On MLB Monday, we’ve reached that weird season where a mid-year players’ strike stopped the game in its tracks. In essence, each of the four divisions at the time had two champions, which could make things more complicated for our awards analyses. Most teams ended up playing around 105-110 games, so the WAR marks are a bit skewed from normal in the explorations below.
Now, on with the crazy show for these awards in a messed-up season!
1981 AL MVP: Rollie Fingers (original), Rickey Henderson (revised)
With 4.2 WAR, Milwaukee Brewers reliever/closer Rollie Fingers won both the AL MVP and Cy Young votes. It was a shorter, weird season, but we still can’t forgive the voters, as Fingers finished third on his own team for WAR. Our real list of MVP candidates is as follows: Boston Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans (6.7), Oakland Athletics left fielder Rickey Henderson (6.7), Texas Rangers third baseman Buddy Bell (6.2), and California Angels second baseman Bobby Grich (5.5).
Grich, of course, won this award from us in both 1973 and 1974, but this time around, his team finished under .500, without truly competing for a postseason spot. The Red Sox finished 1.5 games out of first in the second half of the season, after finishing 4 games out in the first half, so Evans gets some love there. The A’s topped the AL with 64 victories on the year, coming the closest to sweeping both halves of the season: Henderson matters. The Rangers were the second-best AL West team behind Oakland, although they didn’t win either half.
Evans and Bell pretty much fall into the same category: They were great, and they almost got their teams to a postseason spot before falling short. Meanwhile, Henderson was great, too, and his team was the best in the league because of his contributions: He hit .319 while topping the AL in runs (89), hits (135), and stolen bases (56), while also posting 2.0 dWAR with an .845 OPS. He gets our nod, readily.
1981 NL MVP: Mike Schmidt (original), Andre Dawson (revised)
The two best players in the senior circuit, by far, were Philadelphia Phillies 3B Mike Schmidt (7.7) and Montréal Expos center fielder Andre Dawson (7.5). Schmidt has won this award from us three times already (1977, 1978, 1980), and he won the vote this time around as well. With the Phillies and the Expos each winning one half of the NL East crown, this is going to be a crazy analysis to sort through for the MVP Award.
Overall, Montréal was one half game better than Philly for the full season. Here are the vitals:
- Schmidt: 78 runs, 31 HRs, 91 RBI, 73 BBs, .316 average, .434 OBP, .644 SLG, 1.080 OPS, 228 TBs, 18 IBBs
- Dawson: 71 runs, 24 HRs, 64 RBI, 26 SBs, .302 average, .918 OPS, 218 TBs, 7 HBPs, 2.2 dWAR
Schmidt had the dominant offensive season, of course, while Dawson was better on defense by 0.9 dWAR—that’s the difference in the overall standings, really. The vote winners here often have the big numbers at the plate, although there is certainly nothing wrong with Dawson’s all-around offensive game. But even Schmidt stole 12 bases as well.
The league-leading mark for intentional walks that Schmidt posted was only 4 IBBs better than Dawson’s number. Both guys carried their teams to some extent here. The Phils won the first half by 4 games over the Expos, while Montréal won the second half by 4.5 games over Philadelphia. Here’s one key note, though: The Expos won 30 games in each half of the season, showing consistency, while the Phillies actually finished under .500 in the second half.
Is that Schmidt’s fault? Probably not, but we like Montréal’s steadier play throughout the season, and we’re going to give that credit to Dawson here. Plus, in the end, his team did edge out Schmidt’s by a half game overall, and without Dawson and his stellar defense, they don’t do that. Schmidt may have been the better player overall, but value matters more here. Dawson adds to his 1977 NL ROTY Award here with this piece of hardware.
1981 AL Cy Young: Rollie Fingers (original), Steve McCatty (revised)
The five best pitchers in the junior circuit were Cleveland Indians veteran Bert Blyleven (5.6), Oakland workhorse Steve McCatty (4.5), Toronto Blue Jays phenom Dave Stieb (4.4), Fingers (4.2), and Chicago White Sox youngster Britt Burns (3.9). We know Fingers won the vote, as the Brew Crew finished with the best record in the AL East, winning the second half. Cleveland did finish over .500, but the club never really contended in either half.
We know how the A’s did, while the Blue Jays finished in last place, well under .500 for the year combined.The White Sox were a little better than Cleveland, overall, but Burns has the lowest WAR mark here, so for us this comes down to McCatty and Fingers—which is a tough comparison to parse:
- McCatty: 14-7, 2.33 ERA, 1.083 WHIP, 4 shutouts, 185 2/3 IP
- Fingers: 6-3, 1.04 ERA, 0.872 WHIP, 28 saves, 78 IP
The two have equal value to us in terms of team contributions relative to the standings, and each led the league in something: McCatty in wins, ERA, and shutouts; Fingers in saves. Throwing in the IP total, it’s more meaningful to have a starter throw a lot of quality innings. This is not to undervalue the “save” as we know it, but in the end, it’s the volume of the quality provided that gives McCatty the edge here in WAR. We will stick with that ourselves.
1981 NL Cy Young: Fernando Valenzuela (original), Steve Carlton (revised)
Fernandomania! Yeah, that was a big MLB story in 1981, for sure, as Los Angeles Dodgers rookie starter Fernando Valenzuela (4.8 WAR) won the NL Cy vote, but there were four other legit contenders, too: Phillies legend Steve Carlton (5.5), Houston Astros fireballer Nolan Ryan (4.7), Dodgers southpaw Jerry Reuss (4.1), and Cincinnati Reds star Tom Seaver (4.0). That is a serious list of incredible names.
With the two starters from the L.A. staff, it’s clear both of them had comparable value as the Dodgers claimed the first half of the NL West Division title—canceling each other out, in truth. We know the Phillies played well enough to make the postseason, while the Astros won the second half of the NL West Division title. The Reds actually posted the best record in baseball with 66 victories, but they lost out in the first half by one half game to the Dodgers—and lost the second half by 1.5 games to the Astros!
Either way, Seaver’s WAR mark is too low to compete with Carlton’s mark, as is Ryan’s effort. All these guys had amazing seasons, in truth:
- Carlton: 13-4, 2.42 ERA, 1.126 WHIP, 190 IP, 179 Ks
- Valenzuela: 13-7, 2.48 ERA, 1.045 WHIP, 192 1/3 IP, 180 Ks
- Ryan: 11-5, 1.69 ERA, 1.121 WHIP, 149 IP, 140 Ks
- Reuss: 10-4, 2.30 ERA, 1.081 WHIP, 152 2/3 IP
- Seaver: 14-2, 2.54 ERA, 1.118 WHIP, 166 1/3 IP
Again, we think it was the L.A. “hype” factor that handed this award to Fernando, but it should be Carlton’s hardware, as his season was slightly better on paper and significantly better in sabermetric value. This is Lefty’s third NL Cy from us, adding to his 1972 and 1980 campaigns. Remember, we took away his award in 1977 as well.
1981 AL ROTY: Dave Righetti (original, confirmed)
This award is easy to confirm for vote-winner Dave Righetti of the New York Yankees. The rookie starting pitcher doubled up every other first-year player in the AL when it comes to WAR (3.5). The Yankees won the first half of the AL East Division, and Rags did his part with an 8-4 record, a 2.05 ERA, a 1.073 WHIP, and 89 Ks in 105 1/3 IP.
1981 NL ROTY: Fernando Valenzuela (original, confirmed)
Fernando gets to keep his NL ROTY trophy, for sure, although we do want to give a shout out to Expos left fielder Tim Raines (3.5 WAR) for his all-around effort in getting his team to the postseason: .304 average, .829 OPS, 71 SBs, and 45 BBs. Those steals led the NL, too.