Was Cal Ripken Ever Underrated?
MVP votes are always interesting, whether they make sense or not. Looking at the MVP races this year, my current guesses are Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols, but who knows? Psychological questions also matter, because these are voted on by particular groups of writers. I would like to highlight one especially strange example of MVP voting, the AL MVP of 1984.
Going into 1984, Cal Ripken, Jr. was the defending AL MVP and his Baltimore Orioles were the defending World Series champs. Clearly Ripken was regarded as one of the very best players in baseball. When the 1984 season ended, though, Willie Hernandez won the AL MVP, while Ripken came in a paltry 27th. What happened?
First, Ripken’s performance did not fall off. Ripken came in 3rd in the AL in total bases, 9th in batting average, 4th in doubles, and 6th in OPS. In terms of fielding, Ripken led all AL shortstops in putouts, assists, total zone runs, and range factor. To combine fielding and batting, Ripken led all AL players in WAR with 9.2, 1.5 more than second place Dave Stieb. Clearly, Ripken’s performance was not the issue. That leads to psychology.
Willie Hernandez won the MVP as the star reliever of the World Series winning Detroit Tigers. Any MVP won by a reliever is a little strange. Hernandez threw only 140.1 innings, which will of necessity limit his ability to accumulate WAR. Yet he blew past Ripken and everyone else to win the award. Why did he win?
Here, I think we are at the limits of empiricism. We can demonstrate that Ripken had an excellent year, and I think we can demonstrate conclusively that Ripken had a better year than Hernandez. We can also prove that the Tigers, as a team, were better than the Orioles, 104 wins to 85. We can infer, I think, that Hernandez got two psychological bonuses from voters, one for being on a dominant team and the second for blowing only one save in the entire year. Then we hit a wall: Why did the voters ignore Ripken?
Sadly, that question I cannot answer. He lost the Gold Glove to Alan Trammell, who did have as distinguished a defensive season by any measure. He was ignored by MVP voters, despite having an outstanding year. Eddie Murray finished 4th in the voting, so the voters did not simply punish Oriole players for the team’s dropoff. For some reason that I cannot begin to explain, Ripken was ignored in 1984. I don’t know why. Hernandez strikes me as a weak MVP pick, to say the least, but Ripken coming in 27th while leading the league in WAR I find one of the strangest moments in MVP balloting history.