It's been a while since we've heard the debate about how much team performance should affect voting for an individual award. The last MVP from a team that didn't reach the playoffs was Alex Rodriguez in 2003. My personal belief is that team performance doesn't really have much bearing based on the name and description of the award. The award is given to the Most Valuable Player... not the player who was most valuable on a team that won its division.
At any rate, I may already be getting off topic a bit. Today we're going to look back at the 1987 NL MVP race, which featured three prominent former Montreal Expos in the Top 10 (Dawson, Tim Wallach, Tim Raines). Dawson, who tied for the major league lead with 49 HR and led the majors with 137 RBI, won the award as a member of the last place Chicago Cubs (76-85). Wallach (4th) and Raines (7th) finished in the top ten of the balloting as members of the third place Montreal Expos (91-71). We're not going to spend much time focusing on Wallach, although the more advanced metrics often used today indicate that he actually may have had the second best season of the three. Instead, we're going to compare the two outfielders and figure out if the right one used the 1987 MVP award as a springboard into Cooperstown.
In 2010, Andre Dawson was elected into the MLB Hall of Fame. As an Expos fan, it was a terrific moment... even if The Hawk said he would have preferred to go in as a Cub. Cooperstown decided to have his plaque don an Expos cap for eternity, making him the franchise's second Hall of Famer (Gary Carter, 2003). I loved watching Dawson play, but I was iffy on his election into Cooperstown. Since we're looking at a career sample, let's stick primarily with surface stats... I'll tack on the Fangraphs and Baseball Reference WAR as well.
Dawson had some career achievements to go along with his stat line. He won the 1977 NL Rookie of the Year. He won the 1987 NL MVP and had three other top ten finishes (1980 [7th], 1981 [2nd], 1983 [2nd]). He was an eight time All Star, an eight time Gold Glover, and a four time Silver Slugger. He's also one of just eight players to join the career 300/300 (HR/SB) club*.
* That last one does sound prestigious, doesn't it? I'm not sure how Hall of Fame worthy it is. Steve Finley and Reggie Sanders are two of those eight players. They garnered a combined total of four Hall of Fame votes before dropping off the ballot. Both finished their careers with a better OBP than Dawson. Sanders actually also had a better slugging percentage... All four of their combined votes went to Finley.
Dawson was a decent average hitter. He wasn't a great on-base guy. I'm not obsessed with the 3,000 hit or 500 home run plateaus that we often hear about during Hall of Fame season, but he fell short in both of those areas.
The Hawk did peak early on in his career. He came up for a brief stint in 1976 and was productive almost immediately, winning the NL Rookie of the Year in 1977. By fWAR, his ultimate peak was from 1980-1983, when he averaged 6.625 WAR. He never had another season of higher than 4.2 fWAR (1988.... not 1987).
Dawson was the eighth best hitter in the majors per fWAR during the best decade long stretch of his playing career (1978-1988, 49.1 fWAR... actually, that's eleven years, but 1978 [4.0] and 1988 [4.2] are close enough so that we'll use that). Six of the seven hitters ahead of him in that span (Mike Schmidt, Rickey Henderson, George Brett, Gary Carter, Eddie Murray, Wade Boggs) are in the Hall of Fame. One (Keith Hernandez) is not. Alan Trammell, was ninth in that span. He fell just 0.1 WAR short of Dawson and didn't really start his peak until 1980 (0.4 WAR in 1979). Trammell got just 25.1% of the vote this year, his fourteenth on the ballot. He'll have one more shot.
What all this is leading up to is that statistically Dawson was a fringe guy in my eyes. What tends to help fringe guys when the statistics just don't quite make the voters put that check mark next to their name? Awards. As I mentioned above, Dawson won the 1977 NL Rookie of the Year and the 1987 NL MVP. We're going to come back to the 1987 NL MVP, which was probably the biggest feather in Dawson's cap, in a bit. First, let's look at the man we're comparing him to.
In 2015, Tim Raines' Hall of Fame candidacy made a move in the right direction. In his eighth year on the ballot, Raines jumped from 46.1% to 55.0%. Of course, Raines could end up being the first player with a real shot at the Hall of Fame to get jobbed by the decrease in the length of time a player can remain on the ballot. While the aforementioned Trammell will take his fifteenth and final shot at the Hall of Fame next year, Raines will only get ten tries. Anyway, let's start out by looking at those same surface stats we looked at with Dawson....
Raines wasn't as fortunate when award season came around as Dawson was. In Raines' rookie season (the strike shortened 1981 season), he finished second to Fernando Valenzuela in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting. He hit .304/.391/.438 and led the league with 71 stolen bases in 88 games, but Fernando was.... Fernando. Raines would go on to lead the NL in stolen bases in each of his first four seasons, swiping 70 or more bags in each of his first six.
Raines made seven All Star teams. He won one Silver Slugger (1986) and one batting title (1986... he also led the league in OBP that season). He led the league in runs twice, doubles once, and stolen bases four times. He had three top ten MVP finishes (1983 [5th], 1986 [6th], 1987 [7th]). Raines ranks fifth all-time with 808 stolen bases (Rickey Henderson, Billy Hamilton, Lou Brock, and Ty Cobb... all Hall of Famers ahead of him). He ranks fourteenth all-time with an 84.7% success rate, so it wasn't just volume.
Unlike Dawson, Raines was a leadoff hitter. This basically means that we're comparing apples to oranges. They had vastly different skill sets. Dawson was a decent hitter, a meh OBP guy, he ran a bit, he hit for power, and he drove runs in batting in the heart of the order. Raines' job atop the order was to get on base, create havoc, and score runs. He was the second greatest leadoff hitter of his generation... which happened to have the greatest leadoff hitter of all time (Henderson). He was a strong average hitter and an OBP machine who is fifth all-time in stolen bases.
Like Dawson, Raines falls short of that fabled 3,000 hit mark (2,605). That makes it time for me to go off on a little tangent....
Raines did reach base more times in his career (3,977-3,955) than Tony Gwynn (a well-deserved first ballot Hall of Famer who cleared 97.6%) in just 127 more plate appearances. That's a bit misleading, since Gwynn actually had a slight edge in OBP (.388-.385), but their profiles are more similar than you'd think.
- Raines hit 35 more home runs than Gwynn did in his career
- Gwynn had 148 more RBI than Raines did in his career, but Gwynn also hit third for most of his career, so there's that
- Raines made up the RBI difference (and then some) by using the leadoff spot to his advantage, scoring 188 more runs than Gwynn
- Gwynn had the better slugging percentage... but it's because his on-base skills were more geared towards hitting for average. Raines had the higher ISO (.131-.120) of the two
- Considering they got on base at a pretty similar rate in a similar number of plate appearances, Raines stole 808 bases to Gwynn's 319
Mind you, I'm not demeaning Gwynn's career. He was one of the all-time greats. He belongs in the Hall of Fame and deserved an obscenely high vote total. However, if we're looking more at OBP than batting average, were their two careers really that dissimilar? Looking at their numbers in context of career WAR (again... a whopping 127 PA difference, which constitutes about... five weeks?), both versions agree. Baseball Reference WAR has it at 69.1 to 68.8. Fangraphs WAR has it at 66.4 to 65.0. Tim Raines has the higher WAR by both formulas. Tony Gwynn got a well-deserved 97.6% of the vote on his first try. Tim Raines crept up to 55.0% of the vote on his eighth try. Something's wrong here....
Anyway.. Rant over....
Raines' ultimate peak lasted one year longer than Dawson's did, as he turned in five consecutive 6+ fWAR seasons from 1983-1987. He averaged 6.52 WAR over that span. His highest season total in fWAR outside of that span was 5.5 in 1992 with the Chicago White Sox. Using the same eleven year (extended decade?) model that we used for Dawson, we'll go from 1983-1993.
From 1983-1993, Raines had the sixth highest fWAR total in the major leagues with 53.7. Four of the five players that finished above him (Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken, Ryne Sandberg) are in the Hall of Fame. One (Barry Bonds) is not, but we know that has nothing to do with his statistical profile. The player behind Raines on that list (Ozzie Smith) was a first ballot Hall of Famer. Then we get the Tigers double play combination that has been criminally undervalued and four more Hall of Famers in the next group of five (Gwynn, Eddie Murray, Paul Molitor, Kirby Puckett).
Alas, let's get to that fateful 1987 season. It cemented Andre Dawson's Hall of Fame induction. I'm not sure I've ever heard that season, in which Raines finished seventh in the MVP voting, brought up with regard to Tim Raines' candidacy.
The year that changed their fate
Let's start with the MVP voting. We'll note that the star leadoff man for the 91-71 Montreal Expos didn't even lead his own team in the MVP voting. The slugger who had a career high 49 home runs (one of just three seasons in which he hit 30+, and his career high by 17) and drove in 137 runs (career best by 24) for the last place 76-85 Cubs must have had a pretty special season. Still, let's just start with the voting.
|Rank||Name||Tm||Vote Pts||1st Place|
Since I brought up Tim Wallach finishing ahead of Raines, let's do a side by side comparison between their stats for that season.
Now, I'm also a fan of Wallach. Some of you may recall me pining for him to replace Davey Johnson after 2013. He was a fantastic hitter and a staple at third base for the Expos for twelve years. However, when I see the dominance that Raines displayed over him in all three triple slash categories (yes... even a batting average driven slugging percentage), I just kind of wonder why the third place hitter on the Expos had the opportunity to drive in 123 runs. Could it have been because, I don't know, maybe Tim Raines was always on base in front of him? Since I keep bringing up that silly WAR statistic, Raines finished with 6.7 WAR by both versions... Wallach finished with 4.1 fWAR and 4.3 rWAR. Neither was particularly close.
Still, this is about Raines vs. Dawson, isn't it? How did the two of them compare?
Dawson hit a lot of home runs and drove in a ton of runs that season. Was he the best player in the league*? By the standards we use today, he most certainly was not. He was a good average hitter that didn't draw very many walks and hit the ball really far. How great was the NL MVP's OBP in 1987? It was exactly league average. The NL average triple slash line in 1987 was .261/.328/.404. Now, I know that slugging is a significant part of the game, and his slugging percentage did rank sixth (sixth?! Going into writing this article, I figured that he had to have led the league by a large margin here) and his ISO ranked fifth. That slugging percentage was 42 points higher than Tim Raines, which... well... it really doesn't negate Raines' 101 point OBP advantage.
*There's a good chance it wasn't either of them, but... narrative
I've already made reference to WAR, which any of our regular readers knew would be part of my argument. I don't consider WAR to be infallible. I don't consider it to be the only way that we can evaluate players. I do, however, think that it's the best tool that we have at our disposal to evaluate a player's total contribution in all areas of the game. When analyzing players with vastly different skill sets, I find that to be quite a valuable tool. Why?
It evaluates everything that a player does on the field and assigns value for each event that takes place. It then compares that value with what would be expected of a replacement player. Is each walk, hit, or stolen base as valuable as a home run? No. However, the value of a player reaching base more frequently (as well as other events after reaching, such as stealing bases [subtracting value for CS], taking the extra base, etc.) than another hitter will start to cancel out the home run disparity. Defensive performance factors in as well, which in my opinion is the area where WAR could still use the most improvement.
Let's have a look at how the primary components that go into determining WAR (Offensive RAA, Defensive RAA, and Baserunning RAA) saw Raines and Dawson in 1987.
Their performance in Defensive RAA would be a bit of a surprise. Dawson was actually an excellent defender in center field when he first came up with the Expos, but his defense started to deteriorate around 1985. While Dawson finished with a Defensive RAA of 2.1 or better in each of his first eight full seasons, he finished 1987 with -7.7 as the Cubs primary right fielder. He would end up with positive Defensive RAA just once more in his career (0.2, 1989). His career total ended up at -11.6.
Unlike Dawson, Raines was never a great defender. Raines' career Defensive RAA was -109.6. However, we're looking at 1987. In 1987, Raines was ever so slightly above average with the glove, finishing with 0.7 Defensive RAA. This was one of just four seasons where Raines finished with positive defensive value in his career.
Edge: For their careers, it was clearly Andre Dawson, but in 1987, Raines was 8.4 runs better with the glove... it equates to about 0.8 WAR.
Though Dawson did obviously run quite a bit in his career (remember.. 300/300 club), he started slowing down as his career wore on. He ran a bit in 1987, going 11 for 14 in SB. Combining his SB-CS as well as his chances to take the extra base on a hit by a teammate, Dawson finished 1987 with 0.7 Baserunning RAA.
Of course, we would expect Raines to have quite an edge here, as stealing bases was a significant part of his game. Raines actually turned in the lowest stolen base total that he'd had in a season to that point in his career, going 50 for 55 in stolen base attempts. Combining that with how he did on his chances to take the extra base on a hit by a teammate, Raines finished 1987 with 7.6 Baserunning RAA.
Edge: Raines, but he was supposed to win here, wasn't he? Dawson was a power/speed combo guy. Raines was a speedster who had above average pop for a leadoff man. Raines has a 6.9 run edge, which equates to about 0.7 WAR.
Well... Here we go. We're going to take a look at how Dawson's home runs cancel out the 1.6 WAR that he's trailing by after defense and baserunning are taken into account, right?
Dawson finished the season with a .287/.328/.568 line in 662 PA. He hit 24 doubles, 2 triples, and 49 home runs, accounting for 353 total bases. He also drew 32 walks (7 of those were intentional... wow, that's low), reaching base a total of 217 times. Though I do believe that a player's RBI total is partially dependent upon a player reaching base in front of him (while that Cubs team was bad, HOFer Sandberg was in front of him), Dawson had 137 RBI and scored 90 runs.
Raines finished the season with a .330/.429/.526 line in 627 PA (
He did spend a stint on the DL that season IIRC actually, as FBB reader cat daddy3000 points out, Raines was the victim of collusion by MLB owners in the 1986-87 offseason. Some notes from his wikipedia page*). He hit 34 doubles, 8 triples, and 18 HR (a career high), accounting for 279 total bases. He also drew 90 walks (a ridiculous 26 intentional walks... to the four time reigning NL SB champ, which just seems crazy), reaching base a total of 269 times (52 more than Dawson in 35 fewer PA). Raines did split time between the leadoff spot (267 PA) and third spot (360 PA) in 1987, so he did have more RBI opportunities than he did throughout most of his career. He finished with 68 RBI and scored a league leading 123 runs.... despite the DL stint collusion that kept him from playing until May.
*Notes about why Raines missed a month in 1987 from his wikipedia page:
Raines became a free agent on November 12, 1986, but in spite of his league-leading play, no team made a serious attempt to sign him. (During this period, the Major League Baseball owners acted in collusion to keep salaries down.) On May 1, 1987, hours after being permitted to negotiate again with Montreal, Raines signed a new deal with the Expos for $5,000,000 over three years, and a $900,000 signing bonus. In his first game back on May 2, facing the Mets, although Raines had not participated in spring training or any other competitive preparation for the season, he hit the first pitch he saw off the right-field wall for a triple. Raines finished the game with four hits in five at-bats, three runs, one walk, a stolen base, and a game-winning grand slam in the 10th inning. Even without having played in April, Raines led the Expos in runs, walks, times on base, runs created, and stolen bases, in addition to batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. He also garnered MVP honors in the All-Star Game as he delivered a game-winning triple in the 13th inning.
Edge: How did Batting RAA see it? Raines finished with 45.5 RAA, which was actually lower than his 1985 and 1986 totals. His all-around game (you know, actually reaching base) combined with his career best 18 HR and 60 XBH rated awfully high. Dawson didn't have nearly the all-around game. His on-base skills were league average, so the vast majority of his gains came from his 75 XBH (49 of which were HR). Dawson finished with just 20.9 RAA. Raines has the edge here by 24.6 RAA, or about 2.5 WAR.
OK... I've taken most of this from the two players' pages on Fangraphs, which means that I've mainly shown their differences in fWAR. While my estimates (using a 10 RAA per win) end up being a bit off, Raines finished 1987 with 6.7 fWAR to Dawson's 3.5. Since we have another version of WAR (rWAR) that also figures the value of everything that the two players did on the field, I'll note that Raines also finished with 6.7 rWAR. Dawson finished a little higher under their system, but still fell well short with 4.0 rWAR.
The Kicker: How about those other guys?
I feel we've taken a pretty close look at Raines (who was fantastic and well-rounded) and Dawson (who was pretty good and hit a lot of home runs). However, it's extremely reasonable to say that neither of them should have won the 1987 NL MVP award.
- Tony Gwynn led the NL with 7.4 fWAR and 8.5 rWAR that season by turning in a .370/.447/.511 line for the last place Padres. As you would expect, Gwynn didn't rate real well in the categories that probably won the award for Dawson (7 HR, 54 RBI), but he did score 119 runs and stole 56 bases in 68 attempts.
- Eric Davis... Boy, Eric Davis was a monster. Davis hit .293/.399/.593 that season with 37 HR and 50 SB! He also finished third in the NL with 120 Runs and eighth with 100 RBI. This led to Davis finishing second in the NL with 7.1 fWAR and 7.9 rWAR, with significantly better numbers in those categories MVP voters tend to look closely at than Gwynn had. Unlike Gwynn (top WAR) and Dawson (who won), Davis played on a decent (84-78) Reds team that finished second in the NL West.
- Dale Murphy was an excellent hitter who had a career year (OK... we could argue 1983 or 1987) for the Braves. Murphy hit .295/.417/.580 with 44 HR, 16 SB, 115 Runs, and 105 RBI. This placed him third by both versions of WAR (actually tied for second in fWAR at 7.1, 7.7 rWAR). Murphy did have the negative team stigma that Gwynn and (again, the winner) Dawson had, as the Braves finished fifth in the NL West at 69-92.
- Ozzie Smith and Jack Clark placed second and third for the eventual pennant winning Cardinals, who lost to the Twins in 7 games that season. Smith could be an exercise in showing that the voters didn't solely look at the HR (0) and RBI (75) totals of players. He did have a terrific season batting .303/.392/.388 with 43 SB in 52 attempts and 104 runs. Of course, Ozzie's bat was just secondary. He finished fifth in both versions of WAR (6.3 fWAR, 6.4 rWAR) right behind Raines. Clark was the prototypical slugger and had one of the greatest three true outcomes seasons of all time (35 HR, 24.9% K rate, 24.4% BB rate).
Looking at the 1987 season in hindsight, I think my top three probably would have been Davis, Gwynn, and Raines. While I don't think that a contribution to a winning effort is everything, I do think that it can be a tiebreaker between two close candidates, so I'd go with Davis over Gwynn and Raines over Murphy. Dawson had a tremendous power hitting season, but I'm not so sure that he would have finished in the top ten in the voting based on how the way that many of us look at the game has changed.
OK... I'm almost 4,000 words into this, so we're probably past the point of TL;DR for some of you. Time to shut it down. Essentially, my feeling is that Dawson probably never reaches the Hall of Fame without winning that 1987 NL MVP. His former teammate, who has superior career numbers and had better numbers that season based on how we look at the game now, may never get that call.
I do realize that Raines is a darling of the sabermetric community and, despite the fact that he needs to make up 20% of the vote, I think that we're moving in the right direction. I'm hopeful that despite the logjam based on all of the PED candidates, more of the voters who are on the fence about his candidacy will take a closer look at why Raines belongs in the Hall of Fame as he enters his final two seasons on the ballot. In no way am I trying to demean the fact that Dawson made it to Cooperstown. However, I do feel that if only one of these two former Expos greats ends up being enshrined, the voters have absolutely picked the wrong one.
Since 1987 was the crown jewel in Dawson's playing career, I thought it would be a fun exercise to tackle how that race played out looking at it through a pair of 2015 glasses. For those of you who made it this far, I hope you enjoyed it, too.
I'd like to give a hat tip to FBB reader nostalgic for inspiring this article by commenting on Dawson in my Michael Taylor article last week.