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MVP?
Tom Verducci
October 06, 1997
Larry Walker, Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza all have the credentials to be the National League MVP. Here's who gets the call
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October 06, 1997

Mvp?

Larry Walker, Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza all have the credentials to be the National League MVP. Here's who gets the call

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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

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 crown. Except....

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 generations. Behold:

•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." Except....

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.

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