“We Are Family” today on MLB Monday, for the last year of the 1970s has arrived. We have some controversy to sort through with a few of the major awards below, as well. So it’s a column to remember, for sure, although, let’s be honest: All these columns are memorable!
So, here we go again with our analyses of the professional baseball in America award winners …
1979 AL MVP: Don Baylor (original), George Brett (revised)
Six AL position players finished in the MLB Top 10 for WAR, and none of the six was AL MVP vote winner Don Baylor (3.7), outfielder for the California Angels. His brutal -2.4 dWAR cost him, for sure, but the voters just saw his 36 home runs and 139 RBI before blindly submitting their ballots. This is one of the worst votes ever, really, so there’s no way Baylor keeps this honor.
The aforementioned six studs are Boston Red Sox centerfielder Fred Lynn (8.9), Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett (8.6), Royals catcher Darrell Porter (7.6), Texas Rangers 3B Buddy Bell (6.9), Red Sox left fielder Jim Rice (6.4), and Royals LF Willie Wilson (6.3). That’s a collection, for sure. Normally, the teammates would cancel each other out, but we’re not sure if that’s doable here, as we delve deeper into the data.
Kansas City (85-77) finished 3 games behind California in the AL West, while Texas finished 2 games behind the Royals. In the AL East, Boston (91-69) finished a whopping 11.5 games behind the Baltimore Orioles. Lynn’s season isn’t quite historic enough, and with Rice on board, too, the Red Sox clearly couldn’t put it together. So that kind of drops both Boston players from MVP consideration.
That trio of Royals all were key in the K.C. finish, as without any single one of them, the Rangers would have finished second. We can drop Bell, because even with him, Texas could barely climb above .500 for the year. So how do we separate the three Royals? We start with defense, of course.
All three played key positions: Brett (2.0 dWAR), Porter (1.8 dWAR), and Wilson (2.0 dWAR) clearly stood out with the gloves. Brett topped the AL in hits (212) and triples (20), while hitting .329 overall and posting a .939 OPS. Porter led the league in walks (121) and sacrifice flies (13), while hitting .291 and posting a .905 OPS. Wilson was better than all his peers with 83 stolen bases while delivering a .315 batting average.
In the end, we have to go with Brett, for his overall excellence and the WAR margin over his teammates. This is a unique situation, of course, but we feel confident that this award should be his. This is Brett’s third nod from us in four years (1976 and 1977, for starters), and it’s also the fourth season in a row we picked a Royals player. This was clearly an underrated franchise at the time, due to its inability to reach/win the World Series.
1979 NL MVP: Keith Hernandez & Willie Stargell (original), Dave Parker (revised)
In our first tie vote of this awards season, we see 39-year old Willie Stargell—first baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates—winning “half” the MVP Award with just 2.5 WAR (including -1.0 dWAR). Sentimentality aside, he played in just 126 games and finished ninth on his own team in WAR. We loved Pops, too, but this is just a disgraceful vote.
Meanwhile, the four best players in the league were San Diego Padres left fielder Dave Winfield (8.3), Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt (7.9), St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Keith Hernandez (7.6), and Pirates right fielder Dave Parker (6.7). Remember last year when Schmidt took away Parker’s award? We do.
But we digress: The Padres won 68 games and finished 22 games out of first place. That eliminates Winfield from consideration. Philadelphia won 84 games to finish 14 games behind Pittsburgh, so Schmidt doesn’t have a great case, either. St. Louis won just 86 games to barely pass the Phillies in the NL East standings, while the Pirates won the division with 98 victories.
Can we overlook Parker’s -0.5 dWAR? Pittsburgh finished 2 games ahead of the surprising Montréal Expos, so Parker’s defense wasn’t too problematic. He certainly wasn’t as “good” as he was in 1978, but these awards are so often quite situational, and with the better players finishing as also-ran contenders, Parker’s circumstances dictate this award. We’re not 100-percent sold on this, but it seems like the right choice this time around.
His traditional stats: 25 HRs, 94 RBI, 20 SBs, .310 average, .906 OPS, 327 TB, and 9 sac flies (NL best). His TB total was just 13 bases less than the prior year, so maybe his season wasn’t that much “less” all things considered.
1979 AL Cy Young: Mike Flanagan (original), Jim Kern (revised)
In yet another mystifying vote, Baltimore veteran Mike Flanagan (3.8 WAR) won the AL Cy vote as the Orioles won 102 games to win the AL East by 8 games over the Milwaukee Brewers. There’s no way to justify this, as voters clearly just gave it to Flanagan for his AL-best 23 victories. His overall numbers are solid, but that WAR mark is not stellar enough to claim this award.
Meanwhile, the top 5 pitchers in the junior circuit were Minnesota Twins stalwart Jerry Koosman (7.2), Boston phenom Dennis Eckersley (7.2), New York Yankees southpaw Ron Guidry (6.5), Rangers closer Jim Kern (6.1), and Detroit Tigers youngster Jack Morris (5.8). The Twinkies finished fourth in the AL West, one game behind the Rangers. The Yankees finished 2 games behind the Red Sox, and the Tigers were 4.5 games behind New York.
Morris is out, therefore, and we can set Guidry aside, as well. Koosman and Kern might be considered equal in value, with the gap between their respective teams, while Eckersley was good for a team that was too far out of it (just like Lynn and Rice above). So, if this comes down to Koosman and Kern, where do we go?
We will say this: Koosman gave up more hits than innings pitched, despite winning 20 games. His 1.331 WHIP is also pretty mediocre. Meanwhile, Kern was outstanding: 13-5, 1.57 ERA, 29 saves, 136 Ks, and a 1.126 WHIP in 143 IP. No way the Rangers get within sniffing distance of the Angels without those incredibly high-quality innings. That is that, and we know most of you are asking yourselves, “Who the heck is Jim Kern?!” We get it.
1979 NL Cy Young: Bruce Sutter (original), J.R. Richard (revised)
Chicago Cubs closer Bruce Sutter (4.9 WAR) won the NL Cy vote, despite the Cubs finishing under .500 and 18 games out of first place. Relievers can obviously win these awards, but Sutter’s season just isn’t good enough in our estimation to warrant this honor. The real candidates were Atlanta Braves legend Phil Niekro (7.4), Chicago Cubs starter Rick Reuschel (5.7), and Houston Astros fireballer J.R. Richard (5.6).
Since Sutter wasn’t even the most-valuable Cubs pitcher, we won’t give him this award under any circumstances. With 66 wins, the Braves stunk, so Niekro can’t win a third NL Cy from us. Meanwhile, the Astros finished just 1.5 games out of first place, posting 89 victories to finish second behind Cincinnati in the NL West. That means it’s easy to give this award to Richard, and perhaps that is appropriate, as well.
His traditional stats: 18-13, 2.71 ERA, and 313 Ks. He topped the NL in ERA, Ks, fewest hits allowed per 9 IP (6.8), and most Ks per 9 IP (9.6). He also tossed 19 complete games and 4 shutouts. He was in his prime, of course, when he was cut down by health problems during the 1980 season and never pitched in the majors again.
1979 AL ROTY: John Castino & Alfredo Griffin (original), Castino (revised)
Another tie vote! What the heck?! Four AL rookies posted at least 2.0 WAR, and two of them tied for the award: Twins 3B John Castino (2.0) and Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Alfredo Griffin (2.5). The other two standouts were Chicago White Sox pitcher Ross Baumgarten (3.9) and Yankees reliever Ron Davis (2.2). Since Toronto won just 53 times, Griffin isn’t winning this award, and Baumgarten actually walked more batters than he struck out.
The Yankees were a better team than the Twins, but Minnesota was more competitive in its division (see above). That means we can just give this award to Castino alone. His stats (.285 average, 0.7 dWAR) aren’t special at all, but he was the most valuable rookie of the AL bunch in 1979.
1979 NL ROTY: Rick Sutcliffe (original), Jeffrey Leonard (revised)
Only two NL rooks posted 2.0 WAR or higher, and Los Angeles Dodgers starter Rick Sutcliffe (4.1) won the vote. Meanwhile, Houston right fielder Jeffrey Leonard (2.0) also made meaningful contributions to his team’s finish in the standings. Sutcliffe was clearly the better player, but the Astros finished 10 games higher in the standings.
Leonard hit .290 with 23 steals while playing passable defense (0.1 dWAR) for a team that finished just 1.5 games out of first place. Sutcliffe tossed 242 innings (3.46 ERA, 1.298 WHIP) for an also-ran squad. We have to go with Leonard here, for the impact of his play on the pennant chase.