Worst MVP Votes Ever!

Monday, March 08 2021 @ 02:30 PM EST

Contributed by: Magpie

Hey, it's about time for a new thread, right? It's probably also just about time for me to go off on some weird tangent down the dim and misty paths of history... that's how you really know baseball season's coming.

Or we can just blame it all on John Northey. What do you think?

Anyway, we now have exactly 90 years of MVP votes in each league under the current rules (you're allowed to win it more than once, mainly.) How often do they get it right?

What does getting it right even mean? I don't know and neither do you. How can we tell? We would need something like a convenient single digit integer to indicate who was the best player in the league each season. We could then see how they did in the MVP voting.

Well, gosh. I've complained about WAR often enough, and anything that depends on a theory of the game. But this kind of crude, dumb exercise is exactly what WAR is good for.

I did get the clear impression, as I scrolled through 90 years of voting, that the NL voters had done a slightly better job than AL voters. As it turns out, NL voters gave the MVP to the player with the most WAR 32 times in 90 years. Which is more often than AL voters did likewise (27 times in 90 years.)

One should immediately be aware that roughly one-third of the time the player who led the league in WAR without winning the MVP was a pitcher. Since the advent of the Cy Young Award in the mid-1950s, and its extension to both leagues a decade later, a sizeable contingent of voters think either: a) that pitchers by definition can't be the MVP, or b)  that they've got their own award anyway.  Shut up and stop complaining.

And so a pitcher has won the AL MVP just 11 times in 90 seasons, despite a pitcher being the AL player with the highest WAR in 34 of those seasons. In the NL, 29 pitchers have had the highest WAR and won just 9 MVP awards.

Even so, the voters managed to make some strange choices among the pitchers. The 11 MVP awards AL voters gave to pitchers only went to the league leader in WAR 3 times - 4 times a position player's season had a better WAR and 4 times some other pitcher's season was better.  The pitchers who must have been baffled by the voters choosing some other pitcher were Dizzy Trout (1944), Wilbur Wood (1971), Dave Stieb (1984), and Roger Clemens (1992). The four position players were Babe Ruth (1931), Lou Boudreau (1948), Carl Yastrzemski (1968), and Rickey Henderson (1981).

The NL's pitcher MVPs look a little better - 6 of the 9 pitchers did lead the league in WAR. Only  twice did some other pitcher appear to have a better season: Ewell Blackwell (1950) and John Antonelli (1956). Willie Mays also looks a wee bit better than Sandy Koufax in 1963.

Pitchers - they complicate everything. They're all liars and crybabies, right? But as a rule - they really haven't won as many MVP awards as they probably deserve.

And catchers have won more then they deserve. Catchers have won even fewer MVP awards than pitchers - just 8 in each league - but since 1931 only one catcher had led his league in WAR. That's 2012 NL MVP Buster Posey. Strangely, 6 of 16 awards given to catchers were given to a pair of New York City catchers during a single five year period (1951-1955.) But catchers are a problem, too. They generally don't play quite as many games as the other hitters, and no one has yet figured out a truly convincing way to account for their defensive contributions. (Jeff Mathis, folks, my ride or die!)

Anyway - let's summarize.

There have been 90 AL MVPS.
27 of them went to the player with the most WAR.
34 times there was a pitcher with more WAR than the MVP.
50 times there was a position player with more WAR then the MVP.
Yes, that adds up to more than 90, as 21 times there was a pitcher and a player with more WAR than the MVP.

There have been 90 NL MVPs.
32 of them went to the player with the most WAR.
29 times there was a pitcher with more WAR than the MVP.
48 times there was a position player with more WAR then the MVP.
Which adds up to more than 90 as 19 times there was a pitcher and a player with more WAR than the MVP.

So... what was the worst MVP vote ever?

I suppose it's a tie, with a fairly massive gap of 5.9 in WAR between the league leader and the MVP. But we're going to give the No-Prize to....

Juan Gonzalez, 1996.

I imagine a lot of you saw this one coming. Gonzalez season, according to BBRef, was worth just 3.8 WAR and thus nowhere near as valuable as Ken Griffey. This is interesting, because their hitting statistics are about as close to identical as one could ask for. Gonzalez hit .314/.368/.643 with 47 HR and 144 RBI. Griffey hit .303/.392/.628 with 49 HR and 140 RBI. The difference between the two seasons is a matter of their home parks - Gonzalez played half his games in that hitter's paradise down in Arlington - and defense. Gonzalez played right field, and not particularly well. Griffey played an outstanding centre field. I don't know that the real gap in value is quite as large as WAR makes it look. But it was pretty substantial.

But we do have another season with a gap of 5.9 between the MVP and the player with the most WAR. And it's in the Other League, which provides a pleasing symmetry. And who was this lucky individual?

Joe Torre, 1971.

Torre was always a very good hitter, but in 1971 he hit .378 on his balls in play. That's a little weird. Naturally, his BAVG just jumped, from .325 to .363 and his RBIs went from 100 to 137. Both figures led the league, and he was thus rewarded. There were 3 pitchers and 6 position players with more impressive WAR and no one's was better than Chatham's own Ferguson Jenkins. Fergie won 24 games and posted a 2.77 ERA, pitching 325 IP while calling Wrigley Field home. BB-Ref says that was worth 11.8 WAR, and that Tom Seaver and Dave Roberts also had more valuable seasons. And if you didn't want to vote for the pitcher - you could start with Willie Stargell (runner-up in the voting) who hit 48 HRs and drove in 125 runs, and throw in Roberto Clemente, Henry Aaron, Bobby Bonds, Willie Mays, and Rusty Staub before you needed to look at Torre.

Other truly egregious votes:

1992 Dennis Eckersley (5.8 WAR less than leader.) Oh, this one really stunk. The Eck had a nice season, but he pitched just 80 innings. He saved 51 games, and in 40 of them he had a lead of two runs or more. How much leverage does that really involve? Eck's year gets 2.9 WAR, which is quite a bit less than the 8.7 WAR of Roger Clemens or the 8.2 of Mike Mussina, who both pitched three times as many innings while winning 18 games apiece with ERAs of 2.41 and 2.54. And if you don't like pitchers, you still had Kirby Puckett. Eck's 2.9 WAR is almost the lowest of any MVP winner ever. Freddie Freeman and Jose Abreu both had a higher WAR in a 60 game season this year just past. The only MVP winner with a smaller WAR than the Eck was Willie Stargell in 1979, and Stargell had to share his award with Keith Hernandez, who was far more deserving (if not quite as deserving as Dave Winfield.)

1934 Mickey Cochrane (5.7 WAR less than leader.) Cochrane was a catcher, which has its own issues. He was also the player-manager. This was his first year in Detroit, and he took them to the World Series. Cochrane was a great player and he had a fine season (4.5 WAR) - but come on, people. Lou Gehrig hit .363/.465/.706 with 49 HR and 166 RBI (10.2 WAR.) That mighty performance was good enough for fifth place. Lou never did get any respect.

1974 Steve Garvey (5.3 WAR less than leader.) Sometimes a narrative takes over. This was Garvey's first season as the everyday first baseman, he was a write-in vote to start the All-Star game, the Dodgers went to the World Series, and maybe there wasn't an obvious alternative. Lou Brock was the runner-up, mainly because he stole 118 bases. Mike Marshall, Johnny Bench, and Jimmy Wynn all did better in the voting than your WAR leader. That was Mike Schmidt, having his first outstanding season but for a team that went 80-82.

1979 Don Baylor (5.2 WAR less than leader.) This is a fairly famous blunder by the voters. Baylor was still a good player (he didn't just lead the league in RBIs - he also led the league in Runs Scored) and he was still mostly an outfielder (97 games in the field.) The Angels won the division, and Baylor was always, always renowned for the intangibles he brought to a team. And there may have been something to it. Later in his career, he'd seem to wander from team to team, and hey presto - he'd find himself in the post-season yet again (Boston 1986, Minnesota 1987, Oakland 1988.) But Fragile Freddy Lynn, who'd already won an MVP, was busy putting together the best season of his life: .333/.423/.637 with 39 HR and 122 RBI while playing  a Gold Glove centre field.

1984 Willie Hernandez (5.2 WAR less than leader) I actually missed this one on my first pass - it's an especially weird one because Hernandez didn't have the league's best WAR among AL pitchers in 1984. That was the eternally star-crossed Dave Stieb, and because I'd put Stieb's numbers into the proper column (filled in almost every other instance by a pitcher who had posted the league's best WAR despite a position player winning the award) I was briefly under the assumption that Hernandez's WAR was only 3.1 worse than the league leader. Sorry, Cal. This is not quite the only time such a thing happened. In 1950, Konstanty won the NL MVP with 4.4 WAR, Blackwell led the pitchers with 5.2, and Eddie Stanky led everyone with 8.2.

1985 Willie McGee (5.1 WAR less than leader.) To be fair, no NL position player had more WAR than McGee in 1985. He had quite the year. But that was Dwight Gooden's year. He was just 20 years old, and he went 24-4, 1.53 with 268 Ks in 276.2 IP. His ERA+ was 229. I mean, mercy! But he was a pitcher. His Cy Young was unanimous, he was fourth in MVP voting.

1955 Yogi Berra (5.0 WAR less than leader.) This was that weird period of obsession with New York catchers by the voters. Berra and Campanella each won their third MVP in 1955, and both votes were pretty bad. Berra's own teammate, Mickey Mantle, led the league in OBP and Slugging, things which absolutely no one would have noticed in 1955. Mantle's batting average was 30 points better and he hit 10 more HRs than Berra - but Yogi cleared 100 RBIs and Mantle was one short. And no one had a clue that Mantle led the league in walks, with almost twice as many as Yogi.

That's every MVP vote where someone had 5 more WAR than the award winner. We can list a few more awful ballots, where some unlucky soul had 4 more WAR than the award winner:

In the AL

1974 Jeff Burroughs over Gaylord Perry or Rod Carew.
1947 Joe DiMaggio over Ted Williams
1969 Harmon Killebrew over Rico Petrocelli
1987 George Bell over Roger Clemens or Wade Boggs (I know, that narrative was all around Trammell.)
1976 Thurman Munson over Mark Fidrych or Graig Nettles
1995 Mo Vaughn over Randy Johnson or John Valentin

In the NL

1964 Ken Boyer over Willie Mays
1935 Gabby Hartnett over Arky Vaughan
1987 Andre Dawson over Tony Gwynn (I was beating the drums for Ozzie Smith, myself!)
1962 Maury Wills over Willie Mays
1944 Marty Marion over Stan Musial

So... here's the question I really want answered.

Which player got screwed most often?

And that turns out to be pretty easy.

Willie Mays 8 times (1955, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1966*)

Barry Bonds 4 times (1991, 1995, 1996, 1998)
Ted Williams 4 times (1941, 1942, 1947, 1951)
Roger Clemens 4 times (1987, 1990, 1992, 1997)
Mickey Mantle 4 times (1955, 1958, 1959*, 1961)

Greg Maddux 3 times (1992, 1994, 1995)
Mike Trout 3 times (2012, 2013, 2015)
Alex Rodriguez 3 times (1998, 2000*, 2002)
Rickey Henderson 3 times (1981, 1985, 1989*)
Albert Pujols 3 times (2006, 2007, 2010*)

* The asterisk beside the seasons of some of the position players indicates that while they were the position player with the highest WAR in their league, there was a pitcher who did better. You know, if pitchers are even eligible, and so forth.

It's odd how sometimes players win in years they didn't deserve to win, and then get shut out some other year when they really were the most deserving player. The voters owed Mike Trout one in 2019 after messing him around three times, but it certainly could have gone to Alex Bregman that year. Jason Giambi won it in 2000, stealing it away from Pedro or A-Rod, rather than in 2001, when he really was the best player. It was Ichiro who won it in 2001, rather than in 2004, when it went to Vlad Guerrero instead. Joey Votto took an award away from Roy Halladay or Albert Pujols in 2010, but was on the other side of it when Giancarlo Stanton beat him for the prize in 2017.

I rather expected to see those mysterious intangibles play a larger role in MVP voting. But hey, not so much. Off the top of my head, besides Stargell in 1979 when he shared the award, the most obvious occasions when the MVP was someone being rewarded for his "intangible" contributions were 1965 (Zoilo Versalles), 1988 (Kirk Gibson) and 2007 (Jimmy Rollins.) But Versalles and Gibson, in particular, accumulated almost as much tangible WAR as the fellow who led the league. Those were more reasonable outcomes than I expected. And Ivan Rodriguez did beat out Captain Intangibles himself in 1999 (although Pedro was even more deserving than Jeter that year.)

You could probably also consider the awards given to Miguel Tejada, Terry Pendleton, and all of the catchers to be Evidence of Things Not Seen.

Finally, there are a number of MVP votes that really stand out to me - not because they were particularly awful miscarriages of justice, but because of their impact on the player's legacy. Most of them were in the AL.

1954 Minnie Minoso led the AL with 8.2 WAR to Berra's 5.3. Minoso still hasn't made it into the Hall of Fame, and it's too late for him now.

1967 Ron Santo was easily the best player in the NL, and WAR agrees with me - but Orlando Cepeda got the MVP. Santo had to die before they'd put him in the Hall of Fame, which still grinds my gears.

1973 Bobby Grich led AL position players with 8.3 WAR - not as impressive as Bert Blyleven, but ahead of MVP Reggie Jackson. Making the Hall of Fame case for Grich has been notoriously complicated. This might have helped.

1976 Graig Nettles led AL position players with 8.0 WAR - less than Mark Fidrych, more than MVP Thurman Munson. I don't know if either old Yankee is Hall-worthy, but Munson's probably got a somewhat better chance than Nettles.

1994 Kenny Lofton led the AL with 7.2 WAR, but Frank Thomas won his second MVP in as many years. I've grown more and more sold on Lofton's HoF qualifications, and an MVP award would make a nice addition to an impressive resume.

Well, there's several hours of my life I'll never get back. But now I know these things!