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Willie Hernandez and the 1984 American League MVP

Wednesday 11/22/23

It'd been my intention this week to write something about Willie Hernandez, the Detroit Tigers' relief pitcher, and the 1984 American League MVP race, which Hernandez won, because he's now viewed as a controversial choice at best, and an undeserving one to most baseball historians, and then I saw that he died yesterday, aged only sixty-nine, so that was sad and I thought I'd get to it.

You have these years where there's really not anyone who stands out as the MVP, and not because there are so many great candidates. I don't think Shohei Ohtani had any business winning the award this year, despite being a unanimous pick. Again, it's one of those heresy things, but I don't think much of this player. Or, rather, I don't think nearly what everyone else does.

But I don't think they think it either--they see novelty and narrative. I see a home run hitter who doesn't hit doubles, and as for his pitching prowess, you're getting a handful of wins every year. I know, wins don't matter if you're a pitcher! Yeah--I'm always going to believe that wins matter, in everything. That really doesn't seem that radical of a concept to me. But it's not like there were other great choices really, and as I've said about other matters--pertaining to publishing--someone has to win, so awards are bestowed.

If you look at the AL MVP voting from 1984, you'll struggle to say, "It should have been that guy, and not Hernandez!" Kent Hrbek, for instance, finished second. He had a nice year. Nice ball player. A favorite of mine. But he wasn't an MVP and in 1984 he didn't have an MVP season. If you're a fan of WAR, you might ask who had the highest total that year.

That would be Cal Ripken, whose WAR total was the same as Shohei Ohtani's this year. Ripken finished twenty-seventh in the voting, after having won the MVP the year before. He hit .304 with 27 homers and 86 RBI and an .884 OPS.

Does that sound like 10 WAR to you? Yes, I know, defense, etc. But WAR is kind of a gimmick stat. I mention it when I do as this metric that cuts both ways. I neither expect someone to take it seriously or to outrightly dismiss it. It's sort of just there and you have to decide how much you believe in it with that player when you see it.

The Orioles had won it all the prior season, and weren't close to being contenders in 1984. Eddie Murray did better in the voting than Ripken, but back then you usually had to be on a contending team, which is as it should be. I don't think that many people stop to consider what the word "valuable" means. Doesn't mean best. You can be both. But the award is for the most valuable player. The player who is most vital to the team's cause.

My man Dave Kingman was awesome in 1984, but he was Kingman, and he was never going to win a major award. The Red Sox' Tony Armas was this power-hitting beast during a season when there wasn't a ton of power, leading the league in homers and RBI with43 and 123. He finished seventh, Kingman thirteenth, tied with Harold Baines, who led in slugging percentage but not OPS, whose leader was Dwight Evans who finished eleventh. Don Mattingly had a nice year, but the Yankees were also also-rans.

We were coming into an age when voters looked at relievers--specifically closers--and thought, "I'd like to help give you a major award, so I'm going to vote for you." Closers got Cy Youngs, they got MVPs. Dennis Eckersley was a great closer, but there's no way he should have won the MVP in 1992. It wasn't even close to his best year.

Now, you're not competing against your other seasons for MVP, but rather your peers in the context of that season, and by that same measure, Eckersley wasn't close. But I'm not upset he got it, because it helped him get into the Hall of Fame, which I feel he deserved, and that could have been much harder without that trophy. This stuff can come down to that kind of stuff.

Royals closer Dan Quisenberry finished third in the 1984 AL MVP voting. He had a nice run of dominance--was sort of his era's Jonathan Papelbon that way. But really you needed to give the award to someone on the Tigers. It was their year. Teams in 1980s were usually one and done, save the Oakland A's at the end of the decade. You'd be great one season, you'd bring back the same team, and you wouldn't be good. It happened again and again.

The Tigers were great in 1984, but not so hot in 1983 and 1985 with the same strong core of players--Kirk Gibson, Lance Parrish, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Chet Lemon, Jack Morris. They made the playoffs in 1987, but in a sports lifetime, that's a long ways away from 1984. Parrish was gone, Matt Nokes was the catcher. I feel like prime Parrish was big for the Tigers, and I'm not saying that because he was a favorite of mine.

The Tigers were the best team from day one of that season to the last out of the World Series. They are virtually synonymous--in my mind anyway--with the phrase "wire to wire." They started 35-5. They had that division wrapped up immediately it seemed like. Just dominance. They had all of these really good players, but no stand-out great ones. I mean obvious great ones. They were a bit like the 2004 Detroit Pistons that way, to keep things in the Motor City. Trammell is their lone Hall of Famer, and it took him a while to get there. Another favorite of mine--I loved watching him field grounders, this one smooth motion with how he'd cradle the ball and bring it up towards is body. A bit like how a hockey player catches a pass with the stick moving backwards.

So you looked at the Tigers and wondered who you could give this award to. There wasn't really a position player who stood out. Couldn't give it to Morris. Both starting pitchers and closers used to be much more valuable than they are now. Is there an easier award to win than a Cy Young in 2023? I mean in terms of work. Not competition, necessarily. All you need to do is go five innings most times out. Sometimes six. It's like you hardly play. A closer comes in for an inning, in a situation in which the odds of success are hugely in his favor. All he has to do is not screw up massively and you get your save. Hooray. It's 5-2, we get to the bottom of the ninth, keep your ERA under 27.00 for that game and you earn a save.

But someone like a Rich Gossage in the 1970s and 80s was out there for innings at a time. Not just getting the save, but pitching through a portion of the game, then doing the same tomorrow. Highly valuable.

Which brings us to Hernandez. He appeared that year in a league-leading 80 games. Think about that. He pitched in half the games. He often threw three innings at a time. He was the force that stabilized those Tigers. The constant. The ever reliable performer. He didn't just save games, but he'd pitch a third of a game. He actually was the most valuable player in the league that year and deserved his MVP, despite what most baseball historians will say. They're not looking at his actual role, what was asked of him--which was a great deal--and how he delivered. Then he was very good in the postseason as well.

Some people have a one-year claim to baseball fame, either because that's the one year they did something outstanding, or that year stands out so much in his career. Denny McClain--another Tigers guy--had other good years, but he'll always be known for 1968 and winning thirty games. Just as Willie Hernandez will always have his 1984 season in the annals of baseball history, and I think that's very cool, because he really was that great that year.

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