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Best teams of 1981-1985
The 1984 Tigers were the greatest in the period — and in the whole Modern Era
Sparky Anderson always said that his recipe for managerial success was simple.
“I got good players,” he said, “stayed out of the way, let ‘em win a lot, and then just hung around for 26 years.”
Anderson was certainly blessed with great players in the 1970s in Cincinnati, where his Reds won two World Series. But he never managed a better team than the 1984 Tigers, who posted the highest team score (97.109) in the Modern Era.
Detroit won its first nine games that year, soared to a 37-9 record by the end of May, and never let up. The Tigers finished the regular season with 104 wins, then lost only one postseason game in breezing to the world title.
Lance Parrish’s 33 home runs and Alan Trammell’s .314 batting average paced a Detroit attack that led the majors in home runs and runs scored. Reliever Willie Hernandez (1.92 ERA) won the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award, and Jack Morris anchored a solid starting rotation with 19 wins.
These 1984 Tigers generated the best collective performance by any of the 1,656 teams that played major-league baseball between 1961 and 2022, as determined by team score. (Click here for an explanation of TS, which is plotted on a 100-point scale.) That Detroit squad was also the greatest team in the 1981-1985 half-decade, which is our focus today.
The 1983 Baltimore Orioles finished as the runner-up for the period, followed by the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers, and 1982 Cardinals.
Scroll below to see the list of the 10 best teams from 1981 to 1985. Each is shown with its win-loss record and the share of all Modern Era clubs that it outperformed.
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1. Detroit Tigers (1984)
Team score: 97.109 points
Modern Era percentile: 100.0%
Manager: Sparky Anderson
Stars: Reliever Willie Hernandez came out of nowhere — just eight saves for two National League clubs in 1983 — to win both the MVP and Cy Young Awards in the American League in 1984. He racked up 140 relief innings and 32 saves for the Tigers. Shortstop Alan Trammell, a future Hall of Famer, led the club with a .314 batting average.
Bottom line: The Tigers sprinted to a six-game lead in the AL East by the end of April, widened it to 10 games on the final day of June, and coasted to a 15-game margin at season’s end. The playoffs were equally simple — a sweep of the Kansas City Royals in the AL Championship Series, then a five-game triumph over the San Diego Padres in the World Series.
2. Baltimore Orioles (1983)
Team score: 81.677 points
Modern Era percentile: 97.6%
Manager: Joe Altobelli
Stars: Shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. won the American League’s MVP trophy in his second full season. He led the league in runs (121), hits (211), and doubles (47). And, of course, he played every game. First baseman Eddie Murray blasted 33 homers, drove home 111 runs, and finished second in the MVP voting.
Bottom line: The Orioles engaged in an AL East dogfight with the Milwaukee Brewers and Detroit Tigers for much of the season. They finally pulled away in September, then swept through the postseason with a 7-2 record, defeating the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series.
3. St. Louis Cardinals (1985)
Team score: 80.680 points
Modern Era percentile: 97.3%
Manager: Whitey Herzog
Stars: Center fielder Willie McGee topped the National League with a blistering .353 batting average, stole 56 bases, and won a Gold Glove. He was presented the MVP Award. John Tudor pitched 10 shutouts en route to a 21-8 record and a dazzling 1.93 ERA.
Bottom line: The Cardinals languished six games out of first place in the NL East in mid-June, then played 71-35 ball the rest of the way. They sprinted to a 3-1 lead in the World Series, only to lose the final three games (and the title) to the Kansas City Royals.
4. Los Angeles Dodgers (1981)
Team score: 78.333 points
Modern Era percentile: 96.5%
Manager: Tommy Lasorda
Stars: Pitcher Fernando Valenzuela emerged as the breakout star of this strike-shortened season. He went 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA, winning both the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year Awards in the National League. Left fielder Dusty Baker posted the Dodgers’ highest batting average (.320).
Bottom line: It’s impossible to explain 1981’s convoluted playoff structure in two or three lines. Suffice it to say that the Dodgers worked their way through the National League’s labyrinth, lost the first two games of the World Series to the New York Yankees, and rallied to win the final four.
5. St. Louis Cardinals (1982)
Team score: 75.018 points
Modern Era percentile: 94.7%
Manager: Whitey Herzog
Stars: Left fielder Lonnie Smith paced the National League with 120 runs scored. He also led the Cardinals in hits (182), doubles (35), and batting average (.307). Pitcher Joaquin Andujar worked 265 innings and fashioned a 2.47 earned run average.
Bottom line: The Cardinals trailed the Phillies in the NL East as late as September 13, but the two clubs headed in opposite directions after that. St. Louis finished with a 13-7 streak, Philadelphia 9-10. The Cards swept the Atlanta Braves in the NL Championship Series, then were pushed to the limit before beating the Brewers in a seven-game World Series.
6. Milwaukee Brewers (1982), 95-67, 94.3%
7. New York Yankees (1981), 59-48, 93.7%
8. Kansas City Royals (1985), 91-71, 92.1%
9. Philadelphia Phillies (1983), 90-72, 91.9%
10. Toronto Blue Jays (1985), 99-62, 91.7%