The American League was the bland brother in baseball’s talent pool. Following the 1972 season, the National League had won 10 of 11 All-Star Games, and it would win the next 10 before an AL rout in Comiskey Park on July 6, 1983.
A brief strike delayed the 1972 schedule. The Twins played 77 home games, four fewer than normal, with an official attendance of 797,901 for a .500 team. In Los Angeles, the winning Dodgers drew 1,860,858, and the losing Angels drew 744,190. The Mets drew 2,134,185 and the Yankees 966,328 in New York.
The American League was in such a panic that it took a suggestion from Charlie Finley, Oakland’s oddball owner, and voted in a designated hitter — to replace the pitcher in the batting order and add more hitting — in 1973.
There was also an idea the AL could create interest by adding big-name hitters near the end of their careers. Boston brought in Orlando Cepeda. The Angels got Frank Robinson.
The switch to DH also extended Tony Oliva’s career with the Twins. He had played in only 10 games in 1972 after extensive surgery on his ravaged right knee. Basically moving around with a hobble in 1973, he managed to play in 146 games, with 16 home runs, 92 RBI and a .291 average.
Amazing performance by Tony O.
At season’s end, the 24 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America with ballots for AL MVP had the first opportunity to show their skepticism over the value of an athlete playing half the game:
Tommy Davis, Baltimore’s DH, finished 10th, and Cepeda finished 15th. Oakland’s Reggie Jackson was the MVP.
They might not have deserved higher than that, but we now have 47 years of voting to emphatically demonstrate that skepticism.
Not even David Ortiz, when he was putting up enormous numbers for winning teams and establishing himself as an all-time clutch hitter, could get to No. 1 in the voting — not even with this four-year stretch:
2004: 41 home runs, 139 RBI, fourth to Vlad Guerrero.
2005: 47 home runs, AL-leading 148 RBI, second to winner Alex Rodriguez.
2006: league-leading 54 home runs and 137 RBI, third to winner Justin Morneau.
2007: 35 home runs, 117 RBI, fourth to winner Rodriguez (156 RBI).
Big Papi announced his retirement before the 2016 season, and at 40, he made one more run: an AL-leading 48 doubles, 38 home runs and an AL-leading 127 RBI — and finished sixth in the MVP voting behind winner Mike Trout. Sixth!
There was sentiment among MVP voters against designated hitters even right to the end for the greatest DH in the 47 years that it remained exclusive to the American League.
Now that the pandemic has shortened the schedule to what still remains a tentative 60 games, and the DH is being used across both leagues in 2020 and probably beyond, has the landscape changed to the point the Twins’ Nelson Cruz — in the top five in hitting, homers and RBI in the AL — could become the league’s first DH/MVP?
He’s facing three obstacles:
• Long-term history.
This has been more than a rejection of full-time DHs for our MVP voters. No player has won the MVP when he played the majority of his games as a DH. Among MVP winners, the Angels’ Don Baylor had the highest percentage of DH games, with 65 of 162 games in 1978.
• Short-term history.
Cruz batted .311 with 41 home runs and 108 RBI with the 101-win Twins in 2019, and finished ninth. Ninth!
• Wins Above Replacement.
Tom Verducci, from Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and MLB Network, did an outstanding work-up of Cruz’s swing — and how he had maintained his bat speed — before the free-agent period of 2018-19.
I talked with Verducci about that for a few minutes Wednesday and then asked, “Does this short schedule make it more of a possibility that a DH having a great 60-game run can be voted as the MVP?”
Verducci’s response: “On the surface it seems like the answer should be yes, but when I look at the recent voting patterns, I would be surprised. Everything seems to be about WAR now with a majority of the voters, and with a DH getting zero help from defense with WAR … I don’t know how it’s going to happen.
“Look at first basemen; they are disappearing from the MVP ballots, because they get such small credit for defense with WAR. Justin Morneau and Ryan Howard won in 2006, with a lot of RBI.
“Justin was No. 19 in WAR and Howard was No. 10. Valuable as they were to winning teams, they wouldn’t win with those WARs with today’s voters.
“I’d say Cruz has to be in the top five in WAR to have any chance. Nelson’s tied for sixth right now, and he’s been great.”
Might be the sad reality that, for a DH, WAR is Hades.
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