George Bell - 1987 Topps All-Star

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).

Video: Minor leaguer dives over the wall to rob a home run

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Meanwhile, in Tulsa, Zach Welz of the visiting Arkansas Travelers made a spectacular catch. It was the catch Torii Hunter tried to make on that famous David Ortiz homer in the playoffs a few years back except Welz made it.

Watch as he topples over the wall to come up with the would-be dinger off the bat of Tulsa Drillers first baseman Cody Bellinger:

MLB, MLBPA move to help baseball in Puerto Rico. After hurting baseball in Puerto Rico.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - JUNE 30:  A Puerto Rican flag flies from a building a day after the speech Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla gave regarding the government's $72 billion debt on June 30, 2015 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The Governor said in his speech that the people will have to sacrifice and share in the responsibilities for pulling the island out of debt.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Yesterday Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Union announced that they will play games in Puerto Rico as part of a plan to develop and support baseball on the island. They likewise pledged $5 million for the creation of development programs in Puerto Rico and plan to stage special events there.

The press release about this made mention of Puerto Rico’s undeniably outstanding baseball tradition. What it did not mention is that, in the view of many, Major League Baseball itself harmed that tradition significantly when it decided to subject Puerto Rican players to the draft in 1990. A move that the MLBPA signed off on too, of course. Indeed, there’s a pretty strong argument that, if it were not for MLB and the MLBPA’s own acts, there would be no need to “develop and support” baseball in Puerto Rico like this at all.

An exploration of this can be read in this 2012 article from The New York Times. The article (and many, many others like it which have been written over the years) notes the sharp decline of Puerto Rico’s professional and amateur baseball leagues and observes that the once steady flow of players making their way from the island to the major leagues being reduced to a trickle.* (see update below) Why?

No one here disputes the diminished stature of baseball in Puerto Rico, and most agree on the culprit: Major League Baseball’s decision, in 1990, to include Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, in its first-year player draft. This means Puerto Rican players must wait until they have completed high school to sign a professional contract, and then they are going up against players from the United States and Canada in the draft.

Perhaps more important, major league teams have less incentive to cultivate talent in Puerto Rico because those players may end up with another team through the draft.

Sandy Alderson is quoted in that article dismissing the notion that the draft was to blame, but even his dodge is couched in basic economic incentives. He claims that, hey, there is stuff that is more financially lucrative for people to do in Puerto Rico than play baseball now. Well, sure. I’d just like him to explain how radically reducing the amount of money a kid can get from playing baseball due to taking away his right to sign with the highest bidder and by utterly killing the incentives for clubs to invest in developing players doesn’t enter into that calculus. Alderson doesn’t explain that one.

No matter what Major League Baseball might say on the record about all of this now, the fact remains that no one spent the past 26 years building academies in Puerto Rico like they have in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. No one has an incentive to turn a 12-year-old with promise into a 16-year-old prospect like they do in those countries because there is no longer any way for a teenager to sign for life-changing money like they can elsewhere. The draft has saved Major League Baseball hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to Puerto Rican players over the past 26 years and it has reduced the number of prospects who may push high-salaried MLBPA members out of work, but has done tremendous damage to the baseball tradition to which Major League Baseball and the MLBPA now pay lip service.

I’m glad that MLB and the MLBPA are doing something about baseball in Puerto Rico. But $5 million over the course of four or five years, which is what this plan involves, a couple of games (if they’re even played), doesn’t even represent a fraction of the damage that the league and the union inflicted when they imposed the draft.

UPDATE: A couple of people who know a hell of a lot about this stuff have pushed back against my post on Twitter:

Marcano has written a book about the excesses and abuses involved in the development of baseball talent in Latin America. He is 100% right about this and, to the extent my writing above made it sound like I was endorsing the model in place in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic on its own terms, I want to be clear that I am not. There is a lot of bad stuff that goes on there and for every kids signing a million dollar bonus, there are hundreds who find themselves at a professional dead end or far, far worse.

That said: Major League Baseball has no problem exploiting that system in those countries and its move to impose the draft in Puerto Rico was not born of some principled stand against those excesses. It was to be a foothold for an international draft which is primarily about cost savings. It would be quite possible to have a system in place that both (a) protects kids from abuses; but (b) provides the sorts of financial incentives to make baseball a worthwhile pursuit for those with the talent to play it.

Also:

Cooper, the managing editor of Baseball America, so he knows of what he speaks, notes that from 1987-1990, before the draft was imposed, 19 Puerto Ricans made their Major League debut. From 2000-03, 23 made their debuts. From 2013-16, 22 made their debuts.

That certainly blows my above comment about “reducing the flow of players to the majors to a trickle” out of the water. That said, Major League Baseball’s move yesterday was not just about the pipeline to the majors. It’s about baseball overall in Puerto Rico. Those numbers reflecting that the top eschelon of talent is still making it to the majors are undeniable, but the Times article from 2012 talks about the erosion of amateur leagues, Puerto Rico’s diminished standing in international tournaments and the reduction in size of the Puerto Rican winter league.

So, OK, I’ll walk back my comments about just how much the imposition of the draft in 1990 damaged baseball in Puerto Rico, but I maintain that it’s hard to argue that it did not do some damage.