A little under four decades ago, in 1984 to be precise, the Detroit Tigers dominated the American League East on their way to a pennant win, and subsequent World Series title over the San Diego Padres. In any traditional sense, that season was far from memorable for the New York Yankees. The boys in the Bronx finished with a decent but unspectacular 87-75 record, good enough for third place in the AL East, but well short of the 104-win Tigers.
The background over team performance in that campaign is crucial to discuss the MVP race for that season. With 16 first-place votes, southpaw closer Willie Hernández was elected the AL MVP for 1984. The Puerto Rican pitcher had a unique season, leading the league in pitching appearances (80), and games finished (64).
Hernández pitched a whopping 140.1 innings for a reliever, with a 1.92 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP. His dominance was unquestionable, and while he certainly doesn’t fall under the general description of a relief pitcher winning a major individual award in head-scratching fashion, one can still argue the prize of MVP should’ve gone to the best hitter in the AL, with Hernández having already won Cy Young honors.
It certainly helped that the Tigers’ star closer pitched for the team that was the class of the AL that season, winning 104 games when no other ball club reached even 90 wins in the American League. As mentioned previously, there wasn’t much memorable about that Yankees team, but perhaps the one thing that sticks out, and it is bittersweet, is that the club wasted the peak seasons of two Hall of Fame hitters with a disappointing supporting cast. Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield both put up marvelous hitting lines, with the former possibly having the best season of his career, and the latter most certainly having his campaign with the Yankees.
Mattingly’s ‘84 numbers are eerily similar to the line he put up in 1985. Overall, Mattingly accrued significantly more counting stats in ‘85 (145 RBI versus 110 in 1984), but he was already all-world in the prior campaign, and that .343 average in ‘84 was great enough to win him his first AL batting title:
Dave Winfield was also a game wrecker with a .340/.393/.515 slash line to pair with 19 homers, 100 RBI and 106 runs scored. To have two batters with such a high average and slugging percentage is something to marvel at, and one has to wonder had the surrounding pieces been good enough to at least help these two bats lead the Yankees to a run at the AL East crown, would they have gotten more consideration for that MVP award.
While the two Yankees certainly deserved more recognition, there was an even bigger case of misjustice that year, and it came in the form of another superstar held down by a middling team in Cal Ripken Jr.
WAR wasn’t a well-known part of our game at the time, but you can imagine how well it views Ripken’s season, providing a great bat and glove, over 162 games at shortstop. Ripken accrued over 700 plate appearances without missing a single game in the middle of his massive streak of games started, and finished the year with a .304/.374/.510 slash, 27 homers, 86 RBI, and 103 runs scored. His stellar defense at a premier position pushed him to a whopping 10-win season regardless of which system of WAR you swear by ... and it wasn’t good enough for a single first-place vote. In fact, it was only good for a single vote total, tying him for 27th with Doyle Alexander in the final rankings.
His own teammate Eddie Murray actually garnered more consideration for the MVP award, finishing fourth overall in the voting, in a season that saw him lead the AL in OBP (.410), and had the same number of OPS and RBI (.918 & 110) as Mattingly. It wasn’t a case of vote splitting based on teams either as Mattingly and Winfield both crossed into the top-10 together, there just wasn’t any appreciation for Rip’s skillset at the time.
No team came close to the Tigers in that season, and no hitter came close to Willie Hernández in the MVP voting. In a way that’s sort of poetic, but this season would be maddening to explain in the modern day.