This poll proved a bit closer than I expected. Brooks Robinson gave Mike Schmidt a run for his money in the early voting. However, Schmidt pulled away down the stretch, taking victory by a margin of 34-29%, in the most active poll since the one for catcher.
Only one player in baseball history has won more MVP awards than Mike Schmidt, who took home the top honor in the National League on three occasions. He was a 12-time All-Star, led the league in home runs eight times, and was no slouch on defense, winning the Gold Glove at the hot corner in ten seasons. But he wasn't even a first-round pick. Concerns about Schmidt’s knees, both surgically repaired after football injuries in high school, meant he was chosen 30th overall by the Phillies in the 1971 draft - one pick after fellow Hall of Famer George Brett. [Picked first overall was Danny Goodwin, who didn't sign, but went first again four years later. Career bWAR: -1.7]
Also like Brett, Schmidt was originally drafted as a shortstop, and in his first season played all but one game there for the AA Reading Phillies. The following season, he played mostly at second-base, but when he got a September call-up to the big leagues, it was as a third baseman. It was an inauspicious start, batting .206 with one home-run, and he hardly set the plate on fire in his full rookie season of 1973, batting below the Uecker Line, to hit only .196 as the everyday 3B, though did hit 18 home-runs. The following year saw Schmidt finally blossom, getting his first All-Star nod and batting .282 with 36 home-runs, leading to a sixth-place finish in that season’s MVP balloting.
From 1974 through 1979, Schmidt was far and away the best player in the major leagues. Over those six seasons, he put up a total of 48.4 bWAR, nine wins more than anyone else in that period. But that didn’t translate into much love from the BBWAA. A third-place finish in 1976 was his only top five finish. He led the league three times in home-runs, but also led it in strikeouts the same three seasons, in a time where K’s were seen in a considerably more negative light than now, and defense seemed a minor consideration. 1977 may have been the most egregious of snubs. Schmidt led the league in bWAR, with 8.9, batting .274 with 38 home-runs, but only finished tenth in MVP voting.
Schmidt reached the post-season three times with the Phillies during the period, but without winning a series. He had struggled there, going 8-for-44 without a home-run. But that all changed in 1980, when Philadelphia knocked off Houston in five games, then beat the Royals (including draft-mate Brett, now his opposite number in Kansas City) in six. Schmidt broke out, hitting .381/.462/.714 in the World Series, and being named MVP. He then doubled up, finally getting the recognition he deserved by becoming National League MVP as well. In the regular season, he hit .286 with 48 home-runs and 121 RBI, leading the league in the latter two categories. He was a unanimous first-place selection.
Mike repeated as NL MVP winner the following season, after batting .316 with 31 home-runs, despite the schedule being strike shortened to only 107 games. This time, Schmidt received 21 of the 24 available first-place votes. He also walked more than he struck out, but the Phillies were again eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. More most of the eighties, Schmidt continued to be relentlessly productive: fourteen consecutive seasons worth at least five bWAR, reaching seven or more in nine of them. Outside of that labor dispute campaign, he always played at least 145 games, and was a polished defender as well. He was also a very good baserunner for a slugger, coming one SB short of a 30/30 season in 1975.
When the end arrived, it came quickly and unexpectedly. Schmidt had won his third MVP award in 1986, after batting .290 with 37 home-runs, a season wotth 6.2 bWAR. He also won the Gold Glove, Silver Slugger and was named an All-Star that year. But less than three years later, on May 29, 1989, Schmidt announced his retirement, while still in his thirties. He just didn’t feel he could compete at the highest level, saying, “I was wondering if I could compete with those guys anymore... I’m watching them and feeling like a shadow of the player I used to be. And that was telling me it was time to turn the reins over to somebody else.” Unsurprisingly, he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, elected in 1995 with 96.5% of the vote.
In June, Schmidt was proclaimed, “the best draft pick in the history of Major League Baseball,” and in terms of pure production provided to the team that chose him, it’s hard to argue with that (Mike Trout might have a shot at supplanting Schmidt, if he stays with the Angels his whole career). His career bWAR, all for the Phllies, was 106.9 which ranks 25th all-time. Among infielders in the integrated era, only Alex Rodriguez* has more, and he reached the majors four years younger than Schmidt. If you look at Mike’s extraordinary peak, the decade-plus from ages 24-34, Schmidt’s 86.2 bWAR can be stacked beside any post-war player bar Willie Mays. He is undeniably one of the all-time greats.
Heading out of town shortly, so this series will be taking a break for a couple of weeks. But on Wednesday, we'll chew over the thorny problem of what to do with the outfield, and also talk about who would fill our line-up among active players.