Lost Legacies: Darryl Strawberry Deserved The 1988 National League MVP

Last week, TheSportsNotebook started its Lost Legacies series, where we go back into history and fix questionable award decisions. The second in our series focuses on the 1988 National League MVP voting. Darryl Strawberry of the New York Mets should have won it.

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As the Mets won 100 games and blew away the NL East, Strawberry made his case in both the traditional stats as well as more the modern methods of player evaluation. If youj’re a traditionalist, can I interest you in Strawberry’s 39 home runs, easily the best in the National League? That goes with his 101 RBI, second in the league.

If you like the modern stats, Strawberry slugged .545, also the best in the NL. Combine that with a Top 10 finish in on-base percentage (.366) and his combined OPS (on-base plus slugging) was the league’s best. In an era where teams placed more value more stolen bases, Strawberry swiped 29 bags.

Compared to the competition, it was a statistical tour de force for a team that made the playoffs. Now let’s look at the resume of Los Angeles Dodgers rightfielder Kirk Gibson, whom MVP voters chose for the award.

Gibson’s OBP of .377 was a little higher than Strawberry’s, but his .483 slugging percentage was well behind the Met rightfielder. That was a direct consequence of Gibson’s 25 home runs being well-behind Strawberry. Gibson’s 76 RBI were rather meager for a player his team relied on to drive in runs. And while he was good on the other end, scoring runs, he was only marginally better than Strawberry here (106-101 for Gibson).

Both players did their work in pitcher-friendly parks, so there’s no advantage to either one there. So there’s no statistical case whatsoever to be made for Gibson over Strawberry.

Nor did the voters at the time even attempt to say there was. The case for Gibson rested on his intangibles. He had come over from Detroit in the offseason and it was said his fiery intangibles ignited a Dodger clubhouse that had gone through a couple bad years and turned them into a 94-win NL West champ. The specific example cited was a spring training incident. Gibson was the victim of a prank and threw a complete tantrum over it. Legend has it that the Dodgers were so inspired by his “get serious” approach that they became a new team.

Maybe so, but that’s a very thin reed to base on an MVP case on. Pranks are a part of the baseball culture, so it’s hard to see where this was really gross misconduct to begin with. And if it were, are Gibson’s backers saying veteran manager Tom Lasorda had so little control of his clubhouse that he needed a new player throwing a fit to get everyone in line. And that if he did, it was so compelling as to justify making that player the MVP based on it?

It gets even worse when you realize Gibson wasn’t even the most valuable player on his own team. Orel Hershiser had one of the great pitching years of all-time. He went 23-8 with a 2.26 ERA and closed with a historic flourish, a record-setting 59 straight scoreless innings to key a Dodger runaway in their division. Orel’s case for MVP is much more legit than Gibson’s.

But we can only fix so many legacies in a single blog post and the voters of the time decided Hershiser’s heroics were only good for seventh in the final voting. We could devote an entire blog post as to why the decision to rank him that low would stand as a key piece of evidence in indicting the competence of the 1988 NL MVP voters.

Returning to Strawberry, he did everything necessary to win the MVP on the field except be a media darling. Admittedly, his historic case looks a little worse on the surface in light of Gibson first hitting a big home run in the NLCS to help beat the Mets and then hitting one of the most legendary home runs in MLB history, a walkoff to win Game 1 of the World Series and start the Dodgers on their way to a title. But the voting took place before the postseason, so I ask the historical jurors who are reading this post to disregard that bit of evidence.

Darryl Strawberry finished in the top three of the MVP voting twice in his career, including a third-place finish in 1990. He never won the award. He should have in 1988.