Rabbit Ball: the wacky 1987 baseball season

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1987 was the first year I truly started paying attention to baseball statistics. I didn’t really get to watch any baseball; while I experienced the 1986 Braves season and that year’s playoffs on TV, I was without cable the following few years and NBC never came in very well through our antenna. However, I did start playing Little League, seriously collecting baseball cards and reading about Rotisserie League Baseball. Thus, baseball — and especially the numbers — became a big part of my life at age nine.

1987 was also the oddest baseball season in my lifetime. Maybe the oddest since World War II or even 1900, going by the numbers. That year’s stats would fit in nicely in 1935 or 2000, but they stick out like a sore thumb in the middle of what was a pitcher friendly era.

Most home runs in a season – 1980s

Andre Dawson – 49 – 1987
Mark McGwire – 49 – 1987
Mike Schmidt – 48 – 1980
George Bell – 47 – 1987
Kevin Mitchell – 47 – 1989
Dale Murphy – 44 – 1987

Highest OPS in a season – 1980s

George Brett – 1.118 – 1980
Jack Clark – 1.055 – 1987
Wade Boggs – 1.049 – 1987
Kevin Mitchell – 1.023 – 1989
George Brett – 1.022 – 1985
Mike Schmidt – 1.004 – 1980
Paul Molitor – 1.003 – 1987
Pedro Guerrero – .999 – 1985
Dale Murphy – .997 – 1987
Reggie Jackson – .995 – 1980
Eric Davis – .991 – 1987
Mark McGwire – .986 – 1987
Dwight Evans – .986 – 1987
Darryl Strawberry – .981 – 1987

That’s eight of the top 14 in the decade from 1987. If I went down further, it’d be 14 of the top 25, with Tony Gwynn, Bell, Guerrero, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell and Will Clark all joining the list.

In writing up some of Andre Dawson’s comments a couple of days ago, I made the point that Dawson might not be a Hall of Famer today if not for the unique conditions of 1987. A couple of people actually countered my assertion that there was anything different about that season. I think 14 of the top 25 OPSs of the decade makes a pretty good case that there was.

You’ll notice Dawson’s name isn’t anywhere in the above OPS list. Of course, 1987 was his MVP season, thanks to his NL-leading 49 homers and 137 RBI. However, his .287/.328/.568 line gave him just the league’s 10th best OPS. His 130 OPS+ that season was the seventh best mark of his career. Many would argue that he was a better player in his days with the Expos.

1987 saw 79 different players hit 20 homers, far and away a new major league record.

Players with 20+ homers:

1982 – 51
1983 – 41
1984 – 45
1985 – 59
1986 – 60
1987 – 79
1988 – 45
1989 – 38
1990 – 45
1991 – 51
1992 – 37
1993 – 62 (expansion)

The number likely would have increased steadily from there if not for the strike cutting into the 1994 and 1995 seasons. 1987’s record was broken in 1996 (83 players). That was the first of nine straight seasons with 80, topping out at 103 in 1999 and 102 in 2000. As you surely guessed, it’s slipped again of late, going from 92 to 87 to 77 to 68 to 79 the last five years.

Among the players to hit 20 homers in 1987 was future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs. One of the most intelligent hitters in the game’s history, Boggs probably could have hit 20 homers annually if he wanted to. 1987, though, was the only season he thought it made sense to do so. Outside of his 24 that year, his high water mark for homers was 11.

Back to Dawson for a second. Apart from 1987’s 49-homer campaign, his career high for homers was 32. But then he was far from the only Cub to set a career high for homers that year.

– First baseman Leon Durham had 27, five more than in any other season. It was his last useful season before substance-abuse problems ended his career.

– Third baseman Keith Moreland had 27, 11 more than his next best total. He hit 11 more total in his career.

– Left fielder Jerry Mumphrey hit 13 in 309 at-bats. He previously had six seasons of at least 400 at-bats, yet he had never topped nine homers. He finished his career with 73 homerless at-bats in 1988.

– Infielder Manny Trillo had eight homers in 214 at-bats as a 36-year-old utilityman, an average of one every 27 at-bats. He had 53 homers in his other 5,736 major league at-bats, an average of one every 108 at-bats.  After 1987, he’d have 205 more major league at-bats and hit one homer.

– Outfielder Bob Dernier hit eight homers in 199 at-bats, twice as many as he had ever hit previously. He averaged a homer every 25 at-bats that year and one every 152 at-bats over the rest of his 10-year career.

Rafael Palmeiro, for what it’s worth, did not hit for his highest homer total as a 22-year-old rookie for the Cubs in 1987. However, after hitting 14 in 221 at-bats that year, he went on to hit a total of 16 in 1,139 at-bats over the next two years. He didn’t top 14 until 1991, though he did it a few times after that.

1987 also produced some weird statistics on the pitching side, most notably Nolan Ryan leading the NL in ERA while going 8-16 for Houston. Rick Sutcliffe led the NL with 18 wins, which was the lowest total ever to lead the league in a non-strike year until 2006 came along. That result helped produce a remarkably close Cy Young race, with closer Steve Bedrosian (57 points) edging out Sutcliffe (55) and Rick Reuschel (54).

The MVP balloting, of course, gets a very bad rap these days, with WAR saying that neither Dawson nor AL winner George Bell were among the 10 best players in their respective leagues.   WAR says Gwynn, who hit .370/.447/.511 to Dawson’s .287/.328/.568, was the NL’s top player, with Eric Davis next in line. WAR ranks Cy Young winner Roger Clemens first in the AL, with Boggs and Trammell not far behind. Trammell finished a close second to Bell in the balloting, claiming 12 first-place votes to Bell’s 16.

So, that’s a bit about 1987. MLB has never gone on record about what exactly changed inside the baseball to produce the unique season, but whatever alterations were made were quickly reversed afterwards.

I should also probably mention here that the Twins beat the Cardinals in the World Series, with Frank Viola capping a terrific season by winning Games 1 and 7 (he lost Game 4) and taking home MVP honors.

Of course, having had a bedtime, I don’t really remember much of that happening. However, I’m pretty sure I’ll always remember 49 (Dawson and McGwire) and 47 (Bell).

Athletics call up top prospect Franklin Barreto

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The Athletics called up their top prospect on Saturday, inserting shortstop Franklin Barreto into the lineup for their second game against the White Sox. Barreto was originally scheduled to make his major league debut on Sunday, but got a head start after Jed Lowrie sustained a minor knee sprain in Friday’s 3-0 win and was scratched from Saturday’s lineup.

Barreto, 21, has been rapidly climbing the rungs of the A’s minor league system after getting dealt by the Blue Jays in 2014. He got his first taste of Triple-A action late last year, going 6-for-17 with three RBI and getting caught stealing in two attempts. He fared little better this spring, slashing .281/.326/.428 with eight home runs and a .754 OPS through his first 309 PA in Nashville.

While his minor league production has been solid, if underwhelming for a prospect of his caliber, the A’s are expected to give the rookie infielder a long leash with both Marcus Semien and Chad Pinder sitting on the disabled list. Pinder landed on the 10-day DL after suffering a left hamstring strain on Friday. Semien, meanwhile, is still working his way back from the 60-day DL with a right wrist fracture and likely won’t rejoin the team until he completes a rehab assignment with High-A Stockton.

And That Happened: Friday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the rest of Friday’s scores and highlights:

Red Sox 9, Angels 4: David Ortiz commanded center stage at Fenway Park for the first time since 2016, becoming the 10th player in franchise history to have his number retired. The club hung his jersey number between those of Wade Boggs and Jackie Robinson and invited the slugger to toss out the ceremonial first pitch, which landed just a few feet wide of the plate:

Following the ceremony, the Red Sox capped their tribute with a decisive 9-4 win over the visiting Angels, powered by 6 1/3 innings of four-run ball from Rick Porcello and a two-RBI performance from Sandy Leon. They remain tied with the Yankees for first place in the AL East.

Nationals 6, Reds 5 (10 innings): Bryce Harper came through in the clutch on Friday, walking off on a two-out single in the 10th after Brian Goodwin tied the game with a home run in the seventh inning. It was the first lead the Nats held all night after the Reds’ offense erupted with a four-run inning to start the game, and, thankfully, the only one they needed to preserve a nine-game advantage in the NL East.

Yankees 2, Rangers 1 (10 innings): Everyone was a winner on Friday — well, except for the Rangers. The Yankees clung to first place with an airtight performance from Masahiro Tanaka, who matched Yu Darvish inning-for-inning and finished the night with just three hits, two walks and nine strikeouts. The offense did the rest, saving their first run for the ninth inning on Brett Gardner‘s one-out home run and securing the win with Ronald Torreyes‘ walk-off hit in the 10th.

If it feels like it’s been a while since the Yankees won a game via walk-off, that’s because they haven’t done it since April:

Marlins 2, Cubs 0: Giancarlo Stanton won’t get a chance to defend his Home Run Derby title for a few more weeks, but he got plenty of practice against the Cubs this weekend. He fueled the Marlins’ shutout with a 458-foot blast, putting the club on the board in the third inning and lending some support to Jose Urena‘s fifth win of the season.

Rays 15, Orioles 5: According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Orioles have allowed a cumulative 160 runs over their last 20 games. They took their sixth double-digit defeat in that span on Friday, handing the Rays a 10-run lead after Tampa Bay engineered three separate innings of 4+ runs. To say that Baltimore skipper Buck Showalter is concerned about his rotation is an understatement. Via MLB.com’s Brittany Ghiroli:

Got to pitch better. It is what it is. The help’s going to come from within,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “We got to get back in step and create some rhythm for the offense, and even the defense gets out of step when the game’s being played so choppy and not very crisp. I really don’t like hanging it around one phase of it, but it starts if we could just string some good starts together. You can get into some type of rhythm.

Twins 5, Indians 0: The Twins entered a pivotal series this weekend as they attempt to unseat the Indians from first place, and Friday’s 5-0 shutout saw them pull within two games of the division lead. Adalberto Mejia strung five scoreless innings together, flummoxing the Indians at the plate with two hits, five walks and four strikeouts en route to his second win of the year. Not only was it the first win Mejia recorded since the Twins’ doubleheader last month, but it was the first time the southpaw managed to log more than 100 pitches in any major league start to date.

Braves 5, Brewers 4: Just call Dansby Swanson the next time you need a save. The Braves’ shortstop was instrumental in the team’s nail-biting finish on Friday evening, executing a run-saving fielder’s choice to catch Eric Thames off the third base bag in the ninth inning and helping right-hander Arodys Vizcaino secure his first save of the year with a diving stop to end the game.

Athletics 3, White Sox 0: The A’s finally brought their four-game skid to a halt, coasting to their second shutout of the season on five solid innings from right-hander Jharel Cotton. Cotton exited in the sixth inning with a blister on his pitching hand, but the bullpen kept things rolling against the White Sox with four scoreless frames. Khris Davis and Matt Joyce took care of things at the plate, muscling two home runs to give the A’s the edge they needed to lock down their 32nd win of the year.

Pirates 4, Cardinals 3: Jameson Taillon and Adam Wainwright were locked into a pitcher’s duel during the Cardinals’ home opener, holding their respective opponents to just two runs apiece over the first four innings. After Taillon’s exit in the sixth inning, the Cardinals jumped on reliever Daniel Hudson with a tie-breaking home run from Paul DeJong, but couldn’t quite close the door after the Pirates rebounded with a David Freese RBI single in the eighth inning. John Jaso smacked a game-winning home run in the ninth, securing the win and breaking the Bucs’ seven-game losing streak at Busch Stadium to boot.

Royals 5, Blue Jays 4: The Blue Jays appeared to be on the verge of a much-needed win on Friday, but some late-game struggles from the bullpen quickly unraveled eight innings of hard work. With two outs in the ninth inning, Alcides Escobar cut the Jays’ lead in half with an RBI single, followed by another from Alex Gordon and a game-winning two-run double off the bat of Whit Merrifield — the first walk-off of his major league career.

Phillies 6, Diamondbacks 1: Don’t look now, but the Phillies are… well, still in the last place. A 6-1 win is still worth celebrating, however, as they turned in an impressive four-run spread in the ninth inning to hand Mark Leiter his first win of the year. The Diamondbacks, on the other hand, now sit 2.5 games behind the division-leading Dodgers after squandering another quality start from left-hander Patrick Corbin.

Padres 1, Tigers 0: The Padres have won all but one home opener this season, and Friday’s 1-0 shutout was no exception. They continued their dominant streak with their fourth shutout of the year, backed by six innings of two-hit ball from right-hander Luis Perdomo. Despite Perdomo’s season-high five walks, not a single runner was able to advance past second base, gifting the Padres with a win after Austin Hedges doubled home the winning run in the second inning.

Mariners 13, Astros 3: Felix Hernandez may not look like the King the Mariners crowned back in 2010, but he certainly got the royal treatment upon his return from the disabled list on Friday night. The offense put up a sparkling 13 runs behind Hernandez’s six-inning, six-strikeout effort, topped by a trifecta of home runs from Mike Zunino, Ben Gamel and Kyle Seager. The double-digit finish extended the Mariners’ win streak to six games, giving Seattle hope that they’ll stick above .500 for more than a couple of days.

Dodgers 6, Rockies 1: The Dodgers steamrolled the Rockies to their eighth consecutive win on Friday, extending Alex Wood‘s record to 8-0 with 6 1/3 innings of a three-hitter. The Rockies struck early on an RBI double from Tom Murphy in the second, but found themselves unable to move a runner past first base in any subsequent inning. With the win, the Dodgers are now 14-1 in their last 15 contests, good for the best record in the majors, though they’ll need more than a couple of wins to completely shake the Rockies and Diamondbacks from contention.

Mets 11, Giants 4: The Giants took one step forward and two steps back this week, earning their 10th loss in 11 games after the Mets turned out an 11-run win on Friday. Ty Blach imploded after three innings with a career-high 11 hits and seven runs and failed to strike out a single batter. Club manager Bruce Bochy didn’t let his players off the hook, either, and told reporters that he wouldn’t excuse the team’s poor performance despite their early-morning arrival from Atlanta prior to the game. “Sure, we landed early in the morning, but it’s not the first time this has happened,” Bochy said. “You deal with it.”