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…
*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 Yankees – in 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
-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).