The first baseball team I ever loved was the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals. How could you not love that team? Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Tommy Herr, Joaquin Andujar, George Hendrick, Keith Hernandez, Bruce Sutter … that team played baseball in a way that was glorious. They stole bases, they made diving stops, they launched triples in the gap, they even had catchers who stole home:
And the 1985 team, with Vince Coleman, John Tudor and Jack Clark, was even more fun. To this day, those Cardinals teams are widely seen as the avatar of ’80s baseball, when baseball was about situational hitting, stolen bases, defense and bunts. That’s not entirely fair -- there were more homers in ’85, and especially ’87, than you remember -- but it still is quite the contrast with today’s game, which is far more reliant on strikeouts, homers and walks. I’m not sure it was better in the ’80s. But it was certainly different.
Fortunately, while the game has changed since the ’80s, not all the players have, at least stylistically. There are some guys in the game today who would fit in just fine in the ’80s. Here are your most ’80s active players:
Tommy Edman, 2B, Cardinals
Edman has been the secret ingredient for the Cardinals’ early success this year, a utilityman who has taken over for Kolten Wong at second base but can play wherever you put him, including stints in right field and shortstop. He also is a line-drive hitter who doesn’t walk much but does just enough, along with his ability to hit singles, to justify batting him leadoff. Imagine a better, more consistent, more power-hitting Jose Oquendo.
Dallas Keuchel, LHP, White Sox
First off, Keuchel is a consistent starting pitcher in his mid-30s, which is rare in 2021 right there, even if it was entirely common in the ’80s. But the main thing that’s ’80s about Keuchel is that he barely strikes out anyone and yet is still an effective pitcher. That’s tough to find in ’21. Keuchel has never had a high K-rate, but it’s downright miniscule this year, striking out 4.3 batters per nine innings. He’s not peak Cy Young Award-winning Keuchel, but he’s holding down a key spot for a first-place team. Think of him like a Tudor or Sid Fernandez.
Isiah Kiner-Falefa, SS, Rangers
Kiner-Falefa, who, mind you, was very recently a catcher (and handily is still listed as one by a lot of fantasy league providers), leads the Majors in both plate appearances and at-bats entering Friday, which gives off real Willie Wilson vibes. Add in a low walk rate, a high batting average and an eagerness to steal, and he fits right in. With a strikeout rate close to 18%, he does strike out more than your average ’80s hitter; which is to say, he’s classified as a high-contact guy now, but he would be thought downright Incaviglia-esque in the ’80s.
Nick Madrigal, 2B, White Sox
Ol’ Nicky Two Strikes is as unusual a cat as you will find -- a guy who swings constantly and doesn’t miss often, but also doesn’t have much power. He has enough offensive quirks to keep himself a league-average hitter, but there isn’t much efficient about him. That leaves him little margin for error, but it also makes him a blast to watch: He’s basically the opposite of a Three True Outcomes hitter. You’re going to see some action when he bats, you can count on that.
Raimel Tapia, OF, Rockies
For years, many have made the argument that the actual best way to win at Coors Field is to have hitters who put the ball in play and take advantage of the wide swaths of open green space. There’s no better example of this than Tapia, who rarely walks, rarely strikes out and rarely homers. What he does do is hit singles (82, fourth most in the Majors since the start of 2020) and play terrific defense. He steals bases, too. The Rockies weren’t around in the ’80s; Tapia brings them back to a decade that they never actually saw.
Jeff McNeil, 2B, Mets
McNeil’s bat-to-ball abilities -- he doesn’t walk a ton, but he doesn’t strike out much either -- have been well-documented; he’s one of those players who feels like he’d have been a consistent All-Star and perfect fit on that 1986 Mets team. (Well, he might be too well-behaved for that ’86 Mets team.) Though it does help when he’s hitting over .300, like he did the first three years of his career. He’s on the IL now and was hitting .242 before landing there, so that much of the fun is out of it. But when he’s hitting over .300 every year, but not for much power, he’s right in that Herr/Steve Sax comparison zone.
Whit Merrifield, 2B, Royals
Perhaps the most ’80s player on this list, Merrifield clearly would feel more comfortable in 1985: Has he considered wearing a life jacket and ordering a Pepsi Free? He steals bases, he plays all over the diamond, he doesn’t hit for much power and he doesn’t walk much. Merrifield was once rumored to always be in some sort of trade, but not anymore: Not only has he secured his place with the Royals, he has in many ways bent the game to his style of playing. Every team could use a Merrifield.
César Valdez, RHP, Orioles
How much fun is it to watch Valdez pitch? The guy throws almost exclusively changeups, albeit of varying speeds, and when you only throw changeups, and you’re a reliever, it can be easy, if you’re just tuning in late, to almost think they’re letting a position player pitch. But Valdez, who has only pitched 44 games in the Majors even though he’s 36, has made it work, even in a conventional closer role, another ’80s thing. (Though perhaps more of a ’90s one.) Wonder how Doug Jones would work in today’s game? I present Valdez.