How They Got There: The 1980-1989 NL MVPs

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, the game of baseball was much different than the three-true-outcomes style of play that has become prominent in this era. Back in the 1980s, there were a lot of contact hitters, stolen bases, sacrifice bunts by non-pitchers, middle infielders who couldn’t hit for average or power, complete games, astroturf, double-headers, This Week In Baseball, and the San Diego Chicken. There weren’t a lot of hitters willing to sacrifice batting average for home runs, five relief pitchers in every team’s bullpen who could throw 99 mph, or players changing teams much in free agency.

While a lot has obviously changed, the game was just as glorious back then, with many memorable performances by players who each had their own unique journey to the major leagues. Here’s a look back at how the NL MVPs of the 1980s were acquired.

1980 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Mike Schmidt PHI 30 Drafted 2nd Rd (30) ’71 652 48 12 1.004 172 9.0
2nd Gary Carter MON 26 Drafted 3rd Rd (53) ’72 617 29 3 .818 125 6.0
3rd Jose Cruz HOU 32 Purchased (STL) Oct’74 680 11 36 .787 124 4.4


1981 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Mike Schmidt PHI 31 Drafted 2nd Rd (30) ’71 434 31 12 1.080 198 7.8
2nd Andre Dawson MON 26 Drafted 11th Rd ’75 441 24 26 .918 154 6.7
3rd George Foster CIN 32 Trade (SFG) May’71 472 22 4 .890 152 3.8

A pair of shortstops selected in the 1971 amateur draft with the 29th and 30th picks would each win an MVP award nine years later as third basemen. Both players, George Brett of the Kansas City Royals (class of ’99) and Mike Schmidt of the Philadelphia Phillies (class of ’95), would spend their entire careers with their respective teams and enter the Hall of Fame by the end of the century.

Heading into the 1980 season, Schmidt was a four-time All-Star with 235 career homers. At 30 years of age, he wasn’t anywhere close to slowing down. He led the league with a career-high 48 homers. Dale Murphy was second with 33, while no other National Leaguer reached 30. Schmidt would win the World Series MVP with eight hits against the Royals, including a pair of homers, to help lead the Phillies to their first championship in franchise history.

It was more of the same during the strike-shortened 1981 season as Schmidt would lead the league in homers and runs batted in while winning his second consecutive NL MVP. But there would be no World Series this time as the Phillies would lose to the Montreal Expos in the NL Division Series.

1982 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Dale Murphy ATL 26 Drafted 1st Rd (5) ’74 698 36 23 .885 144 6.0
2nd Lonnie Smith STL 26 Trade (PHI) Nov’81 672 8 68 .815 132 5.4
3rd-T Pedro Guerrero LAD 26 Trade (CLE) Apr’74 652 32 22 .914 156 6.2
3rd-T Al Oliver MON 35 Trade (TEX) Mar’82 687 22 5 .906 154 4.9


1983 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Dale Murphy ATL 27 Drafted 1st Rd (5) ’74 687 36 30 .933 151 7.0
2nd Andre Dawson MON 26 Drafted 11th Rd ’75 698 32 25 .877 137 6.5
3rd Mike Schmidt PHI 33 Drafted 2nd Rd (30) ’71 669 40 7 .923 152 6.9

One of the most important events in baseball history took place in 1974 when 40-year-old Hank Aaron, in his final season with the Atlanta Braves, hit his 715th career home run on April 8 to break the record previously held by Babe Ruth. Aaron wasn’t the only interesting player on that Braves’ roster. Staff ace Phil Niekro was in the 11th season of a 24-year career, while a trio of future big league managers, Dusty Baker, Davey Johnson, and Johnny Oates were lineup regulars. And the team’s next superstar, a high school catcher named Dale Murphy, was taken with the fifth overall pick in the amateur draft.

Passed over by the San Diego Padres, who took shortstop Bill Almon with the first pick, Murphy would become a thorn in their side for years. He had a higher OPS (.912) and more home runs (60) versus the Padres than any other team over his career. But in 1982 and 1983, Murphy was that guy against just about every team in the league.

Years since being converted from catcher to the outfield, the 26-year-old would hit four homers during the team’s unforgettable 13-game win streak to begin the 1982 season. They would go on to win the division for the first time since 1969. While they wouldn’t return to the postseason until they became an NL powerhouse in the early 90s, Murphy and the Braves were a force to be reckoned with for a few years.

1984 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Ryne Sandberg CHC 24 Trade (PHI) Jan’82 700 19 32 .887 142 8.0
2nd Keith Hernandez NYM 30 Trade (STL) Jun’83 657 15 2 .859 146 5.7
3rd Tony Gwynn SDP 24 Drafted 3rd Rd (58) ’81 675 5 33 .853 144 6.3

Following the 1981 season, the Phillies had a decision to make, as longtime shortstop Larry Bowa was nearing the end of his career. Would they hand over the reins to prospect Ryne Sandberg, a shortstop who appeared to be better-suited for second or third base? They obviously didn’t need a third baseman with Schmidt there, and he was blocked at second base by All-Star and Gold Glove winner Manny Trillo. The decision was made to fill the opening via trade, and it was quite regrettable. The price to acquire Ivan De Jesus, the Cubs’ shortstop for the previous five seasons, was Bowa and Sandberg.

The trade didn’t pay immediate dividends for the Cubs as Sandberg struggled at the plate for two seasons. But after moving to third base in 1982, he found a home the following season when he was a Gold Glove second baseman. In 1984, it would all come together; the 24-year-old had 74 extra base hits for a Cubs team that reached the playoffs for the first time in 39 years.

1985 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Willie McGee STL 26 Trade (NYY) Oct’81 652 10 56 .887 151 7.1
2nd Dave Parker CIN 34 Free Agent (PIT) Dec’83 694 34 5 .916 145 5.4
3rd Pedro Guerrero LAD 29 Trade (CLE) Apr’74 581 33 12 .999 181 7.8

For a short period of time, Whitey Herzog held the dual roles of manager and general manager for the St. Louis Cardinals. A few months prior to Joe McDonald taking over as general manager early in the 1982 season, Herzog the GM made three trades that would help Herzog the manager. In less than a two-month span, he acquired Willie McGee from the New York Yankees, Lonnie Smith from the Philadelphia Phillies, and future Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith from the San Diego Padres. All three starred during their debut season for the eventual World Series champions.

It’s not clear why the Yankees traded McGee for 26-year-old pitcher Bob Sykes, who had a 4.58 ERA for the Cardinals in 1981 and more walks than strikeouts. The left-hander had shown some promise as a starting pitcher earlier in his career and McGee was a minor leaguer on a team that typically had established veterans in their outfield.

In any case, it was one of the bigger blunders in Yankees’ history. Sykes never pitched again due to injuries while McGee was an integral part of the Cardinals for several years. In 1985, arguably the best season of his 18-year career, the 26-year-old switch-hitter led the majors with a .353 batting average, 18 triples, and a career-high 56 stolen bases.

1986 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Mike Schmidt PHI 36 Drafted 2nd Rd (30) ’71 657 37 1 .937 148 5.8
2nd Glenn Davis HOU 25 Drafted 1st Rd (5) ’81 654 31 3 .837 134 4.2
3rd Gary Carter NYM 32 Trade (MON) Dec’84 573 24 1 .776 115 3.8

When Mike Schmidt made his major league debut in September 1972, his new teammate, Steve Carlton, was on his way to winning the NL Cy Young award and the Triple Crown (league leader in wins, ERA, and strikeouts) in his first season with the Phillies. Fourteen seasons later, the 41-year-old Carlton was released mid-season after posting a 6.18 ERA in 16 starts, ending his legendary run with the team. Schmidt’s career was also close to the end, although he was still going strong in 1986.

Even at age 36, Schmidt was one of the most feared hitters in the game. In addition to leading the league in both homers and runs batted in for the fourth time in his career, he had a career-high 25 intentional walks. After playing the majority of his games at first base the previous season, he moved back across the diamond and locked up his 10th and final Gold Glove in 1986.

1987 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Andre Dawson CHC 32 Free Agent (MON) Mar’87 662 49 11 .896 124 3.5
2nd Ozzie Smith STL 32 Trade (SDP) Dec’81 706 0 43 .775 114 6.3
3rd Jack Clark STL 31 Trade (SFG) Feb’85 559 35 1 1.055 176 5.7

When a player of Andre Dawson’s status reaches free agency and receives no offers, other than a two-year, $2 million contract that he felt was insufficient to re-sign with the Montreal Expos, it’s apparent that something weird is going on. But it wasn’t a new weird thing going on. You’ll probably find it hard to believe — no you won’t — that baseball owners were found to have colluded against players in 1985, 1986, and 1987.  In order to keep salaries from escalating, they wouldn’t pursue free agents from other teams — only four free agents switched teams in each of the offseasons following the 1986 and 1987 seasons — leaving the player no choice but to re-sign with their previous club without any chance for a bidding war.

But Dawson wasn’t haven’t it. Instead of staying with Montreal, where he was a three-time All-Star, six-time Gold Glove winner, and NL Rookie of the Year, the 32-year-old decided to give the team of his choice, the Chicago Cubs, an opportunity to sign him to a “blank contract” that management felt was fair and appropriate. They signed him to a one-year, $500,000 contract with incentives in March. It was a low-ball offer, but “The Hawk” kept his word and signed the deal. Then he went out and proved that he deserved much more. Following the season, he signed a new three-year contract worth more than $6 million to remain with the Cubs.

1988 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Kirk Gibson LAD 31 Free Agent (DET) Jan’88 632 25 31 .860 150 6.2
2nd Darryl Strawberry NYM 26 Drafted 1st Rd (1) ’80 640 39 29 .911 159 5.3
3rd Kevin McReynolds NYM 28 Trade (SDP) Dec’86 600 27 21 .832 144 4.0

Kirk Gibson signed a three-year, $4.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers shortly after an arbitrator ruled that he and six other players would become free agents because of the owner’s aforementioned collusion. A month earlier, the Dodgers and Tigers had discussed a trade that would have sent Pedro Guerrero to Detroit for Gibson. Either way, the Dodgers were determined to bring Gibson aboard for the 1988 season.

After a stellar regular season, in which he edged out Mets’ star Darryl Strawberry for MVP honors, Gibson limped his way through the NLCS and was unavailable for the World Series. Well, aside from one pinch-hit appearance in Game One.

1989 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Kevin Mitchell SFG 27 Trade (SDP) Jul’87 640 47 3 1.023 184 6.9
2nd Will Clark SFG 25 Drafted 1st Rd (2) ’85 675 23 8 .953 174 8.1
3rd Pedro Guerrero STL 33 Trade (LAD) Aug’88 665 17 2 .868 147 3.1

The seven-player trade between the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres on July 5, 1987 wasn’t a deal centered around soon-to-be superstar slugger Kevin Mitchell. At the time of the deal, the Padres were well out of playoff contention. The Giants were in third place, but only 5 1/2 games out in the division. If they were to make a run, they needed pitching help, which the Padres provided in veteran lefties Dave Dravecky and Craig Lefferts. Not convinced that Mitchell was their answer at the hot corner, the Padres also included him in the deal to acquire 26-year-old third baseman Chris Brown, an All-Star in 1986, along with pitchers Keith Comstock, Mark Davis (future Cy Young winner), and Mark Grant (future Padres’ broadcasting legend).

While Dravecky and Lefferts each pitched well, contributing to the Giants’ first division title in 16 seasons, it was Mitchell who made the biggest splash with 15 homers and a .906 OPS as the team’s starting third baseman. After a disappointing follow-up season in 1988, the Giants would move the defensively-challenged Mitchell to left field, a position he’d have to learn to play under challenging circumstances at windy Candlestick Park. While he might be best known for his famous barehanded catch on April 26, the 27-year-old would have a monster season at the plate for the eventual National League champs.

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2 years ago

I really enjoy this series. Although some of it is info I already knew (i.e. Mike Schmidt’s dominance), you paint these seasons in a different light. I feel like the seasons come more alive now as opposed to just being a table of data.