Rabbit Ball: the wacky 1987 baseball season

57 Comments

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).

And That Happened . . . Classic!

Wikimedia Commons
9 Comments

Due to the All-Star break, we now bring you a special “Classic” version of “And That Happened.” The following originally ran in the HardballTalk Tribune, the former print edition of this publication, on July 17 1949. Here are the scores. Here are the highlights: 

Reds 7, Dodgers 6: I haven’t seen Reds rally like this since Mao kicked Chiang Kai-shek’s butt over to Formosa! Brooklyn built a 4-1 lead after seven innings, but then Preacher Roe began to falter and Cincinnati clawed back. After a run on a fielder’s choice, Virgil Stallcup knocked in two with a single in the eighth to things at four. They’d trade runs and it was tied at five after nine, but Walker Cooper’s two-run homer in the top of the 10th gave the game to the visitors. This is a terrible Cincinnati team overall — you’re more likely to get a hit from a Red on the Hollywood 10 list than from one who plays in Crosley Field — but they really put it together yesterday afternoon.

Braves 9, Cubs 1: Pete Reiser tripled and knocked in three. I was thinking of ole Pistol Pete just four days ago when the owners got together and agreed to build warning paths before each fence in the outfield. Nice move, but it’s a few years too late for Pete, even if he’s still grinding it out. Meanwhile, Johnny Sain went the distance, allowing one run on six hits. Spahn won the day before. Consulting the forecast for the doubleheader in Cincinnati tomorrow now and . . . ugh, it looks sunny. I like the Reds’ chances. 

Indians 7, Athletics 3: Jim Hegan hit a three-run home run to lead the Tribe’s offense, but I’m more taken with what happened with their pitching. Steve Gromek got the “start” for the Indians, but he’s more often used as a relief pitcher. He pitched only an inning and a third, after which three other relievers — Mike Garcia, Gene Bearden and Satchel Paige — finished out the game. Seems like a kinda loopy thing to do, but it worked. I wonder if manager Lou Boudreau is trying out some sort of new strategy in which he just uses bullpen arms every few games for some reason? I’ll call it “Boudreu-ing.” I’m sure it won’t catch on.

White Sox 5, Senators 1: Cass Michaels hit a two-run double and a two-run single and Chisox starter Bob Kuzava allowed only an unearned run in a complete game. You won’t see a performance from Senators this bad until the real ones get together to ratify that “NATO” treaty next week. Don’t do it, fellas! Sure, NATO is great in theory — I’m all for stopping those Russkies before they can even get going — but this joint-defense thingamajig is TOTALLY dependent upon everyone agreeing its good and showing confidence in it! If even one country — one backwards banana republic that elects some tinpot wannabe dictator somehow — starts to undermine it, the thing will unravel and Russia’s power will grow immensely! This report hopes to God it doesn’t happen in his lifetime, but what about down the line? Hopefully the US of A will keep all of these other shaky members in line and backing their commitments.

Red Sox 11, Tigers 1: The Bosox beat the tar out of Virgil Trucks and Marv Grissom, with Williams, Doerr, Zarilla and Tebbetts each hitting homers and driving in multiple runs. The Tigers — as close to two games back of the Yankees in the American league a couple of times this year — need to get their pitching on track or else they’re gonna plummet faster than James Forrestal did in Bethesda.

Too soon?

Phillies 4, Cardinals 2: Willie Jones homered and singled in a run and the Phillies scored two more on an error and a wild pitch. Guess the catcher was more crossed-up by Harry Brecheen’s screwball than the Phillies were. Despite the win, the Phillies are struggling lately and remain 6.5 back in the National League. A month ago they were only two games out. That injury to first baseman Eddie Waitkus (15-day DL, shot in the goddamn chest by obsessed fan Ruth Steinhagen) is really starting to affect them.

Browns 4, Yankees 2: 3,481 fans showed up for this one, which isn’t bad for a Browns game! They only played six innings here because of bad weather. It may have been the greatest game so far this season for the 25-55 Browns. As for the Yankees, yes, they’ve been doing OK, but rookie manager Casey Stengel is no Joe McCarthy, and I’d wager that last year’s third place finish is a more likely result this year than them staying in first place. The Red Sox are too strong and I think Boston will take the pennant. To be honest, those two clubs should investigate a big trade — Williams for DiMaggio — that helps unload each team’s biggest problem on the other. Do it Yawkey and MacPhail! 

Pirates 9, Giants 0; Pirates 7, Giants 6: From 30 feet away the Giants look like they have an OK lineup. From 10 feet away it looks like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away. At least that’s how it was in Game 1 of this twin bill when Bob Chenes shut ’em out. Wally Westlake — who hit two longballs — and the rest of the Pirates lineup beat Giants starter Clint Hartung’s teeth out and then kicked him in the stomach for mumbling. Game two was a closer affair. The Giants still couldn’t find a way to win but when you play extra innings you lose more slowly. The Giants were in first place for a time this year, but not anymore. Now they’re in the deep water. It’s dark and unclear and the taste of the salt is in their mouths. By the time the second game of the twin bill was over it was getting dark on the streets of the big city, with the rain-clouded lights of the stores soaked up by the black street.