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Going Down Ballot: The AL MVP

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I had so much fun doing research for the AL Cy Young post that I decided to do a similar post for the AL MVP. I’m not going to break down the 2010 ballot though because, for the most part, the voters actually got it right. I think Shin-Soo Choo (5.6 fWAR, 8th in the league) should have finished much higher than 14th, and I certainly don’t think Delmon Young should have finished in the top ten (2.1 fWAR, mostly due to his horrible defense: -9.7 UZR). Every other pick is pretty defensible; actually, the MVP ballot matches up pretty nicely with the season’s WAR leaders. Yeah, Thanksgiving was a couple of days ago, but this kind of progress is something to be thankful for indeed. In fact, it’s interesting to see how much things have changed in terms of awards voting in just the past few years. Though I occasionally make some snarky comments, I didn’t write these posts to dump on the voters in the past; that would be like savaging our ancestors for failing to use antibiotics to treat deadly illnesses like typhoid. They didn’t have access to technology that would allow them to watch any game at any time anywhere in the country, nor did they have the vast amounts of statistical information that we have available today. They made the best decisions they could with the information they had available, and with some exceptions, they did a pretty good job.

What’s more interesting to me is that our view of what makes a ballplayer great hasn’t changed all that much over the years; we still value things like speed, and power, and defense, that fans and front offices have always placed a premium on. It’s that our methods of evaluating these things have drastically changed.

Once again, I’m just using fWAR for the sake of consistency. Unlike pitchers, Fangraphs does have WAR data for American League position players going back to, well, as long as the league has existed. So, I looked at all of the MVP ballots since 1961, when the franchise as we know it came into existence. First, let’s look at the guys who got more MVP love than they probably deserved:

1962: Harmon Killebrew finished third with one first-place vote, though he was 20th in the league in WAR. Killer would have some legitimate MVP seasons*; this, however, was not one of them. He batted .243/.366/.545/.912 and finished with 4.2 WAR, while providing below-average defense at first base. He did knock in a league-leading 126 runs batted in and smashed a league-leading 48 home runs, yet still finished behind Roger Maris and Bobby Richardson in voting. Rocky Colavito (7.1 WAR), Norm Siebern (6.1 WAR), or you know, the actual league MVP Brooks Robinson (7.2 WAR, 9th place finish), would have been much better choices.

*Killer won in 1969, though he might have been the fourth-best player in the league. Still, the numbers are close enough that Killer could reasonably be considered the MVP, though I probably would have voted for Reggie Jackson.

1987: Kirby Puckett finished third in voting, though he wasn’t even in the top 20 in terms of WAR. I get what the voters were thinking, and really, as the world’s biggest Kirby Puckett fan when I was a kid, I would prefer to think they were right. Puckett was one of the best hitters on a thoroughly mediocre Twins team and played no small role in helping them clinch the AL West. Without the benefit of advanced metrics to help them sort things out, voters would automatically assume he was one of the most valuable players in the league. And it’s not like Puckett had a horrible season, batting .332/.367/.534/.900 with a .382 wOBA and 133 wRC+, good for 4.0 WAR. It’s just that those numbers don’t look quite so good when put into context; in fact, they’re towards the middle of the pack. Paul Molitor (.443 wOBA, 175 wRC+, 6.3 WAR) and Wade Boggs (.440 wOBA, 173wRC+, 9.2 WAR, he probably should have won*) were so much better, and deserved to finish much higher than fifth and ninth, respectively.

*Boggs probably should have won again in 1988, but finished sixth. Puckett again finished a few spots ahead of him, but this time the numbers were close enough that it isn’t such a huge snub.

1992: Kirby Puckett finished second in voting, though he was maybe the fifth-best player in the league. Frank Thomas was indisputably the league MVP that year. He lead the league in OBP (.439), OPS (.975), wRC+ (180), wOBA (.432), WAR (7.7), was in the top five in nearly every other offensive stat, and yet finished eighth in voting. Kirby batted a much more modest .329/.374/.490/.864, with a .382 wOBA, 141 wRC+, and 6.4 WAR. Thomas finishing behind the likes of Puckett, Joe Carter, Mark McGwire, Dave Winfield and Roberto Alomar isn’t nearly as problematic as Dennis Eckersley actually winning it, though.

2003: Shannon Stewart finished fourth in voting, but wasn’t even the best player on his own team. Stewart had a good season, batting .307/.364/.459/.823 and providing an enormous boost to a Twins lineup that batted a mediocre .275/.334/.434/.768 before acquiring the outfielder from Toronto. In this sense it’s easy to see why voters felt Stewart was one of the most valuable players in the league; the Twins went 46-23 after the trade and captured the AL Central crown. However, Stewart wasn’t in the top ten in WAR, or any offensive category really, and was probably the third-best position player on his own team behind Corey Koskie and Doug Mientkiewicz. As far as leading the Twins to the postseason, the emergence of Johan Santana as one of the league’s elite starters likely played a much greater role. Bret Boone, Carlos Beltran, Manny Ramirez, and Nomar Garciaparra all deserved more MVP votes than Stewart.

2006: Justin Morneau won, Joe Mauer was the more valuable player on the team, Derek Jeter, Grady Sizemore, and pretty much everybody else in the AL deserved it more, blah, blah, blah. Morneau didn’t have a terrible season by any means, batting .321/.375/.559/.934 with a .388 wOBA, and 140 wRC+, with a 4.3 WAR. It’s just that his numbers were pretty average for players at his position; indeed Morneau was fourth among first basemen in home runs, third in OBP, second in wOBA, fourth in ISO, well, you get the idea. But he lead the entire league in RsBI (140), thus voters thought he played the biggest role in helping the Twins overcome a 12 game deficit at the all-star break to win the division. Two years later, Morneau would finish second in MVP voting, despite finishing out of the top 20 in WAR.

Then there are the notable snubs:

1963: Bob Allison lead the league in WAR (8.2), but finished 15th in MVP voting. Well, in their defense, voters didn’t know about wOBA and wins above replacement back then. Allison batted .271/.378/.533/.911, lead the league in wOBA (.402), wRC+ (161), but finished in the bottom third in home runs and RsBI so voters didn’t give him a second look. At least winner Elston Howard wasn’t too far behind Allison in terms of WAR (7.0), but Carl Yastrzemski (7.7 WAR) would have been a better choice. Incidentally, Allison would also finish fifth in WAR the next year, but once again finish outside the top ten in MVP voting (23rd).

1973: Reggie Jackson, Jim Palmer, Amos Otis, Sal Bando, Rod Carew, one of these things is not like the other. Amos Otis finished outside the top 20 in WAR (3.8, mostly because he was an awful fielder at -12 runs below replacement), but finished third in MVP voting. Otis wasn’t exactly a slouch at the plate, batting.300/.368/.434/.851 with a .380 wOBA, but Carew (.398 wOBA, 6.5 WAR) and and Bando (.390 wOBA, 6.6 WAR) were even better.

1974: Rod Carew has the second-highest WAR total in the league, and finishes seventh in voting. Winner Jeff Burroughs finished with just 3.8 WAR, mostly because he was an awful fielder (-22 runs below replacement). His offensive numbers are pretty comparable to Carew and were among the top five in the league, so I don’t really have a problem with Burroughs winning. The problem is that Carew finished first in the league in batting average (.364) and on-base percentage (.433), third in wOBA (.405), fourth in wRC+ (166), but finished behind Joe Rudi (.392/.334/.484/.818, .365 wOBA, 138 wRC+, 4.6 WAR) in voting.

1975: Rod Carew finished with the third-highest WAR total in the league, and yet somehow finished ninth in voting. Again, the problem isn’t with who actually won; Fred Lynn had a fantastic season (though John Mayberry may have been slightly better), nor even most of the players who finished ahead of him. It’s that third-place Jim Rice put up less impressive numbers (.375 wOBA, 128 wRC+, 3.1 WAR) and reliever Rollie Fingers finished fourth, while Carew quietly had one of the best seasons of his career (.415 wOBA, 161 wRC+, 7.3 WAR).

1978: Roy Smalley finished fifth in WAR, but doesn’t make the ballot at all. Smalley wasn’t the best overall player in the league (the voters got that right), but he was first among AL shortstops in OBP (.362), slugging percentage (.433), home runs (19), RsBI (77), wRC+ (123), wOBA (.355) and WAR (6.0), second in batting average (.293), while providing solid defense (4.0 runs above replacement). He was light years ahead of fifth-place Rusty Staub (.273/.347/.435/.782, .352 wOBA, 120 wRC+, 2.5 WAR) and seventh-place Don Baylor (.255/.332/.472/.804, .358 wOBA, 131 wRC+, 2.6 WAR), and probably shouldn’t have finished any lower than 8th.

1996: Chuck Knoblauch is awesome at everything, yet finishes 16th in MVP voting. It’s amazing to me that this is the closest Knoblauch ever got to winning an MVP award. He was the 1991 ROY, a 4-time All-Star, won a Gold Glove and four Silver Slugger awards, so it’s not like his contributions went completely unnoticed, but at that time Knobby was second only to Roberto Alomar as the best 2B in baseball and looked like a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame. Knoblauch finished third in the league in WAR (8.4), and lead AL second basemen in batting average (.341) OBP (.448), wOBA (.426), wRC+ (154), while finishing second in fielding runs above replacement (11). Juan Gonzalez hit 144 RsBI and a ton of home runs though, so naturally he was named MVP (just narrowly beating a much more deserving Alex Rodriguez).

Erin is a contributing writer for Twinkie Talk. You can email her at erinm725 [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Tags: Alex Rodriguez Bob Allison Corey Koskie Delmon Young Derek Jeter Harmon Killebrew Joe Mauer Johan Santana Justin Morneau Kirby Puckett Paul Molitor Reggie Jackson Roberto Alomar Rod Carew Roy Smalley Wade Boggs

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