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Who was really the most valuable American Leaguer in 1985?

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The famously en-flanneled Rob Neyer drops by to ruminate on an MVP race of the previous century.

Brad Penner-US PRESSWIRE

Last week, I wrote about the race in 1990 for the American League batting crown, pitting Rickey Henderson vs. George Brett. Henderson wasn't real thrilled about Brett sitting out of some games in the last week of the season to protect his batting average. As a Royals fan at the time, I wasn't real thrilled, either.

While reading about that sorry incident in Henderson's memoir, I ran across another time when he wasn't a big fan of the Royals' Hall of Fame third baseman. In 1985, there were three outstanding MVP candidates in the American League: Henderson, Brett, and Don Mattingly ... Henderson's Yankee teammate. From the memoir:

If someone other than Don had won the MVP in '85, maybe I'd have been more upset. I still think I had a better year. I carried the team in the first half, and Don carried the team in the second half.; the second half was more on the voters' minds. I actually finished third in the balloting. George Brett somehow snuck in and finished second, and I still don't know why. I thought that was a bunch of crap. Including the disgrace in '81 when Rollie Fingers got the MVP, I lost out on two trophies that I had a pretty good chance to win.

At that time -- this was a good 15 years before James invented Win Shares -- he was publishing a relatively crude metric called Approximate Value. "Approximate" meant approximate, and wouldn't have offered much guidance to MVP voters; Henderson and Brett both scored at 17, and Mattingly at 16. Those figures were published in the 1986 Baseball Abstract. In that same book, Bill ranked Henderson as (no suprise here) baseball's No. 1 center fielder. In the Henderson comment, Bill wrote this:

I think in the Yankee comment I wrote that Henderson had to be the best player in baseball in 1985. Now that I think about it, I realize that it has to be Brett. Brett created more runs with a much higher offensive winning percentage, a phenomenal .861. Brett won, and deserved, a Gold Glove. Brett's team won the pennant. And Brett, with the pennant on the line in the last week of the season, had what may well be as good a week as any player ever had under those conditions, hitting two doubles and driving in two runs on Sunday, homering and driving in two more on Monday, singling to drive in one on Tuesday, hitting a single, a double, and a three-run homer on Wednesday, homering again on Thursday, homering again on Friday, adding an RBI single as a bonus, and finishing it off with a 2-run homer on Saturday -- seven crucial games, five homers, 3 doubles, 13 RBI, one pennant. Willie Stargell won the MVP award in 1979 for having one hot week, and his week wasn't that good. I didn't see it at first because I was over-compensating for being a Royals fan, but if you step back and look at it, of course Brett was the MVP.

Of course George Brett was the American League's most valuable player. When I read those words in the spring of 1986 -- probably within a few moments of the Abstract arriving in Lawrence, Kansas, since I checked the bookstore every single morning -- I didn't doubt them a single bit. Because I was not only a Royals fan, but also a Bill James fan.

When Bill did invent Win Shares, he ranked the 1985 AL leaders:

38 Rickey Henderson
37 George Brett
32 Don Mattingly
31 Wade Boggs

As Bill would have acknowledged, the difference between 38 Win Shares and 37 is a distinction without a difference; by definition, 1 Win Share is a third of a win, and there's never been a metric precise enough to choose between two players separated by a third of a win over the course of a season. So my guess is that Bill, even with Win Shares, would have preferred Brett as MVP because of that incredible last week.

You probably know that the Yankees lost the World Series in 1981 ... and didn't reach the postseason again for the rest of the decade. And indeed, not again until 1995. This 14-year drought seems almost impossible now, but it happened. I was there and I enjoyed every minute of it.*

* In retrospect, Major League Baseball might have been slightly more interesting in that era if the Yankees had won a division title every few years. But I took the 1976 ALCS pretty hard, and I held a grudge for a long, long time.

At the All-Star break in 1985, the Yankees were in second place, 2½ games behind the Blue Jays. And that was almost exactly how the season ended, with the first-place Jays finishing two games ahead of the Yankees. And Henderson's right; to some degree anyway, he did carry the Yankees in the first half, in which he batted .357 and scored 77 runs in only 71 games. Really, he didn't begin to carry the team until May; after missing the Yankees' first 10 games with a spring-training ankle injury, he still took a while to get going.

When the 4th of May dawned, Rickey Henderson was batting .200 and the Yankees were in last place, 5½ games behind first-place Toronto. And then Rickey went crazy (in a good way!), batting .384 and scoring a ton of runs from the that date until the All-Star Game. The Yankees weren't a last-place team any more, for sure.

Onward. Next up, something that simply wasn't available to MVP voters in 1985: Wins Above Replacement, FanGraphs-style ...

10.2 Rickey Henderson
9.4 Wade Boggs
8.7 George Brett
7.5 Jessey Barfield
6.6 Don Mattingly

and finally, Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball-Reference.com:

9.8 Henderson
9.0 Boggs
8.1 Brett
6.6 Barfield
6.4 Mattingly

Obviously, by both measures -- and their methodologies obviously share a great deal -- Henderson was actually a full win or two better than Brett. Now, I will mention that one thing Bill James did not attempt to measure was the value of baserunning, beyond stealing bases, in a specific way. This is a subject for another day, but I am not 100 percent convinced that this omission actually was meaningful or limiting.

What's also interesting is that Brett falls short of not only Henderson by a lot, but also Boggs, though by not as much. Interestingly enough, Henderson and Boggs finished third and fourth in the MVP balloting, with not much separating them; the voters seem to have realized that both had great seasons, but that Henderson's was slightly better.

What they seem to have utterly missed is that Mattingly's defense and baserunning simply weren't as valuable as Henderson's or (to a lesser degree) Brett's. Instead the voters went, as they so often do, with the big RBI guy; Mattingly led the majors with 145 of those suckers. In a happy coincidence, Henderson scored 146 runs ... Who do you think got more credit? Mattingly for driving in 145, or his teammate for scoring 146?

You know the answer to that question. Mattingly's slugging percentage was 51 points higher than Henderson's; Henderson's on-base percentage was 48 points higher than Mattingly's. But I remember that many writers were immensely impressed with not only Mattingly's RBI, but also his combination of 35 home runs and only 41 strikeouts. And whatever small negatives might have existed, the writers ignored.

What seems somewhat shocking, all these years later, is that Rickey Henderson, quite possibly the best player in the league, didn't receive even one first-place vote from the MVP voters; 23 went to Mattingly, the other five to Brett. How did that happen? Well, Mattingly's RBI were probably the biggest reason; MVP voters just love their R's B.i.

But this, from The Scouting Report: 1986, might also have mattered:

Which Rickey Henderson will it be this year? The one who dominated the American League the first half of 1985 or the one who tailed off badly in the second half and seemed lackadaisical?

Attitude was an issue with Henderson before his trade to New York and it remains a legitimate concern. He was furious with the club when the docked him three days pay for missing a doubleheader following the settlement of the players' strike, and he did not seem to play as hard after the fine was levied.

I wasn't watching the Yankees every day. The Yankees swept the doubleheader that Henderson missed, but the Yankees' owner wasn't particularly mollified. From The New York Times:

Steinbrenner indicated that Henderson would be docked in pay as well as incur a substantial fine.

''He's playing his tail off, but he's getting paid like a superstar and he should play like a superstar,'' he said. ''There won't be a suspension, but he'll be fined and fined heavily.''

Steinbrenner said that Henderson had spoken with Clyde King, the general manager, and indicated that Henderson was not aware of a strike settlement when his plane left at 1:40 yesterday afternoon. But Winfield, the team's player representative, said that he spoke to all of his teammates, advising them not to leave the area.

''I was in touch with everybody,'' Winfield said before the doubleheader,that's all I'm going to say about it.''

''We're going to deal with it when he gets back,'' said Steinbrenner. ''He's been giving 110 percent, but there is a discipline on this team that he hasn't had before. There's no excuse for what he did, and anything he says will fall on deaf ears.''

So Henderson got fined, although I don't know that three days pay really qualifies as a heavy fine. Did he stop trying after getting fined? In his first 10 games after rejoining the club, he batted .364, hit three home runs, and stole five bases. Does that seem like someone who's not trying? Oh, and the Yankees won nine of those 10 games.

He did go into a slump after that, batting just .227 in his last 45 games. But the power and the patience and the steals were still there, which leads one to wonder if the "slump" wasn't just a matter of hitting into some tough luck. The statistics suggest that he was still trying his hardest. And that he was the Yankees' best player. And that he was quite likely the best player in the American League.

The Yankees did come up short in the pennant race. They also won six more games than Brett's Royals, with a far superior run differential; the Yankees simply had the misfortune of playing in the same division as the Blue Jays.

I was following baseball in 1985, following it rabidly. But I wasn't traveling around, or watching games every day. It's possible that Don Mattingly was the most valuable player in the league. I think it unlikely, though. What I think is most likely is that Rickey Henderson was the most valuable player, and I think it's quite possible that Brett was. Especially if you think that what happens during the last stretch of a pennant race should count extra.

I would vote for Rickey Henderson, today. But if I had been there, I might have voted for George Brett. What I'm almost sure about is that I wouldn't have voted for Don Mattingly. He was a great hitter, no doubt. But there is, the last time I checked anyway, more to baseball than just hitting.