Ozzie and the MVP

September 16, 2017
 
In 1987, Ozzie Smith had a fine season for the St. Louis Cardinals. The Wizard, one of the most popular players of his era, hit .303 and scored 104 runs. He stole 43 bases and walked 89 times, and though he hadn’t hit a homerun since his Game 5 walk-off in 1985 NLCS, Smith collected forty doubles and four triples, driving in a career-high seventy-five runs. He won the Gold Glove at shortstop, as you might’ve guessed.
 
The Cardinals won their division with 95 wins, sneaking ahead of the Mets (92 wins) and the Expos (91 wins). They beat the Giants in a close NLCS, and then lost to the Twins in the World Series.
 
Stepping back a little bit: for those of you who don’t remember this, 1987 was a strange season. A lot of players had sudden power spikes that year: twenty-eight hitters popped 30 or more homers, and two players (McGwire and Dawson) ended up a single homer short of fifty. Even some low-power guys got in on the fun: Wade Boggs poked 24 homers, three times higher than his previous best. The claim going around was that they had changed the baseball somehow...tightening the seams or switching from cowhide to camel. It doesn’t matter, really. It’s not relevant to our conversation today.
 
The 1987 MVP Awards are among the most maligned in baseball's long history. George Bell and Andre Dawson, two brawny sluggers who paced their leagues in RBI’s, took home the tropies. Dawson hit 49 home runs, but he drew only 25 unintentional walks, and scored just 41 runs when someone else was driving him in. George Bell did a little better on the walks front (30 unintentional walks!), but neither man added much as corner outfielders. The current consensus is that both men were elected because they had impressive RBI totals.
 
That’s a reasonable interpretation of events. I mean, I can roll with that notion: RBI’s were a big part of the reason Dawson and Bell won their MVP’s.
 
But if Bell and Dawson were bad selections, it seems worthwhile to point out that 1) both selections weren’t close to unanimous, and 2) the guys who came in second in the votes were great choices. George Bell won the AL MVP with 16 first-place votes, but Alan Trammell received 12 first-place votes, and did better on down-ballot votes than Bell.
 
And Andre Dawson didn’t even get a majority of first-place votes: he received eleven of twenty-four first-place votes. The second-place finisher, Ozzie Smith, received nine first-place votes.
 
So while the results of the 1987 MVP vote are pretty bad, the thinking behind those votes is a little more sophisticated than the outcome suggests. Which is worse, really? Andre Dawson getting 11-of-24 first-place votes (46%) to win the 1987 MVP over Ozzie Smith, or Miguel Cabrera receiving 22-of-28 first-place votes (79%) to win the 2013 MVP over Mike Trout?
 
Really, what is worse? In 1987, the BBWAA voters didn’t have reams of data tabulating the exit velocity of each batter’s line drive. Nevertheless, they were legitimately torn between giving the MVP to a guy who led the league in homers and RBI’s by a comfortable distance, and a slick-fielding shortstop who hadn’t popped one in two calendar years. That was a coin-flip call for them…and the coin came up ‘slugger.’
 
By 2013 we had FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. We had OPS+ and FIP and WAR. We had Moneyball and Rob Neyer and Joe Posnanski. Hell, Bill James was hanging out in the Executive Suite, counting diamonds on World Series rings. We had more knowledge, and that knowledge was disseminated on platforms that everyone could access. We had a myriad of ways to quantify defense and baserunning, and we starting to count things like a catcher’s ability to frame pitches. We had a lot more.
 
And when it came time to pick between a sluggardly slugger and a once-in a generation talent, the writers went ‘slugger.’ It wasn’t a coin-flip: it was decisive. They did it the next year, by the same score. The slugger won the Triple Crown: he has to win the MVP, right?
 
No. For most the BBWAA’s history, the Triple Crown winner didn’t win the MVP. The BBWAA took over the MVP award in 1931. In 1933, Jimmie Foxx and Chuck Klein both won the Triple Crown. Foxx got the MVP, but Klein didn’t. Gehrig earned a Triple Crown in 1934…Cochrane got the MVP. Joe Medwick collected the last NL Triple Crown, and received the MVP award. Ted Williams collected Triple Crowns in 1942 and 1947…but he didn’t win the MVP either year. That’s six Triple Crown seasons, and just two MVP awards.
 
We judge that, from our vantage, as ignorance. It’s stupid to give an MVP award to a catcher with four homers, when Lou Gehrig is having a Lou Gehrig season. It’s dumb. It’s dumb to keep giving an MVP’s to Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, when Ted Williams is having Ted Williams seasons.
 
It’s not ignorance. The people who voted for the MVP back in 1934 or 1947 thought just as deeply as we do about the game of baseball. They had the same arguments that we had, debating the same concepts we discuss. In some ways, their thinking was narrow and reductive. In other ways, they did a better job of juggling complex variables than we’ve managed. They weren’t fools, and anyone who suggest that we have some edge in understanding because we have better measures is someone you should probably ignore. We have better tools, certainly, but that doesn’t mean we’re better at using them.
 
 
*             *             *
 
Okay…still circling the point of things.
 
Ozzie Smith was incredibly famous during his career. I don’t know when he became famous, but I know that by 1987 Ozzie Smith was one of the most ‘known’ players in baseball. I started paying attention to baseball in 1987, and I knew that Ozzie was a STAR. His baseball cards were expensive. He was a fixture on This Week in Baseball. He started every All-Star game from 1983 to 1992…ten years in a row. That’s remarkable, right? Ten years in a row, the folks punching voting cards in the stands went with Ozzie Smith.
 
Here is Ozzie Smith’s average batting line over that decade:
 
G
R
H
2B
HR
RBI
SB
BA / OBP / SLG
OPS+
144
73
144
25
2
49
33
.275 / .353 / .348
95
 
Please know, before we go any further, that I am in no way trying to denigrate Ozzie Smith here. I love Ozzie Smith. When I was a kid, all I wanted to be was a slick fielding guy like Ozzie Smith. I think he was an absolutely brilliant baseball player, and I’m glad that he was recognized for his greatness.
 
But it is sort of startling that he was so recognized, isn't it?
 
Go and look at Ozzie Smith’s career batting line. He was, in his early years, a weak hitter. He didn’t have a batting average higher than .258 until he was in his thirties. He started slow, at least as a hitter, and worked to get to passable. He had a good on-base percentage in his later years, but it wasn’t generally elite. He wasn’t Brett Butler. His two real areas of skill were 1) defense, and 2) baserunning.
 
How many guys with those skills sets get super famous in baseball? Anyone? Can you think of any player who was treated as a superstar who was like Ozzie Smith? He’s Mark Belanger, if Belanger had a really sharp PR behind him.  
 
Ozzie Smith’s fame is peculiar, too, because it didn’t come at a moment in history when people were suddenly evaluating defense in a new way. Ozzie Smith looks great now because a lot of our metrics give credit for his incredible defensive contributions, but in the mid-1980’s, they were still using fielding percentage and double plays to evaluate a defender. And it’s not like those tallies were listed in the sports page every week: you’d have to dig around to find the leaderboards that Ozzie dominated.
 
But Smith was famous. He was in the category of players who everyone knew about: him and Ripken and Mattingly and Schmidt and Gooden and Strawberry and Canseco and Brett and Boggs. He was a big star. Fans in the 1980’s knew that Ozzie Smith was special, without any kind of metric existing to tell them that he was a great player. 
 
And the MVP voters recognized the same thing. The voters almost gave him an MVP award in 1987, and it wouldn’t have been any kind of travesty if they had.
 
 
*             *             *
 
 
All of that is precursor to the subject I want to talk about, which is Andrelton Simmons.
 
It is my opinion that Andrelton Simmons is a very legitimate candidate for the MVP this year, for the same reasons that Ozzie Smith was a very legitimate candidate for the MVP in 1987. What I find interesting is that no one in baseball is talking about him like that.
 
Let’s take a step back.
 
The Angels, at this writing, are on the bubble of postseason play. Who has been their best player this year?
 
It’s Mike Trout, of course. Mike Trout has missed a third of the season this year, but he’s been transcendently great in the games he has played. He’s the best player in the world, so by the transitive property of best-ness, he is the best player on the Angels.
 
But Andrelton Simmons isn’t too far behind him.  FanGraphs’ WAR has them at 6.1 and 4.6 respectively, with Trout ahead.  And Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR has Simmons ahead of Trout, 6.5 to 6.0. Baseball-Reference actually rates Simmons as the third-best position player in the league, behind Altuve and tied with Aaron Judge.
 
And if you hold that ‘good’ and ‘valuable’ are different concepts, an argument exists that Simmons has been the more valuable player to the Angels this year.
 
Go and look at the Angels team page on Baseball-Reference: they are a bad baseball team. The only regulars on the squad with an OPS+ over 100 are Trout, Simmons, and C.J. Cron, who has played half-a-season. Simmons has been hitting fifth most of the year, because it is actually reasonable for the Angels to slot a guy with a .376 career slugging percentage in an RBI slot. They have no one better.
 
And Simmons has risen to the challenge: he is having the best offensive season of his six-year career, by a wide margin, and he hasn’t given up anything on defense to do it.
 
How did he do during Trout’s absence? Did he lift up his game as an offensive player, or did he struggle?
 
He lifted his game. During Trout’s DL stint, Simmons hit .303 with an on-base percentage of .346, and a slugging percentage of .500. He scored 23 runs and drove in 19 over those thirty-eight games, was nine-for-ten in stolen bases, and he struck out just 16 times in 153 plate appearances. He didn’t ‘carry’ the offense, but he was an efficient hitter in Trout’s absence.
 
Judged in whole, Simmons is having a season that feels a lot like Ozzie Smith’s 1987 season. Both men played on ‘red’ teams. Both were passable hitters having strong years. Both men batted high in the lineups because their teams had few offensive weapons relative to their leagues. Both players were overshadowed, a bit, by the presence of a great hitter who missed some time (Simmons has Trout, while Ozzie Smith had Jack Clark posting a monster year in 1987). Both of them played peerless defense at a crucial position.
 
The difference is that while Ozzie Smith was judged as a legitimate MVP candidate in 1987, no one is going to give the same attention to Andrelton Simmons. If the Angels reach the Wild Card, it is possible that Simmons will get a few late-ballot nods from West Coast voters. If the Angels lose to the Twins or the Yankees, I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t get any votes.
 
And Andrelton Simmons hasn’t received a fraction of the attention that Smith received at this juncture in their careers, even though Simmons is, in all likelihood, a superior player. Ozzie Smith at 27 was a great defensive player, but his career OPS+ was 69. Simmons is at 90. Use any new metric you’d like to use: Andrelton Simmons holds his own as a defensive player, and outpaces Smith with the bat. Despite this, Simmons has never been an All-Star.
 
This is a note I probably hit too often, but I’m going to hit it again: we like to believe that we live in enlightened times, but we are wallowing in the same swamps of ignorance as the souls who have preceded us. We just have the benefit of not having a generation after us calling us out for our failures.
 
The lack of attention Simmons has received speaks, I think, to our blindness: it speaks the ways that our perceptions in this moment are limited. How is it that no one is appreciating the brilliant season that Andrelton Simmons is having? Why hasn’t his name been mentioned as a dark-horse MVP candidate? Why aren’t we applauding the strides he’s made this year as a hitter? The Angels managed to go 19-19 with Mike Trout on the DL, which is remarkable for that lineup. Where were the articles praising Simmons for helping to carry an anemic offense through Trout’s absence?
 
They don’t exist. No one has noticed Simmons, and there is a chance no one will notice him.
 
That’s okay. Sometimes we miss things. Sometimes brilliant players get recognized in their time, and sometimes it happens later. There are a lot of baseball players to follow, and we can’t give attention that is perfectly aligned to merit.
 
But I think the guiding belief, at least in the circles of baseball fandom that I follow, is that we are in a moment of particular enlightenment; a moment when we are seeing the game with a vision that surpasses the tired prejudices of earlier generations. We see Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, and we understand them. We see the stupidity of wins, we know the value of a walk. We are enlightened.
 
And I think we are enlightened. We know a great deal more about baseball than we knew ten years ago, or twenty years ago. We count more things. We have a myriad of tools at our disposal that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
 
But I think that the knowledge we have has led to a narrowing of our vision, a limit of our understanding. It is certainly laudable that so many of us understand the principles underlying a metric like Fielding-Independent Pitching, a notion that wasn’t in the mainstream in 1987. But it is just as significant that we haven’t noticed a year in which a historically great defensive shortstop has made strides as a hitter, and is now one of the best players in baseball.
 
I am not a Luddite. I am not suggesting that we smash the machines that create our spreadsheets and tables. I am not trying to critique WAR or FIP, and I am not trying to save the win, or win something for saves. I am only trying to point out that we have our own areas of blindness, our own flawed biases and attitudes.
 
We are not better thinkers than the people who gave an MVP award to Andre Dawson, or the people who gave an MVP to Mickey Cochrane: we’re just lucky enough to live in later days. The generations of fans and writers and analysts who follow us are going to find the same flaws and prejudices in our work, and they are going to interpret us through whatever lens seems apt to their cause. We aren’t going to be ‘right’ about a lot of things.
 
In light of that, I’d remind us that we should try to be a little more generous in how we interpret the thoughts of our predecessors, and a little more conscious that we should hold to our beliefs with a light hand.   
 
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.  
 
 

COMMENTS (44 Comments, most recent shown first)

areuss44
The comparison between Ozzie and Belanger is not a good one, unless we're only talking about defensive abilities. Ozzie was a much, much better offensive player. Ozzie had career oWAR of 47.8; Belanger, 14.6. In part, that was because Ozzie played more games (about 2500 compared to about 2000). In part, it was because Ozzie had more plate appearances per game (about 4.1 compared to about 3.3). I don't know how many of Belanger's appearances were as a late-inning defensive replacement, or in how many he got lifted for a pinch hitter, but I'm guessing those were factors. In addition, Belanger played in a lower-offense era, so that was probably a factor in his having lower plate appearances per game. All told, Belanger ended up with only about 60% as many career plate appearances as Ozzie. If we adjust for the different number of plate appearances, we still get a huge difference in offense. Ozzie had about 4.4 oWAR per 1000 plate appearances; Belanger, about 2.2.

Also, Ozzie did not start every home game with a backflip. I don't know if that's a myth someone heard, or if they have an invented memory of it, but it's not true. He did the backflip a few times a season, basically on special occasions (opening day, All-Star game, last day of the season, etc.).
8:53 AM Sep 30th
 
shthar
I know exactly who berlanger is, and that's why I still say calling Ozzie Smith 'Belanger with better PR' is one of the stupidest things I have ever seen anyone say.

No matter how you spell it.

Everyone knows that Ozzie was Garry Templeton with better PR.
8:32 PM Sep 20th
 
Manushfan
I would also add-a similar article about the 2 MVPs in 1974-Burroughs and Garvey-would be enlightening. That's another one-sure their WAR tallies aren't pretty, and yeah, you'd have voted for say Jimmy Wynn or Bobby Grich over them-but that is the view from Now. In '74? No way. The three A's power hitters-Reggie, Bando, Rudi, knocked each other's votes down, you had to split hairs between Catfish and Fergie, plus there was Carew with his annual Tony Gwynn type numbers and of course, Mr. Grich. Who would YOU have picked if you were Peter Gammons that year? Yeah. You likely went with the guy from the Cinderella team of the league, who lead the league in RBI's, hit over .300 and whacked some homers. He wasn't a Great pick, but--you can understand it.

Garvey-well, sure, I'd have likely voted for Michael Jack Schmidt for being Mike Schmidt for the first time, or Johnny Bench, for being Bench, or maybe Morgan or Toy Cannon, but you see what was in the news that year--Lou Brock break Wills SB record, Mike Marshall show up in over 100 games, and the Boy Scout at first for the best team in the league-hitting .300! with over 100 RBI and 200 hits! That was what impressed writers back then. Not the Toy Cannon OBP or WAR or whatever. I am NOT saying they were right-but again, Garvey had that same basic year half a dozen times for some great teams, you can see why they gave him the plaque. It's not just a matter of the prior generation of writers or fans being stupid. They weren't. Fleming has it right here.

Which has nada to do with Ozzie and '87. Heck if Eric Davis had been healthy that year, HE would have been the MVP. Or Jack Clark. See how weird it got that year....
6:39 PM Sep 20th
 
Manushfan
I'm one of those who was lucky enough to see Dawson playing in his prime, circa 79 to 83 on CBC, living up near the Canadian line had its perks, sorta. He played in a fugly big turf cement donut of a park, in Montreal, and it wasn't exactly a hitter's delight-but man-he was SUCH a good OF, had the range, the gun for an arm, the smoothness out there, plus he was a really good all around hitter if you didn't worry about the walks too much. He made a real impression on me. And I suspect, he did for many of the writers etc who a couple years later were voting on the MVP award. The Hawk was runner up once or twice to Dale Murphy and didn't get it, then here was a chance to honor a guy who'd also been stymied by collusion to wind up playing on the cheap for the Cubs. I don't blame them for voting for Dawson that year. Knowing what we do now, sure-Ozzie or Jack Clark would have been better choices. Heck Tim Raines was AWESOME that season, he might have had my vote.

Point is--Dawson was well respected and Yes a great player. The fact that he wasn't the MVP in '87 for real, well--as the man said, it's before Baseball Ref. com. You had to make your bets the best way you knew how. And RBI's is pretty.
6:17 PM Sep 20th
 
MarisFan61
Adding to what MWeddell said (altho I suspect I was one of the guys he was compensating for): -)
I appreciate all of Dave's articles!
9:59 PM Sep 19th
 
astros34
shthar: Who's Berlanger? You, sir, look like an idiot for misspelling his name.
6:26 PM Sep 19th
 
Riceman1974
I agree with the posters who mentioned Ozzie on SportsCenter. He was highlighted there a lot, because he seemed to make a crazy play every two days, and right at the time when that show, and its network, were exploding. Ozzie also played for an iconic, historic franchise that won three pennants in 6 years during his absolute prime. Even when they didn't win, they consistently battled for first with the much celebrated Mets of that era (remember they were in the same division then).

Also, when Ozzie did make the playoffs, they were on Network TV, not shuttered to these also-ran cable networks most people don't know they even have. He also hit one of the most famous walk-off home runs in playoff history, even more amazing because he hadn't hit one in like 2 years.

And don't forget the back flips to start every home game. No way a team would allow a star player to do that now.
12:53 PM Sep 19th
 
MWeddell
I wanted to add that I enjoyed the article and that I enjoy nearly all the articles that Dave posts. Some of the comments here seem unduly harsh, so please don't assume that the majority agrees with them.​
10:02 AM Sep 19th
 
MarisFan61
(......altho, there wasn't anything snarky in there.)
9:01 PM Sep 18th
 
MarisFan61
Dave: Well taken!
And I'm sorry!!!
8:57 PM Sep 18th
 
wdr1946
Comparing Ozzie Smith and Bobby Wallace- One can get the Win Shares (Bill James's system of assessing players) for any player in history on Baseball Gauge, an outstanding website that is too little known. Wallace had 344.6 WS, Smith 324.7. Wallace's WS were Offense 197.5; Fielding 113.5; Pitching 33.5. Smith's were 187.5, 137.2, O. Wallace had no seasons with 30 or more WS, one with 25-30 WS, and 8 with 20-25 WS. Smith had one season (1987) with 30+ WS, 2 with 25-30, and 4 with 20-25. By this system, Wallace appears to have been a slightly better player- but of course they played 80 years apart.

8:47 PM Sep 18th
 
DaveFleming
Maris: the sentence reads: "Ozzie Smith at 27 was a great defensive player, but his career OPS+ was 69. Simmons is at 90."

Please read a little more carefully before you a) assume an error on my part, and b) draw a whole bunch of snarky inferences about what I'm thinking because you can't read a sentence all the way through.
8:28 PM Sep 18th
 
shthar
Was Berlanger the only other shortstop you could think of?

Cause you really seem like an idiot calling Ozzie Smith Berlanger with better PR.


7:22 PM Sep 18th
 
MarisFan61
Dave, bearbyz noted an important little point, very big little point.

Ozzie's OPS+s was lots higher than 69.
Where did you get 69? And more importantly, did that have a big part in your basic thrust?

I'm thinking it did. It looks like you thought he was a poor offensive player.

He was a poor offensive player in his first few years, but after that he was at least what we'd call 'OK,' and in his best years he was a good offensive player, and I'd say better than what is suggested by his OPS+.

I imagine I'm not the only one here who remembers the thing Bill wrote in one of the old Abstracts, I think it was one of those things he used to do in an imagined conversational-type thing, with questions and answers, and with saying that Ozzie had become "a hell of an offensive player."

I wonder, if you'd known it was 87 and not 69, that in some years it was a lot better than either one, and if you'd remembered that thing Bill wrote, which was right around the time of this MVP vote, maybe there never would have been an article with this tack. Not that I mind it, but I think it's, well, I think it's not really on the mark.
7:09 PM Sep 18th
 
BryanBM
One of the things about the 2010's is that you have a lot of great players whose greatness is diverse...you have high-OBP hitters like Votto and Goldschmidt, power hitting middle infielders like Cano, Tulo, Dozier and Correa, glove-first guys like Andrelton, Heyward, Gordon and Kiermaier, great base-runners like Gardner, Revere, Hamilton, Rajai and Dee, TTO Boppers like Giancarlo, Ortiz and Bautista, speed/power guys like Trout, Braun and CarGo....lots of different kinds of players.

It's not puzzling, you're being reductive because you want to attach a narrative so you discard anything that runs contrary to your theme. This is a common writing technique.
4:42 PM Sep 18th
 
bhalbleib
One thing Ozzie had that Luis Aparicio didn't have and Rabbit Maranville definitely didn't have was TV exposure. TV exposure did wonders for defensive stars. TWIB and the Game of the Week on Saturdays were showcases for guys like Ozzie. There is no way that the Burroughs play in SD is ever even known, other than by shadowy legend, if not for TWIB. And then later in Ozzie's career, SportsCenter blossomed and his highlights were always on (by 1987 SportsCenter was very big). I take it for a fact that Willie Mays was a great defensive player and sure the one highlight I have seen from the 1954 WS is pretty special looking, but I don't have any other visual proof that he was great. Obviously, no one alive has any visual proof of Speaker's greatness or Maranville's (at least from their primes). It is easier for everyone to appreciate defensive greatness when it is seen, not just read about or distilled from statistics.
2:32 PM Sep 18th
 
DaveFleming
I think that 'smbakeresq' is right: there's something about this particular moment in baseball that has taken our eye off the ball when it comes to a player like Simmons. Maybe it's the TTO stuff, and maybe it's the sense that defense, because it has eluded our new metrics more than other factors, has been a little under-credited.

One of the things about the 1980's is that you had a lot of great players whose greatness was diverse...you had high-average hitters like Boggs and Gwynn, power-hitting middle infielders like Sandberg and Ripken and Whitaker, glove-first guys like Ozzie, 75-steal burners like Rickey and Raines and Coleman, TTO Boppers like Mac, speed/power guys like Canseco and Davis....lots of different kinds of players.

This is something I think about a lot....how we think, collectively. I think we're in a moment of very 'narrow' vision in how we see the world, a reductive mode of discourse and processing...and I'm trying to puzzle why that is the case. I think it relates to technology...to the great strides we've made in accessing and processing information. I think there's been something important that's gone away in that stride forward, not just in baseball but in the broader sphere. I think that baseball is a useful microcosm of that issue, and Simmons is a good exemplar of the trend i'm trying to grapple with.

Anyway...that's going far afield. Ozzie's great. Simmons is great. I'm glad the O's announcers talked about him. I always liked Thorne and Palmer, and would watch their broadcast often overseas. Sadly, they're on my blackout list here in Virginia.
2:01 PM Sep 18th
 
Marc Schneider
My recollection is that Ozzie became famous because of the play he made against Jeff Burroughs when Ozzie was with the Padres; Burroughs hit a ball up the middle and, basically Ozzie reached back while diving, caught the ball and threw Burroughs out. That play made all the highlights on TV and it is still often shown. Obviously, he became more famous when he went to St. Louis, largely because they had a much better team, but I disagree that he was not famous at all when he was in San Diego.

If Andrelton Simmons had not been traded from the Braves and the Braves had remained good, I think he would be more famous too. When he was with the Braves, they had a few good years, including a division title and he was developing a reputation as possibly the best defensive player in baseball. But he sort of dropped off the face of the map when he went to the Angels, a mediocre West Coast team that already had a star of stars. If he was with the Dodgers, Simmons would be far better known.
1:41 PM Sep 18th
 
msandler
A couple weeks ago, when the Orioles were playing the Angels, MASN threw up an "MVP candidates" graphic with Machado and Schoop for the O's and Trout and Simmons for the Angels. Gary Thorne and Jim Palmer discussed it briefly and definitely took Simmons seriously as a candidate and agreed he has a legitimate chance to be in the top 5 vote-getters.
12:33 PM Sep 18th
 
bearbyz
Ozzie has a great reputation but maybe it was earned. He is the all time leader in defensive WAR at shortstop in both the baseball reference and fan graphs method. Bill has him number one in runs saved against zero in 9 of 10 years in the 80s. Sure he was a little bit of a hot dog, but he was dam good.
12:04 PM Sep 18th
 
smbakeresq
I also remember Ozzie on TWIB. But I grew up in Baltimore, where we watched Mark Belanger(and many other defensive stars) play SS at a great level for many years. While Belanger was never the acrobat Ozzie he was equal/almost as good a glove man, he was never a good offensive player. You would just get used to seeing great defensive plays all the time watching games, so seeing defensive plays didn't have as much as an effect.

I think Simmons is just the wrong type of player in this era. With everything being 3 true outcomes, he is the opposite. They don't have special segments on highlight shows for 200' singles or defensive plays he makes without effort as opposed to diving. Today Carney Lansford would be all over the TV for all the diving stops he would make.

If he does if for a few more years he will suddenly be "underrated, which is a sort of notoriety.
10:36 AM Sep 18th
 
Mike137
Brock Hanke wrote: "I grew up in the 1950s. By the time I was 15, I knew all of the players whose careers were over ... became a baseball fan the year that Marty Marion retired"

Well, of course you did, since there were so few of them. :) It was not much harder when I first became a fan. Marion's last season was 1953. That was 64 years ago and 60 years after the pitching distance was set at 60 feet, 6 inches. When we account for the number of players, most baseball history has occurred since you and I were kids. That was also an era in which the players weren't anywhere near as good as the old timers had been (at least, if you believed the old timers). A consequence of getting over that is that the old timers are no longer as well remembered.

"My impression is that there is less attention paid to defense, especially infield defense, now than there was then."

In the 60's, teams were willing to give up a lot of hitting for top notch up-the-middle defense. I think that today teams expect both hitting and defense. The same is true for the corner positions, where teams used to be willing to give up a lot of defense in exchange for hitting.
8:08 AM Sep 18th
 
jwilt
Aren't there many players out of the Ozzie Smith mold who have been famous and thought of as valuable and got MVP votes and even elected to the Hall? A quick list off the top of my head:

- Rabbit Maranville
- Phil Rizzuto
- Luis Aparicio
- Luke Appling
- Bobby Wallace
- Joe Sewell
- Bert Campaneris
- Joe Tinker
- Dave Bancroft
- Art Fletcher
- Dave Concepcion

In 1914 Art Fletcher finished 13th in the MVP voting in a year where he hit .286/.322/.379. He outpolled Christy Mathewson in a 24-win season where he was Fletcher's teammate. That same year Rabbit Maranville finished 2nd despite a .632 OPS.

Bert Campaneris got down-ballot MVP support in eight separate seasons despite never hitting .300 and OPSing over .700 only a handful of times. Campaneris and Aparicio finished 9th and 10th in the '66 MVP voting with sub-.700 OPSes, ahead of players like Norm Cash and Mickey Mantle and Denny McLain.

Luke Appling got some MVP votes three times in his 40s, including as a 41-year-old with zero homers and 18 extra base hits in 139 games for a 51-101 White Sox team.

Seems to me that defensively brilliant/offensively suspect shortstop has always been a good approach to get recognition perhaps beyond your actual value.
7:58 AM Sep 18th
 
Mike137
Dave Fleming wrote: "The lack of attention Simmons has received speaks ... the ways that our perceptions in this moment are limited. How is it that no one is appreciating the brilliant season that Andrelton Simmons is having? Why hasn’t his name been mentioned as a dark-horse MVP candidate? ... There are a lot of baseball players to follow, and we can’t give attention that is perfectly aligned to merit."

I think that it right, but I think it also misses something about why it happens. Reputations are hard to change. The 27 year old Simmons of this year is in roughly the same place as the 27 year old Smith of 1982. Smith finished 13th in the MVP voting that year, for a first place team. The fact that Smith was an established star before 1987 surely helped him gain votes that year. If Simmons keeps doing what he has done this year, and the Angels finished first in, say 2022, he will surely get a lot of MVP love.
7:50 AM Sep 18th
 
Brock Hanke
Comparing Ozzie Smith to Bobby Wallace on the basis of Career Accumulated WAR and JAWS does more to expose using those methods than anything else. Over in the New Historical, which is now 17 years old, Ozzie is ranked #7 at shortstop, while Wallace is ranked 36th. Some of that is timeline, but some of it is that Ozzie's three best seasons are 33, 25, 23, while Wallace's are 26, 25, and 25. Their five-year consecutive primes are 112 for Wallace and 123 for Ozzie. Depending on your opinion of timelines, you might want to rank them closer than the New Historical does, but Ozzie is ahead of Bobby because of his peak and prime. Bobby has the advantage in career accumulated Win Shares, 345 to 326, because Bobby really DID play forever.

I grew up in the 1950s. By the time I was 15, I knew all of the players whose careers were over and who are now considered to be defensive superduperstar shortstops: George Wright, Honus, Rabbit Maranville, Marty Marion, with nods to Luis Aparicio and Roy McMillan, who were still active. Belanger and Ozzie are later. My impression is that there is less attention paid to defense, especially infield defense, now than there was then. On the other hand, I grew up in St. Louis, and became a baseball fan the year that Marty Marion retired, so that may have been a regional thing.

But, in any case, the rankings and reputations make much more sense if you expand your analytical horizons beyond career WAR and JAWS to at least considering primes and peaks.
2:16 AM Sep 18th
 
wovenstrap
Looking at this again: In 1987 four teams made the playoffs out of 26. Today it's 10 out of 30. I can't quite see the Angels creeping into the playoffs (which they have not done, indeed, they would not qualify right now) as an equivalent achievement to the Cards' NL East title of 1987. Let's say the Angels are the 6th best team in the AL, on the logic that there are 5 playoff-qualifying teams ahead of the Angels and we'll just call the Angels the best one that didn't make it (although that is far from clear).

The Cardinals were the best team in the National League in 1987, period. Ozzie Smith was the best player on that team, it seems that everyone agrees on this point. You've said yourself that Simmons is the #2 producer on the Angels. Simmons may have an impressive resume based on being a top defender with an OPS+ of 90, but the argumentation based on the Angels being what? the most talked-about team in the AL? They certainly aren't that. That side of it is just sheer sophistry, based on a superficial similarity of saying the word "playoffs."

In summation, it is not very surprising that there have not been widespread murmurings that Simmons might creep away with the award. The existence of Altuve and Ramirez, who are similar and better players on better teams, seals off that possibility.
12:34 AM Sep 18th
 
wovenstrap
In a way Ozzie is the Brooks Robinson of the 1980s. As many have mentioned, Ozzie benefited from eye-popping highlights on TWIB -- in a world that was basically starved of defensive highlights in general. The thing people aren't quite saying is that Ozzie benefited from TWIB because the things he was doing seemed impossible, they were unprecedented.

After a generation of ESPN highlights, it's a very rare thing for me, today, to be impressed by an infielder's highlight (the same is true of many OF diving catches). My reaction is very often, "Right, he should make that play." Even if Ozzie's plays were very similar to the plays that get replayed today, nobody perceived them as "plays that guy should have made." They seemed incredible. That's why Ozzie Smith had star power, he invented and patented the eye-popping defensive highlight.
11:22 PM Sep 17th
 
bearbyz
Sorry, I also meant to tell you I agree with your basic conclusion, Andrelton Simmons should be an MVP candidate this year.
10:43 PM Sep 17th
 
bearbyz
Mike Cabrera won the triple crown in 2012, also the first year he move from first to third to bring Prince Fielder into the line up. I would have voted him MVP in 2012.

Ozzie Smith had an OPS+ for his career of 87 not 69. He was in a period of having an OPS+ of at least 95 in 8 out of 9 years. Ozzie not only have a good reputation, Bill's studies have shown he deserves the reputation.
10:35 PM Sep 17th
 
BryanBM
http://www.nytimes.com/1988/02/07/sports/baseball-notebook-economist-says-mcreynolds-will-lose-arbit​ration-3d-time.html?pagewanted=all&mcubz=3

Eric Davis' 1987 season was worth $750k to the Reds and $1.05mil to Eric, they settle for $899k instead of letting an arbitrator decide, there is little indication that going 50 for 56 in SB is worth anything in MVP balloting or contract negotiation. Canseco goes 40 for 56 the following year and the statistical oddity of 40/40 is noted when he wins MVP, but his MVP case is built on 104 team wins and leading the league in HR and RBI.

Asher Blass tells Murray Chass of all people in 1988 about WHIP and then right below the section on WHIP:

Balboni would seem to be a natural addition to the power-stripped lineup of the Detroit Tigers. Even while he batted only .207 for Kansas City last year, Balboni hit 24 home runs and drove in 60 runs on only 80 hits. Balboni hit five home runs in a seven-game span against the Tigers last August, three of them in Detroit. The Tigers have to replace Kirk Gibson's run production somehow, and they can't do it by not adding any players.

Balboni only has 34 Walks/Secret Stat. It's somehow important that relievers don't allow batters to reach base but it's not important if a batter reaches base.
12:21 PM Sep 17th
 
rwarn17588
The hype over Ozzie's defensive abilities was real at the time. It blossomed when he got traded to a contending (and popular) Cardinals club, and people finally could see what he could do day in and day out. Fans routinely were giving him standing-Os for his plays. I'd never seen anything like it, and I strongly suspect the fans hadn't, either.

I've recounted this a long time ago in the forums, but in 1984 I once attended a baseball-card show in Nokomis, Illinois, that served as a fundraiser for a fledgling baseball museum for Hall-of-Famers Jim Bottomley, Ray Schalk and Red Ruffing, who grew up in that area. (I don't recall whether the museum got off the ground, but I digress).

Anyway, the event featured a bunch of former major-leaguers (Glenn Hobbie was one) and longtime St. Louis sports editor Bob Broeg. It was great, hearing a bunch of former ballplayers and an esteemed sportswriter shooting the bull about baseball. It inevitably sparked talk about who was the greatest players at certain positions. Most of the answers came from decades ago with a wide variety of opinions, as you might expect.

But when the conversation steered to shortstop, one of the very old players said quietly: "I think the best I've seen is what the Cardinals got right now." The rest of them at the table simply nodded. There was no argument.

I was quite young at the time. But even I realized the magnitude of that. Old-timers and old fans seldom agreed on anything. They inevitably would argue over comparisons of this player and that player, sometimes heatedly.

But with Ozzie Smith, a quiet consensus emerged he was the greatest defensive shortstop who ever lived. And you have to remember, Ozzie was not even 30 and was midway through only his third season in St. Louis. But I left that conservation fairly convinced he would be elected to the Hall of Fame. And he got more than 90 percent of the vote when he did, which is rare and shows the respect he earned.

People have already mentioned the dramatic NLCS home run he hit. But I think there are two other major factors in why Ozzie went to Cooperstown.

-- He remained a stellar defensive player for a long time. Looking over his range stats and his defensive WAR, he didn't start to tail off with the glove until he was nearly 40. I recall he hurt his shoulder when he was in his early 30s, but he compensated by building up his upper body, bouncing more throws to first on the artificial turf to save his arm, and getting off a quicker release. He always was tinkering with his defense to compensate for age or other shortcomings.

-- He became a much better offensive player in St. Louis. I doubt he'd be remembered as much if he hadn't have raised his batting average by about 30 points. Add in his pretty-good walks rate and his excellent base-stealing, he wound up being a pretty good contributer in the lineup -- better than Belanger or Aparico ever were.
10:45 AM Sep 17th
 
MattD1
Ozzie became famous in 1982, the year the Cardinals won the World Series. He wasn't famous at all with the Padres. I honestly didn't realize Simmons was having that good of a year, thanks for writing this article.
9:13 AM Sep 17th
 
3for3
What was the secret stat? And how about Eric Davis for MVP? 37/50 (bet he would have received a HUGE boost if he had gone 40/40). 293/399/593. Won the Gold Glove, with some highlight HR saving catches. That was worth....9th?
8:45 AM Sep 17th
 
steve161
jimmybart is right to mention TWIB. Ozzie was famous because people could [i]see[\i] him performing miracles on a weekly basis. I suspect hardly anybody is seeing Simmons. ESPN departed continental Europe a few years back, so I don't see Baseball Tonight--and given when it airs I don't know how many people do--but Simmons' miracles mostly happen too late to become Web Gems.

Anyway, my vote for AL MVP goes to Jose Altuve.
7:39 AM Sep 17th
 
DaveNJnews
I remember 1987 and it seemed like the 2 shortstops (Ozzie and Trammell) were both worthy MVPs.

Looking back, I'm not sure why Tony Gwynn didn't get more support - that .370 would have quite stood out amid all those big power numbers.
7:33 AM Sep 17th
 
BryanBM
b-ref WAR leader board is not a place you will find dark horse candidates for best player in the league. Simmons is a dark horse MVP candidate the same way Bonds is a dark horse HoF candidate, people are guessing who will win or be elected and neither is a likely outcome.

www.nytimes.com/1987/11/18/sports/bell-is-named-american-league-mvp.html?mcubz=3

There is nothing at all surprising about the MVP results. The best hitter on the top two teams get all but one of the 1st and 2nd place votes. Without a wild card either not giving Bell a large penalty for the last week of the season or voting before the the last week of the season takes place.

MVP rank/points, BA, Hits, HR, RBI, Runs, Team Wins, Team GB, Secret Stat
1/332 - Bell, .308, 188, 47, 134, 111, 96, 2, 39
2/311 - Trammell, .343, 205, 28, 105, 109, 98, 0, 60
3/201 - Puckett, .332, 207, 28, 99, 96, 85, 0, 32
4/127 - DwEvans, .305, 165, 34, 123, 109, 78, 20, 106
5/125 - Molitor, .353, 164, 16, 75, 114, 91, 7, 69

6/109 - McGwire, .289, 161, 49, 118, 97, 81, 4, 71
7/92 - Mattingly, .327, 186, 30, 115, 93, 89, 9, 51
8/79 - TFernandez, .322, 186, 5, 67, 90, 96, 2, 51
9/64 - Boggs, .363, 200, 24, 89, 108, 78, 20, 105
10/47 - Gaetti, .257, 150, 31, 109, 95, 85, 0, 37

11/37 - Reardon, 85 wins, 0 GB
12/21 - DaEvans, .257, 128, 34, 99, 90, 98, 0, 100
13/17 - Doyle, 98 wins, 0 GB
13/17 - Henke, 96 wins, 2 GB
13/17 - Joyner, .285, 161, 34, 117, 100, 75, 10, 72
16/11 - Hrbek, .285, 136, 34, 90, 85, 85, 0, 84

The Secret Stat was available most Tuesdays in the Toronto Star, I'm not sure if this wild and crazy statistic was available south of the border and 30 years later it's still considered far too complex of a stat for most MVP voters.

Simmons, .281, 152, 14, 67, 74, 76, 1, 41 is not a likely MVP candidate. Sure you can find Ozzie Smith's MVP and say Simmons is an MVP candidate, Jack Clark is the best hitter on the team and plays 27 fewer games than Ozzie so some of the voters go to the crazy extreme of considering one of the greatest defenders of all-time one of the most 10 most valuable players in his league for the only time in his career when he's 32 and it's probably now or never.

www.nytimes.com/1987/11/19/sports/dawson-named-mvp.html?mcubz=3

"Smith, the Cardinal shortstop, had 9 votes for first, 1 for second and 2 for third, finishing with 193 points." Math says the other 12 voters average 3.5 points or the equivalent of six each 7th and 8th place votes.

"Clark, the midseason favorite to win the award before he was slowed by injuries, had 3 first-place votes and 186 points." He probably wins with the exact same stats except the injury in the first half of the season. Averages 6.86 points or the equivalent of 18 fourth place and 3 fifth place votes on the other ballots.

Perfect storm and around half the voters considered Ozzie Smith more valuable than Jack Clark who gets injured when the team has won 58.7% of it's games and has 3 PH appearances the rest of the season while his team wins 58.3% of it's games. Massive narrative penalty and Jack Clark even foolishly creates a bunch of his value with 136 of the Secret Stat while Ozzie has 89 and they both finish behind the guy with 32 in the Secret Stat but hits the most MLB HR in 10 years and signs a blank contract.

Miggy over Trout in 2012 and 2013 is consistent. It's a coin flip for who is the best hitter between the two, Miggy makes the playoffs and easily wins MVP. You can find many precedents for this result. The 2017 AL MVP is most likely going to be consistent with many precedents and Andrelton can go have a beer with Chase Utley and talk about how they at least deserved to place much higher in MVP voting and they will roll their eyes if Ozzie comes in and complains about the time he only finished 2nd.
12:42 AM Sep 17th
 
wdr1946
Ozzie Smith's JAWS and WAR lifetime statistics are almost precisely identical with those of Bobby Wallace, the turn of the twentieth century shortstop who has been termed the most obscure player in the Hall of Fame. Probably no two Hall of Famers have more similar WAR statistics.
12:37 AM Sep 17th
 
jimmybart
I'll admit that I'm surprised that Ozzie got serious MVP consideration in 1987. I remember Bill James making the argument that he was MVP in his '88 Abstract, and thinking that it was a logical argument but that Dawson was more deserving...and I was a Cardinal fan. I was a big believer not necessarily in RBI but in HR, and Dawson's 49 was impressive. I remember arguing with a friend in 1990 that Cecil Fielder deserved the MVP over Rickey for his 50+ HRs, an argument I would NEVER make today.

Ozzie had some things going for him in 1987 beyond the numbers. He was a staple on a winning team, he had star charisma (remember him being on the Baseball Bunch?), and he had a MOMENT. Namely, the 1985 NLCS walk-off HR. Few remember this, but NBC posted a graphic right before he hit the home run: "Ozzie Smith has hit zero LH HRs in xxxx ABs" or something to that effect. Next pitch (or the pitch after, memory is hazy), BOOM. This, along with the TWIB highlights, made him a star.

That's what I think Trout and Simmons are lacking. For all of their impressive performances, they haven't had a MOMENT. As a recent example, look at the Indians' winning streak. 21 was impressive and historic. But until the drama of the 22nd game, there was no MOMENT. I was in a Denver bar that night, and when Lindor tied it and Bruce won it, there were cheers all over, even though most TVs in the bar were showing that brutal NFL game. Discussion of the streak the next day went beyond baseball media, even beyond sports media. It was on the national news showing the Indian players going nuts after the win.

For their sakes, I hope Trout and Simmons get that moment, because they are exceptional players. But it just hasn't happened yet.






11:10 PM Sep 16th
 
DaveNJnews
I saw an article about a month back touting Simmons as a dark-horse MVP candidate. I don't remember where but it made me pay more attention to him.
7:50 PM Sep 16th
 
DaveFleming
I came on to make the exact point that MichaelPat made....that a big part of the 'story' for Dawson was the pre-season contract stuff, and his mammoth year on the tail of that. I wonder if some of the sportswriters sensed collusion, and wanted to stick it to the owners by honoring Dawson.

I think, too, that there was a sense that Dawson was owed an MVP...he had come in second or third a couple times, and I think that some of the votes went his way because he was one of the preeminent players of the era. On a wide-open ballot you might as well go with an established star who led in homers and RBI's. He was a likable player.

The 1987 MVP ballot is fascinating...the whole damned year was fascinating. I think 1987 was the best baseball season of my life, though I might be biased. Great pennant races, two out of three playoff series going to a Game 7, surprising and unique teams in the World Series, some great players have their best years (Boggs, Gwynn, Trammell, Evans, Raines, Molitor, Ozzie, Jack Clark), some new kids having fun years (Eric Davis, Vince Coleman, Matt Nokes, a couple Cleveland sluggers, McGwire, Benito)...and you had the collusion issue and drugs and a bunch of dingers...it was a crazy fun year.

6:00 PM Sep 16th
 
MichaelPat
Enjoyed the article.... wanted to comment on Dawson's MVP.

I think at least part of voting support for him that year was because of how he ended up playing in Chicago. He was a star with the Expos, and popular league-wide, but they never turned the corner while he was there. And many were aware Olympic Stadium (the Big Owe and le stade olympique to we Canadians) was hurting his offensive numbers and ruining his knees.

Anyway, he got to free agency and as his luck would have it, it was just when the owners decided they weren't going to pay free agent salaries. He looked around and decided Wrigley would be the best place for him to play, and basically went to the Cubs and said - here I am, pay me what you want.

A lot of people - including the MVP voters - thought this was pretty cool. And when he went out and had the season he had - the BIG numbers, finally - he became a big story.

Of course, it was nowhere near his best season... not even one of his better ones (by WAR, it was the seventh best season of his career).

But he beat the bad luck that had dogged his career, because he had tried something unusual....
5:45 PM Sep 16th
 
Gfletch
I always enjoy your writing, Dave. No exception here.

What I disagree with on my own behalf is the thought that 'we' have no respect for those who had so much less information at hand in the past, that 'we' think we are so much smarter than 'they were.'

I might have subconsciously but not overtly believed that at one time, but was brought up short by a Bill James article in the first historical abstract discussing all star and mvp voting.

Our colleague, marisfan61, brings up the exact same sentiment at least weekly. Of course it's true. The greater our store of knowledge, the greater our understanding of the size of our ignorance.

By the way, as I recall the 1987 MVP votes...the sabermetric community at the time believed Trammel was the correct AL MVP, but that Bell wasn't far off the mark. On the other hand, the MVP selection of Dawson was considered ridiculous (by the sabermetric community,yes, but many outside of it as well).
4:48 PM Sep 16th
 
MarisFan61
Nice and interesting article.

Only thing I want to offer is, it wasn't and isn't surprising in the least that Ozzie was so famous by the mid-'80's.

First of all, I'd say that the example you use to exemplify the puzzlement, isn't really an example, not much more than it would be an example to say that it's surprising Babe Ruth became so renowned because Hornsby was doing the same thing.

This is something that I note frequently about things that are often said and written by highly sabermetrically oriented people but not much by anyone else: the equating of 'very greatest and most outstanding' with 'in that ballpark,' as long as analysis doesn't seem to separate them. Rightly or wrongly, Ozzie was widely regarded as the greatest fielding shortstop ever. Belanger wasn't. I'm sure it was sometimes said by some that he was, but there wasn't any such widespread view. (Who [i] was seen that way? I'm not sure; I myself would have said Maranville; maybe Marty Marion was the most common, maybe Joe Tinker sometimes because of you-know-what, maybe sometimes Rizzuto. Let's see, for what it's worth, what the living players thought, since I have a neat little book, underrecognized for some reason, that shows survey results from just about that time: Ozzie #1, then Aparicio, Marion, BELANGER 4th [higher than I expected], then Rizzuto.)

Plus, Ozzie was a showman -- y'know, the backflips and stuff. That might have nothing to do with actual baseball, but it's an extra reason for a guy to be famous. There was no surprise here.
4:31 PM Sep 16th
 
Mike137
"Can you think of any player who was treated as a superstar who was like Ozzie Smith?"

Luis Aparicio.

"Ozzie Smith looks great now because a lot of our metrics give credit for his incredible defensive contributions ..."

At the time, people recognized Ozzie as arguably the greatest defensive shortstop ever. No advanced metrics needed.

I agree that Simmons should get MVP consideration.
4:15 PM Sep 16th
 
 
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