04 August 2010
With the Twins enjoying a hot streak and leaving little room for analysis, I think it's time for a change of pace. This post was also published over at Bill's The Daily Something.
The Baseball Writer's Association of America has long irked sporting fans from coast to coast. Basing their decisions on trivial aspects of the game (grittiness, hustle, and clutch being a few personal favorites) that really shouldn't factor in to MVP discussions.
But ever since 1931, this entity has been entrusted with selecting the “Most Valuable” player in each league after every year. Here are five of their biggest mistakes, based on difference in wins-above-replacement between the winner and league leader:
5. Andre Dawson (2.7 WAR) over Tony Gwynn (8.1 WAR), 1987
Dawson: .287/.328/.568, 49 HR, 103 SO/32 BB, .378 wOBA
Gwynn: .370/.447/.511, 7 HR, 35 SO/82 BB, .419 wOBA
The Chicago Cubs of the late 1980s were not the best of teams. Even though they boasted Ryne Sandberg, Leon Durham, Jerry Mumphrey, and Rick Sutcliffe, (and a 24-year old Jamie Moyer, believe it or not), the Cubs rarely found themselves at the top of the National League East.
After being allowed to leave as a free agent after 11 seasons in Montreal, the 32-year old Dawson struggled to find a new home thanks in part to his old knees and baseball's rampant collusion problem. Dawson ended up parading around the reluctant Cubs' Spring Training Facility and offered Chicago a blank contract. The Cubs scribbled “$500,000” in the blank.
Dawson enjoyed one of his best seasons in 1987, hitting .287/.328/.568 with a league-leading 49 home runs. (His 137 runs batted in no doubt impressed voters, who obviously over-looked his 444 RBI opportunities.) Although I give the BBWAA credit for ignoring that their MVP selection came from a last-place team, Dawson was not the most valuable player in the National League in 1987.
Tony Gwynn was.
Gwynn finished 8th in MVP voting that year even though his 8.1 wins-above-replacement was the best in the league. Hitting .370/.447/.511, Mr. Padre combined speed and power better than anyone in the league. The 27-year old stole 56 bases that year, and was one of the few bright spots on a poor San Diego team, along with this guy.
Dawson simply wasn't the best hitter in 1987 (his .378 wOBA was 27th in the league), and, when considering his below-average defense and harsh positional adjustment, was far from being the most valuable player. Gwynn's resume hardly requires any tampering, but the Hall of Famer is bereft an MVP Award. He should have won in 1987.
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4. Steve Garvey (5.1) over Mike Schmidt (10.5), 1974
This is a classic example of baseball award voters ignoring three aspects of the game that need to be looked at when evaluating players: fielding, positional adjustment, and the irrelevance of that players' team's success.
Garvey was a well above-average hitter for Los Angeles and helped lead his Dodgers to the World Series. As a first baseman, though, above-average offensive production was required. One-fourth of the longest-lasting infield in baseball history, Garvey was a popular player and his .312/.342/.469 triple-slash line earned him 13 of the 22 first-place votes.
Mike Schmidt finished 6th in MVP voting that year, despite being superior to Garvey in just about every offensive category. Hitting .282/.395/.546 with 36 home runs, Schmidt can attribute his low position in the vote to a poor Phillies' team. Schmidt, then just 24, played phenomenal defense at third base, and though he struck out a league-leading 138 times, was third in the league in wOBA. Garvey was 32nd.
3. Yogi Berra (3.8) over Mickey Mantle (9.5), 1955
Berra: .272/.349/.470, 27 HR, 20 SO/60 BB, .364 wOBA
Mantle: .306/.431/.611, 37 HR, 97 SO/113 BB, .455 wOBA
These were the glory years for the New York Yankees. Winning eight of the 12 World Series titles from 1947-1958, the Yankees were at the height of their glory. Excellent players and coaches were gracing Yankee Stadium with their presence, and it was certainly a great time to be a fan of the most successful sporting team on earth.
In fact, the Yankees were so successful that they had six players finish in the top-15 of the 1955 MVP vote. The always-popular Yogi Berra won the award that year despite sporting numbers that were merely great for the first time in six years. Berra's '55 line of .272/.349/.470 would make most major leaguers drool with envy, but for Berra they were actually worse than he usually posted.
Mantle, meanwhile had started what would be a decade of incredible performances with the Yankees. As a 23-year old in 1955, Mantle hit .306/.431/.611 with 37 home runs and 113 walks. (Save for batting average, Mantle led the league in every category I just mentioned.) His fielding in the outfield was very good, and even accounting for positional adjustment Mantle blows away the rest of the competition.
Strictly speaking, few can get worked up over this award. The two eventually became Hall of Famers and are among baseball's elite tier of legends. Should Mantle have received the '55 MVP Award, he would have launched one of the best careers in baseball history with three consecutive MVP Awards. In reality, though, Berra received the third MVP Award of his career in 1955.
Mantle wasn't nearly as dominant as he was the next two seasons, but he was the most deserving recipient of the award in 1955. A far inferior player was handed the hardware instead, solidifying Mantle's position among baseball's snubbed.
2. Mickey Cochrane (4.3) over Lou Gehrig (10.7), 1934
Cochrane: .320/.428/.412, 2 HR, 26 SO/78 BB, .396 wOBA
Gehrig: .363/.465/.706, 49 HR, 31 SO/109 BB, .509 wOBA
Like the previous one, this snubbing also involves two future Hall of Famers and would hardly change the course of baseball history if the results were reversed. Cochrane, a catcher, relied upon his ability to hit for average and get on base at an astounding clip for his offensive success. Gehrig was also able to hit for average and get on base, but also boasted one of the most powerful bats in baseball history.
Gehrig, a first baseman, had a career slugging percentage of .632 and averaged 37 home runs per 162 games. In 1934, Gehrig hit 49 moon shots, which lead the league. He was also tops in the American League in all three rate stats and total bases. His .539 secondary average was 260 points higher than Cochrane's. For a 31-year old, this was very impressive.
The 1934 Detroit Tigers qualified for the World Series before falling to Dizzy Dean's St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. This postseason fame gave Cochrane and teammates Charlie Gehringer, Schoolboy Rowe, Hank Greenberg, and Marv Owen five of first nine finishes in that year's MVP race. New York's Lefty Gomez can attribute his 3rd-place finish to his 26 wins, and Gehrig finished fifth.
Gehrig hardly needs another MVP Award placed next to his other two, but he was the best player in 1934 and deserved to be recognized, even if it meant slowing Cochrane's Hall of Fame induction by a few more years.
1. Juan Gonzalez (2.8) over Ken Griffey, Jr. (9.7), 1996
Gonzalez: .314/.368/.643, 47 HR, 82 SO/45 BB, .418 wOBA
Griffey, Jr.: .303/.392/.628, 49 HR, 104 SO/74 BB, .427 wOBA
In terms of difference in wins-above-replacement, the BBWAA made a mighty mistake in 1996. In fact, Gonzalez was the least deserving of the 21 players to receive MVP votes 1996, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
The year 1996 was chock-full of home runs (and steroid usage), leading to no shortage of impressive OPS figures and RBI totals. Gonzalez was near the top of both lists, was a crucial member of an emerging Texas Rangers squad, and was recognized as the best player in baseball.
Unfortunately for others, that was far from the case. Although the story of both Gonzalez and the Rangers growing up together and ultimately reaching their first postseason in franchise history Junior posted the highest WAR that season, according to B-Ref. Griffey finished fourth in the voting after receiving just four first-place votes.
Like Gonzalez, Griffey had also spent many years with his organization and was one of the primary reasons his team reached the postseason for the first time. Griffey had the best season of his career in 1996, even accumulating 139 RBI thanks to his 20.79 RBI percentage (third highest in the league). Griffey had the stats baseball writers look for when choosing an MVP (HR, RBI, a team with a winning record), but struggled with the mask of anonymity that Seattle gave him.
While Griffey was a phenomenal defender in the Mariner's outfield, Gonzalez was atrocious. Griffey was one of the few true five-tool players in baseball history, but his best season was over-shadowed by a far-inferior Gonzalez.
Gonzalez will be eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame next year. Steroid allegations will always haunt Gonzo, but many will point to his 1996 MVP campaign as reason for his election. Griffey will always be a legend, but how much more would one additional MVP award have solidified his place in baseball lore?
Thanks to the mistakes of the Baseball Writers Association of America, we'll never know.
Honorable mentions: Marion over Musial, 1944; Eckersly over Clemens, 1992; Hernandez over Ripken, 1984; Baylor over Brett, 1979; Vaughn over Valentin, 1995; Bell over Boggs, 1987; McGee over Gooden, 1985; Mattingly over Henderson, 1985; Munson over Fidrych, 1976; Fingers over Henderson, 1981
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