Best in the Semis: Retrospective MVP Awards for the League Championship Series

Even before Championship Series MVPs were officially chosen, Mr. October’s postseason dominance was hard to dispute. (via Wikimedia Commons)

My reading of After the Miracle, the memoir of the 1969 New York Mets by Art Shamsky and Erik Sherman, already spurred me into some writing here a few months ago. That examination of myths and memories, however, wasn’t the only inspiration the book gave me.

Twenty pages of the book are given over to the ’69 Mets’ meeting with the Atlanta Braves in the very first National League Championship Series. The Mets won in a three-game sweep, with several hitters putting up impressive numbers in a series surprisingly dominated by offense. (That is, the Mets were surprised by how aces Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman got battered, while the Braves were surprised the Mets still out-hit them.) With all those great performances, I got to wondering which one was the best.

These days, there would be an answer of sorts to that question: the series MVP. That answer didn’t exist back then, the year we went from a World Series to a full-blown “postseason.” While the World Series first had an MVP award in 1955, the NLCS didn’t get an official MVP award until 1977, while the ALCS waited three more years to institute its own award.

One can understand why there was no such award at the time, at the beginning of what was already a big innovation in baseball history. (One may understand less why the American League lagged three years behind the National League in starting one.) Still, it leaves some questions unanswered and some players unrecognized.

With this year’s editions of the League Championship Series imminent, I decided it was time to recognize them.

Making My Vote

There were 19 League Championship Series that did not have an MVP chosen, 11 in the AL and eight in the NL. I looked over all of them and made my choices for a series MVP in each one.

My criteria began with the Win Percentage Added (WPA) statistic. WPA measures how much a game event alters the probability of a team winning the game and credits or debits the batter (or runner) and pitcher involved for their success or failure in that event. It blends performance with the leverage, or one could say the drama, of the events. Thus, it provides useful measures both of how much a player contributes to his team and how much the fans will perceive the player as contributing.

That, of course, is a beginning, not an ending. I gave weight to defensive performance for position players, which doesn’t appear in the standard WPA scores. Commit an error, and I’ll deduct that WPA score from your total. Catchers get added defensive attention, which you’ll see me explain a few times. I also note how pitchers bat (in series in which pitchers do bat). This usually hurts them, but not always.

I also paid attention to the rawer stats: triple-slash, the traditional pitching line, even things like RBIs and pitcher wins. Award voters, had there been any at the time, would have leaned on those numbers in making their choices. While I sought to make my own judgments rather than simulating theirs, I allowed those impressions their influence when deciding close points.

I considered award candidates from the losing side, but at a necessary penalty. Of the 79 MVP Awards actually given out for league championship series, only three went to players on losing teams. (For the World Series, it is one out of 63.) It turns out my penalty was lower than that of the real voters.

For each series, I give the participants and the result, with game scores. I then name my MVP, giving triple-slash numbers for the batters and the innings pitched, runs, hits, walks, and strikeouts for pitchers, along with WPA for both. Then comes a quick summary of their performances and sometimes of other contenders for the honors when a choice was close.

I’ll begin at the beginning, with the 1969 NLCS that inspired all of this. Those Miracle Mets, though, are about to be disappointed.

1969 NLCS – New York Mets over Atlanta Braves, 3-0
(9-5, 11-6, 7-4)
MVP: Henry Aaron, Braves — .357/.357/1.143; 0.53 WPA

This was so tough. Three Mets, Tommie Agee, Wayne Garrett, and Cleon Jones, had on-base percentages over .400, slugging percentages over .750, and WPAs in the mid-to-high 0.3s. If one of them had been clear of his teammates, perhaps I would have selected him rather than someone from the side that not only couldn’t win a game but couldn’t finish one closer than three runs behind.

As it stands, I have to acknowledge the Hammer. He hit homers in each of the three games, two of them breaking ties, broke a third tie with one of his two doubles, and drove in seven of Atlanta’s 15 runs. It’s only a pity that his team didn’t give him a chance to show what else he could do in one or two more games.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

1969 ALCS – Baltimore Orioles over Minnesota Twins, 3-0
(4-3 [12], 1-0 [11], 11-2)
MVP: Dave McNally, Orioles – 1G, 11IP, 0R, 3H, 5W, 11K; 0.69 WPA

McNally pitched even better than his WPA indicates: High-leverage failures at the plate dragged his index down from 0.92. This Game Two contest was an epic pitcher’s duel against Minnesota’s Dave Boswell, both starters carrying shutouts into the 11th inning. While McNally danced between the raindrops, allowing seven hits and seven walks, Boswell was more dominating, yielding three singles. Tony Oliva got as far as third base in the fourth, and a pair of two-out walks seemed to show McNally weakening in the 11th, but he doused both brushfires. Baltimore’s winning run in the last half came none too soon, and McNally’s overtime job paved the way to an Orioles sweep.

1970 NLCS – Cincinnati Reds over Pittsburgh Pirates, 3-0
(3-0 [10], 3-1, 3-2)
MVP: Bobby Tolan — .417/.462/.667; 0.41 WPA

Even though Tolan came up with bronze by WPA standards, he gets my vote. Reds starter Gary Nolan pitched nine shutout innings in Game One, but the eight hits and four walks he allowed reduces his 0.68 WPA in my sight. Reliever Don Gullett threw 3.2 scoreless innings in saving the final two games, which was very good but not quite enough for me.

Tolan’s case begins in Game Two, when he scored all three of Cincinnati’s runs. His third-inning tally on a single, a steal plus error, and a wild pitch was the most work, making his fifth-inning homer look lazy. The next day, he broke a 2-2 tie in the bottom of the eighth with a single to score Ty Cline, Cincy’s pinch-hitting hero of the series. That lead held to finish the sweep.

1970 ALCS – Baltimore Orioles over Minnesota Twins, 3-0
(10-6, 11-3, 6-1)
MVP: Boog Powell, Orioles — .429/.429/.786; 0.28 WPA

There was no runaway MVP in this series. I could have tapped Dave McNally again for another Game Two complete-game win, at a WPA of 0.39 including his batting, but a three-run outing in an 11-3 blowout pales against his ’69 ALCS performance. Instead, I went with a more traditional slugging performance from Boog Powell. The O’s first baseman homered and singled in Game One, doubled twice and singled in Game Two, and singled to drive in the first run of Game Three. Powell collected six RBIs in the three contests, which led both teams and would have been enough to get him the nod from award voters in his day. I’ll go along with their projected wisdom.

1971 NLCS – Pittsburgh Pirates over San Francisco Giants, 3-1
(4-5, 9-4, 2-1, 9-5)
MVP: Bob Robertson, Pirates — .438/.438/1.250; 0.15 WPA

This series makes one despair for the WPA statistic, as it provides precious little help in choosing an MVP. Pittsburgh’s Richie Hebner posted a 0.69 with his .294/.333/.706 batting but also gave away 0.21 with a throwing error that let the tying run in Game Three score all the way from first. Roberto Clemente had the next-best WPA among Pittsburgh’s batters but hit a middling .333/.368/.333. Willie McCovey did well for the losers, batting .429/.556/.857 with a 0.47 WPA, but he also had a run-scoring error in the field that gave away value.

I am forced to go old-school in acknowledging Robertson, who clouted a double and three home runs for five RBIs in Game Two, and another homer in a tight Game Three that gave him dingers in three straight plate appearances. The voters would have rewarded him, and again I have to go along.

1971 ALCS – Baltimore Orioles over Oakland A’s, 3-0
(5-3, 5-1,5-3)
MVP: Mike Cuellar, Orioles – 1G, 9IP, 1R, 6H, 1W, 2K; 0.39 WPA

Cuellar isn’t a walkover choice, but the big hitters in the series (Powell, Don Buford, and Brooks Robinson) didn’t get timely enough knocks to run up their WPA scores. For the third time in three years, an Orioles starting pitcher had a high-WPA performance in Game Two of the ALCS. Cuellar didn’t dominate in modern fashion: He struck out just two, and they were the eighth-place hitter and the pitcher. Still, he scattered six hits and a walk, aided his own cause by picking off Bert Campaneris, and even got a hit in the second. Baltimore marched to another playoff sweep, bolstered by yet another staunch pitching performance in the middle game.

1972 NLCS – Cincinnati Reds over Pittsburgh Pirates, 3-2
(1-5, 5-3, 2-3, 7-1, 4-3)
MVP: Johnny Bench, Reds — .333/.350/.667; 0.47 WPA

Most of Bench’s WPA value came with one swing, as he clouted a game-tying homer in the bottom of the ninth in Game Five, setting up his Reds to win on a wild pitch. Vital as that was, there are also hidden values buttressing Bench’s case. He stifled Pittsburgh runners, allowing but one unsuccessful steal attempt in five games. A negative came in Game Three, when he was thrown out going for home on a fly ball, but another fly balanced it out. With the bases full of Pirates in the seventh, Dave Cash flied to center, the throw-in going to Bench. Hebner on third didn’t try to score, but Bench spotted Vic Davalillo hanging off second, pegged a throw, and nailed the runner to snuff the Pirates threat with your standard 8-2-4 double play.

1972 ALCS – Oakland A’s over Detroit Tigers, 3-2
(3-2 [11], 5-0, 0-3, 3-4 [10], 2-1)
MVP: Gonzalo Márquez, A’s — .667/.667/.667; 0.72 WPA

How on Earth can I give an ALCS MVP award to a position player who had just three plate appearances? What about Matty Alou, who had an excellent .381/.409/.571 series even if most of his 0.61 WPA got wasted in a heartbreaking Game Four loss? What about Blue Moon Odom, Vida Blue, and Rollie Fingers, who pitched their tails off, combining for two runs allowed in 24.2 innings? If Márquez wins this mostly for an 11th-inning game-winner in Game One, then why wasn’t Kirk Gibson the 1988 World Series MVP?

Two points in my defense. One, Márquez produced some hidden value when he trucked Tigers catcher Bill Freehan and jarred the ball loose to score an extra-inning go-ahead run (on the play that gave Alou so much WPA). Two, Márquez was the 25th man manager Dick Williams put on the playoff roster. Williams carried only eight pitchers so he could have Márquez. Can you imagine that today? Such guts deserve acknowledgment, and this is it.

1973 NLCS – New York Mets over Cincinnati Reds, 3-2
(1-2, 5-0, 9-2, 1-2 [12], 7-2)
MVP: Pete Rose, Reds — .381/.435/.714; 0.69 WPA

Jon Matlack made his case for the award with a two-hit shutout in Game Two. Tug McGraw made his case with five innings of scoreless, high-leverage relief, including 4.1 frames in Game Four. But Rose put his stamp all over this series, even in defeat.

He hit the game-tying home run in the eighth inning of Game One, lay fallow in Game Two, then became the center of the baseball universe with his shocking brawl against Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson in the middle of Game Three. His two-hit day got buried in a shower of the garbage incensed Mets fans threw at him (it almost caused a forfeit). They were still booing him venomously in Game Four, through his first two hits and a walk, up to the 12th inning when he smote his game-breaking homer into the teeth of their hate.

He had two more hits in Game Five and cut down a Mets runner from left field to end a New York rally. That rally already had scored four runs, though, putting the Mets ahead 6-2 and effectively killing the Reds. The Mets won the war, but the real story was how Rose had fought, and not just in the literal sense.

1973 ALCS – Oakland A’s over Baltimore Orioles, 3-2
(0-6, 6-3, 2-1 [11], 4-5, 3-0)
MVP: Ken Holtzman, A’s – 1G, 11IP, 1R, 3H, 1W, 7K; 0.65 WPA

Two Oakland pitchers were the frontrunners for this award, Holtzman and Catfish Hunter. Hunter’s case began in Game Two, with a rather ordinary outing of three runs given up in 7.1 innings of a 6-3 win. Game Five was much flashier, a five-hit shutout during which Hunter never allowed an Oriole past first. He finished with two wins and an 0.56 WPA in the series.

Holtzman had just Game Three, but it was a corker. He gave up a second-inning home run then retired the next 14 batters, allowing just one hit and one walk the rest of his 11 innings of work. He outlasted Orioles ace Mike Cuellar (who also went the distance and then some) to get Oakland the pivotal middle game.

The voting baseball writers would have given Catfish the hardware. Here I register my dissent.

1974 NLCS – Los Angeles Dodgers over Pittsburgh Pirates, 3-1
(3-0, 5-2, 0-7, 12-1)
MVP: Don Sutton, Dodgers – 2G, 17IP, 1R, 7H, 2W, 13K; 0.88 WPA

Don Sutton was the easiest decision I had. While nobody had a standout offensive series, Sutton could have led the WPA pack with either of the two games he started. Game One was the true gem. He shut out Pittsburgh on four hits and one walk, allowing just one runner to reach second base (and that on an error). In the Game Four door-slammer, Sutton faced two batters over the minimum in his eight innings, the lone blemish being a Willie Stargell home run. Manager Walter Alston spared him the ninth, thinking the Dodgers’ 12-1 lead pretty safe. It was.

1974 ALCS – Oakland A’s over Baltimore Orioles, 3-1
(3-6, 5-0, 1-0, 2-1)
MVP: Vida Blue, A’s – 1G, 9IP, 0R, 2H, 0W, 7K; 0.78 WPA

And Vida Blue was the second-easiest decision I had. He pitched just one game in the series, but it was a doozy, a taut pitchers’ duel against Jim Palmer with the series knotted at one. Palmer allowed four hits and a walk in his complete game. Blue topped him, yielding no walks and two hits (while two other Orioles reached on errors). Nobody got past first against Blue. Sal Bando’s home run in the fourth held up, and Blue’s shutout win put Oakland in the driver’s seat.

1975 NLCS – Cincinnati Reds over Pittsburgh Pirates, 3-0
(8-3, 6-1, 5-3 [10])
MVP: Pete Rose, Reds — .357/.357/.571; 0.47 WPA

This time, my award isn’t a consolation prize for Rose. He didn’t have the best batting line of the series—Dave Concepción, Tony Pérez, and maybe Joe Morgan were better—but it was still good and included the biggest hit of the series. After getting three singles in his Reds’ first two easy wins, he was hitless coming into the eighth inning of Game Three, the Pirates up 2-1. With two outs and one on, Rose hit one high and far to the left-field stands, pushing the Reds ahead. They would lose the lead in the ninth and get it back in the 10th on a sac fly. Rose then hit a single and came around with the insurance run on Morgan’s double.

Rose wasn’t done: He would win the MVP Award for the ’75 World Series. You may have heard of that one.

1975 ALCS – Boston Red Sox over Oakland A’s, 3-0
(7-1, 6-3, 5-3)
MVP: Carl Yastrzemski, Red Sox – .455/.500/.818; 0.28 WPA

A late-season injury to rookie Jim Rice moved Yaz back to his old post in left field for the postseason. He played the position marvelously in Game Two, holding potential doubles off Fenway’s Green Monster to singles and snuffing an Oakland rally by hosing Bert Campaneris going first to third. At the plate, his fourth-inning two-run homer pulled Boston within one and helped chase Vida Blue, and his sixth-inning double opened the go-ahead rally.

In the clincher in Oakland, Yastrzemski popped two more hits, while his defense gave Reggie Jackson fits. In the fourth, Yaz cut Reggie down trying to stretch a single to two. In the eighth, Yaz’s diving stop turned a probable Reggie triple into a single, immediately saving one run and making possible the double play that doused an Oakland comeback. Luis Tiant and Dick Drago had pitched great, but his combined hitting and defense made it Yaz’s series.

1976 NLCS – Cincinnati Reds over Philadelphia Phillies, 3-0
(6-3, 6-2, 7-6)
MVP: Johnny Bench, Reds — .333/.385/.667; 0.46 WPA

I was so close to giving this honor to pitcher Don Gullett. Not only did he throw eight innings of two-hit, one-run ball in Game One, but he had an RBI single and a two-run double to drive in half of Cincy’s runs that day. Had Sparky Anderson not pulled Gullett for a reliever—who nearly coughed up the five-run lead—he might well have gotten my nod.

Instead, it goes to Bench. His biggest hit was a game-tying homer in bottom of the ninth of Game Three, setting up the Reds to score the game- and series-winning run later that frame. As in 1972, Bench’s defense limited the opponents to one unsuccessful steal attempt against him. If that doesn’t convince you, well, maybe he gets some credit for calling Gullett’s game, too. In any case, it’s another unofficial MVP for Johnny.

1976 ALCS – New York Yankees over Kansas City Royals, 3-2
(4-1, 3-7, 5-3, 4-7, 7-6)
MVP: Chris Chambliss, Yankees – .524/.500/.952; 0.77 WPA

Most of us have seen the footage of Chambliss’ series-winning home run and the mob of Yankees fans swarming the field in the aftermath. (If you haven’t, here it is.) That moment was merely the culmination of Chambliss dominating this series. The Yankees’ first baseman showered the Royals with 11 hits in five games, including a double, triple, and two round-trippers. He drove in eight runs, and amazingly only four came on hits: Chambliss had a sacrifice fly and three RBI groundouts. (A ninth run came in via error on one of those grounders.) When Kansas City jumped out to an early 3-0 lead in Game Three, Chambliss personally drove in the three runs that tied the game, which New York would win, 5-3.

Chambliss couldn’t get series MVP, but he got his due recognition.

1977 ALCS – New York Yankees over Kansas City Royals, 3-2
(2-7, 6-2, 2-6, 6-4, 5-3)
MVP: Sparky Lyle, Yankees – 4G, 9.1 IP, 1R, 7H, 0W, 3K; 0.59 WPA

Lyle already had pitched twice in the series when he was called into Game Four. The Royals had pulled within one on a fourth-inning rally that had chased two Yankees pitchers. If this game slipped away, New York would be eliminated. Sparky got the critical third out then stayed in for five more innings, facing one batter over the minimum and keeping the Royals off the board.

The Yankees lived to see Game Five but were trailing, 3-2, in the bottom of the eighth when they had to call on Lyle again to quell a KC rally. After pitching 5.1 innings the previous day and 2.1 more the day before that, Lyle still had enough to pinch out the threat and then, after his teammates plated three in the ninth, get the last three outs to nail down the series.

No ALCS MVP for Sparky, but the Cy Young Award he got for that season probably soothed the pain.

1978 ALCS – New York Yankees over Kansas City Royals, 3-1
(7-1, 4-10, 6-5, 2-1)
MVP: Reggie Jackson, Yankees — .462/.500/1.000; 0.29 WPA

Nobody had a convincing argument here. Jackson extended his “Mr. October” resume with two homers, but his WPA was half of Thurman Munson’s. Munson reaped that WPA with an eighth-inning homer that pulled New York from a deficit to a lead, but his batting line was ordinary at .278/.278/.500, and the Royals disrespected his arm (6-for-9 in stolen bases). George Brett hit .389/.389/1.056 with a 0.33 WPA and had a three-homer game—that his Royals lost. Amos Otis hit .429/.529/.571, swiped four out of four against Munson, and piled up an 0.47 WPA—in the same losing cause as Brett.

If Munson had hit that game-winner in the series finale, the award would be his. In reality, the writers would have honored Reggie, and I cannot really blame them.

1979 ALCS – Baltimore Orioles over California Angles, 3-1
(6-3 [10], 9-8, 3-4, 8-0)
MVP: Scott McGregor, Orioles – 1G, 9IP, 0R, 6H, 1W, 4K; 0.32 WPA

The retrospective ALCS awards end as they began, with a Baltimore Oriole pitching a shutout to take the prize. John Lowenstein had a better WPA from his three-run home run that won Game One in extras, but he went 0-for-5 with two walks the rest of the way. Eddie Murray batted an excellent .417/.588/.667, but he committed two errors, one of which let in two runs, and that costs him.

I narrowly chose McGregor for his emphatic door slam in Game Four. His lone moment of danger came in the fifth when he loaded the bases with nobody out. He wriggled free against the bottom of California’s order with a short fly and a double-play grounder. McGregor never looked back, even though, in this 8-0 shellacking, nobody was gaining on him.

Afterword: Why Do I Hate the Mets?

Those are my choices for the “missing” MVPs in the League Championship Series. There would be nothing more for me to say, except that the team that inspired this assessment, the New York Mets, came off rather badly. They won two NLCS in the years I examined, and both times I chose a player from the losing team as the series MVP: Henry Aaron in 1969 and Pete Rose in 1973. Is this any way to treat the one who brought me to the dance?

It might not be grateful, but it’s quite in line with how pennant-winning Mets teams get treated. The third time they won the NLCS, in 1986, the series MVP was Mike Scott, pitcher for the losing Houston Astros. The most recent two times they’ve won the NLCS, players from their side did get the MVP: Mike Hampton in 2000 and Daniel Murphy in 2015. The sting in the tail is that both players went to other teams (Colorado and Washington, respectively) before the next season even began. Despite winning five pennants, the Mets have never had a “defending” NLCS MVP (awarded by the real voters or by me) on their regular-season roster.

I hadn’t meant to be a further downer to Mets fans who have taken their share of hard times. The plain truth, though, is their team seems to live in the extremes of fortune, good and bad, and sometimes both at once. If it is any solace, it took two of the biggest names in baseball history to take those retrospective MVP awards away from them.

References and Resources

  • Baseball-Reference
  • Archives of The Sporting News
  • Archives of The New York Times
  • Roger Angell, The Summer Game and Five Seasons

A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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Jon L.member
4 years ago

This was fun!