league’s best pitcher. Though both were in the AL East, they didn’t face off at all, which is a shame because there was a series between the two teams in Toronto at the beginning of September that could easily have been billed as the head-to-head for the Cy Young (I don’t know if Toronto was AVOIDING pitching Clemens in Boston, but it sure seems odd to me that he didn’t match up with them until September 5th, and even then it wasn’t in Boston).
So… one of the big boppers in the heart of the steroid era? One of the young SSs taking the world by storm? One of those (nearly identical) pitchers? Did I possibly miss someone? Let the debate and voting begin!
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!