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Champions and MVPs

September 23, 2022
                 I said something kind of stupid yesterday in answering a question, and I thought I would do a little research to educate m’self and perhaps stave off being exposed as a fool.  I said that "I don't think you could find a lot of cases where the ‘true’ Most Valuable Player was denied the award because he played on a bad team."

Well, yeah, you probably can, actually.   What was in my head when I said that was players having BIG years on second-division teams.  There really aren’t a lot player who have big, big years on second-division teams. . . .well, that’s not really true either.   There’s something true here inside my head but when I try to put on paper it doesn’t fit.

I came up with a way to sort the data that I thought would help.  Suppose that each player who won the Most Valuable Player was sorted into one of four groups:

1) Deserved the Award and also played for a championship team,

2)  Was not the player most deserving of the award, but played for a championship team, and was given the award anyway,

3) Deserved the Award and won the award despite not playing for a championship team, and

4) Did not deserve the Award and did not play for a championship team, but won the Award, anyway. 


The term "underserving" is kind of inappropriate here.  What I mean is simply "less deserving, as evaluated by the Win Shares method."  Win Shares is not the voice of God; it’s just a method of statistical analysis.  But many of the players who fit that description were really good players and not undeserving of the award; we just see them as less deserving than some other player.  Mookie Betts in 2018, for example.  Mookie had one hell of a season, and I don’t think anyone would try to say that he was undeserving of the MVP Award, which he won, but Mike Trout did have more Win Shares than Mookie did.   You can say that Mike Trout was denied the MVP Award because he played on a bad team, and it’s not certifiably a true statement, but it’s not clearly a false statement, either.   It’s a reasonable thing to say.

There are a lot of cases like that in baseball history.  First of all, we need a definition of whether player who won the MVP Award deserved it or not.   I counted the MVP as deserving of the MVP if

(a)      He led the league in Win Shares, or

(b)      He was within one of leading the league in Win Shares, or

(c)       He was a catcher and came within five of leading the league in Win Shares. 

One win share is not a clear enough margin to say a player is less deserving of the award than another player.  A-Rod in 2003.  I credit A-Rod with 31 Win Shares, Carlos Delgado with 32, but it’s one Win Share, which is about 3 runs.   It’s not enough of a difference that you can be confident you’re right, so I’m going to mark A-Rod as deserving of the award.  He goes in category 3:  Players who deserved the award and won it although they played for teams that did not win a championship. 

There are, in history, 34 players who, like A-Rod in 2003, deserved the award and won the award although they did not play for championship teams.  A few of those include Cal Ripken in 1991, Barry Bonds in 1993, Jeff Bagwell in 1994, Barry Bonds in 2001, 2002 and 2004, Albert Pujols in 2005, A-Rod again in 2007, Pujols again in 2009, Bryce Harper in 2015, Mike Trout in 2016, and Shohei Ohtani in 2021.  (I know the Giants were in the World Series in 2002, but they did not win their division.) 

This is the split among the 182 players who have won the MVP Awards (counting the tie vote in 1979 as one player, because the two co-winners are in the same group anyway.)  Among the 182 MVPs:


55 were deserving of the Award, and also played for championship teams,

68 were less deserving of the Award, but played for championship teams,

34 were deserving of the Award, and won it despite playing for teams that did not win the championship, and

25 were less deserving of the Award than some other player, at least by Win Shares. . ..25 were less deserving of the Award and did not play for championship teams, but won the Award anyway.   The poster boy for this group being Andre Dawson in 1987.   He had a thoroughly unimpressive season and played for a last-place team, but won the Award anyway, because the voters in 1987 were still largely unaware of Park Effects and grossly overvalued RBI. 


So, OK, there have been twice as many times when a less deserving player won the MVP Award "because" he played for a championship team as the number of players who won the Award despite playing for lesser teams.  68 to 34, exactly two to one.  It is really not consistent with what I said. 

67.5% of MVPs have played for championship teams. 

48.9% of MVPs are seen by this analysis as deserving of the award.

So more MVPs play for championship teams than are deserving of the award.  This, again, is not really consistent with what I said. 


In a little more detail, the data is not quite as bad as this looks.  This data looks like there are a lot of times when a lesser player from a championship team has stolen the vote from the more deserving player on a lesser team.   Well, yes, that has happened and does happen, but maybe not as often as you might think, based on this data.  There have been a surprising number of times when the most-deserving player (by Win Shares) DID play for a Championship team, but lost the award to a teammate with somewhat lesser credentials.  I don’t know how many times this has happened, maybe 20.  It happened to Mickey Mantle three times.  Mantle was the most-deserving player (by Win Shares) on championship teams in 1955, 1960 and 1961, but the MVP awards when to his teammates Yogi Berra, Roger Maris and Roger Maris. 

In 1941 Dolph Camilli won the NL MVP Award with 29 Win Shares, although another player had 34.  He is classified as a less-deserving MVP.  You could say that he "only" won the MVP Award because he played for a championship team, except that the player he took the Award away from, Pete Reiser, was a teammate. 

       I am dealing with the category-2 MVPs here, the less-deserving MVPs who played for championship teams.  I am pointing out that many of them could not be said to have "only" won the award because they played for a championship team, since, in many cases, the more deserving player also played for the championship team.  This happened in 1942; it happened in both leagues in 1944.  It happened in 1945; Stan Hack should probably have won the MVP Award, rather than his teammate Phil Cavarretta.  It happens a lot. 

       So  . ..amending my earlier remarks.  There has indeed been, over time, an unfortunate concentration of MVP Awards given to less-qualified candidates from championship teams.   


COMMENTS (18 Comments, most recent shown first)

To KaiserD2,
Mantle actually had a worse year in 1959 and was forced to take a pay cut
going into the 1960 season
4:25 PM Oct 31st
Just one quibble: I do not have Win Shares data in front of me, but I find it very hard to believe that Mickey Mantle actually had more win shares than Roger Maris in 1960. My own WAA (not WAR) calculations show Maris leading the league with 6.4 WAA, and Mantle having his worst season in a long time with just 3.7. I also want to mention that in 1974, Steve Garvey won the MVP with less than 3 WAA, while his teammate Jim Wynn--who belongs in the Hall of Fame--had 5.1. The real MVP that year was Mike Schmidt, with 8.5.

David Kaiser
3:21 PM Oct 26th
I think you're probably right, rjm1026. All the examples Bill gives of guys who won MVP for non-championship teams were for non-pennant and/or non-division winners, except Pujols in '05 and '09 (both those Cardinals teams won their divisions). I'm going to assume he made a mistake in his case. (Pujols did win MVP in 2008 for a 4th place team. Maybe that's what he was thinking of?)
5:02 PM Sep 26th
By "Championship Team", it appears as Bill means won a pennant (pre 1969) or Division (post 1969) but not wild card teams. He mentions Bonds in 2002 as being a on Non-champion (Giants were the wild card) but Mantle in 1960 as being on a champion (thanks to Mazeroski the Yankees lost the WS that Year.​
4:08 PM Sep 26th
Is the definition of a "championship team" a team that literally won the championship? If so (and forgive me if I'm echoing guyarrigoni's point), this doesn't seem like the proper way to gauge MVP voting bias, since voters cast their ballots before the champion is determined.

For example, Bill has Pujols in '05 and '09 as a deserving MVP who didn't play for a championship team. But in 2009 the Cardinals coasted to a division title and, at the time MVP ballots were cast, certainly could have been champions. In 2005 the Cardinals also coasted to a division title - in fact, they won 100 games, the most in baseball that year. To voters, they were as likely to be champions as anyone else.

Wouldn't it make more sense to place someone like '05/'09 Pujols into Bin 1 - "deserved the Award and also played for a championship team" - and amend it slightly to "playoff team" (or "championship-caliber team")?
3:31 PM Sep 26th
I think it's interesting that the other major pro sports don't really have an issue with a player winning MVP multiple times. Gretzky won 9, including 8 in a row. Kareem won six, Jordan 5, Russell 5, LeBron 4, Wilt 4. Peyton Manning won 5 and many players won 3 (Favre won 3 in a row). Other than Bonds, no one has won more than 3 MLB MVPs (despite the fact that ONLY MLB gives 2 annual MVP awards). I do notice that Russell was the only one to do it before the mid-60s, so maybe there was a change in the writers' thinking around that time. (Note: in his 4th year, MJ won the scoring title AND defensive Player of the Year--and did NOT win the MVP).
3:16 PM Sep 26th
Didn't Bill make the point some years ago -- maybe in the Win Shares book -- that

-- You couldn't (and voters wouldn't) give the Award to Willie, Mickey, Stan and Ted EVERY YEAR, even if they always deserved it viewed through WS

-- Someone breaking through to a much higher level, and especially for a victorious team, was a likelier bet for winning MVP (e.g. Garvey in 1974, Sandberg in 1984) -- as in "no one expected HIM to do THAT"

That "novelty success" aspect was not part of this discussion -- seems like it should have been.
11:39 PM Sep 25th
Tony, I like the " dogwhistle urbanophobic micro-aggressive tropes, Frank" .... and, of course, perhaps we should not look into this or anything else that it goes against the proscribed 'narrative' (sarc). Of course, the attack that Tony is pimping/faking is often used to shut down any research that is considered, ahem, "off the plantation" or "beyond the Pale" or "off the Reservation", but then even those colorful descriptions will soon be or maybe even now, banned. Hell, I may be banned for using them just now .....
12:21 AM Sep 25th
There is an assumption of voter omniscience in the creating of the groups. Aren't the ballots submitted before the postseason begins? The voters aren't sure who would win championship when they voted. They knew which players were in the postseason play (WS or playoffs) and which weren't. But not which players were "champions."
3:23 PM Sep 24th
I’d be curious to see the data expanded to include playoff teams rather than just Championship teams. If memory serves Sosa was a lot less deserving than McGwire in 1998 but the Cubs won the Wild Card and that seemed to be enough for the voters.
11:56 PM Sep 23rd
I don't appreciate your dogwhistle urbanophobic micro-aggressive tropes, Frank.
6:12 PM Sep 23rd
Might be interesting to take the same data and bin the players by market to see if there is any NY, LA, large market bias in selection of MVP.
3:26 PM Sep 23rd
I think Bill is expecting a bit too much from the Win Shares system by setting its margin of error in recognizing "deserving" MVPs at +/- 1 Win Share. That's only 0.33 wins. Seems like setting it at 3 Win Shares (or 1 win) would be more realistic. In that way, strong candidates like Mookie Betts 2018 would be defined by the Win Shares system as "deserving" but MVPs with lower win share totals like Andre Dawson 1987, Kirk Gibson 1988 and Willie Stargell 1979 would continue to fall short.
11:37 AM Sep 23rd
Expanding on the 10 "bad team" MVPs, by WAR, (4) were clearly the top player in their league: Ohtani, Trout in 2016, Ripken, and Banks in 1959. A-Rod was the top AL position player in 2003 but barely ahead of Roy Halladay and Pedro Martinez. Trout in 2019 was second to Alex Bregman, Stanton in 2017 to Joey Votto (whose Reds finished 68-94, worse then Stanton's Marlins), and Banks in 1958 was second to Willie Mays. Dawson and Daubert are not in the top ten for their MVP years (and neither are Yount and Sauer).
10:06 AM Sep 23rd
Regarding MVP Awards for players on "bad" teams (sub-.500 teams), there have been 10 such awards. Trout has 2 (2016, 2019) as does Ernie Banks (1958-1959). The MVP on the worst team was Cal Ripken jnr on the 1991 Orioles (.414). Others include Jake Daubert with Brooklyn in 1913 (.436), A-Rod in 2003, Dawson in 1987, Giancarlo Stanton in 2017, and of course Ohtani last year. Two MVPs played for teams that finished exactly at .500: Robin Yount in 1989 and Hank Sauer with the Cubs in 1952.
9:36 AM Sep 23rd
While agreeing that Andre Dawson did not deserve the MVP award in 1987, I think I have to protest the overreach in your rhetoric.

Characterizing a season where the player led the league in home runs and RBI, had an OPS+ of 130 and won the Gold Glove award as "thoroughly unimpressive" is a bit of a stretch, regardless of the park they played in.
9:31 AM Sep 23rd
Edit (would that I were able). But I see that here you are concentrating on the guys that got the push from a world championship halo (er...apologies to '19 Angels)
4:51 AM Sep 23rd
Hmmmm.....I think in my experience with this age old debate, the question was less about championship teams, but more about good teams and bad teams (e.g.: Trout, 2019 Angels, 72-90, 4th place AL West)​
4:17 AM Sep 23rd
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