Monday, January 16, 2012

Questionable Baseball MVPs; 1931-1939

There was no award for 1930, which is ashame because it was the biggest year for offense in baseball history.  Just to give you an idea of how crazy it was, the National League batted a collective .303/.360/.448, Hack Wilson set the all-time RBI record with 191, and Bill Terry became the last NL player to eclipse the sacred .400 mark when he batted .401.

1938 NL Ernie Lombardi over Bill Lee

Lombardi (5.3 bWAR), Cincy's lead-footed catcher, won the batting title by hitting .342.  But he didn't lead the league in anything else, failed to reach 20 dingers/ 100 RBI and teammate Ival Goodman (5.9 bWAR and 30 home runs earned him some down ballot votes) actually rated as more valuable to the Reds.  I could forgive this choice if the Redlegs won the pennant, but they finished in fourth place!  I'm sorry, but having a Victor Martinez type season for an 82 win team just doesn't cut it.  Runner-up "Big" Bill Lee (not the Spaceman who pitched for Boston during the '70s) helped the Cubs narrowly win the pennant by leading the majors with 22 wins, nine shutouts and a 2.66 ERA.  He also paced the Senior Circuit in winning percentage, games started, and ERA+.  Without his 7.3 bWAR, Chicago would have finished in fifth place, behind Lombardi's Reds.

1937 AL Charlie Gehringer over Joe DiMaggio

Gehringer (7.6 bWAR), known as the "Mechanical Man" for his combination of durability and consistency, won the batting title with a .371 average.  He also manned the keystone position and hit third for a second place Tigers squad, batting in front of Hank Greenberg which helped his gaudy .458 OBP (Billy Beane would drink a gallon of pee to have that kind of player up the middle) translate to 133 runs scored, but he didn't lead the league in anything other than batting average.  Hammerin' Hank (7.8 bWAR) finished third in the race after knocking in 183 runs out of the cleanup slot, falling just one RBI short of Lou Gehrig's American League record set six years prior, and compiled better all-around numbers than his teammate.  Translation; Greenberg, not Gehringer, was the most valuable player in the Motor City.  Runner-up Joe DiMaggio, in just his secong big league season, racked up a league leading nine bWAR while playing centerfield for the World Series champs.  Joltin' Joe's 151 runs, 46 home runs, .673 slugging percentage and 418 total bases led all of baseball, and are even more impressive when you consider that he was a right-handed slugger who had to contend with Death Valley in half of his games.  The Yankee Clipper got plenty of help from Gehrig (8.4 bWAR, fourth place finish) and backstop Bill Dickey (6.3 bWAR, fifth place), but at the end of the day he was still the best player in baseball that year.

1935 NL Gabby Hartnett over everyone else

Hartnett (5.2 bWAR) was a sweet-swinging catcher who put up a Joe Mauer-ish .344/.404/.545 line with thirteen bombs and 91 RBI for a Chicago Cubs team that won 100 games, but didn't lead the league in anything and only played in 116 games.  In addition, teammate/second baseman Billy Herman, who led the majors in hits and doubles, was worth two more wins than Hartnett but finished fourth in the voting.  He also played everyday, whereas Hartnett missed roughly a quarter of the season.  Herman was more deserving, as was runner-up Dizzy Dean (7.6 bWAR), but I would have given the trophy to third place Arky Vaughan.  Pittsburgh's shortstop accrued a league leading 9.1 bWAR and won the sabermetric triple crown with his eye-popping slash stats of .385/.491/.607 in the signature season of his Hall of Fame career.  For good measure, he also led the NL in walks and OPS+.  And while he wasn't an elite slugger like Alex Rodriguez or Ernie Banks, his power numbers (19 home runs, 99 RBI and 303 total bases) were ahead of their time for the position.

1934 AL Mickey Cochrane over everyone else

4.3 bWAR, two home runs, 74 runs, 76 RBI, a .412 slugging percentage, 180 total bases, and a 117 OPS+.  Do those read like MVP numbers to you? I didn't think so, and no amount of leadership, toughness or other intangibles frequently associated with Cochrane can overcome his Jason Kendall production.  "Black Mike" didn't lead the league in anything and was less than half as valuable as teammate/runner-up Charlie Gehringer (9.5 bWAR), who led the league in games played, runs scored, and hits as the true most valuable player for a Tigers squad that won 101 games.  And while I'm at it, Cochrane was also less valuable than staff ace Schoolboy Rowe (7.1 bWAR, fourth place) and Hank Greenberg (6.7 bWAR, sixth place).  But the real MVP played for the Yankees, and his name was Lou Gehrig.  The Iron Horse (10.4 bWAR) picked up the slack for an an aging Babe Ruth by winning both the major league Triple Crown and sabermetric triple crown. The Bronx Bomber also topped the bigs in OPS+ and total bases, but could do no better than a fifth place finish in the MVP race.  This vote reminds of the 2006 ballot, when Justin Morneau somehow ended up at the top despite rating lower than Mauer and Johan Santana.  My favorite stat from Gehrig's huge season; 49 home runs against 31 strikeouts.

1931 NL Frankie Frisch over Chuck Klein

The Fordham Flash manned second base for the "Gashouse Gang" Cardinals team that won the World Series, and helped fuel the lineup with his league leading 28 stolen bases.  Frisch (4.4 bWAR) didn't lead the league in anything else, though, and the rest of his numbers (four home runs, 82 RBI, .396 slugging percentage) simply aren't good.  You don't need to look at his 101 OPS+ to know that he wasn't anything special as a hitter, and the fact that he missed over 20 games is another strike against him.  Chick Hafey (.349/.404/.569) and Jim Bottomley (.348/.403/.534) were both much more productive with the stick, and as a result you can't definitively say that Frisch was the surefire MVP of the Cards.  Like a Derek Jeter or Johnny Damon, he was a tremendous complementary player who could run and hit for high batting averages, but was never good enough to be the centerpiece of a lineup.  Runner-up Chuck Klein (4.5 bWAR) was such a centerpiece, and he topped Frisch in every category except for steals.  Overall, he put together a much more dominant season that included league leading totals in runs, home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, and total bases.  Unfortunately, his lowly Phillies finished 22 games under .500 and their record probably cost him in the voting.  But this was a pretty weak year for the Senior Circuit as far as MVP candidates are concerned, and the paucity of elite production helped Frisch sneak away with the trophy.

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