Top 20 MLB Players Who Least Deserved Their Awards

This article appeared in The Sportster on September 6, 2016.

In 2006, first baseman, Justin Morneau, was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player. His Twins had won the A.L. Central by a lone game over the Detroit Tigers, so it was reasonable to give the award to someone from their roster. But Morneau?

With 4.3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), he rated 35th among A.L. players and was only fourth on his own team using that metric, behind catcher, Joe Mauer, and pitchers, Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano. Morneau had a good year on a division-winning club, but he was not the league’s – or the Twins’ – most valuable player that year.

Part of the problem lies with MLB failing to identify the criteria for determining its MVPs. This leads to quite a bit of subjectivity that inevitably creeps into the voting. How does one define “valuable?” One would think playing for a contending team should be a factor. After all, how important could Andre Dawson (26th in the N.L. in WAR) have been to the last-place Chicago Cubs when he won the MVP in 1987?

The Cy Young Award, on the other hand, is a bit more straightforward; it is given to the best regular season pitcher in each league. But even simple definitions do not always yield correct results.

Including ties, there have been 171 MVPs and 110 Cy Young Awards handed out since 1931, when the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) began selecting the winners. Here are the ones they have botched the most.

Philadelphia’s first baseman, Ryan Howard, had a fine season in 2006, finishing second in the N.L. in OPS+ (167) and first in home runs (58) and RBI (149). But he may not have even been the most valuable player on his own team. Second baseman, Chase Utley, had just 36 fewer total bases than Howard that year and was much better defensively. But it’s hard to argue that either Phillie deserved to win the MVP over the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols that year. The St. Louis first baseman had finished among the top four in MVP voting each of his first five seasons and won it the previous year. In 2006, Pujols led the league in WAR (8.4) and OPS+ (178) and was second in both homers (49) and RBI (137). Though Howard finished the season strongly (9 HR, 1.312 OPS over the final month), so did Pujols (10 HR, 1.165 OPS), but there was one area that favored Prince Albert enormously in this race: his team won its division by 1 ½ games over the Houston Astros, while the Phillies finished the regular season three games out of the wild card.

In 1987, Toronto left fielder, George Bell, slugged 47 home runs and led the American League in total bases (369) and RBI (134) – all career highs. Those numbers would represent solid credentials for an MVP most years. That season, however, the Tigers’ Alan Trammell posted an impressive OPS+ of 155, which was slightly higher than Bell’s 146. More significantly, Trammell played a premium defensive position that otherwise generated very little offensive production (no other shortstop in all of baseball was within 130 points of his .953 OPS). But the most baffling part of the story that voters clearly ignored was how each player finished the year. Through games of September 26, Toronto led the division by 3 ½ games and proceeded to lose their final seven contests – including a sweep by Detroit to end the season. Over that final week, Bell was just 3-27 (.111 batting average) with no extra-base hits. Trammell, on the other hand, was 10-32 (.313) with a homer and three doubles over that span. The Tigers won the division on the last day of the season with a 1-0 win over the Jays.

It took a while for Steve Garvey’s career to take off. He had just three plate appearances with the Dodgers when he was initially called up in 1969. Five years later, Bill Buckner moved to left field and Garvey became the franchise’s starting first baseman, where he remained for nearly a decade. In his first season as a full-time player, he won the National League MVP, even though he was fourth in WAR – on his own team. Most notably, center fielder, Jim Wynn, led Los Angeles in homers, runs, walks, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Though his OPS was 73 points higher than Garvey’s that year, he failed to secure a single first-place vote. A trade acquisition from Houston prior to the 1974 season, Winn only played two years in L.A. During that time, though, he made two of his three career All-Star appearances and should have won an MVP.

Chicago White Sox ace, Jack McDowell, went 20-10 with a 3.18 ERA in 1992, finishing second to Oakland closer, Dennis Eckersley (a lot more on him to come), for the AL Cy Young Award. The next year, he won it with similar numbers (22-10, 3.37 ERA). Meanwhile, Kevin Appier of the Kansas City Royals put together a season that completely dominated McDowell’s. Appier’s ERA+ of 179 was the best in the Majors, 31 points higher than any other pitcher in the A.L. and a whopping 54 points higher than McDowell’s. He also led the league in WAR, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and HR allowed per nine innings and was second in WHIP. Conversely, McDowell wasn’t among the top five in any of those stats. For good measure, Appier also struck out 1.5 more batters per nine innings than Black Jack and went 18-8 on a team that scored the fewest runs in the American League.

In an era during which baseball players were erroneously judged primarily by their batting averages and win totals, Pete Vuckovich won the 1982 Cy Young simply because he went 18-6 on a division winner. He was just 25th in the A.L. in FIP and 31st in K/9IP. But the most remarkable – or rather, unremarkable – stat was his horrific 1.502 WHIP, which placed him 83rd out of 90 qualifying pitchers (minimum of one inning pitched per team game played) in all of baseball. Of the nine AL hurlers to receive at least one vote that year, Vuckovich was last in WAR, ERA+ and WHIP. While there were several candidates who could have won the award in 1982, Toronto’s Dave Stieb was the most deserving. Despite pitching for a last-place club, Stieb had 17 wins, just one fewer than Vuckovich. The 24-year old Blue Jay was second in the league in WHIP (1.200) and third in ERA+ (138), while leading the A.L. in innings pitched. In particular, Stieb threw extremely well in the second half of the year; he was 10-4 with a 2.59 ERA and 1.116 WHIP after the All-Star break.

Roy Campanella played just 10 seasons in the Major Leagues, but he definitely made the most of them. Along the way, he won three Most Valuable Player awards and appeared in five World Series (winning one) and eight All-Star Games. In 1955, Campanella beat out some impressive competition for N.L. MVP (eight of the top 10 vote-getters would eventually be inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame) and the Dodgers won the National League pennant by 13 ½ games over the Milwaukee Braves. Campanella had a terrific year, leading all MLB catchers in OPS+ (152) and home runs (32), but his teammate, Duke Snider, was even better. Brooklyn’s center fielder led his team in virtually every significant offensive category and was tops in the league in runs (126) and RBI (136). He also finished second to New York Giants’ legend, Willie Mays, in WAR (8.6) and OPS (1.046) among N.L. players.

It is completely preposterous that a relief pitcher can be the most valuable player of an entire baseball league. A’s closer, Dennis Eckersley, was not the first reliever to win an MVP, though; Rollie Fingers and Willie Hernandez are among those who had won the award previously. In 1992, Eck led the league with 51 saves, blowing just three opportunities that resulted in two Oakland losses. His 1.91 ERA and 0.913 WHIP were equally impressive. But how valuable was Eckersley, really? Only 30 of his 51 saves were with leads of one or two runs. According to The Book, in three-run save situations, an average reliever will cost his team a total of just 0.2 wins per season, relative to a great reliever. The A’s, meanwhile, led their division by eight games with 16 contests remaining in the season and would coast to a division title from there. They were winning that division with any of the several quality closers in the league. If the voters were set on giving someone from Oakland the MVP, why not Mark McGwire? The first baseman slugged 42 homers and led the A.L. in OPS+ (176). Over a 162-game season, surely his contribution to the team’s success was much greater than that of a relief pitcher.

In the early 1960s, the New York Yankees were nearing the end of an absurd run, during which they would win 15 World Series titles and 22 American League pennants in 29 years. The offense, at this time, was led by outfielders, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, who became known as the “M&M Boys.” Following both the 1960 and 1961 seasons, Maris narrowly edged out Mantle as the league’s MVP. He famously surpassed Babe Ruth’s 34-year old record for single-season home runs in ’61, which was the only plausible thing voters could have been looking at. Despite that incredible accomplishment, Mantle was very clearly the superior player that year. During a season in which legends, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Al Kaline and Eddie Mathews were all in their primes, The Mick led all of baseball in WAR (10.5) and OPS+ (206). His batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage in 1961 were better than Maris’s by 48, 76 and 67 points, respectively.

Juan Gonzalez powered his way to two MVPs and didn’t really deserve to win either of them. His 1996 award was particularly atrocious. His 3.8 WAR in 1996 ranked 5th on his own team and 30th in the American League among position players (44th if you include pitchers). His career-high 47 home runs likely swayed some people, but he was a liability defensively, while playing left field for the Rangers. Cleveland’s Jim Thome, who finished 15th in voting, should have received a lot more consideration for the award. The third baseman was third in the A.L. in OPS+ (167) and his 7.5 WAR nearly doubled the amount Gonzalez posted. Thome’s teammate, Albert Belle (48 HR, 158 OPS+, 124 runs, 148 RBI) and Baltimore’s Brady Anderson (50 HR, 156 OPS+, 117 runs, 110 RBI) would have also been reasonable choices. Each of the players above helped his team reach the postseason in 1996 and finished among the league’s top 10 in both WAR and OPS+. Belle was the only one among them to receive any first-place votes.

Including the fact that they both played for Texas, Jeff Burroughs and Juan Gonzalez (#12) had very similar MVP seasons. There were 26 batters in the league with more Wins Against Replacement than Burroughs in 1974. In fact, his 3.6 WAR represents the second-lowest total for an MVP since the BBWAA began voting in 1931 (only Eckersley, #14 on this list, was worse with 2.9). Though Burroughs (162 OPS+, 25 HR, 118 RBI) was the best hitter on his team that year, starting pitcher, Fergie Jenkins was probably the Rangers’ most valuable player. Jenkins was tied for the league lead with 25 wins and was second with a 2.76 FIP and 1.008 WHIP. All of that said, Texas didn’t win their division. That’s fine; there have been plenty of legitimate MVP winners who weren’t on playoff teams. But in 1974, Oakland won the A.L. West and their right fielder, Reggie Jackson (league-leading OPS+ of 166, 29 HR, 93 RBI), had numbers that were as good, if not better than what Burroughs managed to post. Also, over in the A.L. East, Baltimore won the division in large part because of second baseman, Bobby Grich, who more than doubled Burroughs’s WAR, with 7.3.

In 1978, San Diego’s Gaylord Perry was 21-6 en route to winning his second Cy Young (the first was with Cleveland six years earlier). But if the award is supposed to go to the league’s best pitcher, another 39-year old, Atlanta’s Phil Niekro, should have won handily. Because he was a soft-throwing knuckleballer, Niekro was able to appear in seven more games than Perry, while throwing over 70 more innings. So comparing their cumulative stats would not be very meaningful. However, it’s worth noting that Niekro managed to win 19 games while pitching for the last-place Braves who were just 46-72 in games he didn’t pitch; no one else on the team even won 10 decisions. His ERA+ of 142 was third in the N.L., 21 points better than Perry’s. And while Niekro’s WHIP was slightly worse, 1.187 to 1.178, he struck out over 25% more batters per nine innings pitched.

After spending four solid, but unspectacular seasons with the Yankees and Washington Senators, Jackie Jensen was traded to Boston and his career immediately took off. During his first year with the Red Sox, he launched 25 home runs, knocked in 117 runs and led the league with 22 stolen bases. Four years later, he won the American League MVP with a 148 OPS+, 35 HR and an A.L.-best 122 RBI. Boston finished the 1958 season in third place with a 79-75 record, 13 games behind the Yanks. The best player in the league that year was New York’s Mickey Mantle. He led the league in WAR (8.7), OPS+ (188), homers (42), runs (127), walks (129) and total bases (307). Mantle was by far the best player on the best team and had won each of the previous two league MVPs. In 1958, however, he didn’t receive a single first-place vote.

Voters in 1944 clearly valued defense a lot more than they do today. Shortstop, Marty Marion, was a whiz in the field for the Cardinals when he won the MVP. For nine straight seasons, he was among the top three N.L. players in defensive WAR. On offense, Marion was above average for a 1940s middle infielder. Of all the shortstops in the league in ‘44, his 90 OPS+ and six HR each ranked second. And with a 14 ½ game cushion, St. Louis easily won the National League pennant, so selecting someone from their roster seemed obvious. But the most valuable player on the team was unquestionably future Hall of Famer, Stan Musial. The 23-year old outfielder led the league in OPS+ (174), hits (197) and doubles (51) and was second in runs scored with 112. Musial had won the MVP in 1943 and would go on to win two more during his career, but he curiously finished fourth in 1944.

In 1995, Barry Larkin led all N.L. shortstops in OPS+ (134), runs (98) and stolen bases (51) and was second in home runs (15) and RBI (66). It was a very good year for an integral component of the division-winning Reds. But there were several other position players who had better seasons and could have won the MVP that year. Catcher, Mike Piazza, helped the Dodgers to a division title with the league’s best OPS+ (172) to go along with 32 HR and 93 runs batted in. And Larkin’s teammate, Reggie Sanders, was second to Barry Bonds in WAR (6.6) among National League hitters. But the MVP should have gone to Atlanta starting pitcher, Greg Maddux. Some voters claim hurlers have their own award, the Cy Young, and that the MVP should therefore be reserved for batters. However, when there is no clear cut choice and a pitcher is as dominant as Maddux was that year, he should win. That year, he was 19-2 with a ridiculous 260 ERA+ (over 100 points higher than the L.A.’s Hideo Nomo, who was second) and a smothering 0.811 WHIP (the best in the N.L. since 1880). It was one of the best seasons by any player in the history of the game and should have been recognized as such.

This is Eckersley’s second time on this list – and his second time for an award he won in 1992. As was mentioned above (#14), he had a great season with 51 saves and a 1.91 ERA. And though it is nearly impossible to justify a closer as being the most “valuable” (however you want to define that word) player in the league, a reliever can, of course, be the best pitcher. But there were at least two starters in ’92 who had strong enough years to win the award over Eck. In his first full Major League season, Baltimore’s Mike Mussina went 18-5, was third in the league with a 157 ERA+ and second with a 1.079 WHIP. Even more impressive, however, was Boston’s Roger Clemens. He also won 18 games, but did so while pitching for a last-place club that scored the second-fewest runs in the A.L. and hit just 84 home runs as a team. Clemens was tops in the league in WAR (8.8), ERA+ (174), FIP (2.54) and WHIP (1.074), which should have easily made his case as the league’s best pitcher.

Sure, Mo Vaughn hit 39 home runs and had 126 RBI for a division-winning club. But while that sounds like an MVP-caliber year, there was no shortage of players who had better seasons. His own teammate, John Valentin, led all hitters in baseball with 8.3 WAR while playing solid defense at shortstop for the Red Sox. Seattle’s Edgar Martinez had the best OPS+ in the league, at 185. Cleveland’s Albert Belle smacked 10 more home runs (50) than anyone else in baseball and had an OPS that was 128 points higher than Vaughn’s. Like the Red Sox, the Mariners and Indians also won their respective divisions. The league’s most valuable player, however, may have been a pitcher that year. The M’s Randy Johnson went 18-2 and led the A.L. in ERA+ (193) and WHIP (1.045). He struck out batters 39.8% more frequently than any other starter in the league and his FIP (2.08) was 1.40 lower than that of any other starting pitcher on the junior circuit. All that, and his team still needed every last one of his dominating performances; they clinched the division in a one-game playoff in which Johnson threw a complete game with 12 Ks, allowing just one run on three hits. The Big Unit’s 1995 season defined “valuable.”

Even if you make the claim that Lou Gehrig shouldn’t have won the MVP in 1934 – despite leading the league in WAR (10.4), OPS+ (206), home runs (49), RBI (166) and total bases (409) – because his Yankees finished seven games behind the Tigers for the pennant, Cochrane was a horrible choice. Five of his teammates had more Wins Against Replacement than Cochrane’s 4.0. Though he was a good hitter for a catcher at the time, his numbers had dropped off considerably during ’34, his first year in Detroit. His 117 OPS+ was the lowest he posted in eight years and his two HR were a career-worst. You could almost throw a dart at Detroit’s roster and find a more valuable player that season. Hank Greenberg, who would win the award the following year, was third in the American League in OPS+ (156) and RBI (139). Starting pitcher, Schoolboy Rowe, was second in the A.L. in wins (24), FIP (3.51) and WHIP (1.278). The player who most deserved the MVP, however, was probably Charlie Gehringer. If Cochrane’s stats were good for a catcher, Gehringer’s were outstanding for a second baseman. He led the league in runs with 135 and finished sixth in OPS+ (149) and fifth in RBI (127), numbers that far exceeded those of any other A.L. middle infielder.

Voters in 1962 must have turned in their ballots a couple of weeks early. Maury Wills and the Dodgers led the New York Giants by a nearly insurmountable four games with 10 to play. Or maybe they just really enjoyed stolen bases. Wills led the Majors with 104, which was 71 more than anyone else that year and the most in baseball since “Sliding” Billy Hamilton swiped 111 bags in 1891. Either way, they didn’t pick the right guy. Although Wills surely utilized his speed to give his team an advantage, his offensive production was otherwise average (OPS+ of 99). Meanwhile, in the final series of the season, when New York caught, and surpassed the Dodgers, the Giants’ Willie Mays went 5-11 with a pair of homers, four RBI and four runs scored. In the pennant-deciding game against Los Angeles, he singled in a run in the 9th inning and eventually scored the winning run. Over 162 games, Mays led the N.L. in WAR (10.5), HR (49) and total bases (382); he was also second in RBI (141) and third in OPS+ (165). Then again, he only stole 18 bases.

Yogi Berra was one of the best catchers in the history of the game. In 1955, he won his second consecutive MVP and the third of his career. But as great as he was that year, he was probably the fourth-best hitter on the pennant-winning Yankees. In particular, Mickey Mantle was head and shoulders above everyone else in the league and somehow received zero first-place votes. He posted a 180 OPS+ that was 47 points higher than everyone else, except for the Tigers’ Al Kaline. Mantle also led the A.L. in WAR (9.5), home runs (37), triples (11) and walks (113), while placing second in runs (121) and total bases (316). If you’re thinking that all else being equal, a catcher’s value should exceed that of an outfielder, you’d be right. Wins Above Replacement takes that into account and Mantle’s WAR was still more than double Berra’s 4.5.

When Oakland’s Bob Welch won 27 games in 1990, it was certainly a noteworthy accomplishment. No MLB pitcher had so many victories in a season since Steve Carlton won 27 for the Phillies 18 years earlier. And no one has won more than 24 games since. But wins are highly team-dependent; there are many other stats that are much more relevant to the quality of a pitcher’s performance. Of the seven players to receive any Cy Young votes in ’90, Welch placed last in WAR, ERA+ and K/9IP and sixth in WHIP. Even more startling, his 4.19 FIP was 32nd out of 38 qualifying pitchers in the A.L. In short, he was not nearly as good as his 27-6 record. For Boston’s Roger Clemens, on the other hand, in a career filled with accolades, this one should have been a no-brainer. The Rocket was 21-6 with a FIP (2.18) over a half-run better than anyone else’s in the league. He was also second in WHIP (1.082) and third in K/9IP (8.2), to go along with a stellar, MLB-best 211 ERA+.

(photo by Rdikeman)

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