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If Nerds Ruled the World, Or At Least the BBWAA

Last week, I shared a new statistic, called FAME, that measured the amount of acclaim that a player received during his career. The purpose of this endeavor was to compare the established greatness of players with the recognition of their accomplishments, and it produced a few minor revelations, namely that Yogi Berra was incredibly overrated in his time, and that Tony Phillips may not have actually existed at all, and was created as a psychological experiment by professors at Stanford who posted flyers on Oakland telephone poles reading “Tony Phillips Has a Posse”.

Yogi won three MVP awards, tied for the second most of all-time, yet never actually led the league in WAR. His FAME score, more than any other player, dwarfs his actual numbers. This led me to ask: what if the BBWAA were, retroactively, to cast off their intangibles and surrender to the droning hive-mind of the baseball accountancy? What if the MVP were awarded to the player who provided the most value to their team, regardless of context, over the hypothetical replacement player? What if John Larroquette were to be considered the greatest television actor of his generation?

As it turns out, the MVP in its current form is a perfect example of the inherent conflict between precision and suspense. Here, for the purposes of comparison, is a list of all players who won three or more MVP awards in their career:

1. Barry Bonds (7)
2. Yogi Berra (3)
2. Roy Campanella (3)
2. Joe DiMaggio (3)
2. Jimmie Foxx (3)
2. Mickey Mantle (3)
2. Stan Musial (3)
2. Albert Pujols (3)
2. Alex Rodriguez (3)
2. Mike Schmidt (3)

Here is the list in our alternate reality:

1. Barry Bonds (9)
2. Willie Mays (8)
3. Ted Williams (7)
4. Roger Clemens (5)
4. Mickey Mantle (5)
5. Rickey Henderson (4)
5. Stan Musial (4)
5. Mel Ott (4)
5. Albert Pujols (4)
5. Alex Rodriguez (4)
5. Mike Schmidt (4)
6. Steve Carlton (3)
6. Jimmie Foxx (3)
6. Lou Gehrig (3)
6. Bob Gibson (3)
6. Randy Johnson (3)
6. Cal Ripken (3)
6. Jackie Robinson (3)
6. Carl Yastrzemski (3)

Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella go from winning three MVPs apiece to a combined total of zero, which either serves to damn the leadership role of catchers or our ability to measure it. Meanwhile, we find Willie Mays to be massively underrated, deserving no less than six more MVP awards than he actually received. Ted Williams earns five more awards, and Rickey Henderson should have had three already (1981, 1985, 1989) by the time he got his first and only award in 1990.

The other man who benefits the most in terms of hardware is Roger Clemens. Though I’m personally of the mind that the most valuable hitter and most valuable pitcher should receive separate awards, the precedent is there. Nine of the 112 MVP awards since the advent of the Cy Young have gone to pitchers. That number increases to 33, with certain eras (late 60s-early 70s, mid-late 90s) being dominated by the pitcher.

So what divides our MVP races from the Platonic form? First of all, as plenty of people have pointed out, WAR has always had the strange flaw of failing to take into account team winning percentage. After all, we’re Americans, and thus we can only measure things in terms of success. Winning is everything; the accomplishments of any player or team who did not win, therefore, are nothing. We already know, for instance, that every single iteration of Mariners baseball only exists in the memory of a fetal child-monster in an underground laboratory, who psychically emits its hallucinations into the nearby populace.

There’s also the Larroquette phenomenon. You hopefully remember John Larroquette best from his performance as District Attorney Dan Fielding from Night Court in the 1980s. In the show’s first four seasons, he won four consecutive Emmy Awards – at that point a record – prompting him to stop allowing himself to be nominated for the award. People were getting tired of seeing him win everything, even though they knew he deserved to win everything. It made for bad television.

It’s the same with MVP awards. Until Barry Bonds broke the numbering system in the early 2000s, the baseball gods had only bequeathed back-to-back MVP awards seven times, and never three times in a row. This goes against common sense, which would state that every once in a while, the greatest players would enjoy their peaks and overshadow their competition, like Larroquette. And they do: five different players would have won three straight MVPs based on WAR, with Bonds doing it four times in a row twice. We would have had back to back winners 28 times.

And with the same guys winning multiple times, there are more guys who get left out. Miguel Cabrera is a great example of this: toiling under the shadow of Albert Pujols, and then the towering AL East, Cabrera was in the top five in the MVP vote five times. It’s common to hear people claim that this is his year, and that Mike Trout will have plenty of chances. It’s the philosophy of the “Lifetime Achievement Award” that starts making this recognition about a player’s body of work rather than their specific accomplishments for that year, and leaves people feeling vaguely unsatisfied with the results.

Our love of variety is natural, as is our love for discussing and debating the merits of the MVP frontrunners, even this year. But that same love – and our tendency as writers and fans to spread the accolades as evenly as we can – actually causes us to paradoxically underrate the players we know to be among the greatest in history. The same is true for Larroquette, who, by denying himself the awards he may have earned, actually impaired his own legacy.

Most of all, it’s important to stress that awards do mean something: they shape how we think and talk about the game. We may not like it, and we may think of them as inconsequential, but their effect on history has proved anything but.