There is growing concern in analytical circles that Albert Pujols will win the National League MVP Award, instead of the more deserving Barry Bonds. Bonds is putting together a great season in the middle of a tight pennant race, and most hints from the media–the people who actually vote on the award, after all–indicate that it’s Pujols’ race to lose. Bonds has had a difficult season, dealing with the painful decline and, ultimately, death of his beloved father. Despite this, he has outplayed everyone on a per-game basis and, even accounting for his missing 20% of his team’s contests, has still provided more value than Pujols or anyone else.
Leaving aside the 2003 race, which is, after all, still ongoing–and which Bonds might very well win–let’s turn our attention to how Barry has been mistreated in the past. To begin with, we have to deal with the fact that Bonds has won the award five times, two more than any other player in history. This is not necessarily a contradiction, of course–if Bonds is the best player in the league every year, then the writers have a responsibility to give him the award every year. Given this, how many MVP awards should Bonds have won?
As you have no doubt gathered, I make no distinction between the “best” player and the “most valuable” player. What could be more valuable than “greatness,” after all? The distinction is often used as a crutch; rather than trying to make the case that a candidate is really the best player, one can instead try to cloud the issue with grammatical semantics. We won’t do that here.
According to Keith Woolner’s Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), which measures a player’s offense against a theoretical replacement-level player at his position, Bonds has been the best hitter in the National League six times–the five years he actually won the MVP award (1990, 1992, 1993, 2001, and 2002), plus one year that he did not.
1991 NL VORP Barry Bonds 61.4 Ryne Sandberg 56.7 Barry Larkin 55.0 Terry Pendleton 53.9 Will Clark 53.1
According to VORP, in 1991 Bonds’ hitting was worth about 61 runs more than a replacement left fielder. Terry Pendleton won the award, with Bonds finishing a close second (274 to 259). This season is often mentioned as a year that Bonds got screwed, but there were obviously several reasonable candidates. Pendleton was a great defensive third baseman, and he was the main acquisition made by a team that went on to a surprising pennant. Clay Davenport’s Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), which considers defense, gives the nod to Pendleton (11.0 to 10.7). It’s a tough call.
Bonds has been a strong candidate several other times. In 1995, he finished a close third to Barry Larkin in VORP, and Larkin won the award. The next year, he finished just behind Gary Sheffield in VORP, but Ken Caminiti came away with the hardware. In both of these years, voters showed a tendency to favor a player from a pennant winner–Bonds’ Giants finished in the cellar in both seasons. There was a bit of a fuss when Jeff Kent beat out Bonds in 2000, but VORP (which considers just offense) actually saw the race as Todd Helton, Brian Giles, Kent and then Bonds.
So, there has never been a season when Bonds was obviously the league’s best player that he did not win the MVP award. Were he to lose the award this season (he is currently leading in VORP by 17 runs over Pujols) it would be his first real injustice.
If Bonds has not been mistreated by MVP voters though, several stars of the past have been. Although it has been 80 years since anyone has hit like Bonds has the past few years, there have been occasions when a player has dominated his league for several years and been ill-served by the voters. The rest of this article briefly discusses a few of the more famous cases.
Ted Williams‘ problem was that he played in a time when it was difficult to win the award without winning the pennant, and his team finished second every year. From 1941 through 1954, Williams led the league in VORP every season that he wasn’t either in the military (five years) or hurt (1950). He won two awards: 1946, when the Red Sox finished first, and 1949, when they finished one game behind. Let’s run through a few of the more interesting losses:
1941 AL VORP Ted Williams 113.5 Joe DiMaggio 84.4 Cecil Travis 73.4
This is the year Williams hit .406/.553/.735, and Joe DiMaggio hit .357/.440/.643. There was no controversy when DiMaggio won it (291 to 254): he had a great season, he hit in 56 straight games, and the Yankees ran away with the pennant. If this was played out today, the talk would be all about who the better player was, but in 1941 it would have been somewhat astonishing if Williams had won the award. Nonetheless, the numbers say he was the more valuable player of the two.
1942 AL VORP Ted Williams 87.6 Joe Gordon 62.3 Joe DiMaggio 49.7
Gordon beat out Williams in a close vote (270-249, 12-9 in first-place votes). Williams won the Triple Crown, while Gordon led his league in errors, strikeouts and grounded into double plays. To be fair, Gordon was a fine player having a great year, and the Yankees ran away with the pennant. This was somewhat controversial, even then.
1947 AL VORP Ted Williams 100.7 Joe DiMaggio 55.9 Joe Gordon 49.7
This was the most famous of Williams’ MVP losses. The award went to DiMaggio in an off year (.315/.391/.522) despite Williams’ second triple crown and otherwise typical offensive dominance (.343/.499/.634). By the way, Williams led his league in on-base percentage every year he was eligible for the award, other than his rookie year. That’s 12 of 13 if you are scoring at home, to go along with nine slugging titles and six batting crowns.
DiMaggio’s supporters, and you know who you are, will argue that Joe brought other things to the table (defense, baserunning, leadership) that Williams did not. This might be true, but it is not likely that those things would amount to 45 runs. WARP, which considers defense, still does not see it as close (14.0 to 7.9). Nonetheless, DiMaggio and fellow Yankees Joe Page and George McQuinn captured 18 of the 22 first-place votes. Williams almost won anyway (202-201).
1948 AL VORP Ted Williams 91.5 Lou Boudreau 80.5 Joe DiMaggio 73.1
In 1948 Williams was the best hitter in the league, and DiMaggio had his last great season, but after considering Lou Boudreau‘s defensive brilliance and his managing the Indians to the World Series, there was, and is, little question that Boudreau deserved the award.
1954 AL VORP Ted Williams 74.4 Bobby Avila 59.4 Minnie Minoso 56.7
After a few years largely taken up with injuries and military service, Williams had a season in 1954 that shares some similarity with Bonds’ 2003. In just 117 games, Ted managed a .345/.513/.635 campaign, clearly making up for his less-than-normal counting stats. Under today’s rules he would have led the league in all these rates, but at the time you needed 400 at-bats (Ted had 386, plus 136 walks). Yogi Berra took home his second trophy.
Although one could make a case for Williams to have won another four or five awards, 1942 and 1947, his two Triple Crown years, are the only truly egregious cases.
According to VORP, Mickey Mantle was the best hitter in the American League seven times, from 1955 through 1962, excepting only 1959. The MVP voters gave him three awards (1956, 1957 and 1962). Unlike Williams, Mantle did not have to worry about not playing for a winner. For the most part, the writers were looking for someone else to honor once they had given Mantle a couple, plus he lost out to lesser teammates a few times.
1955 AL VORP Mickey Mantle 75.6 Ted Williams 67.5 Al Kaline 53.6
It took the press a while to realize that Mantle was the best player on the Yankees, as they gave Yogi Berra his third MVP award despite Mantle’s wonderful .306/.431/.611 season. Berra had a few more RBI, which carried the day. By the way, Williams did his damage in just 98 games.
1958 AL VORP Mickey Mantle 88.6 Pete Runnels 60.7 Rocky Colavito 56.9
Mantle had won two MVPs in a row, but lost this award to Boston’s Jackie Jensen. Let’s take a closer look.
HR RBI BA OBP SLG Jensen 35 122 .286 .396 .535 Mantle 42 97 .304 .443 .592
Mantle was a better hitter, played a tougher position, hit in a tougher park, and was on the runaway pennant winner. Jensen led the league in RBI, plus Mantle had regressed a bit from his great 1956 and 1957 seasons. Mantle actually finished fifth, behind three guys who drove in more runs than him (Jensen, Rocky Colavito and Bob Cerv), plus Bob Turley, his pitcher teammate.
1960 AL VORP Mickey Mantle 62.6 Roger Maris 49.9 Ted Williams 49.5
This was not one of Mantle’s better seasons, but he was still the best player in the league. His new teammate, Roger Maris, led the league in RBI hitting behind Mantle, while Mickey led the league in runs scored. Maris had a huge first half, making some news for threatening Ruth’s single-season home run record. It was close–more voters put Mantle first (10 to 8)–but Maris won the balloting 225-222.
1961 AL VORP Mickey Mantle 99.3 Norm Cash 98.1 Rocky Colavito 69.5 Jim Gentile 67.7 Roger Maris 59.3
Fueled by his historic 61-homer season, Maris repeated as MVP despite one of Mantle’s greatest seasons. The voting was once again split (202-198), with Jim Gentile (5), Norm Cash (1) and Luis Arroyo (1) also capturing first-place votes. Cash was an extremely underrated player, but he had no other seasons close to this one.
Overall, Mantle was likely the best player in the league at least six times, and arguably a few more. Considering that he also won the pennant every year, he should have won a few more MVPs. His high walk totals caused him to lose out to players hitting behind him in the order who racked up high RBI totals.
Willie Mays was, according to VORP, the best hitter in the NL five times, and the second-best hitter in five other seasons. Considering that he was hailed as the greatest defensive player and greatest base runner of his time, Willie could have won several more than the two MVP awards he received. Pete Palmer’s TPR, for example, rates Mays the league’s best player nine times. Mays’ largest problem was the competition, the largest collection of top-tier Hall of Famers in their prime ever concentrated in one league. A few of the more interesting cases:
1955 NL VORP Willie Mays 88.6 Duke Snider 73.2 Eddie Mathews 70.0
Mays had won the MVP the previous year as a 23-year-old, but was not honored for having an equally great season in 1955 (51 HRs, 127 RBI, .319/.404/.659). Keeping with the strong tendency to give the trophy to a winner, Roy Campanella beat Duke Snider in a close race. Mays finished fourth, and received zero first-place votes.
1957 NL VORP Willie Mays 79.2 Hank Aaron 71.8 Ernie Banks 68.2
Hank Aaron led the Braves to the pennant, and won a close race with Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst. Again, the voters were not really concerned with debating who the best player was. Aaron was a great player, and his team clinched the pennant on his game-winning home run. That was enough.
1960 NL VORP Willie Mays 63.2 Eddie Mathews 63.1 Frank Robinson 60.4
The Pirates’ Dick Groat won this one.
If you have been paying attention, you will notice that Mays was up against distinctly tougher competition than Mantle was. Other than Ted Williams, who was in his mid-to-late 30s, Mantle had the field to himself in the American League by the mid-1950s, having to beat out the likes of Pete Runnels and Jackie Jensen for offensive honors. Mays, on the other hand, was regularly the best player in a league that also included Musial, Aaron, Mathews, Snider, Banks, Frank Robinson, and Roberto Clemente, with the assorted Sandy Koufax masterpiece seasons thrown in for good measure.
This is one of the things people often miss when they compare Mantle and Mays. Yes, Mantle had better offensive statistics in his best years. Yes, Mantle did better in MVP voting. But he was also playing in a distinctly lesser league, both in terms of star power and in overall talent. This observation is confirmed by Clay Davenport’s extensive study of historical league strengths.
1962 NL VORP Frank Robinson 74.3 Willie Mays 73.9 Hank Aaron 71.4
Another tough crowd. (In the AL, Mantle edged the great Norm Siebern for the VORP crown. I am not making this up.) Although Mays was a slightly worse hitter than Robinson in ’62, he was almost certainly a better player, and his team won the pennant. Maury Wills edged Mays (209-202) for the award largely on the basis of setting a single-season stolen base record.
1964 NL VORP Willie Mays 67.7 Frank Robinson 63.3 Ron Santo 62.8
Ken Boyer, whose team won a thrilling pennant race, won the award.
We could just as easily have looked at several other years; Mays was the same great player year after year. Unfortunately, unlike Mantle or Williams he was never able to crush his competition by 30 or 50 runs. Although Mays was the league’s best player for more than a decade, he probably feels lucky to have one the two awards that he won. Aaron won just one, Mathews zero, Snider zero, Clemente one. Robinson won one in the NL, but once he got to the lesser AL he immediately dominated the league.
When Wayne Gretzky joined the NHL as an 18-year-old in 1979, he promptly captured the next eight league MVP awards. This seemed perfectly sensible–he was the clearly the best player, so why not just give him the award every year? In baseball, the writers have a history of fighting this phenomenon. When faced with a truly dominant player, there has always been a tendency to look around for someone else. It would have made perfect sense to give Willie Mays the MVP award every season–one could make the case that he deserved most of the awards between 1954 and 1966. The same thing goes for Mantle, and would go for Williams if he had managed to stay out of the Navy.
Barry Bonds, with five awards on his mantle so far, has fared much better in this regard than his superstar predecessors. I would not bet against him winning this season. Or 2004, for that matter.
Mark Armour is the co-author (with Dan Levitt) of Paths To Glory, the stories of the building of several interesting baseball teams, which was published this spring by Brasseys, Inc. You can contact him at email@example.com.