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Rabbit Ball: the wacky 1987 baseball season

Jan 16, 2013, 1:42 AM EDT

George Bell - 1987 Topps All-Star

1987 was the first year I truly started paying attention to baseball statistics. I didn’t really get to watch any baseball; while I experienced the 1986 Braves season and that year’s playoffs on TV, I was without cable the following few years and NBC never came in very well through our antenna. However, I did start playing Little League, seriously collecting baseball cards and reading about Rotisserie League Baseball. Thus, baseball — and especially the numbers — became a big part of my life at age nine.

1987 was also the oddest baseball season in my lifetime. Maybe the oddest since World War II or even 1900, going by the numbers. That year’s stats would fit in nicely in 1935 or 2000, but they stick out like a sore thumb in the middle of what was a pitcher friendly era.

Most home runs in a season – 1980s

Andre Dawson – 49 – 1987
Mark McGwire – 49 – 1987
Mike Schmidt – 48 – 1980
George Bell – 47 – 1987
Kevin Mitchell – 47 – 1989
Dale Murphy – 44 – 1987

Highest OPS in a season – 1980s

George Brett – 1.118 – 1980
Jack Clark – 1.055 – 1987
Wade Boggs – 1.049 – 1987
Kevin Mitchell – 1.023 – 1989
George Brett – 1.022 – 1985
Mike Schmidt – 1.004 – 1980
Paul Molitor – 1.003 – 1987
Pedro Guerrero – .999 – 1985
Dale Murphy – .997 – 1987
Reggie Jackson – .995 – 1980
Eric Davis – .991 – 1987
Mark McGwire – .986 – 1987
Dwight Evans – .986 – 1987
Darryl Strawberry – .981 – 1987

That’s eight of the top 14 in the decade from 1987. If I went down further, it’d be 14 of the top 25, with Tony Gwynn, Bell, Guerrero, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell and Will Clark all joining the list.

In writing up some of Andre Dawson’s comments a couple of days ago, I made the point that Dawson might not be a Hall of Famer today if not for the unique conditions of 1987. A couple of people actually countered my assertion that there was anything different about that season. I think 14 of the top 25 OPSs of the decade makes a pretty good case that there was.

You’ll notice Dawson’s name isn’t anywhere in the above OPS list. Of course, 1987 was his MVP season, thanks to his NL-leading 49 homers and 137 RBI. However, his .287/.328/.568 line gave him just the league’s 10th best OPS. His 130 OPS+ that season was the seventh best mark of his career. Many would argue that he was a better player in his days with the Expos.

1987 saw 79 different players hit 20 homers, far and away a new major league record.

Players with 20+ homers:

1982 – 51
1983 – 41
1984 – 45
1985 – 59
1986 – 60
1987 – 79
1988 – 45
1989 – 38
1990 – 45
1991 – 51
1992 – 37
1993 – 62 (expansion)

The number likely would have increased steadily from there if not for the strike cutting into the 1994 and 1995 seasons. 1987’s record was broken in 1996 (83 players). That was the first of nine straight seasons with 80, topping out at 103 in 1999 and 102 in 2000. As you surely guessed, it’s slipped again of late, going from 92 to 87 to 77 to 68 to 79 the last five years.

Among the players to hit 20 homers in 1987 was future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs. One of the most intelligent hitters in the game’s history, Boggs probably could have hit 20 homers annually if he wanted to. 1987, though, was the only season he thought it made sense to do so. Outside of his 24 that year, his high water mark for homers was 11.

Back to Dawson for a second. Apart from 1987’s 49-homer campaign, his career high for homers was 32. But then he was far from the only Cub to set a career high for homers that year.

– First baseman Leon Durham had 27, five more than in any other season. It was his last useful season before substance-abuse problems ended his career.

– Third baseman Keith Moreland had 27, 11 more than his next best total. He hit 11 more total in his career.

– Left fielder Jerry Mumphrey hit 13 in 309 at-bats. He previously had six seasons of at least 400 at-bats, yet he had never topped nine homers. He finished his career with 73 homerless at-bats in 1988.

– Infielder Manny Trillo had eight homers in 214 at-bats as a 36-year-old utilityman, an average of one every 27 at-bats. He had 53 homers in his other 5,736 major league at-bats, an average of one every 108 at-bats.  After 1987, he’d have 205 more major league at-bats and hit one homer.

– Outfielder Bob Dernier hit eight homers in 199 at-bats, twice as many as he had ever hit previously. He averaged a homer every 25 at-bats that year and one every 152 at-bats over the rest of his 10-year career.

Rafael Palmeiro, for what it’s worth, did not hit for his highest homer total as a 22-year-old rookie for the Cubs in 1987. However, after hitting 14 in 221 at-bats that year, he went on to hit a total of 16 in 1,139 at-bats over the next two years. He didn’t top 14 until 1991, though he did it a few times after that.

1987 also produced some weird statistics on the pitching side, most notably Nolan Ryan leading the NL in ERA while going 8-16 for Houston. Rick Sutcliffe led the NL with 18 wins, which was the lowest total ever to lead the league in a non-strike year until 2006 came along. That result helped produce a remarkably close Cy Young race, with closer Steve Bedrosian (57 points) edging out Sutcliffe (55) and Rick Reuschel (54).

The MVP balloting, of course, gets a very bad rap these days, with WAR saying that neither Dawson nor AL winner George Bell were among the 10 best players in their respective leagues.   WAR says Gwynn, who hit .370/.447/.511 to Dawson’s .287/.328/.568, was the NL’s top player, with Eric Davis next in line. WAR ranks Cy Young winner Roger Clemens first in the AL, with Boggs and Trammell not far behind. Trammell finished a close second to Bell in the balloting, claiming 12 first-place votes to Bell’s 16.

So, that’s a bit about 1987. MLB has never gone on record about what exactly changed inside the baseball to produce the unique season, but whatever alterations were made were quickly reversed afterwards.

I should also probably mention here that the Twins beat the Cardinals in the World Series, with Frank Viola capping a terrific season by winning Games 1 and 7 (he lost Game 4) and taking home MVP honors.

Of course, having had a bedtime, I don’t really remember much of that happening. However, I’m pretty sure I’ll always remember 49 (Dawson and McGwire) and 47 (Bell).

  1. antifreeze27 - Jan 16, 2013 at 11:20 AM

    1987 was also the first year that I paid attention to baseball and baseball stats; 1987 is where my baseball knowledge begins (born in 1977). Another commenter mentioned RBI Baseball; I think ’87 was the first year that Nintendo games and video games started using real players and real stats which is probably where the obsession began for most of us. I still will always have Don Mattingly’s .327-30-115 line memorized.
    Also, am I misremembering or did Nolan Ryan do something amazing like go 8-16 with a great ERA (I want to say 2.76) and almost 300 K’s?

    • antifreeze27 - Jan 16, 2013 at 11:23 AM

      Haha sorry didn’t read the entire post where Nolan Ryan’s year is indeed mentioned!

    • kirkvanhouten - Jan 16, 2013 at 1:21 PM

      Yep, Ryan went 8-16 and lead the league in ERA. He picked up a loss or no decision in *14* starts where he allowed 2 runs or fewer.

      Yet another reason why wins are an incredibly silly stat to judge pitchers by.

      • stlouis1baseball - Jan 16, 2013 at 3:23 PM

        I am with you Kirk on the pitchers’ utter dominance (as a whole) that year.
        If I am remembering correctly…Drysdale was also dominant (among many others).
        No swipe at the other pitchers. Just pointing out that I have heard it referred to the “Gibson rule” previously. I think it even mentions it on Wikipedia.
        I do like your post thought. Great data!

        Disclaimer: Wikipeia certainly isn’ the be all end all. Hahaha!

  2. shoehole - Jan 16, 2013 at 11:28 AM

    Tfbuckfutter. During that period. I don’t remember when but, the pitchers mound was lowered and gave the hitters a slight advantage.

    • stlouis1baseball - Jan 16, 2013 at 12:01 PM

      They lowered the mound in 1969. Some refer to it as the “Gibson rule” as a result of Bob thoroughly dominating the 1968 season.
      On a side note: How did you feel typing “Tfbuckfutter?” Did it make you laugh?
      Cause’ it makes me laugh everytime I see it. Let along type it.

      • louhudson23 - Jan 16, 2013 at 12:39 PM

        They lowered it in 69 ,but offensive numbers had been falling for a few years by then. Kuhn took the action after the plan to covertly allow widespread greenie use failed to produce the desired offensive explosion.

      • kirkvanhouten - Jan 16, 2013 at 1:23 PM

        Though Gibby was the king of 1968, *7* pitchers qualified for the ERA title in baseball that posted an ERA under 2.00 that year, 21 under 2.50

        In fact, of the 76 pitchers who threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title 49 of them had an ERA under 3.00

        So…it wasn’t just Gibson!

  3. Tick - Jan 16, 2013 at 12:06 PM

    How do you write a story about the anomaly that was 1987 without mentioning Larry Sheets? LARRY SHEETS! You obviously didn’t play Micro League Baseball as a kid.

    • Matthew Pouliot - Jan 16, 2013 at 3:37 PM

      Did too!

      I liked to build teams of rookies and have them play seasons against the real major league teams. Mike Dunne and Joe Magrane were the stars of my 1987 pitching staff. Good offense, of course.

  4. anxovies - Jan 16, 2013 at 1:11 PM

    Larry Sheets, Baltimore 1987: .316/31HR/94RBI. Never hit more than 18HR before 1987 and never more than 10 after in a career that spanned 8 yrs. I had forgotten about him. Thanks.

  5. moogro - Jan 16, 2013 at 6:46 PM

    I remember Tom Kelly talking about the baseballs being juiced all the time. In one on-field interview he even turned around to motion to the balls flying off the bat during batting practice, saying, “that one shouldn’t have gone out. Look at how far this one went. It’s ridiculous.”

    • gloccamorra - Jan 18, 2013 at 12:26 PM

      I remember that talk too. Something about baseballs made in Haiti, with their strong boney fingers sewing the seams extra tight. The next year, the “black”, the area around the plate was considered part of the strike zone, and hitting was dramatically lower. IOW, the umpires now had a reason to stop squeezing the strike zone, and the pitchers regained the upper hand. When in doubt, blame the umpires.

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