The League Award, 1970-2009

I should have thought a little bit more about breaking up a series over the holidays. In any event, the continuation/conclusion of the League Award series, in which we look at the first eligible winner of MVPs if the AL’s rules of the ’20s had endured (no repeat winners and no player-managers eligible) is below. 1970 through 2009’s in this article, whereas 1931 through 1969 was in the last one. There are 24 different awards this time, but a whopping nine of those involve either a B.L. Bonds or a J.A. Pujols, so the list is skewed toward the last few years. (In the NL of the 2000s, we only can keep three awards; the only other decade-league that low was the 1940s AL. I don’t know if that’s a sign of league illness, but it doesn’t look good. Then again, the AL had no repeat winners from 1970 to 1989, and in the ’70s it was viewed as the weaker league. Who let counterpoints into my argument?)

The aforementioned skewed list:

1970 AL Tony Oliva over Boog Powell
1972 NL Billy Williams over Johnny Bench
1976 NL George Foster over Joe Morgan
1977 NL Greg Luzinski over George Foster
1981 NL Andre Dawson over Mike Schmidt
1983 NL Pedro Guerrero over Dale Murphy/Andre Dawson/Mike Schmidt
1986 NL Glenn Davis over Mike Schmidt
1987 NL Ozzie Smith over Andre Dawson
1989 AL Ruben Sierra over Robin Yount
1991 AL Cecil Fielder over Cal Ripken
1992 NL Gary Sheffield over Barry Bonds/Terry Pendleton
1993 NL Lenny Dykstra over Barry Bonds
1994 AL Ken Griffey over Frank Thomas
1997 AL Tino Martinez over Ken Griffey
1998 AL Nomar Garciaparra over Juan Gonzalez
2001 NL Luis Gonzalez over Barry Bonds/Sammy Sosa
2002 NL Albert Pujols over Barry Bonds
2003 NL Jim Thome over Barry Bonds/Albert Pujols/Gary Sheffield
2004 NL Adrian Beltre over Barry Bonds
2005 AL David Ortiz over Alex Rodriguez
2005 NL Andruw Jones over Albert Pujols
2007 AL Magglio Ordonez over Alex Rodriguez
2008 NL Ryan Braun over Albert Pujols/Ryan Howard
2009 NL Hanley Ramirez over Albert Pujols

The NL sandwich atop the list is a series of shell games, with players getting awards early to give them back late (Foster and Dawson are involved in four of the awards one way or the other). That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of great quirks in here … like these five:

1983 NL: Guerrero over three

Top five eligibles: Guerrero, Tim Raines, Jose Cruz, Dickie Thon, Bill Madlock

If, as Chris Jaffe noted this week, Fred McGriff‘s numbers are era-bound against him compared with slightly later peers, then those peers are to McGriff what McGriff is to Guerrero. Say what you will about the defense, but in his prime (1982-87) the top five hitters by OPS+ were himself, Mike Schmidt, Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs, and George Brett. (Jack Clark is sixth; wouldn’t have guessed.) This was the only full year Guerrero played third base (sometimes you have to test “bat will play anywhere” scouting reports), and despite the failed experiment—range was passable, but hands weren’t—he comes in the winner here amid a glut of Dawson, Murphy, and Schmidt seasons.

1986 NL: Davis over Schmidt

Top five eligibles: Davis, Gary Carter, Tim Raines, Kevin Bass, Von Hayes

What a year. The Red Sox lost the World Series but took home the MVP, Cy Young, and Manager of the Year awards, while the Mets won the Series, were 108-54 in the regular season, and got no awards (“Why isn’t we getting no medals?”). In this hypothetical, Davis completes what Mike Scott and Hal Lanier started on the Astros award sweep.

Besides that a 108-54 team got locked out of the award voting with or without the hypothetical, the voting in ’86 is instructive for two reasons. First, although the Astrodome needs some harsh park adjustments through most of its existence, it didn’t harm its hitters’ visibility per se; usually it just overrated its pitchers. Second, in the wake of the last Hall of Fame vote, Raines’ solid showings in both ’83 and ’86 indicate that the argument on his candidacy shouldn’t be about him being underrated in his prime. Even if a good argument exists there, the first fiddle might have been teammate Dawson rather than Rickey Henderson. Throughout the ’80s, Raines drew consistent MVP voting, though generally down-ballot. Henderson’s support was stronger in several years but not as consistent; Raines received votes in seven seasons and Henderson in eight (Dawson in nine). I can’t conclude that the writers of the time ignored what Raines did.

What they may have ignored was Raines’ White Sox career, which, while not as eye-popping as his Montreal days, was productive in its own right. Injuries obscured this somewhat, but in 1993 Raines was easily the most productive batter in that lineup after Frank Thomas, with a 138 OPS+ batting leadoff that was 15th among regulars and the fourth-best mark of his career. Raines posted 18 seasons of a 100 or greater OPS+; this is tied for 26th since 1901. The only Hall-eligible players with 18 or more who are not in are Harold Baines, Dwight Evans, Rusty Staub, Raines and Darrell Evans, and Raines had a much better peak than the others. I’m going to go against the grain and say that it was his White Sox days and not his Expo ones that have been forgotten, and these MVP results corroborate that idea.

Oh yeah, and something or other about Glenn Davis. Sorry, Glenn; I got into a Tim Raines rant.

1992 NL: Sheffield over two

Top five eligibles: Sheffield, Andy Van Slyke, Larry Walker, Darren Daulton, Fred McGriff

In years where Barry Bonds won an MVP, the debate primarily is over who should have gotten second, and this should have been Sheffield easily. The batting champion Sheffield hit 33 home runs, a combo that had only occurred twice in the quarter-century since Carl Yastrzemski‘s triple crown: Billy Williams in 1972 (who’s on the list above) and Fred Lynn in 1979. But, although Bonds was better than Sheffield, why Sheffield was behind Terry Pendleton is anybody’s guess, when Pendleton played the same position in the same division but with worse stats across the board. You can’t get more directly comparable than Sheffield and Pendleton in that year, and Pendleton came out ahead. That just bugs me. … Sheffield’s year, on a team he barely played for and at a position from which he soon moved, seems to be one of the forgotten great seasons of the last 20 years. I don’t know what else would be on that list, but this definitely is one of them.

1997 AL: Martinez over Griffey

Top five eligibles: Martinez, Randy Myers, David Justice, Jim Thome, Tim Salmon

Griffey was a unanimous choice for the award, and funny things seem to happen down-ballot when everybody knows who the winner is. There’s no argument from me that Tino wouldn’t have been the next logical choice. It’s that Randy Myers pick below him. Myers’ 1.51 ERA as closer for a wire-to-wire division winner was very shiny … in his almost 60 innings of work. How this was infinitely more valuable than Roger Clemens‘ Triple Crown season, Randy Johnson‘s similar work, or three hitters whose OPS exceeded 1, I don’t know. (Myers also placed fourth in Cy Young voting that year.) The next year would be Myers’ last as a pitcher, plagued by ineffectiveness, injuries, and a strange waiver claim. All told, it was a very far cry from the season that somehow captivated award voters. The choice strikes me as illogical anyway, but regardless of how you feel, that was quite a precipitous fall.

2003 NL: Thome over three

Top five eligibles: Thome, Javy Lopez, Eric Gagne, Todd Helton, Mark Prior

Would Thome’s Hall of Fame case be more impressive to the untrained voter if he had an MVP? Will National Leaguers of this era have their cases hurt by Bonds and Pujols capturing every MVP known to man? That Thome overtakes Sheffield in this exercise is even more intriguing than Thome’s award. Thome and Sheffield might be two of the hitters most likely to have a no-MVP non-argument thrown at them when their candidacy comes up. Thome’s season was plenty good, as was Sheffield’s, and having two all-world performers in your league shouldn’t mean they’re the only two who get in the Hall. I know that you, the reader, know all these things, but as the past decade in the NL is in danger of historical reductionism, it’s worth trying to salvage it now … or something.

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Conclusion

Some interesting names and forgotten seasons show up when you peel off the layers of repeat MVP winners. That doesn’t mean the League Award was a good idea, but using its lens on history makes for fun argumentation.

References & Resources
Baseball Reference.


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Steve Treder
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Steve Treder

Have I mentioned that I love this series?

Paul Moehringer
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Paul Moehringer
Here’s what I would have done instead.  I’m only going to replace repeat winners, so assume any other year I don’t have listed is the original.  I’m also keeping the rule of no repeat winners which is key, because some of these I don’t agree with if that rule is not in place.  Some of them I do though.  And there’s years where the award was given out where I didn’t agree with the winner as well.  What I found most interesting is when I moved an MVP winner up, causing a domino effect. 1933 AL Joe Cronin 1936 AL… Read more »
Paul Moehringer
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Paul Moehringer

Just to ammend something, “and there’s years where the award was given out where I didn’t agree with the winner as well, that aren’t listed.”

Paul Moehringer
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Paul Moehringer

Oh, and replace George Hendrick with Fernando Valenzuela for 1981 NL MVP.

That makes much more sense.

Brandon Isleib
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Brandon Isleib

Paul, I’m missing something in how you constructed a few of these.  I’m sure it’s just a clarification away from making sense to me.  You didn’t choose the next person in line on the voting, but you chose on some method (Devon White in ‘91, for example).  What was that method?  You’ve done something very cool here, but I’m trying to get my head around what it is.

Paul Moehringer
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Paul Moehringer
Well Cal Ripken would be my first choice, but since he already won it before it can’t be him. After that the next name I have is Devon White.  You could make an argument for Frank Thomas that year, as well as Ken Griffey, and Tony Phillips, but I thought White was the best player on the best team in the AL East.  I did factor in how well the team did for this. However just for fun, if I give the award to Thomas who I have ranked after White, then ‘93 would go to John Olerud, who I… Read more »
Brandon Isleib
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Brandon Isleib

Oh, I see…you’re usurping the BBWAA role when they picked a repeat winner in real life.  Makes sense now.  And I like your picks.

Paul Moehringer
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Paul Moehringer
I actually almost like this method better then allowing repeat winners.  Although there’s some years where you have to wonder what people were thinking of when they voted. Take 1986.  Glenn Davis is second in the MVP voting.  Davis had a big year too, but who’s the best player on that Astros team? Without Mike Scott the Astros are a .500 baseball team.  If the Mets hadn’t been dumb enough to trade him for Danny Heep, they might have won 120 games that year. Things like that leave me scratching my head. Also Steve Garvey was NL MVP in 1974,… Read more »
Tom Cavileer
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Tom Cavileer

In 1992, Gary Sheffield told a reporter that he deliberately made errors while playing for the Brewers.  It’s very likely that is why some MVP voters dropped him down their ballots.

The link is to an SI article from September 1992 that repeats this story in the second paragraph.

Sheffield later denied that he actually did it, but at the time it was generally believed to be true.  Pendleton, by contrast, was widely hailed as a veteran leader on the pennant-winning Braves.

Paul Moehringer
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Paul Moehringer
I could have given it to Sheffield, but I gave it to Van Slyke for two reasons. a. I thought he actually had a better year, and b. Van Slyke’s team won.  Sheffield’s team didn’t. You talk about an underperforming team too.  That ‘92 Padres team is loaded. You got Tony Gwynn Hall of Famer, Gary Sheffield probably going to the Hall of Fame some day, Fred McGriff probably going to the Hall of Fame some day, two excellent defensive players in Benito Santiago, and Tony Fernandez.  Decent starting rotation anchored by Andy Benes, and Bruce Hurst.  And a top… Read more »
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