With little prompting, Vin Scully would no doubt compare the excitement of the current off-season to “watching paint dry.”
Dull off-season, you say? Try coma-inducing. The sitting around and waiting for action, for almost any sign of life from the front office has been nothing short of painful for fans in some cities, Los Angeles foremost among them. I continue to believe that the Dodgers are waiting out the market for a catcher, a second baseman and an ace-like starting pitcher. I continue to believe that Andrew Friedman will make us love him by Valentine’s Day. But while I continue to preach patience, it’s occurred to me that I may reach a breaking point with my own, and if so there will be a loud sound. And the liquid will spill from my poison pen.
Meanwhile, we can debate the worth of baseball players, and whether they or the owners have the moral high ground in this seemingly endless labor struggle, for the entirety of our adult lives. And many of us have. But the fact remains that from the beginnings of league play in the late 19th Century to December 16, 1974, when arbitrator Peter Seitz made Catfish Hunter the first agent in baseball history, no such debate could even be fathomed.
The owners said to players, essentially this: “Here’s your contract. Sign it or don’t, it’s up to you. But either way, I own you.”
There were no awful deals dragging clubs down for the better part of a decade. There was no Carl Crawford. There was no Mike Hampton. No luxury tax. Clubs got great seasons from great players at bargain rates. Always. An owner didn’t have to worry about years eight, nine and 10 for a once historically great player like Albert Pujols.
Willie Mays played for $12,000 in 1954. He hit .345/.411/.667, with 195 hits, 33 doubles, 13 triples, 41 homers, 117 RBIs, won a National League Most Valuable Player award, a ring and made some catch or other in the World Series that fall. Across town in New York, Mickey Mantle hit .300/.408/.525, paced baseball with 129 runs, adding 12 triples, 27 homers and 102 RBIs. For $21,000, which, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s inflation calculator, is worth $196,758 in today’s dollars.
As much as any club the Dodgers have been the beneficiaries of great seasons at bargain prices, and I thought I’d take a look at some of them here. Because there are so many examples, and for my own interest (and hopefully yours), I’ve settled on but a top-10-best, and limited the examples to Los Angeles Dodgers only.
With a couple of exceptions, I used baseball-reference.com and sportrac.com for sourcing. Unable to find a figure for Steve Garvey’s 1974 MVP season, I asked him via direct message on Twitter and he responded: “I believe it was about 24K. Crazy!” I found the figure for Tommy Davis at baseball-almanac.com and the Dodgers’ extremely clutch historian Mark Langill provided the salary for Fernando Valenzuela
With all that said, here are the top 10 best salary bargains in Los Angeles Dodgers History:
10. Frank Howard, 1962, $22,000 ($184,828 in today’s dollars). It’s a given that rookies will play for major league minimum (assuming a full season in the big leagues) and I’ve included some rooks here. And although Frank Howard was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1960, his 1962 season was the far better of the two, and the greater bargain for Los Angeles.
Howard hit .296/.346/.560 in the maiden campaign for Dodger Stadium (which was 410 to dead center at the time),with 25 doubles, six triples, 31 homers, 119 RBIs and a 3.4 WAR. Call it regression or whatever you want, but the 6′ 7” first baseman/outfielder hit .273 and .226, with 64 and 69 ribs the following two seasons before being traded to the Washington Senators for, among others, Claude Osteen, who is one of the club’s most underappreciated players, in December, 1964
2. Larry Sherry, 1959, $5700. The pitching brother to catcher Norm (also a Dodgers in 1959), Larry Sherry was a mostly-pedestrian minor league starter before finally sticking with L.A. after a start on the Fourth of July that season. He allowed two unearned runs on four hits and seven strikeouts in seven innings that day, made four more starts before bouncing back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation the rest of the way. The season numbers: 7-2, 2.19, 1.251, with 72 strikeouts in 94 1/3. And three saves.
Sherry would go on to pitch in each of the Dodgers’ World Series victories over the White Sox in 1959, saving two and winning two, including the deciding Game 6 at Comiskey Park. Los Angeles led 8-0 behind Johnny Podres, who was unable to finish the fourth inning. Sherry relieved and went the rest of the way, going 5 2/3 with no runs and four hits allowed. He even added a couple of singles and was named the World Series MVP.
The final Series line for the MVP looks like this: 12 2/3, 8 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 2 W, 2 S. Worth $5700 ($49,539 in today’s dollars)? I’d say so.
8. Tie: Corey Seager, 2016, $510,000 and Cody Bellinger, 2017, $535,000. Two Rookie of the Year Dodgers (Dodgers ROYs numbers 17 and 18), back-to-back similar-but-far-from-identical seasons, and yes, I’m including them both here because I only have 10 spots and didn’t want to leave anyone out.
You know the numbers, but here they are anyway:
Seager: 157 G, 627 AB, 105 R, 193 H, 40 2B, 5 3B, 26 HR, 76 RBIs, .308/.365/.512.
Bellinger: 131 G, 480 AB, 87 R, 128 H, 26 2B, 4 3B, 39 HR, 97 RBIs, .267/.352/.581.
7. Max Muncy 2018, $545,000. Neither a ROY nor even a rookie, Muncy came out of nowhere Joe Hardy style to become what I have argued was the Dodgers’ 2018 MVP.
The statistics: 395 AB, 75 R, 104 H, 17 2B, 2 3B, 35 HR, 79 RBIs, three steals in three tries and .263/.391/.583/.973. Plus a team-leading 4.8 OWAR and an MLB-leading 11.3 AB/HR.
6. Orel Hershiser, 1985, $212,000. Play word association with the words “Orel Hershiser” and watch 99 out of 100 people respond with “1988,” “1988 World Series,” “Cy Young” or “59 consecutive scoreless innings.” The Bulldog pulled down a $1.1 million salary in 1988, earning every penny of it along the way. But Hershiser’s breakout 1985 season was quite something as well, and he worked for what would be $506,465 in today’s dollars.
Stats: 19-3, 2.03, 1.031, 239 2/3, 156 Ks. Nobody cares about wins anymore, but Orel’s .864 winning percentage was baseball’s best. Hershiser went the distance in Game 2 of the 1985 NLCS, beating St. Louis and Joaquin Andujar 8-2, with a single and RBI in L.A., and started the ill-fated Tom Niedenfuer-Jack Clark pennant-losing Game 6 also at the Ravine.
5. Tie: Maury Wills, 1962, $35,000 and Tommy Davis, 1962, $24,000. Sorry to hit you with a tie again, but how do you leave either Wills or Davis out of any discussion of 1962? Wills, with his record-setting 104 steals (and only 13 CS) won the MVP that year, with Willie Mays second and Davis third, the latter pacing baseball with 230 hits, a .346 batting average and 153 RBIs, which stands today as the franchise record (Brooklyn and L.A.).
Tommy D’s numbers:
162 G, 711 PA, 665 AB, 120 R, 230 H, 27 2B, 9 3B, 27 HR, 153 RBIs, .346/.374/.535.
165 G, 759 PA, 695 AB, 130 R, 208 H, 13 2B, 10 3B, 6 HR, 48 RBIs, .299/.347/.343.
Because he played in every game, including the best-of-three playoff with the Giants for the NL flag, Wills finished with the unbreakable record of 165 games. Both men recorded a WAR of 6.0.
4. Fernando Valenzuela, 1981, $42,000. Where to begin? From his Opening Day start in place of the injured Jerry Reuss, to his rookie-record eighth shutout in September, to his gutsy complete Game 3 win to turn the tide at the 1981 World Series, to everything in between, Fernando Valenzuela was, as Vin Scully called him, a “wunderkind,” a godsend, a pitcher, a glove man, a hitter and a daring base runner. And while I can picture it like it was yesterday, oh how I wish I had video of that triple.
Here are the numbers, and remember, 1981 was a work-stoppage 110-game season.
13-7, 2.48, 1.045, 25 GS, 11 CG, 8 SHO, 191 1/3, 180 Ks. The starts and complete games led the NL; the shutouts and strikeouts led baseball.
While the Opening Day start would’ve been a sellout with Reuss on the mound, the spike in attendance was profound both at Dodger Stadium and on the road for the remainder of Fernando’s starts that season. I think it’s safe to say that the revenue gained from an additional 7519 tickets sold at each of Fernando’s home starts easily paid for the young man’s salary in total.
3. Mike Piazza 1993, $126,000. Mike Piazza is the greatest hitting catcher of all time. Like, duh. And while his Hall of Fame plaque sports the cap of the New York Mets, the strongest man in SoCal’s best work was done in Los Angeles.
His best single season, clearly, was the 1997, during which Piazza was good for 201 hits, 104 runs, 32 doubles, a triple, 40 homers, 124 RBIs and a .362/.431/.638 line. The .362 stands as an L.A. record. While the payroll expense, at $7 million, turned out to be rather club-friendly ($10.9 mil in today’s money), Piazza’s rookie salary was the greater bargain — the $126,000 translating to $222,698 in 2019 dollars.
Here are the numbers:
149 G (146 behind the plate), 81 R, 174 H, 24 2B, 3 3B, 35 HR, 112 RBIs, .318/.370/.561. #ROY
2. Steve Garvey $1974, $24,000. In his first season as the Dodgers’ full-time first baseman, Garvey was the second write-in candidate elected to start in an All-Star Game (Rico Carty was first in 1970). He was hitting .313/.342/.491 with 15 homers and 65 ribs at the time, finishing at .309/.343/.438, 21 and 111.
Garvey’s 1974 home/road and left/right splits were almost identical, he hit .330/.364/479 with runners in scoring position, he hit .389/.421/.778 with two homers in the NLCS, he hit .381/.381/.381 in the World Series and won the NL MVP in what was until the 2017 Dodgers won two more games an L.A.-best 102 win season. For 24,000 bucks, which is worth $129,805 (or about 23% of major league minimum) today.
1. Sandy Koufax, 1963, $35,000. While the 1966 holdout with Don Drysdale is lore in Los Angeles (see SI Vault piece by Buzzie Bavasi), which led to a $125,000 contract (worth $990,715 today), and while the 1965 season was perhaps his best statistically, Koufax’s 1963 season stands out as the best salary bargain for the Dodgers, and by extension, the best in L.A. history.
25-5, 1.88, 0.875, 40 GS, 20 CG, 11 SHO, 311 IP, 58 BB, 306 Ks, 10.7 WAR, one no-hitter, one Cy Young (only one Cy for MLB in those days and only one guy got any votes) and one MVP.
The winner in complete-game fashion in two of his team’s victories in the glorious World Series sweep of the Bronx Bombers, Sandy struck out a then-record 15 Yankees in Game 1, was on the mound for the clincher — and the only home WS clincher in club history — allowed all of three hits and three walks while fanning 23, and of course, was named the series MVP.
While the context is different, the quote coming moments after the perfect game two years later, I’ll close like I opened, with Vin Scully: when Koufax “wrote his name in capital letters in the record books, that K stands out even more than O-U-FA-X.”
And remember, glove conquers all.
Source: “Los Angeles” – Google News