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Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Mysterious case of the '87 award season

By Chip Buck

Every year, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) is given the incredibly difficult task of voting for the season-ending awards. While it has showed an occasional lapse in judgment over the years, for the most part, it has done a pretty good job.

The other day, while playing around on Baseball Reference, I stumbled upon the 1987 award voting page and was struck by the number of questionable choices made by the voting pool that year. Just for fun, I thought it'd be interesting to review the award winners from that season and determine if their election was warranted. Here are my results:

Andre Dawson
Andre Dawson belted 49 homers en route to winning the 1987 NL MVP Award.
1987 NL MVP Award -- Andre Dawson: .378 wOBA, 49 HR, 137 RBI, 2.7 WAR

There were two primary factors in Dawson winning the 1987 NL MVP Award: (1) his impressive, but deceiving raw statistics; and (2) the story of him overcoming collusion to sign a blank contract with the Cubs in March of that year. What other reasons could there be? He played for a last-place team, created outs in 70 percent of his plate appearances, and despite winning a Gold Glove, advanced metrics showed that his defense was largely overrated. What's unfortunate about Dawson winning the award is not that he won, but that so many others didn't. By my count, there were no fewer than seven -- yes, seven -- players who were easily more deserving of the honor: Ozzie Smith (7.1 WAR), Jack Clark (6.5), Darryl Strawberry (6.7), Tim Raines (6.8), Tony Gwynn (8.1), Eric Davis (8.0) and Dale Murphy (7.5). While any of those seven players would've been tremendous choices, if I had a vote, I would've selected Tim Raines. Unlike Dawson, collusion forced Raines to miss the first month of the 1987 season. Had he been able to play prior to May 1, it's entirely possible, he could've matched or exceeded Eric Davis' season-high water mark of 8.1 WAR. For the record, Dawson wouldn't have made my top 10.

1987 AL MVP Award -- George Bell: .399 wOBA, 47 HR, 134 RBI, 5.0 WAR

Like with Dawson, AL MVP voters were blinded by the hypnotic allure of Bell's impressive home run and RBI totals. Unlike Dawson, Bell not only lacked a compelling back story that followed him all season, but actually played for a 96-win Blue Jays team that narrowly missed the playoffs. In essence, his award was won more on his body of work, rather than nonperformance-related fodder. Not to take anything away from Bell's accomplishments, but there were two other players who were far more deserving of this honor: Alan Trammell (8.4 WAR) and Wade Boggs (9.1). Boggs produced an offensive season for the ages leading the league in BA, OBP and wOBA, while hitting for power and playing Fielding Bible Award quality defense. Trammell, on the other hand, merely produced one of the best pre-steroid era offensive seasons by a shortstop in the history of the game, provided steady defense at a keystone position and led his team into the playoffs with a late-season surge. Oh, and the team his Tigers knocked out the playoffs? Bell's Toronto Blue Jays. Despite Boggs' tremendous season, my vote would have gone to Trammell without question.

1987 NL Cy Young Award -- Steve Bedrosian: 5-3, 40 saves, 2.83 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 2.6 WAR

From 1974 to 1992, it was kind of trendy in the BBWAA to elect a relief ace/closer as the Cy Young Award recipient. During that time, Mike Marshall, Sparky Lyle, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Willie Hernandez, Mark Davis, Dennis Eckersley and Bedrosian all won the award. Typically, this occurred during seasons in which no starting pitcher asserted himself as the dominant force. This was the case in 1987 -- at least in terms of traditional pitching standards. As a result, Bedrosian won by default, despite there being other viable, more deserving candidates like Orel Hershiser (6.7 WAR), Bob Welch (6.6), Mike Scott (5.7), Rick Sutcliffe (5.6) and Nolan Ryan (5.5). The problem with these candidates was that each of them had perceived "warts." Hershiser, despite his pleasing ERA and high innings workload, posted a mediocre 16-16 record. Welch's 15 wins, while strong, weren't considered strong enough by most in the electorate for him to be considered a serious candidate. Scott, despite strong ERA and strikeout totals, had 13 losses. Sutcliffe had 18 wins, but posted a rather pedestrian 3.68 ERA. Ryan, despite leading the league in both ERA and strikeouts, posted an "ugly" 8-16 record. While you and I can see beyond these perceived flaws, voters in 1987 could not; hence, their selection. If I could retroactively vote today, I would select Ryan on the strength of his ERA, strikeout and FIP crowns.

1987 AL Cy Young Award -- Roger Clemens: 20-9, 2.97 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 8.18 K/9, 8.4 WAR

My beef with the AL Cy Young Award voting is not the selection of Roger Clemens, but the fact he was not selected unanimously. Clemens was far and away superior to his peers in nearly every statistical category, having led the league in wins, complete games, shutouts, K/BB and pitcher WAR. He placed second in innings pitched and strikeouts, and finished third in K/9 and ERA+. With all due respect to Jimmy Key, Dave Stewart and Doyle Alexander, I can't think of any rational or logical reasons why any of them received first-place votes. Clemens set the bar for American League pitchers that year, and no one came close to meeting it.

While it might seem unfair to be critical of 1987 BBWAA members for relying on W-L record and RBI as their standards for performance excellence, it's hard to give them a free pass when they seem to have made clear choices to select inferior rather than superior performances. Still, I'm not under any illusion that my selections, while objectively based, aren't at least somewhat subjective and open to interpretation. The BBWAA has done a pretty good job over the years in selecting the right award recipients, but 1987 just happens to be a year in which voters weren't quite as successful.

Chip Buck contributes to Fire Brand of the American League, a blog about the Boston Red Sox. You can follow him on Twitter.