A few months ago on our popular Facebook game my webcast partner Pat Langdon hosts, “Ask Pat” I asked him if Dennis Eckersley winning the MVP in 1992 was the worst selection ever. He still feels that Albert Belle losing to Mo Vaughn was a worse selection, but he’s also a Clevelander and we tend to have the belief that we get shafted constantly. Now, while Mo Vaughn was six Win Shares (basically two wins) behind Albert Belle, there was another legitimate candidate on a division winner who finished a distant third* who actually had better hitting stats than Albert. Edgar Martinez hit .356/.479/.628 (185 OPS+) compared to Belle’s .317/.401/.690 (177 OPS+). Edgar hit just as many doubles, drew more walks, and scored just as many runs. Martinez had 32 Win Shares that season, tops in the league.
*-Vaughn received 12 first place votes, Belle 11, Martinez 4. The other first place vote went to Tribe closer Jose Mesa. Whoever voted for a closer over any of the other three is beyond my comprehension, but if they would’ve voted for Belle he would’ve won the award.
Now, two Win Shares is basically splitting hairs and eight is significant, but the worst? Hardly. I decided to go through and find the worst selections in the history of the BBWAA’s voting for the award. Here are my top ten since 1950.
- 1979 NL MVP: Willie Stargell splits with Keith Hernandez
Willie Stargell is a Hall of Famer, but in 1979 he was a 39 year old man finishing out the string. Theoretically, anyway. He got off to a hot start, hitting .339/.392/.670 by the end of May. Now, he had only played in 31 of the Pirates 45 games and the Pirates were trailing the upstart Montreal Expos in the standings. The Pirates ended up passing up the Expos for the division title, but Stargell played in only 126 games and had 480 plate appearances for a .281/.352/.552 line, including a pretty rough .222/.328/.485 September line. If Stargell was a catcher, I get it. But he was a 39-year old first baseman. His performance earned him 18 Win Shares, a decent total. But Hernandez earned 29 Win Shares and even he didn’t have the best year in the senior circuit. Hernandez hit .344/.417/.513 and was a terrific defensive first baseman, but Stargell’s teammate Dave Parker had 31 Win Shares, about four more wins than Stargell. But Parker won the award in 1978 and they had already handed out back to back awards three years earlier. Which is fine because Mike Schmidt and Dave Winfield both had 33 Win Shares. If Stargell had won it outright this would have ranked much higher. But splitting the award with someone much more deserving keeps it lower.
- 1991 NL MVP: Terry Pendleton over Barry Bonds
In 1990 the Atlanta Braves were terrible. They were 65-97, dead last in the NL West. They had traded their most popular player, Dale Murphy, to the Phillies for two nothings. The 1991 season really had nothing to offer the fans of the Turner Broadcasting System. But the Braves were better than everyone thought. They battled for the NL West all the way until the next to last day of the season when the Braves clinched the division title. One key acquisition was a veteran third basemen from the Cardinals named Terry Pendleton. The free agent ended up winning the NL batting title along with leading the league in hits and total bases. Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, the defending NL East champions were rolling, winning the division by 14 games. Their best player, Barry Bonds, led the league in OBP, OPS, and OPS+. Bonds was tied with Ryne Sandberg at 37 Win Shares apiece, with Will Clark (34) and Bobby Bonilla (31) also finishing ahead of Pendleton’s 27.
But writers like stories. Bonds won the award in 1990, the Pirates won the division in 1990. And also, Bonds only hit .167 in the NLCS in 1990 (because, you know, 24 plate appearances trumps 600 and we’ll ignore his six walks and .375 OBP in those six games, too). The Braves went from 65 wins to 94 wins, Pendleton was the big name addition, he did win the batting title, so naturally he HAD to be the MVP.
- 1958 AL MVP: Jackie Jensen over Mickey Mantle
The American League in the 1950’s and early 1960’s basically consisted of discussions of how to find a way not to give Mantle the MVP. From 1952 through 1964 Mantle only won three MVP’s but was the best position player in 1952, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959 (tied with Nellie Fox), 1960, 1961, 1962, and 1964. I purposely avoided catchers in this exercise, believing that since they usually aren’t going to get 600 plate appearances that they deserve a little extra credit, so 1954, 1955, and 1962 will discount for the time being (those being two for Yogi and one for Elston Howard). In 1952 starting pitcher Bobby Shantz actually had one more Win Share than Mantle (33-32). He won the award in 1956, 1957, and 1962. In 1959 Nellie Fox did tie him AND the White Sox won the pennant, so CLEARLY Fox had to be the MVP. In 1961 Maris won the MVP because he hit 61 homeruns and considering the historical significance you can see – while still unjustifiable – how one would’ve voted for Maris. In 1960 Maris won it, but they two of them were within five Win Shares of each other. So that leaves 1958.
Simply put, Mantle had just won the past two trophies and you can’t just give it to the same guy every year. Can you imagine how meaningless the award would be in the NBA if they just gave it to LeBron James every year?
Anyway, they couldn’t give it to Mantle so they had to find someone else. What do you do when that happens? Simple! You check the RBI leaders. Jackie Jensen’s name was right at the top with 122 of those. Besides the difference in Win Shares (39-27 in favor of The Mick), the voting itself is atrocious.
Mantle finished a distant fifth with 127 points and did not receive a single first place vote. Nine went to Jensen, seven to Mickey’s teammate pitcher Bob Turley (18 Win Shares), four went to Rocky Colavito (32), three to Bob Cerv (29), and one went to Nellie Fox (22).
The one we’ll point out here is Turley. How did this happen? Oh, he was 21-7 with 19 complete games. Now most of us know a lot better and realize that:
- The Yankees were going to score a lot of runs for their pitchers
- That Yankee Stadium was favorable to pitchers, which means
- That Yankees pitchers were going to get a lot of wins.
His 1.3 K/BB rate is hardly MVP worthy, nor is the fact that he led the league in walks issued (third time he did that in his career). I’m not sure how you could possibly figure that to be the case (he also won the Cy Young, don’t get me started), but hey, it was baseball’s golden era, right?
- 1962 NL MVP: Maury Wills over Willie Mays
In 1971 an overall forgettable movie called “The Steagle” was in theatres. The movie stars Richard Benjamin as a college professor named Harold at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and he, like most of America, felt that the world was going to end. As a result he quits caring about what is “important” and just decides to go through life as he pleases. At one point he begins a lecture about the mystique of the Elizabethan hero, but instead comes up with this gem:
“In the lights of existing political action events however, I think a discussion of a more contemporary hero is in order. I cannot understand, and never will if I live to be a hundred, is why Willie Mays did not get the Most Valuable Player Award las year or for that matter the year before and GOD DAMMIT HE WON’T GET IT AGAIN THIS YEAR! HOW IN THE HELL ANYONE CAN OVERLOOK THIS MAN IS COMPLETELY INCOMPREHENSIBLE TO ME!”
“Look, JUST LOOK AT THE GOD DAMN RECORD! HERE IT IS:
A hundred and forty-one RBI
A point three oh four average
A hundred and thirty runs scored
Who? Who can touch him with glove work? WHO?!?!”
Then again, Willie Mays was more often than not a great player. In all 17 seasons in which he played 130 or more games he earned at least 20 Win Shares (all-star level), 13 of those he earned 30 or more (MVP level) and five of those were at least 40 Win Shares. In other words, voting Willie Mays the MVP every year would’ve been just plain boring. So who could they find in 1962?
Bring on Maury Wills. Wills did not see his first big league action until he was 26 years old. Not much of a hitter, it was his speed that made him stand out. By 1962 the stolen base was basically a relic. In the 1950’s every team had at least one slugger in the mold of a DH – a big guy who clogged up the base paths but hit a lot of homeruns. This also meant that pitchers were more lax about holding base runners and a catcher’s throwing arm wasn’t nearly as valuable, especially if they could hit. Enter a couple of changes to some rules (and complete disregard to others) and all of a sudden Wills’ speed became significant.
Wills stole 104 bases in 1962, breaking Ty Cobb’s record. That seems to be the best reason. The Dodgers lost to the Giant in the three game playoff for the pennant (they tied at season’s end for the flag), so the “pennant winner” thing doesn’t fly. The reigning MVP, Frank Robinson, was actually better in 1962 (41 Win Shares, tied with Mays), and Hank Aaron was every bit as good as Wills (34 for Aaron, 32 for Wills), and Tommy Davis was actually the best Dodger (36). But nothing was expected of Maury Wills.
Willie would finally win his second MVP in 1965, 11 years after his first.
- and 5. 1987 AL & NL MVP’s: RBI leaders over the table setters
Baseball writers have long been a fan of the RBI. They consider those RBI men as “clutch” without recognizing the guys in front of them who were every bit as “clutch” for getting on base ahead of them. If you look throughout the history of the MVP you will see a lot of RBI bias in the voting.
In 1987, the AL MVP was given to George Bell of the Toronto Blue Jays. Bell that year led the league with 134 RBI, was second in homers (there was a homerun boom in 1987), hit .308/.352/.605, and didn’t spike himself in left field. Alan Trammell that same season hit .343/.402/.551 and had a higher OPS+ than bell (155 to 147) while playing a solid defensive shortstop. Wade Boggs hit .363/.461/.588 with a 174 OPS+ while playing third base to a draw. Either Trammell or Boggs would have been a better pick (Trammell had 35 Win Shares, Boggs 32) than Bell (26). You can’t even point at the postseason argument, as Trammell’s Tigers beat out Bell’s Jays on the last weekend of the season. But this is nothing compared to what happened in the Senior Circuit.
Andre Dawson signed with the Cubs after the Expos (and everyone else) wouldn’t make an offer. Dawson led the league in homers and RBI playing half his games in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. He also posted a .sorry 328 OBP, keeping his OPS under .900 (his OPS+ was 130; good, but, well, you’ll see). Dawson’s total performance was good enough for 20 Win Shares. Twenty Win Shares is right at the fringe of all-star level and that tied him with teammate Ryne Sandberg and Expos reliever Tim Burke. For 24th in the league.
Oh, there were some sluggers on the list of guys ahead of The Hawk. Jack Clark of the Cardinals (33 Win Shares), Darryl Strawberry of the Mets (30), all around great player Eric Davis of the Reds (30) Dale Murphy of the Braves (29), Pedro Guerrero of the Dodgers (28), a near the end of the line Mike Schmidt with the Phillies (26), Will Cark of the Giants (25), and a young Barry Bonds of the Pirates (22) all put up better contributions. Meanwhile, three Hall of Famers finished with more Win Shares than Dawson.
First, Tony Gwynn of the Padres racked up 218 hits, hit .370/.447/.511 for the Padres. But the Padres were terrible, losing 97 games, so even if they looked at Win Shares (or WAR, just about anything else) Gwynn probably wasn’t going to win the award. Then again, Dawson’s team also finished last in their division.
Ozzie Smith, who finished second in the voting, put up the best offensive season of his career up to that point. He hit .303/.392/.383 and was his usual stellar self at short. His 33 Win Shares tied him with his teammate Clark, but wasn’t enough to in voters’ eyes.
In the meantime, Dawson’s good friend and former teammate up in Montreal Tim Raines got a late start to the season. Because of the owners’ collusion, Raines signed late and didn’t play his first game until May 2 (the Expos 22nd of the season). That first game was going to be tough to top (4-5, 3 R, 3B, GS, 4 RBI, BB), but he kept that level all season. He finished the season hitting .330/.429/.526 with 60 extra base hits, a league-leading 123 runs scored, and 50 stolen bases in 55 attempts (90.9%). He also walked 90 times while striking out 52 times (32 walks and 103 K’s for Dawson). His 34 Win Shares were apparently not enough, either. So Dawson, despite playing on a team 18 ½ games out of first, and despite at least a dozen candidates more valuable, won the award.
For some strange reason between 1950 (Phil Rizzuto) and 1990 (Rickey Henderson) writers forgot the value of the leadoff hitter.
- 1974 NL MVP: Steve Garvey over Mike Schmidt
Mike Schmidt was in his second season as a full time player for the Phillies and was already blossoming, hitting .282/.395/.546 with a 158 OPS+ and a NL tops 36 homers. His 39 Win Shares topped the National League. Following him were Joe Morgan (37), Johnny Bench (34), Garvey’s teammate Jimmy Wynn (32), Willie Stargell (29) and Darrell Evans (28).
Garvey, while putting up a very good season (.312/.342/.469, 130 OPS+), his 27 Win Shares pales in comparison with Schmidt, Morgan, and Bench. So how did this happen?
Well first, the Dodgers reached the postseason for the first time in eight years. Second, they won 102 games, best in the league. Third, Garvey was a very popular player. Fourth, he was a good player.
Writers spend a lot of time looking for narratives. They like phrases like “stats don’t tell the whole story” or “you can’t measure heart*” over saying “Ya know, this guy was just better and the facts show it.”
*-Feel free to replace “heart” with “guts”, “determination”, “leadership” or whatever other B.S. line you would like.
- 1984 AL MVP: Willie Hernandez over Cal Ripken
Cal Ripken won the award in 1983 and was every bit as good in 1984 (37 Win Shares). But of course, the story was the Detroit Tigers, who cruised to a 35-5 start and road it to a World Series title. And yes, Hernandez did not do what the modern day closers do (80 appearances, 140.1 innings, 32/33 saves), he falls well short of Ripken. You don’t want back-to-back (only the NL does that stuff!*)? You could’ve gone with Eddie Murray (33), or Don Mattingly (29) or Hernandez’s teammate Alan Trammell (29) or Oakland’s Rickey Henderson (28) all over a reliever.
*-I have a strange hunch this would’ve been the thought since it had been 23 years since Maris went back-to-back and the next three to do so were in the National League.
- 1950 NL MVP: Jim Konstanty over Stan Musial
The last person to complain about anything would have been Stan Musial, so don’t be surprised that he didn’t gripe about this one. Stan the Man had a typical year for him: .346/.437/.596, 164 OPS+ (avg., slg., and OPS+ all topped the league), 105 runs, 109 RBI, 28 homers, 41 doubles, 7 triples. His 32 Win Shares topped the NL that season along with Boston’s Earl Torgeson (who put up inferior numbers but in a much tougher park on hitters).
Konstanty was a reliever for the Whiz Kids, the spunky bunch of Philadelphia Phillies who took their first pennant in 35 years. In 74 games in relief he had a 16-7 record with 22 saves and a 2.66 ERA with only three blown saves (only one of those gave him a win), good enough for 23 Win Shares.
Konstanty was the first reliever ever to win the MVP – not exactly the brightest moment in the history of the BBWAA, especially when you had three legitimately better candidates (Eddie Stanky of the Giants had 30 Win Shares of his own).
- 1992 AL MVP: Eckersley over the American League
Dennis Eckersley in 1992 pitched in 65 games and 80.0 total innings. He faced 309 batters. There were 136 AL position players who had more plate appearances than Eck saw that year. His 18 Win Shares was good enough for fifth . . . on his own team; his total was good enough to tie him for 40th in the league. His 51 saves led the league but was still six short of the record set just two years earlier.
Of the position players, Robbie Alomar (34 Win Shares), Frank Thomas (33), Kirby Puckett (31), Robin Ventura (30), Brady Anderson (29), Mark McGwire (29), Tim Raines (28), Carlos Baerga (28), and Paul Molitor (28) all finished with at least 10 more Win Shares. If you’re concerned about winning the division, then Robbie’s .310/.405/.427 over 671 plate appearances easily out-values Eckersley’s 80.0 innings and 309 batters.