The 1979 NL MVP Award; AKA Dave Winfield Got Robbed

In 1979, Willie Stargell of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Keith Hernandez of the St. Louis Cardinals split the vote for the 1979 National League Most Valuable Player award, the only such tie in the long history of the sport.  Each received 216.0 “vote points”.

According to one of TLH’s favorite websites, baseball-reference.com, Keith Hernandez garnered 10.0 1st place votes against Stargell’s 4.0. However, Stargell, at 39 years of age, is generally considered to have been elevated due primarily to sentiment.  He was the clubhouse leader of the World Series winning Pirates and a generally well-liked personality.

(The reason for the decimals is that the electing body, the Baseball Writers Association of America, uses a ballot format that distributes points in the following manner: 10 players can be chosen and receive points on a ladder of 14-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 according to rank. These ranks can be “split”; for example two players tied for 3rd would each receive 7.5 points.)

I’m not the first person to look at this MVP race with a critical eye: other discussions can be found here, here, and here, and in numerous other corners of the Internet.  But we’re going to take another look at it, because you know who else garnered 4.0 1st place votes?  Dave Winfield, of the cellar-dwelling San Diego Padres, and for good reason.

Keith Hernandez led the league in runs scored with 116 and batting average at .344.  He was second in hits with 210 and fifth in RBI with 105.  He hit only 11 home runs to go with his 11 stolen bases.  Combine his hit total with his 80 walks and you get a solid .417 On Base Percentage, second by a thousandth of a point to none other than Pete Rose’s .418 OBP.

Stargell nearly tripled Hernandez’ HR total with 32, but the rest of his 1979 stat line is strikingly pedestrian: 60 runs scored, 119 hits, and 82 RBI to go along with his middling .281 batting average, nowhere within sniffing range of the league leaders in any category. (Dave Kingman set the HR pace in ’79 with 48 homers.)

And then there is Winfield. 97 runs scored, 184 hits, 34 HRs, a league leading 118 RBI (for a 68-93 team) 15 stolen bags to lead this particular triumvirate, a .308 batting average, and an OPS (OBP+Slugging%) of .953, only .003 behind leader Dave Kingman.  It also must be noted that, along with Hernandez, Winfield was a Gold Glove winner in 1979 for his defense.

(If this is where you’re asking why Kingman wasn’t in serious contention, TLH would have to attribute that to his .288 average – still seven points higher than Stargell’s. Kingman went .288/48/115 in 145 games, less than Hernandez and Winfield but far ahead of Stargell’s 126.)

So, let’s sum this up, league leading stats bolded.  The first set of stats is BA/OBP/SLG.

  • Hernandez: .344/.417/.513 11 HR 105 RBI 210 H 116 R
  • Stargell: .281/.352/.552 32 HR 82 RBI 119 H 60 R
  • Winfield: .308/.395/.558 34 HR 118 RBI 184 H 97 R

Nobody is going to argue that Hernandez had an MVP caliber year, and no one wants to sully the reputation of “Pops” Stargell, one of the most beloved baseball figures of all time, a legend of the game, and the emotional leader of that year’s World Champs.

But let’s remove emotion from the equation.  In the bullet list, one of these things is not like the other.  And it’s the modest stat line from the player sandwiched in the middle, who managed to deceive the BBWAA into giving him an award that the numbers say he did not deserve.

There are two factors at work: sentimentality and bias towards winning teams.  The latter is an age-old controversy in terms of MVP awards – simply, is the MVP the best player on the best, or one of the best, teams?  Or is it the player who had the best personal season, regardless of the (lack of) success of his team?  By the way, this is where we point out that Dave Parker, Stargell’s teammate, had a superior statistical season in 1979.

The fact that Stargell was a fan and media favorite on a fan favorite team, and had in previous years finished second two times and third in the voting another, probably also factored into the 1979 vote.  TLH was not alive to witness the magic described by some accounts of this team and this year, though, I have only the numbers to compare.

And for that matter, especially in a sport as individually-centered and statistically-inclined as baseball, it is my opinion that the best overall performer should be rewarded the MVP, regardless of him team’s finish.  This is a contentious point of view, as it can be argued that no matter the performance, one cannot be extraordinarily valuable to a last-place team.

I can find evidence and precedence to support my opinion, and my opposition can just as easily cite precedent to support their stance.  But, discounting everything but the raw data, the numbers say that Pops was far from the most deserving candidate in 1979.

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One thought on “The 1979 NL MVP Award; AKA Dave Winfield Got Robbed

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