Exploring The Player of the Month Award

During a five-month stretch (spanning the 2010-11 seasons), Jose Bautista won the Player of the Month award four out of five times. (via James G)

Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, Tim Raines, Craig Biggio, Ozzie Smith and several other Hall of Famers never won it. Felix Jose won it twice. Eric Davis? Four times. Albert Belle, seven. Heck, even the inimitable Ken Reitz won it once.

What are we talking about? The Player of the Month Award.

Anybody can get hot for a week or have a few big games that carry him to a Player of the Week Award. But you can’t really fluke your way into winning Player of the Month, which is celebrating its 62nd year in existence.

The beat writers and broadcasters for each club vote on the winners in each league, and the award is given six times per season – though, as you history buffs might have guessed, that hasn’t always been the case.

Handing out awards for players by month is rather arbitrary and unfair. After all, what if a guy absolutely rakes from July 15 to August 15 but slumps from July 1 to 14 and from August 16 to 31? Most likely, he won’t win the award for either month. Back in the day, that meant not winning an engraved desk set. More recently, it meant missing out on a flat-screen television from Sharp and, nowadays, a plaque from Budweiser. C’est la vie.

From 1958 to 1973, only the National League handed out the award, and it covered both hitters and pitchers. The American League joined the fun in 1974. (Note: Since 1975, the Senior Circuit has given out a separate award for pitchers, with the AL following suit in 1979. We’re only focusing on the Player of the Month Award, which went to quite a few pitchers when they were under consideration.)

So who won the Player of the Month Award the most times? Who won it the most in one season? Who had the best stats among winners? The “worst?” Did the winner of the award make history in some way? For example, Mark McGwire did just that in September of 1998, when he passed Roger Maris for the most home runs in a season. Big Mac won the award three times that year — but lost the MVP to one-time winner Sammy Sosa.

Granted, there’s no direct correlation between someone winning Player of the Month numerous times in one season and ultimately winning Most Valuable Player. Still, it’s odd to see a guy named Player of the Month twice in one season who later finished 14th in the MVP voting (like a certain Pirate in 1988). And it’s unusual for a player to win the MVP award at the end of the year and not win at least one Player of the Month Award (like a certain Dodger in 1988).

Let’s look back, decade by decade, at the names of the very good players — including Bo Diaz, Johnny Ray, Ben Oglivie — who put together months during which they played better than many Hall of Famers. And while we’re at it, let’s give a nod to some of the all-time greats, too.

1950s

The first Player of the Month awards were handed out for May, 1958, and it’s fitting that the honors (again, only the National League had the award until 1974) went to two all-time greats, Willie Mays and Stan Musial, who tied in the voting. Ties have been rare through the years, with only six in the National League and seven in the American League. The last tie in the NL came in May of 1994 (Mike Piazza and Lenny Dykstra); in the AL, the last was in July of 2010 (Delmon Young and Jose Bautista).

Strangely enough, longtime Pirates pitcher Vern Law accounted for two of the six ties in NL history, in August 1959 (winning alongside Willie McCovey) and in June 1965 (alongside Willie Stargell). Law never won the award outright, but he still has it over his son, Vance, who never won it at all.

As a Cy Young winner (National League, 1960) Law’s name is arguably more familiar to baseball fans than Joey Jay, a two-time Player of the Month winner (July, 1958, and May, 1961).

By the way, Mays won the Award twice in that inaugural year of 1958, but he lost out in the MVP race to zero-time winner Ernie Banks – thus establishing a trend of Player of the Month being a poor predictor for MVP. Does this make sense? Sure. But why do the leagues vote each month for Player of the Month and then cap the season by voting for MVP? Why not vote for MVP each month? Or name the end of the year award as Player of the Year?

1960s

Pirates Hall of Fame right fielder Roberto Clemente won the Player of the Month award three times in his career, the first and last times nearly bookending the 1960s (May, 1960; July, 1969).

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

During the decade, Hank Aaron – the all-time leader in RBI, total bases, and extra-base hits, who also held the home run crown for 33 years – won the award once. In his career (1954-1976), Aaron nabbed the honor twice – or as many times as Aaron Judge did in 2017 alone.

In 1961, MLB expanded its season to 162 games, which added a fifth full month (September) for players to vie for the award. Who took the honor that month? If you’re guessing Roger Maris, you’re guessing incorrectly. Maris passed Babe Ruth to set the single-season home run mark that year, but he saved that record-setter for October 1.

The Yankees as an organization have more Player of the Month recipients than anyone other club (37), far outdistancing the nearest competitor (Boston, 28) and more than tripling the hardware of their city mates, the Mets (11).

1968 is known as the Year of the Pitcher, and the Player of the Month awards bear that out: Five of the six winners were pitchers (including Bob Gibson twice). The only non-pitcher to win the award was Pete Rose.

Some lesser-known players who won a Player of the Month Award in the 1960s: George Altman of the Cubs (June, 1961), Jim O’Toole of the Reds (September 1961), Bob Purkey of the Reds (May, 1962) and Jim Ray Hart of the Giants (July, 1967).

1970s

Starting in the 1980s, San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic became synonymous with producing elite baseball talent. But before the arrival of Tony Fernandez, Mariano Duncan, Sammy Sosa, Joaquin Andujar, Alfonso Soriano, Robinson Cano, and many others, there was Rico Carty, the 1970 National League batting champ (.366), who jump-started that season by hitting .448 in May to win Player of the Month.

Carty, perhaps the best hitter for average ever to hail from San Pedro de Macoris, finished in the top 10 in hitting three other times in his career, including second in his rookie season (1964), when he was runner-up to Dick Allen in the National League Rookie of the Year race.

Allen, for his part, never won a Player of the Month Award. That’s less of a travesty than his ongoing exclusion from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 1971, the sixth and (so far) final full month of the baseball regular season was added (April), and Willie Stargell won that month. In April of 1974, the Junior Circuit finally got around to honoring its players on a monthly basis. The first winner? A Yankee, of course, Graig Nettles, whose first name probably was misspelled on his engraved desk set.

That year was also witness to several others firsts: In September, the National League didn’t award the Player of the Month to anyone. (I’ve reached out to Major League Baseball and am awaiting an explanation.) That same month, Hall of Famer Al Kaline of the Tigers nabbed the AL award for the first and only time, which also happened to be the last month of his career.

As a measure of how great George Foster of the Reds was in the late 1970s, he won the award six times in four years (twice in each of 1976, 1977 and 1979). From 1977 to 1990, he was the last 50-homer hitter in baseball until Cecil Fielder. His career more or less went off a cliff when he joined the Mets in 1982, but his six Player of the Month awards are still tied for sixth all-time behind Barry Bonds (13), Alex Rodriguez (10), Frank Thomas (eight), Albert Belle (seven) and Albert Pujols (seven).

In 1975, Robin Yount won the first of his three monthly plaques, when he was only 19 years old. In 1989, he won the last of them, tying a record (14 years difference) between a player’s first and last Player of the Month Award.

The aforementioned Ken Reitz, by the way, had this slash line in May of 1977 when he won the award: .366/.396/.634. That’s considerably better than his career line of .260/.290/.359. The highest he ever slugged in a full season was .412, but in May 1977 he was clubbing like Mike Schmidt in his prime.

Some lesser-known players who won a Player of the Month Award in the 1970s: Jim Hughes of the Twins (May 1975), Dan Meyer of the Mariners (June 1979).

1980s

Like George Foster in the late 1970s, Dale Murphy was a regular winner of the Player of the Month Award in the early to mid-1980s, winning the prize at least once every year from 1980 to 1986 — except for the strike-shortened 1981 season, when no awards were handed out in June and July. Add this factoid to the innumerable reasons why Murphy, a two-time MVP who was the best all-around player in baseball for more than half a decade, should be in Cooperstown.

One of the most exciting baseball players of the 1980s was Eric Davis of the Reds, who won the award three times in five months over the 1986 and 1987 seasons (with a fourth win in 1988). In April of 1987, he had seven home runs and nine stolen bases on his way to a 37-homer, 50-steal campaign. He finished ninth in the MVP voting, the highest he’d ever finish in a star-crossed career beset by injuries. Like Foster, Davis doesn’t have a good case for Cooperstown. But it’s worth noting how great he was for a certain period of time.

By the way, the Pittsburgh Pirate who won the award in April and May of 1988, but later finished 14th in the MVP voting? That was Bobby Bonilla, who finished far behind the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson, who never was named Player of the Month.

By the way, no disrespect to Claudell Washington of the Braves, who won the award in September pf 1982, but this slash line — .289/.313/.482, with four home runs, nine steals, and 26 ribbies – doesn’t pass the eye test. Until, that is, you probe deeper and realize the Braves won a close NL West race against the Giants and Dodgers to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1969.

In the history of the monthly award, only four hitters ever have had a slugging percentage below .500: Washington, Lou Brock in August of 1974 (.372), when he set the steals record, and Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell, who both slugged .496 in August and September of 1979, respectively.

Some lesser-known players who won a Player of the Month Award in the 1980s: Lamar Johnson of the White Sox (April, 1980), Gary Ward of the Rangers (August, 1984).

1990s

Would you have guessed Bonilla won the monthly honors three times before Barry Bonds won it once? I would not. They both debuted in 1986, but it took Bonds a few more years to put everything together.

Bonilla won the award for the third and last time in April, 1990. Three months later, Bonds won it for the first time. Fourteen years later, he won it for the last of 13 (!) times, tying Yount for the longest gap between their first and last wins.

In April of 1991 and May of 1992, the National League Player of the Month was a middling player with the Cardinals. Hint: I mentioned him in the first paragraph of this article, and his name is Felix Jose.

Jose made his lone All-Star team in 1991. Over 11 years with five different teams, he hit .280 with a .334 OBP and a .409 slugging percentage. An all-time great? No. But he can always tell people he won the Player of the Month Award two more times than Carl Yastrzemski, which is pretty damn cool.

Like Foster in the late 1970s and Murphy in the early to mid-1980s, Frank Thomas had a stretch in the 1990s (1991-1997) when he won the award at least once in every year except one – the strike-affected 1995 season, when no one was honored in April.

The only player ever to win the award three months in a row (September 1997, April-May 1998) was Mark McGwire of the Cardinals. McGwire is also the only player to ever win the award three times in one season (1998). Somehow he lost the MVP award to Sosa, who set a major league record with 20 home runs on his way to winning the monthly award for June.

Some lesser-known players who won a Player of the Month Award in the 1990s: Brook Jacoby of the Indians (June, 1990), Kal Daniels of the Dodgers (September, 1990), Kelly Gruber of the Blue Jays (September, 1990), and Chris Hoiles of the Orioles (September, 1993).

2000s

In June of 2000, Albert Belle won the Player of the Month award for the seventh and final time, this time as a member of the Orioles, after winning the award earlier while with the White Sox and the Indians – making him the only player ever to win the award for three different teams.

Belle retired at the end of the 2000 season due to a degenerative hip condition. He was only 33 years old and had put together a resume that is Cooperstown-worthy. My guess is he makes it someday.

Two months after Belle won his last monthly award, the honor went to a Yankee. Even the most diehard Bronx Bombers fan would be hard-pressed to come up with the answer to this one. It was 2000, right smack dab in the middle of their most recent dynasty, when the regular lineup featured Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Chuck Knoblauch, Derek Jeter, Scott Brosius, Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams. None of them won the award. And neither did Ricky Ledee, Shane Spencer, Alfonso Soriano, Jose Canseco or David Justice. So who did?

Glenallen Hill, who had this slash line in August 2000: .411/.456/.877, along with 10 home runs and 19 ribbies. Hill had a career slugging percentage of .480 and hit 186 home runs over 13 years, so him winning is not quite Ken Reitz surprising. But still, he’s not a name that comes readily to mind when you’re thinking of those Yankee teams – and probably because Hill played only 40 games in New York (21 of which were during that award-winning August).

He had far less success in that year’s playoffs, going 1-for-17 with seven strikeouts. For that, George Steinbrenner made him return his Player of the Month Award. (Not really.)

Barry Bonds set the single-season home run mark (73) in September of 2001, winning the Player of the Month Award, too. But he had the highest slugging percentage of any monthly award winner in April 2004 (1.132), when he had 39 walks on his way to a record 232 (including a ridiculous 120 intentional passes).

Some lesser-known players who won a Player of the Month Award in the 2000s: Brian Jordan of the Dodgers (September, 2002), Randy Winn of the Giants (September, 2005).

2010s

Emilio Bonifacio is one of only four Marlins (July, 2011) to win the Player of the Month Award. That’s second fewest among teams, a few ticks ahead of the Rays (two players). Just ahead of the Marlins is another of the most recent expansion teams, Arizona (nine). And way ahead of their expansion brethren sit the Rockies with 19, which is as many as the Pirates and Blue Jays, and more than the White Sox, Tigers or Royals, among other clubs. It almost leads me to believe offensive stats are artificially inflated by playing in Denver.

From July, 2010 through May, 2011, Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays won the monthly award four out of a possible five months, losing out to Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees in September of 2010. Bautista combined to hit 97 home runs in 2010-’11, leading the league both years. From 2010 through 2015, he was an All-Star each season before his career hit a skid, with him eventually hitting .203 in both 2017 and 2018.

(I’d be remiss if I did not mention that Rodriguez won the monthly award 10 times, including that last time to break Bautista’s streak.)

Truth be told, calling attention to the greatness of players like Rodriguez, Pete Rose (six-time winner) or Hall of Famers like George Brett (six), Eddie Murray (four), Dave Winfield (three), and many others doesn’t seem as interesting as calling attention to the likes of Joey Jay, Jim O’Toole and Ken Reitz. Those are the names that stand out in a crowd of Cooperstown worthies, namely because they don’t belong. But for one month – or in George Foster and Albert Belle’s cases, many months – they could hold their own with the best of all time.

 


Cameron Martin has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Page 2 of ESPN.com, Yahoo! Sports, CBS Sports and other publications. Email him here.
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GoNYGoNYGoGo
3 years ago

Interesting article.

However, in noting that Mantle never won the award, or that Maris did not win the award despite winning the MVP in 1960 and 1961, and despite breaking the HR record in September 1961, lost to Jim O’Toole, both players played in the American League. While Maris eventually played in the NL and would have been eligible later in his career, Mantle retired before the AL started issuing the award.

Paul G.member
3 years ago

The lesser known winners from the 1990s were all good players but only for relatively brief periods of time. Hoiles was playing out of his mind in 1993 but was never nearly that good ever again. Kal Daniels and Kelly Gruber were genuine stars when healthy, which was not often. Brook Jacoby is basically synonymous for an erratic player. It is nice they are remembered.