Friday, December 22, 2000

Value Play: Determining the MVP Winner


What makes someone a Most Valuable Player in Major League Baseball? Is it based purely on overall individual statistics, or is it based on whether a certain player’s team makes the playoffs? Lately, the emphasis seems to be on a player’s perceived role in driving his team to the postseason.

This year the top three vote recipients in the American League played on teams that made the playoffs. This meant that the A’s Jason Giambi edged out not only the Blue Jay’s superstar Carlos Delgado, but also fellow playoff contenders Frank Thomas of the White Sox and Alex Rodriguez, formerly of the Mariners (prior to his signing with the Sultan of Brunei).

So what separated Giambi from these other great hitters who led their teams into October? A strong finish. While their statistics were fairly comparable, Giambi propelled the A’s into the playoffs with a phenomenal final month, in which he hit .396 with 13 home runs and 32 RBI.

In the National League, the top four finishers were all on playoff bound teams, with the Giants’ Jeff Kent beating out teammate Barry Bonds, the Mets’ Mike Piazza and the Cardinals’ Jim Edmonds. In this case, it appears that a slow finish hurt Piazza and to a lesser extent, Edmonds. But is there something odd about Kent and Bonds coming in 1-2? If both players were so valuable in helping their team reach the playoffs, then was either player really that valuable by himself? While the Mets could not have withstood the loss of Piazza, the Giants likely could have stayed alive without one of Kent or Bonds. Even though Kent did drive in more runs (125) than any of these competitors, he was likely rewarded for what he has done over the past four years rather for a particularly strong 2000 season. His 475 RBI since 1997 are the most ever in a four-year span for a second baseman, and when Giants’ manager Dusty Baker publicly voiced his preference for Kent over Bonds, he may have influenced the voters.

Certainly this year the playoff component proved important in both leagues’ MVP races, but has this always been true? The current form of the MVP award dates back to 1931, when the Baseball Writers’ Association of America began handing out the award. From 1911-1914, the most valuable player received the (Superintendent) Chalmers Award and from 1922-1929, the League Award. We will focus on the winners from 1931-2000.

In the American League, 70 players won the award in that span. Of those, 21 played for teams that did not make the playoffs; in fairness, though, we should not count 1994, as there were no playoffs that year due to the misbegotten players’ strike and the Commissioner’s resultant canceling of the playoffs. So then we have 20 out of 69, or 29%, of the winners whose teams did not make the playoffs. In the National League, 71 players won the award during the period, as the Cardinals’ Keith Hernandez and the Pirates’ Willie Stargell shared the award in 1979. Disregarding 1994, we have 70 players, 22 of whom did not play for playoff teams (31%). Therefore, since the inception of the award, voters have chosen a player on a playoff-bound team roughly 70% of the time.

Now, someone could write a sizeable book (and for a sizeable advance, I’d be happy to) about who did or didn’t deserve the MVP award in certain years. While we won’t conduct such an exhaustive survey in this forum, we will take a look at some interesting MVP winners and non-winners.

In 1933 the A’s Jimmie Foxx won his second MVP award in as many years, becoming the first back-to-back winner. He topped that off by winning the Triple Crown that year, leading the American League in batting average, home runs and RBI, at .356, 48 and 163. He had actually had a better year in 1932, at .364, 58 and 169, but lost the batting title to Dale Alexander, who after hitting .250 in 23 games with the Tigers that year, hit .372 the rest of the way with the Red Sox, to finish at .367.

Across town, the Phillies’ Chuck Klein was bidding for his second consecutive MVP award as well. After hitting .348 with 38 home runs and 137 RBI in ’32, he won the Triple Crown in ’33 at .368, 28 and 120 (joining Foxx as the only co-winners in the same year, let alone the same city; neither of their teams made the World Series, as the playoffs were then simply known, in their MVP years). But Klein’s feat was dwarfed in the eyes of the voters by Carl Hubbell’s masterful year on the mound for the Giants, in which he went 23-12 with an astounding 1.66 ERA. “King Carl” would be even better three years later, claiming the MVP again after going 26-6 with a 2.31 ERA, and beginning a string of consecutive victories that would end in 1937 at the still unbeaten number of 24.

So, overall how well does winning the Triple Crown serve as a proxy for winning the MVP award? If you lead your league in batting average, home runs and RBI, are you a lock? Not necessarily. Since 1931, only two National Leaguers, Klein and the Cardinals’ Joe Medwick, in 1937, have won the Triple Crown, and only Medwick won the MVP. In the American League, there were four “double winners,” including Foxx, the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle in 1956, the Orioles’ Frank Robinson in 1966 and the Red Sox’ Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 (with thanks to Al Weis, as we learned in our last column).

But two of the best hitters in the history of the game were denied such fates. In 1934 the Yankees’ Lou Gehrig continued the tradition of exceptional slugging first baseman established by Foxx. He put together what might be the greatest Triple Crown season, hitting .363 with 49 home runs and 165 RBI (these numbers are actually all lower than Foxx’ from 1932, but Foxx lost the batting title and thus, the Triple Crown). Gehrig’s stellar season was passed over by the voters in favor of that of Detroit’s sparkplug catcher, Mickey Cochrane.

After leading the Philadelphia A’s to three straight pennants from 1929-1931, Cochrane was sold to Detroit prior to the 1934 season; he then led the Tigers to consecutive pennants in 1934-1935. What makes Cochrane’s selection as MVP in 1934 so curious is that it was neither his best year, nor was he necessarily the most valuable Tiger that year. For the year, Cochrane hit .320 (his career average, by the way), with 2 home runs and 76 RBI. During that three-year stretch with the A’s he hit .331, .357 and .349. His home run total for the year was a career low, and he had driven in almost forty more runs just two years prior. His teammates Hank Greenberg and Charlie Gehringer were well ahead of him in batting average, home runs, RBI, runs scored, hits, doubles, and triples that year.

So was it defense that won him the award? Boston’s Rick Ferrell actually had a slightly better year behind the plate than Cochrane, but not nearly as good a year at the plate. Like Kent in 2000, maybe Cochrane was rewarded for several outstanding years as opposed to one single exceptional year. Fans of the Yankees might have a good argument that their own catcher, Bill Dickey, put up pretty comparable numbers over the same period, and never received the award. With Cochrane beating out Gehrig for the year, and Dickey for the period, you might think that Yankees’ fans would be pretty down on Cochrane. In fact, they would cheer his namesake for years to come. Mickey Mantle’s father named his son after Cochrane, not realizing that Cochrane’s actual name was Gordon, not Mickey. Mantle’s father’s name was Mutt; it’s unclear whether Mickey’s grandfather’s family dog had a more formal name.

And the other all-time great to win the Triple Crown and lose the MVP? Ted Williams, the subject of our next column, did it twice, in 1942 and 1947. He did win in 1946 and 1949, but he could easily have had four that decade. More on Teddy Ballgame coming soon.