A Look Back – 1980

First things first: unlike 1997, our first post in the series, I was not alive for 1980. Still six years from being born, I’m writing here as an amateur baseball historian/enthusiast/guy-who-spends-too-much-time-on-Baseball-Reference.com. Therefore, your comments and discussion are particularly appreciated on this post. Also, I want to have, here in my opening paragraph, a shout-out to Tom Ra for the suggestion (and you really should click that link, because Tom pointed out a bunch of cool/interesting things about 1980 in his post; Doug added some other interesting tidbits below it). Without any further ado…

1980 At-A-Glance:
World Series – Philadelphia Phillies over Kansas City Royals (4-2)*
Awards:
AL MVP – George Brett
NL MVP – Mike Schmidt
AL Cy Young – Steve Stone
NL Cy Young – Steve Carlton

*ESPN.com recently ranked this as the 16th-greatest World Series of all-time in an article that is definitely worth reading. It’s long, yes, but thorough… and still takes significantly less time to read than a baseball game would take to watch. By the time I get to the end, I was extremely excited.

Alrighty – let’s start out on the Junior Circuit. It would be impossible to tell the story of 1980 without talking about the Kansas City Royals. This is because, in many ways, although they came up short in the Series, they were the story of 1980. Their best player nearly batted .400. Most importantly, the monkey was finally off their back: the Kansas City Royals defeated the New York Yankees to win the pennant. There have been Yankee slayers in the past: the ’55 Brooklyn Dodgers, most prominently, come to mind. (Actually, the modern Twins and their repeated, almost unbelievable failures come to mind first for me… but they’ve yet to slay that particular dragon, so the point is as-yet unresolved. That’s a 2-16 record in the postseason for the Twins in the last 17 years, including 13 in a row – and counting – for the Yankees.)

ANYWAY, back to the Royals. They were an up-and-coming team in ’76 with only 90 wins – no shame in losing to the Yankees that time around. In ’77, with the AL’s best record (102 wins to the Yankees 100), it was supposed to be their time – but in a heartbreaker of a series, the Royals outscored the Yankees 22-21, but lost in games, 3-2. The Royals actually held a 3-1 lead through 7, and a 3-2 lead through 8. It was supposed to be the 3-2 win to wrap up a 3-2 series. But a disastrous top of the ninth, which saw the Royals desperately using three pitchers, created a 5-3 loss that haunts Royals fans to this day. (Interesting note: in this game, one year before his famous moment, Bucky Dent was removed in the top of the ninth for a pinch hitter. Just a fun fact.) Then, in ’78, the Royals coasted to a division title by five games, but actually only had the 4th-best record in the AL. Each team won a blowout to open the series, but the Yankees squeaked by again in games 3 & 4, both one-run affairs, that ended the series. In Game 4, the Royals were down 1 run in the top of nine, 0 out and Amos Otis on second base… they couldn’t convert.

A disappointing ’79 (85-77, second place in the AL West and only the 8th-best record in the AL) led to a couple of lineup changes in 1980, as Pete LaCock was now backing up Willie Aikens, the departed Freddie Patek was replaced at short by U.L. Washington, and Al Cowens was replaced with Clint Hurdle. The steady (if somewhat unspectacular) pitching staff of Dennis Leonard, Paul Splittorff, Larry Gura, and Rich Gale continued to be backed in the bullpen by baseball’s best bullpen, including the top closer in the game, Dan Quisenberry. They roared to 97 wins and finally took out the Yankeesin a sweep, no less – to win the pennant, avenging years of disappointment.

But their story of 1980 was dominated by a homegrown third baseman drafted in the second round of 1971: George Brett. Brett already had a batting title under his belt, batting .333 in ’76, a season in which he also led the AL in Total Bases. In ’79, he finished 3rd in the MVP race and 2nd in WAR (to Fred Lynn). But in ’80, Brett truly arrived. His pursuit of .400 was legendary, as he posted a .390/.454/.664 line on the season. In the integrated era, only 15 times has a player slashed .350/.450/.650 in a season. In spite of three long stints off the field (4 games in the spring, 9 in the fall, and a month – 26 games – in the mid-summer), Brett was still not only the triple slash leader, but the overall WAR leaders, in spite of missing 45 total games!

Speaking of homegrown third basemen drafted in the second round of 1971 who played for a 1980 pennant winner (that’s absurdly specific, isn’t it?), we can’t avoid talking Mike Schmidt’s 1980 season, can we? In ’80, Schmidt posted a (then-)career-high batting average of .286, while leading the league with 121 RBI and leading MLB with 48 HR. (Those 48 HR are still tied for second all-time in team history; only Ryan Howard has ever hit as many, breaking Schmidt’s team record in 2006 with his 58-HR campaign) For the seventh consecutive season, Schmidt ranked in the top-3 in WAR in the NL. He was in the top-2 among position players each of those seasons, and led all NL position players for the third time. On September 28, the Phils dropped a game to the Expos that left them tied in the loss column and a half-game back with seven to play, (a four-game home series against the Cubs and a three-game finale at rival Montreal). Over those final seven, the Phils went 6-1, losing only the finale after things against the Expos were wrapped up (and Schmidt sat, anyway). In that last week, Schmidt batted an incredible .400/.414/.960 with 4 HR, 7 RBI, and 5 R in 25 ABs to power the Phils to a division title. I’ve kind of always believed that Andre Dawson probably deserved that MVP… but I get it. Of course, Dawson hit even BETTER from September 29 on: .409/.417/1.045(!!!!), so it’s easy to see how, in the voters’ minds, the award was probably going to go to whichever team prevailed, and it was the Phillies who wrapped it up.

Beyond the pennant winners, there are plenty of oddities and storylines from 1980. Steve Carlton posted 10.2 WAR and a 24-9 record in 304 innings while pacing the league with a 162 ERA+. Per bWAR, this was the second-best pitching season of the 1980s, behind only Doc Gooden’s legendary 1985. (For those who remember my model for estimating pitcher W-L records, Carlton nails his right on the head in ’80.) Carlton and Mario Soto became the 24th and 25th pitchers to average 8.45 SO/9 in a qualifying season in the 60’6″ era. Of course, today, that’s like a baseline competency for an ace – but at the time, it was exception. In fact, only five pitchers (again, in the 60’6″ era) have averaged such a high strikeout number in a season in which they pitched 300+ innings, as Carlton did. Here’s another fun fact about Carlton in 1980: he finished first in MLB in innings pitched… but 8th in walks, 20th in hits, and tied for 65th in HR allowed!

I never talked about the AL Cy Young winner… because it was Steve Stone. Stone still ranks as one of the worst Cy Young winners ever, via WAR… even if you include the relievers. (Stone’s 4.0 WAR ranks behind Bruce Sutter in ’79, Rollie Fingers in ’81, Willie Hernandez in ’84, and Mark Davis in ’89, but ahead of Mike Marshall in ’74, Sparky Lyle in ’77, Dennis Eckersley in ’92, and Eric Gagne in ’03.) It’s still better than Pete Vucokovich in ’82, though. But it’s not like this was a totally egregious award – Stone had 4.0 WAR, and league leader Larry Gura had 6.0; so it’s not like it’s offensive for Stone to have it. Stone is the second-to-last player to win 25 games (Bob Welch in 1990 infamously won 27… with a lower WAR than Stone

Other notes:
-From 1965-1984, a 20-season stretch, the only teams to hit 200 HR were the teams that played in Fenway (’70 and ’77) or the Launching Pad (’66 and ’73)… except the Brewers (’80 and ’82). That was a team with a lot of power – they were the 12th team ever with 6 players to have 17+ homers. That was a lot of power, at the time.
-As a team, the Phillies had a 110 ERA+. That’s not historically remarkable or anything, but it did lead the NL. Thought it was worth mentioning, because I wouldn’t have associated this as a great pitching team in my mind, but there you have it. Of course, Carlton pitched nearly a fifth of the team’s innings, which helps.
-This may be the Brewers fan in me coming out, but… poor Cecil Cooper. He had 335 Total Bases, sometimes an ML-leading total, in spite of being mostly a singles hitter. But low-average Schmidt led the Majors with 342. Also, .352… that’s a pretty good average. No one has hit that well since 2010. Yet, Brett topped him in that one. No ML leadership for Cooper. He did lead the Majors in RBI, so that’s something.
Rickey Henderson became the first player in AL history to steal 100 bases (breaking Ty Cobb‘s record), and just the third in the modern era, behind Maury Wills in ’62 and Lou Brock in ’74. Assuming that you need to steal 2/3 of bases to “break even,” by net steals (that is SB-2*CS), this was only Hendersons sixth best season with 48. (Assuming a 75% is the breakeven point, it drops to #9, with 22.) That’s not to denigrate the season; it’s to help us appreciate that Rickey Henderson was a national treasure. Meanwhile, Ron LeFlore had what was then the 4th-most prolific basestealing season in history with 97, and he’s a historical footnote. Interesting note on LeFlore’s ’80: of all the players with 90+stolen bases to that point in history had led their league in Caught Stealing… until LeFlore. He was caught only 19 times for a gaudy 59 (or 40) net steals.
Reggie Jackson won his third of four Home Run titles. Had he not had such a cool second half in ’69 (41 HR through 101 games, followed by 6 in the last 61, including only 2 over the final 39), 1980 would’ve marked the third different decade in which Jackson won a home run crown – a feat matched only, I believe, by Babe Ruth (Hank Aaron came up one homer shy in 1971 of this club; and who know? Maybe Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera will lead the league in homers in a truncated season this year… but I wouldn’t hold your breath on that). Jackson was the runner-up MVP in the AL, the only team he reached that position in his career. Weirdly, Jackson’s final three Home Run titles were all shared… with Brewers… different Brewers: George Scott in ’75, Ben Oglivie in ’80, and Gorman Thomas in ’82.
Willie Wilson scored 133 runs in 1980. By itself, that doesn’t sound too unbelievable – Mookie Betts did it last year, and 13 of the last 24 seasons have featured at least one such player. But that was the third-highest total since 1950! (Frank Robinson scored 134 in ’62, and Billy Williams scored 137 in ’70. This was just a harbinger of things to come, as 4 of the next 5 non-strike seasons would have someone score 130+ runs.) Wilson’s 230 hits also tied the second-highest mark since 1931 (Rod Carew had 9 more in ’77). By the end of the ’80s, that total would be topped by 3 different players.
Mario Soto had a really interesting year. As I was perusing leaderboards, I saw that he led the league in H/9 (6.0) and SO/9 (8.6), and posted a very good HR/9 number. I thought, “How did this guy have an ERA over 3.00?” In fact, this is the only season in MLB history with a SO rate above 8.5, a H rate below 6, and a HR rate below .6 with an ERA above 3.00. But then I looked at the BB/9 rate – 4.0! That is, to put it mildly, not good. It also explains that ERA.
-Finally, for all the Yankees failed to accomplish in 1980, they did outscore their opponents by 158 Runs – the second-widest margin in baseball that year. Who do you think was first? Phillies? Royals? Brewers? It was actually the Baltimore Orioles, who finished at +165, and became the first team to win 100 games and miss the postseason in the division era (since matched only by the 1993 Giants).

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Tom Ra
Tom Ra
1 month ago

Thank you Dr Doom! That was a great writeup. Those memories from 4 decades ago came rushing back. A couple of other tidbits: From 78-87, 10 different teams won the World Series. The next longest stretch without repeat winners was from 82-90. Bill Buckner, was the NL batting leader at .324. That 66 point gap between Brett and Buckner was the widest between league leaders since 1911,when Cobb hit .420, and Wagner hit .334. That gap hasn’t been topped since. On 05/28, Dwayne Murphy and Wayne Gross both stole home in the first inning of a 6-3 win over KC.… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
1 month ago

” I’ve kind of always believed that Andre Dawson probably deserved that MVP…”
Doom,
Unless they’re all crazy….. all 24 beat writers voted Schmidt the MVP. Was there any stat that Dawson had the better of Schmidt, other than stolen bases?

Paul E
Paul E
1 month ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

I think Schmidt actually created as many or more runs the final week just using TBxOBA.
No, the shame about Dawson was the injuries….and he didn’t take a walk

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
1 month ago

More on Cecil Cooper: Since 1980, there have been 80 batting champs (one for each league * 40 seasons). By hitting .352, he would’ve won 51 of those 80 batting races. Here are the only runners-up who had better averages than Cooper’s .352: 2009 Ichiro Suzuki, .3521 (Joe Mauer, .365; same as Cooper’s to the fourth decimal) 2008 Albert Pujols, .3569 (Chipper Jones, .365) 2003 Todd Helton, .3585 (Albert Pujols, .3587) 2000 Darin Erstad, .3550 (Nomar Garciaparra, .372) 2000 Moises Alou, .3546 (Todd Helton, .372) 1997 Larry Walker, .3662 (Tony Gwynn, .372) 1997 Mike Piazza, .3615 (Tony Gwynn, .372; technically… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
1 month ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

If it wasn’t for the strike in 1981, Cooper would probably have had 4 consecutive 200 hit seasons between the ages of 30-33. Probalby hasn’t been done too often

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul E

It’s been done 3 times, Ichiro, Charlie Gehringer and Bill Terry.

Paul E
Paul E
1 month ago

Thanks, Richard !

Tom Ra
Tom Ra
1 month ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

You can add another 22 years. Prior to 1980, no runner up had hit higher that .352 since Mickey Mantle finished at .365 in 1957, when Ted Williams hit .388 at the age of 39.

Doug
Doug
1 month ago

Nice piece, Doom. Appreciate the mention of the Expos (my first team) even if it brings up painful memories. 1980 was the Expos’ second straight season coughing up a division lead in the final week of the season; they finally got it done the next year (thanks to the split-season), but to their credit they prevailed in ’81 by winning 4 straight on the road in the final week to edge the Cards by a half-game. Baseball was a nice escape in 1980, a year when not much was going right, with inflation, unemployment and interest rates all in or… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
30 days ago
Reply to  Doug

Doug,
Geeze…I guess you didn’t get the memo that good guy James Earl Carter is supposed to get a free pass on his four year paid vacation in DC?

Doug
Editor
1 month ago

Unfortunately, the goat of the 1980 series was Quisenberry, coughing up late-inning leads in games 2 and 5. That’s how close the Royals were to taking the series in 5 games. Willie Mays Aikens (born a couple of weeks after the 1954 series) became the first player with a pair of multi-HR games in a single WS (only Chase Utley has done so since, like Aikens, in a losing cause).

Quiz: can you identify another player born proximate to the World Series, and named for a star player on that year’s WS winning team?

John
John
1 month ago
Reply to  Doug

My first thought is Willie Mays Hayes, but .,. yeah. Couldn’t resist, but I cannot come up with anything

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
1 month ago
Reply to  Doug

This is without looking up dates, but could it be Mickey Mantle (for Mickey Cochrane)?

Doug
Doug
1 month ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Right you are, Doom. Mantle was named for Mickey Cochrane. Only thing is, Cochrane’s A’s lost the 1931 WS in the month that Mantle was born. The player I was thinking of is truly obscure, with the name Roger Hornsby McKee, born during the thick of the 1926 NL pennant race won by the eventual WS champion Cardinals (truth be told the pennant “race” was more like a turtle derby as the Cards were tied for the lead with 9 to play and finished only 4-5 … but still won by two games!). The reason I know about McKee is… Read more »

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
30 days ago
Reply to  Doug

I did half-wonder if there was a sneaky answer to this like “Ken Griffey, Jr.” but he was born before Dad made his debut. Maybe there’s some other “Jr.” who has a similar, coincidental story, but I couldn’t think of anyone.

Doug
Doug
30 days ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Closest I could find were two Gene Moore’s, the younger born Aug 26, 1909, a month before his father made his ML debut for the 1909 world champion Pirates. But, Sr. did not play in the WS. Mel Queen, the younger, was born in Mar 1942, a month before his father made his ML debut for the defending world champion Yankees. But Sr. did not play for those Yankees in their WS loss to the Cards. Mel Stottlemyre Jr. was born in Dec 1963, a few months before his father made his ML debut for the defending AL champion Yankees.… Read more »

Doug
Editor
29 days ago

You mentioned Mario Soto’s season with 4.0 BB/9 and 6.0 H/9. It is historically unusual to have BB/9 so high and H/9 so low in a qualified season, being accomplished only 14 times, three times before 1963, eleven times in 24 seasons from 1963 to 1986, and none since. Most of those seasons were by young pitchers under age 25, with the notable exception of Nolan Ryan who makes the list five times, all aged 25 or older.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
29 days ago
Reply to  Doug

Makes sense to me that they’re mostly young guys. I mean, intuitively, you can sort them into one of a few groups: Group 1. They’re walk-crazy, and they’ll learn to control it and stay in the game; Group 2. They’re walk-crazy, and they won’t learn to control it, so they’ll be forced out of the game; Group 3. The hits number is a fluke, and they won’t get as lucky in a different year, making the walks more costly; Group 4. They’re so effective at the other aspects of pitching, they can actually get away with walk numbers that high.… Read more »

Doug
Doug
29 days ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Two of these seasons, by Ryan (1977) and Byrne, are among an even smaller group of qualified seasons with BB/9 higher than H/9. Two of these pitchers (Byrne, Turley) were on the same staff for three seasons (1955-57), all pennant-winning campaigns by the Yankees, including one (1955) when both were rotation regulars, together starting over one third of Yankee games, and three of seven games in the WS. Jones’s season led the NL in 1955 in SO, SO/9 and H/9, but also in losses (20). Four years later, he led in wins and ERA, and finished 2nd (distantly) in CYA… Read more »

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
29 days ago
Reply to  Doug

In 1955 Tommy Byrne was the only left-handed pitcher with CG victory against the Dodgers, game 2 of the WS.

Doug
Doug
29 days ago

Curiously, though, the NL was 7-4 against the ’55 Dodgers when starting a lefty, with a 4-4 record when the starter got the decision, and 3-0 when he didn’t. Despite that team success, the starter was knocked out before the 5th inning in 5 of the 11 games, including 3 starts of 2 IP or less. The only CG was an 8 inning loss by Luis Arroyo of the Cardinals.

Paul E
Paul E
28 days ago
Reply to  Doug

So, due to the heavy RH Brooklyn batting lineup, Duke Snider faced right handed pitchers in 590 of his 653 plate appearances. Wow, that must have been fun ! However, in ’55 he did perform very well against LHP as he slashed .321/.397/.566

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
27 days ago
Reply to  Paul E

In 1955 Snider had a 90.3 percentage of his PA for a LHB facing a RHP. That’s the 10th highest for players in a season with 500+ PA. Career-wise 85.8% of his PA were against a RHP, the highest for all LHB with 5000+ PA.

Paul E
Paul E
23 days ago

Thanks, Richard.
I didn’t realize he had that much of an ‘advantage’.

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