This beauty contest that is the National League Most Valuable
Player award race--it's the one still without the bikinis--might
not have been tighter than Miss Mississippi's maillot if Mike
Piazza, the Los Angeles Dodgers' catcher, had been able to score
from second base on a base hit on Sept. 18. Just about anybody
else in spikes could have scored on the single by Raul Mondesi,
which would have given L.A. a 6-5 lead in the 10th inning
against the San Francisco Giants. Maybe then the Dodgers win
that game, take a two-game lead over the Giants, don't continue
to crumble in a disastrous five-game losing streak and ... THERE
HE IS.... Piazza is a lock for the tiara and the Regis & Kathie
Lee appearance: a gritty catcher with an outfielder's power
numbers bringing his team from eight games out to a division
Piazza couldn't score. Third base coach Joe Amalfitano held him,
and his teammates failed to drive him in. So plodding is Piazza
that Los Angeles manager Bill Russell should have lifted him for
a runner at second base in a game of that magnitude. "I don't
want to second-guess, but I couldn't believe they didn't run for
him, especially when you have expanded rosters," says one
National League manager. "That was the game right there." Either
way you slice it--that Piazza couldn't score or that he should
have been replaced--the episode is a black mark against the
Dodgers' catcher in a contest so close that the smallest of
blemishes is scrutinized.
In a perfect world the MVP is still playing in October. With all
due respect and a consolation prize of the Encyclopedia
Britannica to Barry Bonds of the Giants, Chipper Jones of the
Atlanta Braves and Moises Alou of the Florida Marlins, that
leaves only Jeff Bagwell of the Houston Astros. His numbers are
better almost across the board than those candidates'. Except....
Larry Walker of the Colorado Rockies had a season that, were it
an oil painting, would be immediately hung in the Louvre. In
some ways, it was a season that comes along once every two
October 5, 1997
--Not since Stan Musial in '48 has a major leaguer racked up
more total bases than Walker's 409. Only nine players have
exceeded that total.
--Not since Truman topped Dewey has a National League player
(Musial) topped a .700 slugging percentage over a full season,
as Walker did (.720).
--Walker came within four hits and 10 RBIs of winning the
league's first Triple Crown in 60 years.
He also stole more bases than the Braves' Kenny Lofton, threw
out more runners than Bonds, hit more home runs than anyone else
in the National League and scored from second on more than a few
routine singles. Rarely does an MVP race include three such
worthy candidates. Piazza, 29, Bagwell, 29, and Walker, 30, who
were all born in a 21-month period, are nearly inseparable at
worth. The 28 baseball writers who vote for the award (two from
each National League city were required to submit their ballots
before the start of postseason play) couldn't go wrong picking
any one of them. It's just that Walker's year is one that will
be cataloged for posterity. Twenty years from now baseball
archaeologists should not sift through the Baseball
Encyclopedia, come upon these Jurassic numbers--.366, 49 homers
and 130 RBIs--and have to wail, "He didn't win the MVP?"
"He's having a year everyone in this game dreams about," says
San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, who slipped past Walker
for his eighth batting title. "What more can he do?... To me
there's no question that Walker is the MVP in our league."
Didn't Walker play his home games in a hitter's paradise, and
didn't his team fail to contend for a playoff spot in an age
when roughly one of every four teams goes to the postseason?
True enough, but Walker overcame both understandable prejudices.
Two years ago Rockies teammate Dante Bichette came within 28
batting average points of the Triple Crown but, because of his
trouble hitting on the road (all but nine of his 40 homers came
at home), was derided as a Coors Field Frankenstein. In the MVP
voting he finished second to Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry
Larkin, who was named as low as 10th on one ballot, received
only 11 first-place votes and drove in only 66 runs. Walker is
no Bichette, however. Walker led the league this year with 29
road homers and actually had a better slugging percentage
outside of Denver than in it.
The Rockies' failure to contend for the division title is
unquestionably the worst thing you can say about Walker's
candidacy. ("What, they finish fourth rather than third without
him?" his critics say.) But wild-card baseball can skew the
perception of a division championship. At the time of their
elimination, on Sept. 24, Walker's Rockies had a better record
than Bagwell's Astros. Colorado finished with only one victory
fewer than Houston.
Moreover, 32% of MVP winners did not play for a first-place
team, including 14 in the past 20 years. Ideally the award
honors the player most responsible for getting his team to the
postseason, but often the voters recognize a season so terrific
that they are not bound by that ideal.
The Baltimore Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr. received such validation
in 1991, even though his numbers (.323, 34, 114) for a team that
finished 24 games out were only marginally better than those of
Joe Carter of the first-place Toronto Blue Jays (.273, 33, 108).
Carter finished fifth in the balloting. Similar waivers were
made for Andre Dawson, whose '87 Chicago Cubs finished 18 1/2
games out, Ernie Banks of the '58 Cubs (20 games back), Triple
Crown winner Joe Medwick of the '37 Cardinals (15 games back)
and many others.
The MVP race that perhaps most closely parallels this year's may
be the 1986 National League vote, when division winners Houston
and the New York Mets each offered solid candidates:
respectively, Glenn Davis (.265, 31, 101) and Gary Carter (.255,
24, 105). But Mike Schmidt (.290, 37, 119) won the award while
playing for a Philadelphia Phillies team that finished 21 1/2
Though often quoted, the Triple Crown categories are only a
start to finding distinctions among candidates. Walker's ability
to get to first base and beyond--his on-base and slugging
percentages both led the league (chart, page 38)--are powerful
Bagwell (.286, 43, 135) is commonly thought to have achieved his
numbers with little protection. After all, the cleanup men
behind him in the Houston lineup contributed only 11 home runs
all year. But examine Bagwell's total of runs and RBIs as a
percentage of his team's scoring (chart, below) and it is not
that much better than what Walker did for the power-packed
Rockies, the most prolific home run hitting team the National
League has ever seen. And when the Astros made the 20-5
midsummer run that essentially won the division for them,
Bagwell batted only .247 in that stretch, though he did
contribute 22 RBIs.
Piazza, meanwhile, seems to have inherited from Davis Love III
the mantle of Best Player Never to Have Won a Major. Beginning
with his rookie season, 1993, Piazza is the only player to
finish in the Top 10 in the National League MVP voting every
season without winning the award or even leading the league in
any offensive category. He can find comfort in this unofficial
title: the best-hitting catcher ever at this stage of a career.
Piazza's .362 average this season was the best by a catcher in
67 years and improved his career mark to .334. He drove in a
career-high 124 runs and smashed 40 home runs, a franchise
record in Los Angeles and the stuff of which MVPs are made.
Piazza came up 90 feet short.
THE RUN PRODUCERS
The object of the game is to get runners on base and advance
them. No one did those two things better than Larry Walker
(right), who led the league in on-base percentage and slugging
this season. The combination of those stats, or what we call the
productivity index (PI), is the most telling measurement of a
player's offensive output.
OB % SLG % PI NL Rank
Walker .452 .720 1.172 1
Piazza .431 .638 1.069 2
Bagwell .425 .592 1.017 4
A hitter's ability to deliver in the clutch can be measured by
how often he drives in runners in scoring position. By that
yardstick Mike Piazza (left) held a slight edge over his
Pct. NL Rank
Piazza 37.6 3
Walker 35.7 7
Bagwell 34.5 9
Source: Elias Sports Bureau
No National League player carried a bigger share of his team's
offensive load this year than Jeff Bagwell, whose runs and RBIs
represented 31.4% of the Astros' scoring. (Home runs have double
value.) But Mike Piazza and Larry Walker weren't far behind.
Runs RBIs Total Team Pct. NL Rank
Bagwell 109 135 244 777 31.4 1
Piazza 104 124 228 742 30.7 2
Walker 143 130 273 923 29.5 4
Source: Elias Sports Bureau