If you’re of a certain age and we’re talking baseball, when I say “1987,” your brain probably automatically goes to “rabbit ball year.” Before the bombardment of home runs last season, there was 1987, the original Year of the Home Run. The 26 teams averaged a then-record 1.06 home runs per game, hitting 645 more home runs than were hit in 1986. The MLB average of 4.72 runs per game was the highest since 1950, a figure that actually topped the 4.65 runs per game in 2017.
In the midst of all those home runs, the St. Louis Cardinals played a style of small ball under Whitey Herzog that they had been playing throughout the decade, relying on speed, aggressive baserunning and manufacturing runs (along with good defense and a good bullpen). They won their third pennant of the 1980s that year even though they ranked last in the NL with only 94 home runs — in a season in which the Cubs and Giants both topped 200.
The Cardinals did other things well, however: They led the league in steals, walks and on-base percentage, and that allowed them to rank second to the Mets with 798 runs scored. As a point of comparison, the Dodgers hit 221 home runs in 2017 and scored 770 runs.
As the modern game morphs into more home runs and more strikeouts as everyone tries to muscle up, I wonder: Could a speed-and-defense team win in today’s power game? Could a bunch of skinny guys wearing buttonless pullovers and elastic waistbands succeed playing small ball?
Back in spring training, I asked current Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak. He has been with the organization since 1995 but obviously knows the history of the franchise.
“It’s always tough when you compare era to era,” he said. “You need to score runs. The question is how many runs the ’85 or ’87 team scored compared to the current model versus how much they gave up. The game has changed, but I think that’s mostly because hitters and pitchers are adjusting. I would say, though, that arguably the world in terms of the speed in baseball is not what it once was, and I think part of that is the type of athlete we’re drawing.”
The ’87 Cardinals featured one slugger in first baseman Jack Clark, who had a monster season, hitting .286/.459/.597 with 35 home runs, good for a wRC+ figure — that’s park-adjusted weighted runs created — of 176, the fifth-highest number of the decade. He finished third in the MVP voting and probably would have won if he hadn’t missed 31 games.
Ozzie Smith finished second in the MVP voting, even though he didn’t hit a home run. He did, however, hit .303 with a .392 OBP, steal 43 bases and score 104 runs. Terry Pendleton was second on the team with 12 home runs. Vince Coleman swiped 109 bases and scored 121 runs. Smith and Pendleton won Gold Gloves. The Cardinals stole 248 bases. That was down from the 314 they stole in 1985, but is still 120 more than the league-leading Brewers swiped in 2017. They won 95 games, before losing the World Series in seven games to the Twins (Clark missed the entire series and Pendleton missed four games).
One obvious difference between the 1987 Cardinals and the current style of play, of course, is strikeouts. The ’87 Cardinals struck out 933 times; the NL average in 2017 was 1,354. You might think the Cardinals’ slap-and-dash style of hitting produced a high average on balls in play, but their BABIP was just .300, lower than the 2017 NL average mark of .302. Because they were putting more balls in play, however, they hit .263 compared to the 2017 NL average of .254.
One way to consider how the 1987 Cardinals might look in today’s game would be to compare them to the 2014 Royals, who reached the World Series even though they finished last in the majors in home runs. You have to remember, however, that 2014 was a low-scoring season when pitchers dominated. The Royals scored 651 runs, just below the league average, so they weren’t really a good offensive team. The 2015 team is a little better example, as they hit 139 home runs (still second worst in the league) and struck out only 973 times. They hit 45 more home runs than the ’87 Cardinals, had a higher team batting average (.269 to .263) … and yet scored 74 fewer runs.
Maybe the best way to look at this is to compare the roster of the 1987 Cardinals to a roster of similar players from 2017. Here’s what that might look like:
It’s difficult to find exactly similar players in today’s game. Andrelton Simmons, for example, gets the nod as Ozzie Smith’s equal on defense, but he hit 14 home runs to Smith’s zero. There are few hitters today like Smith or Jose Oquendo who can post a high OBP without any power. For example, only three players in 2017 posted an OBP above .350 in at least 300 PAs while hitting fewer than five home runs: Kolten Wong (.376, four home runs), Jon Jay (.374, two home runs) and Miguel Rojas (.361, one home run).
Certainly, there’s nobody stealing 100 bases like Coleman did. That kind of base stealing is unlikely to return since pitchers do a much better job of holding runners, the catchers are better and players with Coleman’s skill set are few and far between. I used Dee Gordon as the best comp, even though he hasn’t been a left fielder; Billy Hamilton is similar as well but was a far weaker hitter compared to the league than Coleman was in 1987.
Overall, my 2017 team hit only 129 home runs — more than the 1987 Cardinals, but a total that would have ranked 29th in the majors in 2017 (the Giants hit 128). The 166 stolen bases for my team would have led the majors by 30. Factoring in the various bench players, our team would have created an estimated 787 runs, compared to 765 for the 1987 Cardinals. As mentioned, that team actually scored 798. Some of those extra runs came via the value of their speed on the bases, but they also hit .283 with runners on base (and .303 with a runner on third base!). Our 787 runs would have ranked fifth in the NL and the 25.4 WAR for our position players would have ranked fourth in the NL, so it’s a team that could compete for a playoff spot with a decent pitching staff.
There’s no dramatic conclusion here. I think a version of the 1980s Cardinals could compete today, but it would take an exacting blend of players who do other things well besides hit home runs — and one superstar hitter to anchor the lineup like a Clark or Joey Votto.
I definitely think some players would be wise to attempt to change the scope of their games by hitting fewer home runs and putting more balls in play. As a baseball fan, it would certainly be nice to see other styles of play; that’s certainly one aspect that made the 2014-15 Royals entertaining. At least they played a little different style, a reminder of a style once executed so well by the 1980s Cardinals.