How They Got There: The 1980-1989 AL MVPs

Last week, I explored how the NL MVPs of the 1980s were acquired. Two homegrown players, Dale Murphy, and Mike Schmidt won half of the awards. While the AL list primarily consists of homegrown talent, there are still some interesting story lines. A pair of veteran relievers, the 493rd player drafted in 1979, and a former Rule 5 draft pick are among the AL highlights. Here’s a look back at how each was acquired.

1980 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP George Brett KCR 27 Drafted 2nd Rd (29) ’71 515 24 15 1.118 198 9.1
2nd Reggie Jackson NYY 34 Free Agent (BAL) Nov’76 601 41 1 .995 169 5.0
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP ERA FIP WAR
3rd Rich Gossage NYY 28 Free Agent (PIT) Nov’77 6 33 99.0 2.27 2.48 3.2

As mentioned in last week’s How They Got There: The 1980-1989 NL MVPs, George Brett was taken one pick before Mike Schmidt early in the second round of the 1971 amateur draft. Although Brett was selected out of high school (El Segundo High School in California) at age 17 and Schmidt was a 21-year-old from Ohio University, their careers took similar paths that ended with near unanimous inductions into the Hall of Fame. Both converted shortstops, they would each win MVP awards nine years later as third basemen. While Schmidt’s Phillies defeated the Royals to win the World Series that year, Brett would get his World Series ring five years after.

Despite a slow start and time missed due to injuries, the 27-year-old Brett was close to making history with just two weeks remaining in the 1980 season. His batting average, which peaked at .406 as late as August 30, was at an even .400 after a two-hit game against the Athletics on September 19. Over his final 54 plate appearances, Brett slashed .304/.370/.674 with five homers, dropping his average to .390.

In a season in which he could’ve easily had another 150 plate appearances if he hadn’t missed time, Brett still finished with 66 extra-base hits, 118 runs batted in, 58 walks, and 15 stolen bases. But his most incredible achievement, although likely to have been overshadowed at the time, might be that he only struck out 22 times.

1981 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP ERA FIP WAR
MVP Rollie Fingers MIL 34 Trade (STL) Dec’80 6 28 78.0 1.04 2.07 2.6
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
2nd Rickey Henderson OAK 22 Drafted 4th Rd (96) ’76 493 6 56 .845 152 6.7
3rd Dwight Evans BOS 29 Drafted 5th Rd (109) ’69 504 22 3 .937 168 6.6

Four days after being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in an 11-player offseason deal with the San Diego Padres, Rollie Fingers was on the move again. Along with fellow future Hall of Famer Ted Simmons and starting pitcher Pete Vuckovich, who would go on to play power-hitting first baseman Clu Haywood in the 1989 classic Major League, Fingers was sent to the Milwaukee Brewers for outfielder Sixto Lezcano, outfielder David Green, and a pair of starting pitchers, Dave LaPoint and Lary Sorensen.

The 34-year-old Fingers, who has one of the greatest names and mustaches in baseball history, is considered one of the pioneers of an era when the value and popularity of a team’s best relief pitcher was increasing substantially. So while he wasn’t the first reliever to win a Cy Young — Dodgers’ pitcher Mike Marshall won it in 1974 — it’s fitting that he was the first of this new era to win an MVP. Jim Konstanty of the Phillies was the first reliever to win the MVP back in 1950.

Aside from his 1.04 ERA, which was second in the league among relievers, none of Fingers’ stats from the strike-shortened 1981 season jump out too much. Measured by today’s standards, his six blown saves in 34 chances would be cause for concern. But given that he averaged five outs per appearance and pitched at least two innings in 41% of his games, it’s not as relevant as it would be today. A big reason for Fingers’ recognition was that he was a key part of the Brewers’ first playoff appearance since becoming a franchise in 1969. For Milwaukee baseball fans, it was their first taste of the postseason since 1958. And Fingers, in front of that home crowd, allowed just one earned in 36.2 regular season innings.

1982 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Robin Yount MIL 26 Drafted 1st Rd (3) ’73 704 29 14 .957 164 9.8
2nd Eddie Murray BAL 26 Drafted 3rd Rd (63) ’73 627 32 7 .940 153 5.8
3rd Doug DeCinces CAL 31 Trade (BAL) Jan’82 655 30 7 .916 147 7.3

Taken after high school lefty David Clyde (Texas Rangers) and catcher John Stearns (Philadelphia Phillies), shortstop Robin Yount was the third pick in the 1973 amateur draft out of Taft High School in Woodland Hills, California. Although the fourth pick, Dave Winfield, would head directly to the major leagues without spending a day in the minors, Yount wasn’t far behind. He made his major league debut at age 18 on Opening Day 1974.

Six years later, though, Yount had yet to establish himself as anything more than an average player. He was holding his own, which was good enough for a young player. But in 1980, he broke out with 82 extra-base hits and became an All-Star for the first time. After taking a step back the following season, the 26-year-old bounced back with what would be the best season of his 20-year career in the majors.

1983 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Cal Ripken Jr. BAL 22 Drafted 2nd Rd (48) ’78 726 27 0 .888 146 8.5
2nd Eddie Murray BAL 27 Drafted 3rd Rd (63) ’73 680 33 5 .930 153 6.8
3rd Carlton Fisk CHW 35 Free Agent (BOS) Mar’81 545 26 9 .874 137 4.6

The year after longtime Orioles’ star Brooks Robinson announced his retirement, the team drafted a pair of high schoolers capable of playing on the left side of the infield — third baseman Robert Boyce with the 22nd pick overall and shortstop/pitcher Cal Ripken Jr. at pick 48. One would never make it past A-ball. The other, who was the team’s third of four second round selections, would become a Baltimore legend.

When Ripken was born in Havre de Grace, Maryland in 1960, his father, Cal Sr., was a catcher/outfielder for the Fox Cities Foxes, a minor league affiliate of the Orioles. He would soon end his playing career in favor of coaching, although it would take more than a decade before he was in the big leagues. By the time Cal Jr. reached the majors at the end of the 1981 season, his father had been on the Orioles’ coaching staff for more than five seasons. Therefore, Cal Sr. had a front row seat to watch his son become Rookie of the Year in 1982, AL MVP and World Series Champion in 1983, and AL MVP again in 1991.

Heading into his second full season in the big leagues in 1983, the 22-year-old Ripken was in the midst of a 118-game consecutive game streak. It wouldn’t end for another 2514 games. In July, he was selected to his first All-Star game, beginning another streak — he was named to 19 All-Star teams in 19 seasons — that wouldn’t end until his retirement. His league-leading 121 runs, 211 hits, and 47 doubles turned out to be the highest of his 21-year career.

A version of this write-up was originally published as part of How They Got There: The 1990-1999 AL MVPs.

1984 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP ERA FIP WAR
MVP Willie Hernandez DET 29 Trade (PHI) Mar’84 9 32 140.1 1.92 2.58 3.2
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
2nd Kent Hrbek MIN 24 Drafted 17th Rd ’78 635 27 1 .906 141 5.6
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP ERA FIP WAR
3rd Dan Quisenberry KCR 31 Non-Drafted FA Jun’75 6 44 129.1 2.64 3.42 1.5

An up-and-coming Tigers team had progressed from 83 wins in 1982 to 92 wins in 1983. But that was just barely good enough for second place in the AL East, six games behind the World Champion Baltimore Orioles. The following offseason, general manager Bill Lajoie took a mostly conservative approach to retooling his ball club. In a span of two weeks in late December, he signed 36-year-old Darrell Evans, an All-Star with the San Francisco Giants during the previous year, and re-signed starting pitcher Milt Wilcox and reliever Doug Bair. Things were mostly quiet after that until he pulled off a four-player trade with the Philadelphia Phillies close to three months later.

Although the trade did not seem to have major significance at the time, the Tigers had a clear need for bullpen help — specifically, a left-handed reliever to complement All-Star Aurelio Lopez. Howard Bailey, the team’s only lefty to log significant innings out of the bullpen in 1983, had a 4.88 ERA. With less than two weeks before Opening Day, Lajoie finally filled that void. In exchange for veteran utilityman John Wockenfuss and 26-year-old outfielder Glenn Wilson, the Tigers acquired first baseman/outfielder Dave Bergman, who the Phillies had just acquired from the Giants, and 29-year-old lefty reliever Willie Hernandez.

While Hernandez wasn’t a household name amongst relief pitchers, he had been very good at his job over six previous seasons with the Cubs and Phillies, who had acquired him in May 1983. He pitched four shutout innings in three World Series games against the Orioles, proving that he could succeed on the biggest stage. That’s where the Tigers hoped to be, although they could not have envisioned Hernandez as the AL MVP on a championship team with Kirk Gibson, Chet Lemon, Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, and Lou Whitaker.

1985 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Don Mattingly NYY 24 Drafted 19th Rd ’79 727 35 2 .939 151 6.1
2nd George Brett KCR 32 Drafted 2nd Rd (29) ’71 665 30 9 1.022 168 8.3
3rd Rickey Henderson NYY 26 Trade (OAK) Dec’84 654 24 80 .934 159 9.7

The Yankee rosters of the 70s and 80s were filled with superstars, despite the team’s inability to draft, sign, and develop homegrown talent. Many of their draft picks who would go on to have big league success either didn’t sign or were traded early in their careers. There are a handful of exceptions, however, including Thurman Munson (the fourth overall pick in 1969), Ron Guidry (the 67th overall pick in 1971), and Don Mattingly, a 19th round pick out of Reitz Memorial HS in Evansville, Indiana.

While the timing of Mattingly’s arrival could not have been worse considering that the Yankees, with 55 post-season appearances and 27 World Championships in their history, made the playoffs just one time during his 14-career, he was the face of the franchise during much of that time.

Heading into the 1985 season, Mattingly had already won a batting title and represented the Yankees in an All-Star game along with teammates and future Hall of Famers Phil Niekro and Dave Winfield. The New York spotlight, however, didn’t appear to affect him one bit. He had 86 extra-base hits and 145 runs batted in on his way to becoming the first Yankees MVP since Munson in 1976.

1986 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
MVP Roger Clemens BOS 23 Drafted 1st Rd (19) ’83 24 4 254.0 2.48 2.81 7.1
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
2nd Don Mattingly NYY 25 Drafted 19th Rd ’79 742 31 0 .967 160 7.2
3rd Jim Rice BOS 33 Drafted 1st Rd (15) ’71 693 20 0 .874 133 5.5

Seventeen teams passed on an All-American pitcher out of the University of Texas at Austin named Roger Clemens, including the Seattle Mariners twice (picks seven and 17). With the first overall selection, the Minnesota Twins drafted right-handed pitcher Tim Belcher, who they were unable to sign.

Within a year, those teams were regretting the decision to draft any other player but Clemens. The 21-year-old was already turning heads as a rookie and was only two years away from winning his first Cy Young award. His career was in jeopardy, however, after he was diagnosed with a torn labrum by Dr. James Andrews after battling shoulder soreness throughout the 1985 season.

To this day, there is uncertainty surrounding the recovery process of this type of injury. But it couldn’t have gone much smoother for Clemens. Andrews performed the arthroscopic surgery and prescribed rehabilitation exercises that had him back on the mound to start the fourth game of the 1986 season. Including the playoffs, Clemens finished the year with 38 starts and 288 innings and became the eighth pitcher of all-time to win both an MVP and Cy Young in the same season.

A version of this write-up was originally published as part of How They Got There: The 1990-1999 AL Cy Young Winners.

1987 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP George Bell TOR 27 Rule 5 (PHI) Dec’80 667 47 5 .957 143 5.3
2nd Alan Trammell DET 29 Drafted 2nd Rd (26) ’76 668 28 21 .953 152 7.7
3rd Kirby Puckett MIN 27 Drafted 1st Rd (3) ’82 668 28 12 .900 131 3.8

The Rule 5 draft has existed in some form since 1903, although the rules have changed several times along the way. In today’s version, players are not eligible to be drafted for four or five seasons, depending on their age at the time they sign. In 1980, that was not the case, which allowed the Toronto Blue Jays to draft 21-year-old outfielder George Bell from the Philadelphia Phillies even though he had been signed out of the Dominican Republic only three seasons earlier.

As would be expected from a player making the jump to the big leagues after only 58 plate appearances in Double-A, Bell struggled mightily in limited action with the Blue Jays during the 1981 season. But the goal was accomplished. The Jays had retained Bell’s rights, allowing him to return to the minors for the 1982 season.

By 1984, Bell was in the majors for good. His home run and RBI totals increased in 1985 and again in 1986, before peaking in his MVP season of 1987. The 28-year-old reigning MVP would begin the following season with a bang, hitting three homers on Opening Day and following up with five hits in the team’s second game. By the end of April, though, his production had begun to drop. Despite a pair of All-Star selections later in his career, as well as MVP votes in two others, his time as one of the elite sluggers in the game was over.

1988 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Jose Canseco OAK 23 Drafted 15th Rd ’82 705 42 40 .959 169 7.6
2nd Mike Greenwell BOS 24 Drafted 3rd Rd (72) ’82 693 22 16 .946 157 7.8
3rd Kirby Puckett MIN 28 Drafted 1st Rd (3) ’82 691 24 6 .920 150 7.1

In 1982, the Oakland Athletics selected a 17-year-old third baseman named Jose Canseco in the 15th round of the amateur draft. By the 1984 season, his days as an infielder were far behind him, but he had begun to turn heads with his other skills. His numbers weren’t eye-popping, but the power-speed combination was beginning to stand out. Following the season, Baseball America ranked Canseco as the number one prospect in baseball, ahead of a handful of future big leaguers, including Tim Belcher, Mark McGwire, and Mickey Tettleton. When he hit 25 homers in 251 plate appearance for Double-A Huntsville to begin the 1985 season, it was becoming evident that the 20-year-old would soon be Oakland-bound.

After winning the AL Rookie of the Year award in 1986 and following it up with his second 30-plus home run/15 stolen season in 1987, Canseco would make history in year three. While several players had come close to joining the 40-40 club, including in the previous season when Eric Davis (37 HR, 50 SB) and Darryl Strawberry (39 HR, 36 SB) each made a strong run, it was Canseco who was the first.

On pace for 46 homers and 44 stolen bases at the midpoint of the 1988 season, Canseco hit his 40th homer on September 18 against Royals’ pitcher Bret Saberhagen and stole his 39th and 40th bases on September 23 against Brewers’ catcher B.J. Surhoff. Only three other players, Barry Bonds (1996), Alex Rodriguez (1998), and Alfonso Soriano (2006), have since joined the club. Unfortunately, three of the four — Bonds, Canseco, and Rodriguez — have admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs.

1989 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Robin Yount MIL 33 Drafted 1st Rd (3) ’73 690 21 19 .896 149 5.3
2nd Ruben Sierra TEX 23 Amateur FA (PR) Nov’82 689 29 8 .889 145 5.6
3rd Cal Ripken Jr. BAL 28 Drafted 2nd Rd (48) ’78 712 21 3 .718 104 5.8

Years after a shoulder injury forced him to the outfield, Yount would join Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Stan Musial as the only players in history to win an MVP at two different positions. While Greenberg and Musial won as both first basemen and corner outfielders, Yount pulled off the more impressive feat by winning as a 26-year-old shortstop in 1982 and a 33-year-old center fielder in 1989.

Interestingly enough, Yount had resisted a move to the outfield prior during the 1978 season. With a young prospect named Paul Molitor, taken with the number three overall pick in the 1977 draft, replacing an injured Yount at shortstop to begin the season, the Brewers were contemplating a position change for him once he returned to action. Also unhappy with his contract, he would instead threaten to retire and join the PGA Tour.

In the end, it was Molitor who ended up switching positions — he was primarily a designated hitter during his 21-year-career, although he logged plenty of time at third and second base — setting up both to become Brewers legends.

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Psychic... Powerless...
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Didn’t Hernandez change his baseball name from Willie to Guillermo during his career?

At any rate, these are quite enjoyable, and I hope you will continue through at least the 70s.