On the list of baseball matters we can discuss when there’s no actual baseball, we can argue about which players were deserving of particular honors. Hall of Fame, MVP, Cy Young, mythical best of all time, best at each position, whatever. Most of us have spent a good chunk of our lives debating the merits and value of individual players with friends, family members, and co-workers. Hell, my parents grew up in New York City in the fifties and sixties with “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke” and I was fortunate enough to hear all about it from them and other family members.
In that vein, I decided to look at MVP balloting and winners of this century (going back further seemed a little too ambitious of a project for me at this point 🙂 I was curious to see if time had changed our perspective on any of the winners, or if the increased knowledge on how to evaluate players we have available to us today would change our minds.
Before we get to what I found, just a few quick disclaimers on my thinking and what factored into my decisions:
No. No, I do not think WAR is the only way to measure a player’s value – but it is a real good start for the purposes of this discussion. WAR was literally created to place a value on a player’s performance – batting average tells us how many hits a player got per at-bat, but it doesn’t tell you how much that contributed to team wins and losses. (I picked BA as an example – you could put a dozen other stats in its place in the previous sentence.)
A player’s “value” is best measured in terms of how much he contributes to wins and losses with his on-field performance. Does this mean players can’t make contributions that are less measurable to his team? Of course not. But if I take nine guys who can hit, and you take nine guys with good intangibles, I’m going to kick your ass every time.
Baseball is a team sport. The extent to which a player’s GM or teammates contributed toward winning or losing has nothing to do with individual performance, and the MVP is an individual honor. Do not come at me with “…but…but…his team didn’t win!”
Elite starting pitchers are as valuable as everyday position players, maybe more. They face more batters during the course of the season than everyday players have plate appearances, which means they affect more in-game outcomes. This is literally comparing apples to apples in terms of who has more of an impact on wins and losses.
We’re going to discuss egregious MVP decisions today: MVP winners that were clearly less valuable than other players in the same league in the same season – sometimes even on the same team. We’ll pass on the nitpicky discussions – was Mike Trout better in 2018 than Mookie Betts? Probably, but it was close and Betts is an elite player who had an elite season – no need to pick fly shit out of pepper.
That said, there have been 40 MVP winners this century – here are the 10 worst decisions:
# 10: Josh Donaldson 2015. Mike Trout was FAR better offensively, far better defensively, but other than that, yeah it was close (rolls eyes….) In fact, Donaldson might not have even been the best AL 3rd baseman that season (see; Machado, Manny). Imagine asking a professional baseball writer: “You can have either prime Donaldson or prime Trout for the next 162 games, who would you take? 23 said Donaldson, 7 said Trout. Wow…
# 9: Jeff Kent 2000. Kent finished 5th in WAR behind four elite players having elite years, one of them his own teammate. Turns out when the manager (Dusty Baker) finds you slightly less detestable than your all-time great teammate (Barry Bonds) and tells the press that, the press will run with it.
# 8: Christian Yelich 2018. See my above notes re. starting pitchers, teammates, etc. Again, I can be flexible if the performance is close, but this was not close: Yelich (7.3 WAR) was nowhere near as valuable as Jacob deGrom (10.3 WAR). Or Aaron Nola (9.7) or Max Scherzer (9.2).
# 7: Jason Giambi 2000. Yes, 2000 was a bad year for voters – wait until we get to ’06. Giambi finished 4th in WAR at 7.8 but was a country mile behind Pedro Martinez at 11.7 and ARod at 10.4. Pedro’s 2000 season may be the best a starting pitcher has ever had and ARod is one of the best players of all time who had one of his best seasons. I’m a big Giambi fan, but come on…
# 6: Jimmy Rollins 2007. Rollins finished more than two and a half wins behind league leader Albert Pujols and 1.7 WAR behind Chase Utley – his own teammate. Hell, he wasn’t even the best shortstop in the NL in ’07. (See; Tulowitzki, Troy).
# 5: Vladimir Guerrero 2004. Vlad finished 6th in WAR with 5.6, a mile behind league leader Ichiro who had 9.2. Johan Santana had a monster season and ARod had an ARod season which is to say Vlad wasn’t on either of their levels either. Hell, Vlad actually tied for 6th in WAR with…Melvin Mora…(?!?)
# 4: Miguel Cabrera 2012. The most frustrating aspect of the Cabrera vs. Trout MVP debate was that it was framed as the overall game, speed, defense, of Trout pitted against the one-dimensional albeit monstrously one-dimensional hitting of Cabrera. That debate left out an important detail: Trout was better offensively (168 OPS+ to 164) – Trout’s plus CF defense and base running didn’t even need to factor into the equation. The overall WAR, as you would expect was a landslide – 10.5 for Trout, 7.1 for Cabrera. That’s not including the other three players with better WAR than Cabrera in ’12: One of whom (Justin Verlander) was a teammate, and the other two (Robinson Cano and Adrian Beltre) weren’t exactly fluke seasons.
# 3: Ryan Howard 2006. Howard finished 10th in the NL in WAR in ’06 with 5.2 – a very good year but not MVP level stuff by any means. That was over three wins less than Albert Pujols, who led the league and over two wins less than Howard’s teammate, Chase Utley. Remember Garret Atkins? Me neither. He finished 11th in WAR in ’06 – closer to Howard’s WAR than Howard was to Andruw Jones who finished 9th.
# 2: Miguel Tejada 2002. Tejada finished 9th in WAR in the ’02 AL with 5.7, more than three full wins behind league leader ARod. Hell, he was 1.6 wins less valuable than Derek Lowe for crying out loud, and like a few others already mentioned, wasn’t even the most valuable on his own team – that honor went to Barry Zito. And from the somewhat trivial but amusing department: The ’02 As were the team featured in “Moneyball”. You’d have to watch very, very, closely to know Tejada was even on that team.
# 1: Justin Morneau 2006. Full disclosure: Some of the above ordering choices weren’t easy. Numbers two through six could have been listed in a different sequence and I went back and forth on a few. Not this one. Justin Morneau’s MVP in ’06 isn’t just the worst of this century, but it’s one of the worst of all time (although Willie Hernandez in ’84 would be tough to top). Morneau finished 19th in WAR in the ’06 AL with 4.3. (For some perspective, last season Nelson Cruz didn’t play the field, missed a quarter of the season and still accumulated 4.4 WAR). Not only did Morneau finish over three wins behind the league leader, but the league leader was his own teammate – Johann Santana. That surely softened the blow felt by Joe Mauer, another teammate, who finished a win and half ahead of Justin. Morneau was clearly outplayed by average players in ’06 like Vernon Wells and Carlos Guillen as well as by all-time greats like Jeter, Ichiro, Thome, ARod, and Manny. What an abomination…
Did I miss one or get something wrong? Let me know.
Want to buy me a coffee?
If you like the blog, feel free to buy me a Starbucks tall dark roast (no room). It may not seem like much but it'll help keep the blog going - thanks in advance!