Sometimes it seems like awards in Major League Baseball exist only to generate controversy amongst the fans, with deserving players being overlooked year after year. Many years the choices are obvious- in other times, people with different criteria end up arguing for different candidates. More often that one would like, the choice is obvious and the wrong guy still ends up getting picked.
The constraint of getting this list down to ten personal favourites, and ensuring a balance between leagues and awards, has meant some very questionable decisions have been left off. Dishonourable mentions go to the selection of Sosa over McGwire as National League MVP in 1998 (you’d have thought the guy who actually won the homerun arms race would get it, no?) Yogi Berra being awarded the 1955 AL MVP over Mickey Mantle and Al Kaline, who had much better offensive seasons, Bartolo Colon’s Cy Young Award, and most recently Jimmy Rollins’ selection as last year’s National League honouree despite putting up a far-from-impressive .344 OBP. Three of those ‘robbed’ were Boston Red Sox- I make no bones of their inclusions on this list, since I think all three stand on their merits.
Looking back through the history books, a clear pattern emerges. It’s possible to win on a struggling team- but only if that team is the Chicago Cubs (see Ryne Sandberg in 1984 and Andre Dawson- another selection that just misses the cut- in 1987) or you’re so far and away the outstanding candidate that the voters have no choice (A-Rod in 2003). Run support is almost as important in Cy Young voting as how well you actually pitch, whilst MVP voters look for RBI more than any other stat. Speed will count hugely in your favour if it’s all you’ve got, (Larkin, Rickey Henderson) but will largely be ignored if you’ve got power as well (Bonds and A-Rod). It’s tough to win the Cy Young as a relief pitcher, but you’re more likely to get MVP vote pitching out of the pen than as a starter. Playing for a big-market team can help (Clemens, Vaughn) but having team-mates in the running hurts.
So, without further ado, I present my top 10 favourite best-of-the-worst decisions.
10. 1981 American League MVP. Now, there’s no doubt about it, putting up a 1.04 ERA, as Rollie Fingers did to win the award, is impressive. But is 78 innings’ worth of relief pitching really worth an MVP? Not when there’s a guy out there putting up a .415 OBP with decent power numbers and stellar outfield defence. Dewey Evans, however, came third.
9. 1998 National League Cy Young Award. 1998 was possibly the worst single year in the history of award voting. Tom Glavine, the winner, went 20-6 with a 2.47 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 157 K’s. Pretty nice numbers. However, another pitcher on the same team pitched 22 more innings, had an ERA .25 lower and a WHIP below one, and more K’s to boot. However, Greg Maddux only won 18 games- and so he came fourth. Such is the value of run support.
8. 1998 American League MVP. You think the National League decision was bad? At least Sosa led McGwire in a couple of categories. Second-placed Albert Belle played more games than winner Juan Gonzalez. Belle hit for a higher average, and belted more homeruns than the Rangers slugger. He took far more walks, and scored more runs. Gonzalez had five more RBI and played for a team that won its division. You do the maths.
7. 1995 National League MVP. Mike Piazza put up a better batting average than Barry Larkin. Piazza hit more home runs than Larkin. He had 27 more RBI than Larkin with a comparable run total, despite playing the only position in baseball harder than Larkin’s shortstop, and did so playing half his games in a much worse ballpark for hitters than Riverfront Stadium. Yes, the 51 steals were impressive. No, they do not make up for the difference in the rest of the two players’ lines. Also of note: Barry Bonds, who came only twelfth despite going 30-30 and leading the league in OPS.
6. 2001 American League Cy Young Award. You can argue about the value of wins. But when the runner up has both the lower ERA and WHIP combination, and more wins, than the guy who takes home the hardware, you know something’s up. Second-placed Mark Mulder was the man in that unfortunate position, and to add to the travesty of the decision, he also threw more innings than the victor. The winner? Roger Clemens, who had the name recognition, the sexy strikeout total and the big-market factor. Seattle’s Freddy Garcia actually put up a lower ERA and WHIP than either, and also pitched more innings than Clemens. Unfortunately for him, the Mariners didn’t come through with the run support, and he won ‘only’ 18 games.
5. 1970 American League MVP. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves here. Boog Powell won; Carl Yastrzemski came fourth.
Powell 154G 82 R .297 BA 35 HR 114 RBI .412 OBP
Yaz 161G 125 R .329 BA 40 HR 102 RBI .452 OBP
The difference here is team success- the Orioles won the AL East at a canter, whilst Boston finished third with 87 wins.
4. 1995 American League MVP. Albert Belle getting snubbed in ’98 was bad, but at least the winner had a comparable season. This one wasn’t. Belle hit 50 homers and batted .317, to winner Mo Vaughn’s .300 and 39. Both drove in 126 runs, but Belle scored 23 more runs than the Boston firstbaseman. Both teams made the postseason, so it’s not even like you can use the ‘Team Success’ argument against him. The writers just didn’t like the guy.
3. 2001 American League MVP. He was fast, new, and exciting. He got hits, and stole bases. He was on a very good team. What Ichiro was not by a long way, however, was the most valuable player in the AL in 2001. Ichiro may have hit .350 and stolen 56 bases. However, in terms of OPS, Ichiro was twelfth out of all the guys who received MVP votes. Giambi hit only eight points lower, but augmented it with 38 homers. Ichiro’s own team-mate, Bret Boone, whilst playing a tough defensive position (second) hit .330 with 37 big ones. A-Rod put up a .318 average with 52 homers, at the time a record for a shortstop. (He got far fewer votes than he should have done because the Rangers finished last, whilst the Mariner team he left the previous offseason broke the record for regular-season wins). Thome and Manny both put up homer totals in the 40s, with OPS over 1.000. Any of those guys would have been a better choice than Ichiro.
2. 1999 American League First Base Gold Glove. OK, we get it, Gold Gloves are a joke. They tend to be given out based on reputation rather than actual performance. But still. Palmeiro played all of 28 games at first that season. He played the rest of the year as a Designated Hitter. That joke isn’t funny anymore.
1. 1941 American League MVP. Ted Williams hit .406, the last player to break the .400 barrier. He hit 37 longballs, also good for first in the league. His OBP was .553, which is the kind of number that makes you think ‘Holy crap.’ THis was up there with Ruth’s 60-dinger 1927 season in the argument for the best season by any hitter, ever. And yet the award went to Joe DiMaggio, who batted 49 points lower, hit seven fewer homers, trailed by over 100 points in OBP… DiMaggio did not lead Williams in a single significant statistical category. What did DiMaggio have going for him? A 56-game hit streak. Nuff said