Thirty years ago, the New York Yankees were a month away from starting a season that would be another in a long line of forgettable teams in the 1980s. They had finished in third place the year before, seven games behind the Orioles and Billy Martin was again replaced, this time by Yogi Berra. It was the famous year when the Detroit Tigers started the season 9-0 and then 19-2 and would run away and hide from the rest of the American League East. The Yankees best starter was a 45-year-old Phil Neikro. Graig Nettles, Don Baylor and Goose Gossage were gone. Ron Guidry and Shane Rawley had rough seasons after Marin fried them a bit in 1983. But despite the Yankees being toast by May of that season, it was also the year of one of the most exciting in-team batting races of all time.
Batting average was still a big deal back then. Though much less important today in the grand scheme of statistics, back in 1984, it was one of the most cherished titles in batting. And the Yankees had two players on the same team that would battle for the crown that season down to the very wire and nobody else in the American League was close. It was the year Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield put on quite the batting show.
It was Don Mattingly’s first full season in the Majors and would be the start of a four-year run of being one of the best ballplayers on the planet .He made $135,000 that season. Dave Winfield was in the fourth season of his massive (for those days) ten year deal and made more money in a month than his first baseman made for an entire season. Steinbrenner had Winfield pegged as Mr. May by then but he had some terrific years with the Yankees.
Both players got to the end of the season in different ways. Mattingly was the picture of consistency with a BABIP and overall batting average hovering within 30 points all season long. Winfield’s BABIP went up and down like a Pogo stick and had crazy good numbers in June and August.
Winfield hit .476 in June and peaked by July 6 and was hitting .377! Don Mattingly was batting .344 by the end of June. It was clear that one of these two players was going to lead the league in batting and it certainly looked at the time like it would be Dave Winfield.
Despite the heroics of these two hitting dynamos, the Yankees were floundering. How was it possible that these two hitters were hitting line drives all over the field and the Yankees were only 33-41 and were already 21 games behind the Tigers on June 30, 1984? One can only imagine what it was like being around George Steinbrenner in those days.
The team would cut that overall lead to 17 games by the end of the season with a 54-35 run in July, August and September, but the Tigers were too far ahead for anyone to catch them.
Pitching had certainly been a problem, but there were too many holes in the lineup. Toby Harrah was brought in to replace Nettles and bombed out. Omar Moreno was thought to be a leadoff batter in the mold of Mickey Rivers but he only walked 13 times the entire season and had lost the lead-off spot by the end of may.Bob Meacham, Andre Robertson and Tim Foli put a gaping hole at shortstop. Lou Piniella was 40-years-old and only played 40 games and the magic of Oscar Gamble lost its luster.
It is no wonder that between Mattingly, Winfield and Baylor, they combined for 24 intentional walks. Why pitch to them when there were so little to follow? It is also no surprise that Winfield had his amazing June since the Yankees had tired of Moreno and put Willie Randolph in the lead-off spot followed by catcher, Butch Wynegar. With the on-base skills of those two and then Mattingly hitting everything in sight, Winfield had to be dealt with.
By the end of July, Winfield had cooled off and was down to .346 and Mattingly finished off that month sitting at .339. But Winfield had another big month that August and finished the month at .352. Meanwhile, Don Mattingly had a great August as well and finished August sitting at .349. The race was on.
Here is a daily account of September for each batter:
- September 1: Winfield .351, Mattingly .352. Mattingly had three hits and passed Winfield for the first time since the end of June
- September 2: Winfield .352, Mattingly .351.
- September 3: Winfield .354, Mattingly .349. Winfield went 2-3 with a homer.
- September 4: Winfield .354, Mattingly .349. Winfield hit another homer and drove in three.
- September 5: Winfield .352, Mattingly .347. Both players went 1-5.
- September 7: Winfield .355, Mattingly .350. Both players had three hits.
- September 8: Winfield .355, Mattingly .349.
- September 9: Winfield .352, Mattingly .349
- September 10: Winfield .352, Mattingly .349
- September 11: Winfield .351, Mattingly .349
- September 12: Winfield .351, Mattingly .347. Mattingly went 0-4 against the 14-5 Doyle Alexander
- September 13: Winfield .351, Mattingly .347.
- September 14: Winfield .350, Mattingly .344
- September 15: Winfield .353, Mattingly .343. Winfield had three hits and was up by 10 points with fifteen games to go.
- September 16: Winfield .352, Mattingly. 342
- September 17: Winfield .349, Mattingly .342
- September 18: Winfield .347, Mattingly .343
- September 19: Winfield .347, Mattingly .346. Mattingly had three hits. Winfield did not play
- September 21: Winfield .344, Mattingly .346. Winfield is zero for his last 12 at bats.
- September 22: Winfield .344, Mattingly .347. Mattingly goes ahead by three points.
- September 23: Winfield .341, Mattingly .344. The first time all month that neither batter had a hit.
- September 24: Winfield .341, Mattingly .344. Double-header. Both play both games.
- September 25: Winfield .342, Mattingly .344.
- September 26: Winfield .342, Mattingly .342 Tied! Mattingly hitless against Storm Davis.
- September 27: Winfield .341, Mattingly .342. Winfield hitless.
- September 28: Winfield .342, Mattingly .341. Winfield goes up by one with two hits.
- September 29: Winfield .341, Mattingly .339. One game left. Mattingly hitless.
- September 30: Winfield .340, Mattingly .343. Mattingly goes 4-5 with two doubles to win it!
There were five lead changes in the last fifteen games. Dave Winfield’s 0-12 stretched evaporated his ten point lead and Mattingly’s big final day put the title in his hands. Mattingly had become the next Yankee thing. The loss must have been disappointing for Winfield as he wanted the title badly. He felt disrespected in New York and it had to be a bitter for him in the end.
Perhaps Winfield had some of the sting taken off with his Hall of Fame nod. Mattingly will never attain that, though, in the end, Mattingly made about $2 million more in his career.
So which player had the better year in the end using today’s metrics? Mattingly wins there too. He had a .401 wOBA and a 153 wRC+ with 6.1 fWAR. Winfield finished with a .399 wOBA and a 151 wRC+ and a 4.8 fWAR. Winfield’s WAR was dinged for his defense.
Winfield missed time in the early part of the season with a leg problem and played 141 games. Mattingly played .153 games. Mattingly would have played more, but he had to earn his spit in the lineup in April (believe it or not).
The overall offensive production was statistically identical. It was so close that only percentage points separated them in categories across the board. You have to wonder how Winfield would have fared if he had not had the health problem early in the season.
For another lost season in the 1980s for the Yankees, Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield gave all Yankee fans a treat and something special that does not come along very often. The 1984 batting race was a rare event and will long be the subject of Yankee legend.