Best Statistical Non-MVP seasons

Mike Trout missed out on an MVP in 2012 because of Miguel Cabrera's triple crown. (via Keith Allison)

Mike Trout missed out on an MVP in 2012 because of Miguel Cabrera’s triple crown. (via Keith Allison)

The Most Valuable Player award can be a tough one to pick. There are no concrete criteria for the award, and a player’s value can be interpreted in multiple ways. The current iteration of the MVP award has been administered by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America since 1931. There of course can be only one winner per league each year, which means deserving players are always going to miss out on the honor.

I was curious about some of the best statistical seasons at the plate over the years that came up short in MVP voting. Specifically, I wanted to make a list of 15 of the top seasons since 1931 not to win the MVP. While there were multiple other outstanding performances throughout baseball history that could’ve made my list, these are the ones that win out in my book.

  1. 1941 Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox LF: 11.0 WAR; 143 G; 135 R; 37 HR; 2 SB; .406 AVG; .553 OBP; .735 SLG; .568 wOBA; 221 wRC+; -8.8 DEF

Williams’ 1941 campaign was one of the greatest in baseball history. Seventy-five years later, Williams is still the last player ever to hit .400 in a full season. He cemented the feat by going 6-for-8 in a doubleheader on the last day of the season. Aside from batting average, he also led the majors in WAR, runs, home runs, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, wOBA and wRC+.

But Joe DiMaggio had his league-record 56-game hitting streak in 1941, too, and Williams finished second to him in the American League MVP voting. Williams was also the runner-up in 1942 when he had an 11.6 WAR and batted .346 with 36 home runs and 141 runs scored. He won MVPs in 1946 and 1949.

  1. 1931 Babe Ruth, New York Yankees OF: 10.7 WAR; 145 G; 149 R; 46 HR; 5 SB; .373 AVG; .495 OBP; .700 SLG; .525 wOBA; 206 wRC+; -8.2 DEF

Ruth won just one MVP award in his career, in 1923. At the time, the MVP award was called the League Award and players could only win it once. The League Award was in effect from 1922 to 1928. And, aside from all of his standout seasons in the 1920s, Ruth had another standout year in the first year of the BBWAA MVP award in 1931. But he finished fifth in the MVP voting.

His .373 average was second in the majors, his 46 home runs were tied with teammate Lou Gehrig (who also batted .341 with 163 runs scored and 17 stolen bases, and finished second in the AL MVP voting) for the league lead, and his WAR, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, wOBA and wRC+ all led the majors. Philadelphia Athletics pitcher Lefty Grove won the AL MVP with a 31-4 record, 2.06 ERA and 175 strikeouts in 288.2 innings pitched.

  1. 1934 Lou Gehrig, New York Yankees 1B: 10.7 WAR; 154 G; 128 R; 49 HR; 9 SB; .363 AVG; .465 OBP; .706 SLG; .511 wOBA; 194 wRC+; -3.5 DEF

Gehrig won two career MVPs, and they came nine years apart in 1927 and 1936. And three years after the aforementioned standout 1931 season, 1934 was yet another campaign during which he made a very good case for the honor. He led the majors in home runs (49 home runs also tied Gehrig’s career high—a total he reached again in 1936), and he also led in WAR, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases, wOBA and wRC+. He won the Triple Crown, too, with 166 RBIs to add to his batting average and home run numbers.

But Gehrig was fifth in the AL MVP voting, and the Detroit Tigers’ Mickey Cochrane won. Cochrane’s numbers didn’t challenge Gehrig’s—he had a 3.9 WAR and hit .320 with two home runs, eight stolen bases and 74 runs scored—but he was a player-manager who helped carry Detroit to a league-leading 101-53 record.

  1. 2000 Todd Helton, Colorado Rockies 1B: 8.3 WAR; 160 G; 138 R; 42 HR; 5 SB; .372 AVG; .463 OBP; .698 SLG; .476 wOBA; 162 wRC+; +6.4 DEF

Helton finished fifth in the National League MVP voting in 2000 despite his eye-popping numbers that year. Besides a batting average that led the majors, Helton also led in slugging percentage, doubles (59) and total bases (405). He paced the NL in hits (216) and on-base percentage.

But the San Francisco Giants’ Jeff Kent won out in the voting with 7.4 WAR with a .334 batting average, 33 home runs and 114 runs scored. Kent’s Giants teammate Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza and Jim Edmonds each finished in front of Helton, too.

  1. 1961 Norm Cash, Detroit Tigers 1B: 10.2 WAR; 159 G; 119 R; 41 HR; 11 SB; .361 AVG; .487 OBP; .662 SLG; .488 wOBA; 194 wRC+; -0.5 DEF

Cash’s batting average led the majors in 1961, as did his on-base percentage and wOBA. But he finished fourth in the AL MVP race. Cash’s numbers in 1961 marked multiple career highs, and he didn’t hit above .300 in any other season. Cash used a corked bat this season, but there’s still no way to know just how much of an effect it had on his standout numbers.

The Yankees’ Roger Maris won the AL MVP in 1961 after leading the majors with 61 home runs, 132 runs scored and 366 total bases. The Yankees also had a 109-53 record, which was the best in the majors, and went on to win the World Series. Maris’ teammate Mickey Mantle finished second in the voting, and the Baltimore Orioles’ Jim Gentile placed third.

  1. 2003 Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals LF/1B: 9.5 WAR; 157 G; 137 R; 43 HR; 5 SB; .359 AVG; .439 OBP; .667 SLG; .461 wOBA; 184 wRC+; -5.4 DEF

Pujols led the majors in batting average, runs scored, doubles (51) and total bases (394), and the NL in total hits (212), but finished second to Bonds in the NL MVP race in 2003. Bonds topped Pujols with 45 home runs, a .529 OBP, .749 SLG, .503 wOBA and 212 wRC+ in 130 games. Bonds also had a 10.2 WAR.

On top of that, Bonds’ Giants had the third-best record in baseball this year at 100-61, and they won the NL West. Pujols’ Cardinals, however, finished third in the NL Central with an 85-77 record and missed the playoffs. Pujols did win his first career MVP two years later in 2005, and he won two more MVPs back to back in 2008 and 2009.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.
  1. 1996 Alex Rodriguez, Seattle Mariners SS: 9.2 WAR; 146 G; 141 R; 36 HR; 15 SB; .358 AVG; .414 OBP; .631 SLG; .443 wOBA; 159 wRC+; +15.8 DEF

While Rodriguez did dwarf his 1996 home run total in later seasons, he set a career-high for batting average and doubles (54) that year. And it was his first full season in the majors. The batting average and doubles marks also led the majors in 1996, and Rodriguez led the AL in runs scored, too.

But he finished second to the Texas Rangers’ Juan Gonzalez in the AL MVP voting. Gonzalez hit 47 home runs and batted .314 in 134 games as he helped the Rangers win the AL West over the second-place Mariners.

  1. 1996 Ellis Burks, Colorado Rockies OF: 7.2 WAR; 156 G; 142 R; 40 HR; 32 SB; .344 AVG; .408 OBP; .639 SLG; .443 wOBA; 151 wRC+; +7.1 DEF

While Rodriguez finished second in the AL MVP voting in 1996, Ellis Burks finished third in the NL voting. He led the majors in runs scored and total bases (392) and paced the NL in slugging percentage. The San Diego Padres’ Ken Caminiti won the NL MVP that year with a 7.5 WAR and while batting .326 with 40 home runs and 109 runs scored.

The Padres won the NL West in 1996 with a 91-71 record. Mike Piazza, with the Los Angeles Dodgers, finished second in the voting. The Dodgers won the NL Wild Card with a 90-72 record. Burks’ Rockies finished third in the NL West at 83-79, behind the Padres and Dodgers.

  1. 1970 Carl Yastrzemski, Boston Red Sox 1B/OF: 8.9 WAR; 161 G; 125 R; 40 HR; 23 SB; .329 AVG; .452 OBP; .592 SLG; .455 wOBA; 179 wRC+; -1.5 DEF

Yastrzemski claimed the Triple Crown and the AL MVP in 1967, and he could’ve won himself another MVP award in 1970. He led the majors in wRC+ and the AL in WAR, runs scored, total bases (335), slugging percentage and on-base percentage. He also tied with the California Angel’s Alex Johnson for the top batting average in the AL.

Baltimore’s Boog Powell won the AL MVP though, with 35 home runs and a .297 average. The Orioles had the best record in baseball at 108-54, and they went on to win the World Series in five games over the Cincinnati Reds. Yastrzemski and the Red Sox finished 21 games back of the Orioles in the AL East with a record of 87-75. The Minnesota Twins’ Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew came in second and third, respectively, in the MVP voting.

  1. 2001 Sammy Sosa, Chicago Cubs RF: 9.9 WAR; 160 G; 146 R; 64 HR; 0 SB; .328 AVG; .437 OBP; .737 SLG; .465 wOBA; 186 wRC; -1.1 DEF

The Giants’ Bonds topped second-place Sosa in the NL MVP voting in 2001 for the first of his four straight MVPs. Bonds and Sosa both batted .328 that year, but Bonds surpassed Sosa’s home run total with his major-league record 73. Sosa had more runs and hits (189) than Bonds in 577 at-bats compared to Bonds’ 156 hits in 476 at-bats and 129 runs scored.

Both the Giants and the Cubs missed the playoffs this year, and the teams had similar records: 90-72 for San Francisco and 88-74 for Chicago. Though Sosa had a worthy season, he had a tough going against Bonds’ record-setting performance.

  1. 2002 Vladimir Guerrero, Montreal Expos RF: 7.1 WAR; 161 G; 106 R; 39 HR; 40 SB: .336 AVG; .417 OBP; .593 SLG; .419 wOBA; 155 wRC+; -0.9 DEF

There are just four members of the 40 home runs, 40 stolen bases club, and Vladimir Guerrero almost got his membership card in 2002. Bonds, one of the members of the club, won the second of his four straight NL MVPs with the Giants that year, and Guerrero finished fourth in the voting. Bonds had a 12.7 WAR with a .370 average, 46 home runs and 117 runs scored in 143 games.

The Giants, at 95-66, also claimed the NL Wild Card. They went on to make the World Series, where they lost to the Anaheim Angels in seven games. Pujols and Lance Berkman also finished ahead of Guerrero. Guerrero won his sole MVP award after his first season with the Angels in 2004.

  1. 2012 Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels OF: 10.3 WAR; 139 G; 129 R; 30 HR; 49 SB; .326 AVG; .399 OBP; .564 SLG; .409 wOBA; 167 wRC+; +13.0 DEF

The Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera achieved baseball’s first offensive Triple Crown since Yastrzemski in 1967 to take the 2012 MVP over a rookie Trout. But Trout certainly made his presence known across the majors with his performance. Trout began the season in Triple-A but was called up on April 28.

When it was all said and done in early October, Trout led the majors in WAR, runs scored, stolen bases and wRC+. But his performance wasn’t quite enough to top Cabrera in the MVP voting, though Trout did win AL Rookie of the Year. Trout finished second to Cabrera in the MVP voting again in 2013, and finished second to Josh Donaldson in 2015. Trout won the award in 2014.

  1. 1961 Mickey Mantle, New York Yankees CF: 10.3 WAR; 153 G; 132 R; 54 HR; 12 SB; .317 AVG; .448 OBP; .687 SLG; .478 wOBA; 196 wRC+; +1.0 DEF

Cash wasn’t the only player to put up a worthy season but miss out on the AL MVP in 1961. While Maris won it, the other half of the M&M Boy duo, Mantle, finished second. Mantle’s home run total was second in the majors to Maris’ 61. His runs scored total also was second to Maris, and his on-base percentage was second to Cash. But Mantle led the majors in WAR, slugging percentage and walks (126). He won his third career MVP award the following season.

  1. 1955 Willie Mays, San Francisco Giants CF: 9.0 WAR; 152 G; 123 R; 51 HR; 24 SB; .319 AVG; .400 OBP; .659 SLG; .450 wOBA; 172 wRC+; +6.1 DEF

After winning his first of two career MVPs in 1954, Mays led the majors in home runs, total bases and slugging percentage in 1955, and he tied for the lead in triples (13) with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Dale Long. Mays also led the NL in WAR, wOBA and wRC+. But he finished fourth in that year’s NL MVP voting.

The Brooklyn Dodgers’ Roy Campanella won the NL MVP. He batted .318 with 32 home runs. Campanella’s teammate Duke Snider took second place in the voting, and the Cubs’ Ernie Banks claimed third. The Dodgers had the best record in the majors in 1955 at 98-55, and they went on to defeat the Yankees in a seven-game World Series. The Giants finished the season 18.5 games back of the Dodgers in the NL standings with an 80-74 record.

  1. 1985 Rickey Henderson, New York Yankees CF: 9.7 WAR; 143 G; 146 R; 24 HR; 80 SB; .314 AVG; .419 OBP; .516 SLG; .413 wOBA; 159 wRC+; +13.8 DEF

Henderson’s Yankees teammate Don Mattingly claimed the AL MVP over him in 1985. Mattingly led the majors in total bases (370) and RBI (145), while Henderson led in WAR and runs scored. Henderson also led the AL in stolen bases. Mattingly batted .324 with 35 home runs and 107 runs scored.

The Kansas City Royals’ George Brett took second place with a .335 average, 30 home runs and 108 runs scored. The Royals won the AL West and went on to win the World Series over the Cardinals. Henderson won the only MVP of his career five years later, in 1990. He batted .325 with 119 runs scored, 65 stolen bases and tied his career high with 28 home runs that year.

The numbers alone don’t tell the complete story of a player’s season, though they can speak volumes. And while history won’t remember the performances I highlighted as MVP seasons, it certainly still will remember them as marvelous in their own right.

References & Resources

Wayne Epps Jr. is a recent graduate of James Madison University, where he was the editor of the student newspaper The Breeze. He has worked for The Boston Globe, USA Today and The New York Times. Follow him on Twitter @wayneeppsjr.
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Fireball Fred
6 years ago

Yaz’s 10.5-WAR season in ’68, when he was 9th in MVP voting, was the one that should have been his second.

6 years ago

1984 RIPKEN had 10.0 WAR to lead all of mlb but finished 27th in AL MVP vote .

Ted Fontenot
6 years ago

Didn’t Williams in 1941 have something like 5 sacrifice flies that were counted as ABs?

Williams Bunts
6 years ago
Reply to  Ted Fontenot

It was six. Interestingly, TSW hit .412/.540/.684 which bested Joe’s .408/.463/.717 during the period of Dimaggio’s 56-game streak.

6 years ago
Reply to  Ted Fontenot

That sounds right. I remember reading about that in a book when I was younger, the book also mentioned that under the sacrifice fly rules of the 20s and 30s (I forget the boundaries), a player was also credited with a sac fly if a runner went from second to third on a flyball out. Those rules helped to push a few players over the .400 milestone.

Paul Moehringer
6 years ago

A little surprised there’s no pitchers on this list.

Pedro’s 2000 season. Clemens in ’97. Gooden in ’85. Randy Johnson in ’02. Granted all of these players won the Cy Young and in the case of Randy Johnson in 2002 shouldn’t have even won the MVP, but I have think at least a few of those seasons are better than the 15 ones mentioned.

I do like the mention of Rickey Henderson’s’85 season. Much like Bonds with the Pirates, I feel a lot of people really gloss over just how great of a player Henderson was with the Yankees. Its barely even brought up that Henderson even played for them and I would argue he was a better player with the Yankees than some of the guys who have plaques in Monument Park.

6 years ago

You could probably argue that Bonds (Barry) should have another one or two. I think they just got tired of giving him the MVP for awhile, until he made an overwhelming case.

Marc Schneider
6 years ago
Reply to  bucdaddy

Mays and Mantle both probably should have won more than they did; certainly Mays.

Fireball Fred
6 years ago

Mantle too. The emphasis on RBI as an indicator of clutch performance and team play (debunked by Bill James) had a huge influence on MVP voting for decades, particularly I think in the AL (Jackie Jensen, Don Baylor …). So Mattingley got credit for Henderson’s runs.

Herbert Smith
6 years ago

Mike Schmidt led the majors in WAR in 1974, his first full season. Two favorite players of mine, both known to get on the nerves of baseball writers, had multiple MVP-ish seasons, yet never won the award.
Ron Santo was, arguably, the best player in the NL in ’64 and ’66, and was inarguably the best in ’67. Yet, nada.
And the Duke of Flatbush probably should have taken the award away from his teammate Campy in ’53 and ’55. His not winning the award in 1956 is particularly inexplicable, especially since that was the year they created this thing called the “Cy Young Award,” so that pictures could have their own version of the MVP.

Herbert Smith
6 years ago
Reply to  Herbert Smith

Pitchers, too.

6 years ago

You almost need a separate page for the 2001 NL – in addition to Sosa not winning the MVP despite 64 HR, you have Luis Gonzalez going for 325/449/688, 57 HR and 419 TB and finishing 3rd in the MVP. Todd Helton had another great season going 336/442/685 with 49 HR and 402 TB. There have been 29 seasons of 400 TB and 4 of them came in the 2001 NL. Since WWII, the only players to reach 400 TB are Bonds, Sosa, Gonzalez, Helton in 2001 plus Sosa (1998), Larry Walker (1997), Jim Rice (1978), and Helton again (2000).

Yaz is a guy that I don’t think I really appreciated until I started getting into stats and began to understand just how depressed his numbers are because of the era in which he played.

6 years ago

Alex Johnson won the AL batting title in 1970 by a whisker. No ties here!

Rainy Day Women 12x35
6 years ago

Willie Mays, 1962-10.5 WAR and SF won the pennant, but Wills was rewarded for his stolen bases at 6.0. Mays was over 10 war each year from 1962-65 but won only 1 MVP, should have easily won in 1965 over Ken Boyer, too.

Henry Aaron, 1959-8.6 WAR, .355 with more than 400 total bases and the Braves lost the pennant in a playoff. Banks given MVP at 10.2 war with a 5th place team

6 years ago

Mark McGwire in 1998, of course.

6 years ago

Todd Helton is a severely underrated player because he played at Coors. He may not be a first ballot hall of famer but he absolutely deserves to be the first Rockies player into the Hall of Fame.

Cliff Blau
6 years ago

Arky Vaughan, 1935: a SS with a 1.098 OPS came in third in the MVP voting.