by Eddie Epstein
We will undoubtedly take some heat for excluding the 1989-1991 Athletics from the book, so we offer this article, written when those same Athletics were in the book …
Cecil Fielder returned from Japan before the 1990 season and proceeded to become the first major leaguer since 1977 to hit 50 or more home runs. Fielder’s saga is, in itself, an interesting story, but it’s a story for another time. Despite leading the league in home runs and RBI, Fielder was not named AL MVP, finishing a close second to Rickey Henderson. An indignant Fielder went public with his unhappiness about not winning the award (and his unhappiness grew in 1991, when he again led the AL in RBI, and again finished second in the MVP voting), but did he have a case?
The BBWAA–they’re the ones who vote for MVP and Cy Young awards–typically overrate RBI, and too often the MVP is simply the player with the most RBI on a first-place team. Of course, by now we’ve convinced you that that the two most important “traditional” statistics are on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Fielder did lead the league in slugging percentage (.592), while Henderson finished first in OBP (.439). Do you know who was second in the league in slugging percentage?
Yes, the player known primarily for his baserunning, and secondarily for his strike-zone judgment, slugged .577 to finish behind only Fielder (.592). Henderson did this despite playing his home games in what was by far the worst hitter’s park in the American League.
From 1988 through 1990, Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum suppressed run production by 11 percent compared to other AL parks, and home runs by 18 percent. In 1990 alone, those numbers were minus-23 percent for run production, and minus-27 percent for home runs. (In 1988-90, Tiger Stadium suppressed run production by 4 percent and increased home runs by 18 percent. In 1990, it enhanced both run production and home runs by 5 percent.) Take a look at the road numbers for Fielder and Henderson in 1990:
Road Performance, 1990
In road games, Henderson out-slugged a 51-home run hitter by more than 70 points. And believe it or not, their road home-run totals weren’t all that different: Fielder hit 26 on the road, Henderson 20.
Playing in a tough park for hitters, Henderson led the American League in OPS. He led the league in runs scored for the fifth time in his career. He led the league with 65 stolen bases (and was only thrown out 10 times). Henderson was an excellent left fielder, while Fielder was an adequate first baseman, at best (not that the writers usually pay much attention to such things).
The BBWAA actually got this one right. Before we go patting the nation’s baseball writers on their collective back, we should take note of one scary fact … the vote was close. Henderson picked up 317 points (14 first-place votes), Fielder 286 (10).
Fielder’s Detroit Tigers finished nine games off the pace in the American League East. Had the Tigers won 10 more games than they did, the writers–remember, they love RBI men who play for pennant winners–would certainly have made Fielder the MVP rather than Henderson.
To the writers’ credit, though, they got this one right. Rickey Henderson, a great player having one of his greatest seasons, really was the best player in the American Leauge, circa 1990.