Tarnish: The Worst Performances Winning the Biggest Awards

Joe Dimaggio is an all-time great. But did he deserve the 1947 AL MVP? (via Warner Pathe News)

The greatest reward in baseball may be the championship ring, but individual honors are also highly sought. The Most Valuable Player award for a position player, and the Cy Young award for a pitcher, can stand as the validation of a career, the ultimate testimony to one’s excellence as an on-field performer.

If only the testimony were a little more reliable.

There have been plenty of votes for both awards that leave today’s observers baffled, or irate. Criteria used by the voters have been much different than what modern analysts would employ. Voters themselves have carried their own assumptions, biases, and grudges. And there have been a few votes that resist all attempts at rationalization and just leave us gobsmacked.

I took it as an amusing and hopefully informative challenge to put together a team made up of the most dubious selections for the MVP and Cy Young Awards. However, one could do this two ways: the worst selections based on performance in the award year or the worst based on lifetime performance, either of which could leave future fans wondering who this person had been to merit a big award. I decided to do it both ways.

Each team will have a player at each defensive position, five starting pitchers, and a relief pitcher. Position players obviously had to have won an MVP. Pitchers could get in either with a Cy Young or with an MVP if they played before 1956, when the Cy Young Award was instituted. (Just one of the pitchers came before then, while a second won the Cy while it was still a single award for both leagues.)

My objective criteria were WAR scores, taken from both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. When this didn’t provide a clear winner, I exercised my own judgment, which I’ll explain at a few junctures. Of course, subjective judgments helped produce a lot of ill-chosen award winners, so I suspect arguments could erupt over a few of my choices. That’s fair enough, as it brings everything full-circle.

The Worst Award Team (Single Season)

We’ll start off with the team for bad award choices based on the year for which they were given. That is, the one where the voters really should have known better. It will not take long for readers to discover the pattern emerging in these selections.

C: Bob O’Farrell, 1926 St. Louis Cardinals, 3.5 bWAR/3.6 fWAR

It is impossible to imagine O’Farrell winning this award if his Cardinals hadn’t taken the flag. Playing on a first-place club was always a big advantage in MVP voting, only moderately diminished by divisional play. That can explain O’Farrell outpacing 16 or so players on other teams with better WAR scores, but what about teammates with better numbers, like second baseman Rogers Hornsby and third baseman Les Bell?

First, Hornsby was a player-manager and had won the award the previous year, so voters may have discounted his on-field work on two counts. Second, perhaps voters were looking past O’Farrell’s merely good 115 wRC+, with seven homers and one steal, to his 146 games played at catcher in a 156-game season for St. Louis.

A catcher getting a game off every two and a half weeks? In an era with plentiful double-headers? They didn’t have Iron Man awards in 1926, so maybe MVP was the next best thing. Too bad Randy Hundley didn’t get the same treatment.

1B: Willie Stargell, 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, 2.5 bWAR/2.7 fWAR

This was arguably the weakest MVP season ever played. Not that Stargell is the worst player ever to receive the award. Far from it, as a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, but this was not remotely his most trophy-worthy season. (Try 1971, another year the Bucs won it all.) He posted a 137 wRC+, with 32 longballs, but he had under 500 plate appearances, and his subpar defense at first undercut his value.

Some have posited that he won the award with a string of pivotal hits in the stretch drive, with Pittsburgh fighting to win the division down to the final day. The stats don’t back that narrative much. August and September were two of his poorest batting months that year. While Stargell did play every game in September (against just 126 for the season), his September WPA of 0.503 was below his monthly average for ’79.

“Pops” seems to have won this MVP Award (shared with Keith Hernandez, the only tie in MVP voting history) on the same principle by which some movie veterans win Oscars. Voters fear this person with a great body of work will never get the big award and reward a lesser performance so they don’t look bad for snubbing him. Instead, they look bad for other reasons.

2B: Frankie Frisch, 1931 St. Louis Cardinals, 3.7 bWAR/4.1 fWAR

St. Louis won its second straight flag in 1931, but because MVP voting took a hiatus in 1930, it was only their first chance in five years to get a dubiously qualified player the big hardware. (Bob O’Farrell was long gone by now.) No Cardinal stood head and shoulders above his teammates, so Frisch’s 101 OPS+, 106 wRC+, and good glove work at second base, plus a league-leading 28 steals, made him plausibly the best Redbird of the year.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

It didn’t make him best in the National League: Over a dozen players had better cases. As with the Cardinals, though, nobody separated himself from the pack. Frisch snuck to the top of a massively fractured vote, where you couldn’t point to anybody and say, “He’s the obvious choice.” (Bill Terry probably came closest from a modern perspective, and he finished third.)

Frisch’s win wasn’t manifestly awful. It’s wasn’t manifestly anything but giving a pennant-winner the trophy.

SS: Roger Peckinpaugh, 1925 Washington Senators, 2.6 bWAR/2.4 fWAR

If Willie Stargell’s MVP year wasn’t the weakest then Roger Peckinpaugh’s was. (Or Dennis Eckersley’s, but he doesn’t even make this roster, as I’ll explain soon.) Peckinpaugh benefitted from a Senators pennant and from Walter Johnson winning the award the previous season so that voters were looking for someone fresh. Why his 95 wRC+ and solid-average shortstop work inspired voters more than, say, teammate Goose Goslin’s 136 wRC+, with over 110 RBIs and runs scored (and about four more WAR) is harder to say. A bias toward up-the-middle defenders is my best surmise.

Peckinpaugh didn’t enjoy the award, announced before the World Series, for long. He committed eight errors in the Fall Classic against Pittsburgh. One, in the seventh inning of Game Seven, led to two runs that tied the score. He got one back with a homer in the eighth then let in two more with a wild throw a half-inning later, leading to the Pirates’ victory. One wag said Peckinpaugh thus had been MVP of the American League and the National League.

3B: Ken Boyer, 1964 St. Louis Cardinals, 6.1 bWAR/6.0 fWAR

There were no really good (meaning bad) options at this position, just a logjam of winners sitting around six WAR. So who to select? Mike Schmidt in 1986, with fractionally the worst WAR, but nobody dominantly better except maybe the universally-suspected ball-scuffer Mike Scott? Terry Pendleton in 1991, who probably deserved to lose the award to teammate Tom Glavine? Joe Torre in 1971, well outdistanced by pitchers Ferguson Jenkins and Tom Seaver (as well as Willie Stargell, mentioned several entries up)?

In the end, I chose Boyer due to the sheer mass of players finishing above him in the WAR standings. They weren’t flukes, either. Included in their double-digit ranks were: Willie Mays, Ron Santo, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax, Dick Allen, Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente, and Frank Robinson. Seven Hall-of-Famers could rightfully have been chosen ahead of Boyer, who as usual had a pennant on his side. Maybe leading your team to such success should count for more—but that much more?

LF: Don Baylor, 1979 California Angels, 3.7 bWAR/3.6 fWAR

The pattern endures: Baylor’s Angels won their first division title in 1979. Baylor’s Topps-card numbers—120 runs scored, 139 RBIs, 36 homers—cinched the award, while papering over his liabilities. DRS and UZR agree that Baylor had a very bad defensive year, minus-14 or 15 runs, playing three-fifths in the corner outfield. The rest of the time he DH’ed, which that year might have been his most productive defensive position.

No player has ever won an MVP award playing primarily as a designated hitter, but Don Baylor came closest in 1979. If you feel this roster is incomplete without a DH, feel free to slide Baylor over. His left field spot would be assumed by George Bell in 1987—but we’ll be talking about Bell soon enough.

CF: Joe DiMaggio, 1947 New York Yankees, 4.8 bWAR/4.9 fWAR

This one will make a lot of people feel angry and a lot of people feel vindicated. DiMaggio hadn’t been quite the same since World War II ended, with three prime years lost. His body began betraying him in ’47: bone spur surgery early to delay his season start, swelling legs and an aching arm late. These added up to produce far and away his worst defensive season ever (if Total Zone can be trusted), even as his offense had a modest rebound.

It wasn’t a bad season, unless compared to DiMaggio’s high standards—or to Ted Williams’s year. Teddy Ballgame put up better than twice the Clipper’s WAR in 1947, but his relations with the writing (and voting) media were sub-replacement. Joe beat Ted in the MVP vote, 202 points to 201, due to one of the voters leaving Williams entirely off the ten-person ballot. (Not a Boston writer: They all put Ted first.)

This performance still helped to reach the World Series, which DiMaggio did in 1947. He’d have a much improved season in ’48, his last truly great one, but the Yankees didn’t take the pennant, and Joe managed just second in the voting. That may even Joe’s books, but its doesn’t make his win in ’47 any more correct.

RF: Juan González, 1996 Texas Rangers, 3.8 bWAR/3.5 fWAR

This was a squeaker, pitting Juan Gone against an earlier Texas Ranger. I gave González the nod because he made it a perfect eight-for-eight of these MVPs being on first-place teams, and because I had use for the other contender later.

Piling up 47 homers and 144 RBIs, as González did in ‘96, is in no way shabby, though in the bombs-away late 1990s those numbers didn’t even lead the AL. He posted a 141 wRC+, very nice if not actually dominant. (A dearth of walks held him back.) The downside, as you might guess, was poor defense at a non-premium position. He fielded better in his second MVP campaign of ’98 while his slash line stayed almost the same, making a better award case if not actually a good one.

SP: Bob Turley, 1958 New York Yankees, 3.5 bWAR/1.6 fWAR

Going 21-7 for a team nabbing its fourth straight pennant was a good argument for a Cy Young Award, at least in its early days. A good argument against it was Turley’s 128 walks, his third time leading the AL. His K/BB ratio was 1.31, well below the league’s 1.49, and his 2.97 ERA masked a 4.04 FIP. The next year, Turley would crash to an 8-11 record—with the exact same 4.04 FIP!

FIP could be underestimating him, though. It gives no credit for hit suppression, considering it out of a pitcher’s control except for home runs. The counter is that Turley led the majors in fewest hits per nine innings four times in a five-year stretch. 1958 was the fourth: The first was not with the sure-gloved Yankees but with the porous Baltimore Orioles. bWAR may thus be the better gauge of Turley’s skill in 1958. Even so, those walks leave him one of the very weakest Cy Young winners.

SP: Mike McCormick, 1967 San Francisco Giants, 4.3 bWAR/2.0 fWAR

What’s this? A player on this list whose team didn’t play into October? That’s the Cy Young for you: Its voters are a lot less concerned about its winners being on playoff clubs. They were still concerned about winning, and McCormick’s 22-10 record fit their criteria. As you’d expect on this list, that lofty win total exaggerated his performance.

McCormick’s home run rate was 25 percent higher than the league, and this with the hitters’ purgatory of Candlestick Park as his home turf. His K/BB ratio was likewise subpar. Of the 13 players who pitched for the Giants that year, McCormick has the third-worst FIP, a mere hundredth of a point from second. That FIP of 3.62 looks misleadingly good, coming during the deep batting drought of the late 1960s: His FIP- was 110. He’d have that same FIP- the next season when he went 12-14.

SP: Steve Stone, 1980 Baltimore Orioles, 4.0 bWAR/2.9 fWAR

Manager Earl Weaver had a knack for making his starting pitchers look as good as humanly possible. Four of his Orioles hurlers won Cy Young Awards, and three of them got a look for this list. Stone made it because the 25-7 record (including a 14-game winning streak) that won him the hardware masked some serious deficiencies.

His ERA was a good-not-great 3.23, coming to an 83 ERA-. His FIP- was a dead-even 100, and his K/BB ratio of 1.48 was just better than the 1.44 league average. His record leaned on offensive support of 5.69 runs per nine innings, over a run above the 4.51 league mean. Stone’s 25 wins were impressive, but they got him an individual award for what was rightly a team effort.

SP: Pete Vuckovich, 1982 Milwaukee Brewers, 2.8 bWAR/2.4 fWAR

For once, a pitcher here didn’t compile 20 wins: Vuckovich was a “mere” 18-6. (The Brewers won the pennant, though, so dogs and cats aren’t yet living together.) He notched that mark despite a K/BB ratio barely above one and a FIP- a smidgen worse than average. The Brewers’ potent offense, plus some luck, gave him that gaudy record. A 12-12 campaign for St. Louis in 1978 was his true best season, but that was never going to win him any awards.

Literally dozens of pitchers in the American League had better WARs than Vuckovich in 1982. The most neglected of his competitors may have been Dave Stieb, grinding out a 17-14 year with the last-place Toronto Blue Jays. Not only did his peripherals well outpace Vuckovich, but he maintained it for 288.1 innings, a now-unthinkable workload that piled up value. Stieb finished fourth in the Cy Young voting, his best placing ever.

SP: Bob Welch, 1990 Oakland A’s, 3.0 bWAR/1.8 fWAR

Remember that irresistible 25-7 record Steve Stone posted in 1980? Bob Welch did him a couple better, going 27-6 for Tony LaRussa’s juggernaut A’s. Again, those dominating win numbers—the most since Denny McLain in 1968, and the last time a pitcher’s won 25 games or more, probably ever—cloaked peripherals that are shockingly ordinary.

Welch’s fine 2.95 ERA was built on the crumbling sands of a 4.19 FIP, which translates to a 110 FIP-. His 1.65 K/BB ratio was a hair under the league standard, and 127 total strikeouts should not have struck terror into batters’ hearts. Run support from the likes of Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire and José Canseco was 5.21 R/9, well past the 4.30 AL average. Welch’s WAR production was modest enough that fellow Oakland pitchers Dave Stewart and Dennis Eckersley exceeded it.

Did Eck have the better Cy Young case in 1990, coming out of the bullpen? Possibly. But speaking of Eckersley…

RP: Steve Bedrosian, 1987 Philadelphia Phillies, 2.3 bWAR/0.8 fWAR

…Eckersley almost found himself in this listing, due to a 1992 MVP Award built on a WAR of around three, just under his 1990 mark. Instead, Steve Bedrosian won this race to the bottom. The closer made his Cy case with a nifty 2.83 ERA (67 ERA-) and 40 saves, which just five years earlier would have broken the single-season record. Even more modern metrics give him some love, like his Shutdown/Meltdown ratio of 38/9. (The 1987 NL average was around 4/3.)

The underlying numbers aren’t actually bad: a good-ish 92 FIP-, and a 2.64 K/BB ratio that would be great for a late-80s starter but isn’t that special for a closer. The truly telling stat against Bedrosian? 89 innings pitched. That’s not enough time to compile award-worthy value unless you are absolutely lights-out. Bedrosian was good but not lights-out. That makes this the most ill-advised Cy Young on the list.

A closing comment on this list of players. It’s a modern controversy whether a Most Valuable Player candidate should gain standing from his team’s success, whether winning a division produces extra value that should weigh in the scales. I’ve written before (in a THT Annual) showing that recent voters have given substantial consideration to this, but researching this piece made it clear it was even a stronger consideration in older times.

Whether this means value was understood from the start to accrue from team success, or that voters have been biased in favor of winning teams all along, is something I will let others argue for now.

The Worst Award Team (Career)

On we go to the second iteration, the award winners with the weakest careers. We will see less concentration on MVP winners playing for pennant or division winners. That seems natural, as we’re no longer focusing on single years.

C: Bob O’Farrell (1926 NL MVP), 1915-1935, 19.9 bWAR/21.2 fWAR

Despite his earlier entry, O’Farrell was not a bad catcher, when he was catching. Also despite his earlier entry, O’Farrell was no iron man over his career. Just four times did he play 100 or more games in a season, the 146 starts in ’26 being not quite a fluke but a definite outlier. He amassed 4742 plate appearances lifetime, cracking 400 in a year only three times.

O’Farrell was offensively average (right at 100 wRC+) and no liability behind the plate. He simply didn’t keep it up long enough. His closest competitor here, Elston Howard, wasn’t too far from the playing time limitations, but he had too good a peak to get the call.

1B: Ryan Howard (2006 NL MVP), 2004-2016 (?), 14.9 bWAR/19.4 fWAR

Voters, too, dig the longball. Gonzo numbers like 58 home runs and 149 RBI earned Howard his MVP Award in 2006 (which, for trivia’s sake, came 255 plate apperances earlier in his career than Kris Bryant’s did). Breathtaking power, as it sometimes does, hid the almost total lack of other positives in Howard’s game. This eroded his overall value, present and future. Even in 2006, Dayn Perry of Baseball Prospectus wrote, “…you can already squint and see some team throwing away tens of millions on…Howard in the winter of 2011.”

The Phillies beat Perry to it, extending Howard’s contract early in 2010. Thus, when Howard ruptured his Achilles tendon on the last play of Philadelphia’s 2011 postseason, it didn’t just crush Howard’s already limited value. It stuck Philly with paying $125 million for negative $15 million of playing value, right at the literal moment when he would have entered free agency.

I feel pretty sorry for Howard’s career-wrecking injury. For the Phillies’ front-office maneuver? I feel sorry for the on-the-nose timing, and that’s about it.

2B: Nellie Fox (1959 AL MVP), 1947-1965, 49.0 bWAR/45.2 fWAR

This very difficult selection won’t make me popular on the South Side of Chicago. Out of 189 MVP Awards, just 15 have gone to second basemen, and none of those winners was a middling player having a fluke year. Fox was a fine glove at a premium position with a good average, but if your career ISO is .075 and you didn’t play in the Deadball Era, your ceiling is only so high.

Fox’s nearest competitor for this dubious distinction was Larry Doyle, who did play in the Deadball Era for John McGraw’s Giants. Doyle’s WAR numbers were almost identical to Fox’s, but he accumulated them in about 3,000 fewer plate appearances. Those extra four-plus seasons as a replacement player gave Fox the nod.

SS: Zoilo Versalles (1965 AL MVP), 1959-1969/1971, 12.5 bWAR/13.5 fWAR

Not to be mean, but here is the team captain for this whole concept. Versalles had two struggle-filled stints as he broke into the bigs, four years working up from marginal starter to pretty good starter, then his 1965 breakout that earned him the hardware.

Everything got better that year, and everything got worse the next. He gave back three years of batting progress, while baserunning and fielding spikes regressed hard. He never pulled out of the dive, putting up sub-replacement numbers in three of his next (and last) four years in the majors. It’s hard to say what was more surprising, the sudden rise or the sudden fall.

3B: Terry Pendleton (1991 NL MVP), 1984-1998, 28.2 bWAR/28.2 fWAR

That logjam for the single-season dishonor at third base breaks up when we take the longer view. In a 15-year career, Pendleton had three good batting seasons, three average batting seasons, and you can guess where that leaves the other nine. His fielding was pretty good, and his baserunning about average, but a lifetime 91 wRC+ left him lagging the other hot corner MVPs.

One could make a case for Ken Caminiti, whose higher WAR in fewer plate appearances is tainted by admitted steroid use in his 1996 MVP campaign. But then you could argue he doesn’t belong on a list of MVPs with so-so careers because he didn’t deserve to be MVP in the first place. I’m not jumping down that rabbit-hole today.

LF: George Bell (1987 AL MVP), 1981/1983-1993, 19.9 bWAR/20.2 fWAR

You could make a good guess about Bell by now: a one-dimensional slugger whose homer and RBI numbers got him a trophy despite no contributions elsewhere. It’s close, but not quite on the money. Bell wasn’t an awful fielder, though he did have rough patches, and he had some speed, though not enough to keep him out of double plays. The real hole in his game was walks, with a 5.0 percent career rate, weak for a putative power guy.

He washed out of the majors at a relatively young 33 after a nightmarish 1993 that I’ve written about before. That concluding crash-and-burn gave him this slot against some stiff competition. (On the periphery of those contenders was Don Baylor, whom you may include as this team’s DH if you’re feeling completist.)

CF: Willie McGee (1985 NL MVP), 1982-1999, 34.0 bWAR/27.6 fWAR

It’s close to the Nellie Fox situation redux, McGee being the worst of a very good lot. MVP Awards have gone to center fielders 18 times, the ranks replete with Cobbs, Speakers, and DiMaggios, Mayses and Mantles and Trouts. (Oh my.) McGee’s 1982 wasn’t unworthy of the company, his strong and well-rounded game lacking nothing but over-the-wall power. (He did lead the NL with 18 triples.) He just couldn’t replicate the excellence.

McGee’s lifetime OPS+ was right at 100. He was just about a scratch defender, and the mild negative of his positional modifier (for some years in the corner outfield) balanced out the moderate positive of his running game. Being an average player for 18 years adds up to a good career, but it doesn’t add up to Cobb or Mays, or even to Dale Murphy.

RF: Jeff Burroughs (1974 AL MVP), 1970-1985, 17.6 bWAR/18.3 fWAR

Burroughs’s MVP win was pretty dubious. Mostly it arose from copping an RBI title on a team that, while not making the playoffs, did finish 27 games better than the previous year (driven by manager Billy Martin’s full-steam-ahead style). That said, Burroughs’s offense wasn’t slugging alone, or even slugging primarily, with 240 career homers. Burroughs had patience, with a career walk rate close to 13 percent, helping to build a 121 wRC+ lifetime mark and real batting value.

It was away from the plate that he gave back so much of that value. His defense in the corners was atrocious, costing over 100 runs against average cumulatively, and he was no speed merchant either, stealing bases at a 42-percent clip. He’d have offensive bright spots in his career, especially in late ‘70s Atlanta, but too often the value leaked from his glove faster than it filled up from his bat.


  • Bob Turley (1958 CY), 1951/1953-1963, 13.2 bWAR/13.2 fWAR
  • Mike McCormick (1967 NL CY), 1956-1971, 18.4 bWAR/18.2 fWAR
  • Steve Stone (1980 AL CY), 1971-1981, 17.6 bWAR/16.5 fWAR
  • Pete Vuckovich (1982 AL CY), 1975-1983/1985-1986, 16.5 bWAR/17.5 fWAR
  • La Marr Hoyt (1983 AL CY), 1979-1986, 12.4 bWAR/17.6 fWAR

In Turley’s 12-year career, he had eight seasons with more than 100 innings pitched. Just once in those eight did he post a FIP- of 100 or better—and his Cy Young year wasn’t it. To be fair, five of those eight seasons had him with an ERA+ of 104 or better. If his hit suppression was a true skill, he might thus belong on the periphery of this rotation rather than at its core. A career FIP- of 108 is tough to finesse, though, even if it is better than his Cy year’s FIP- of 112(!).

McCormick matches that anti-accomplishment of Turley: His career FIP- of 108 is an improvement over the 110 FIP- in 1967 that won him his Cy Young. More standard stats don’t help him that much. His lifetime ERA- of 104 is just four points better than his FIP-, and his won-lost record was a modest 134-128 despite playing the bulk of his career for a perennially competitive Giants club. He had longevity on his side, with nearly 2400 career innings pitched, but not very much else.

Stone’s K/BB ratio in his Cy campaign, just barely better than the AL mark, was right in line with his career average. The 100 FIP- he posted for that campaign was the second-best of his career. His lifetime ERA-/FIP- numbers were 103 and 105. While he reached the peak for one year after nine seasons as a journeyman, the cost was heavy. Massively increased curveball usage brought tendonitis so severe that he lasted just one more season in the majors. Only Stone can know whether it was worth it.

This pattern soon repeated itself for Pete Vuckovich. His arm began breaking down late in his Cy Young season, and never really came back. He’d been better in his pre-Cy phase than Stone, with scores of 97 for FIP- and ERA- alike. That phase was shorter, though, and not really balanced by the post-injury coda to his career. One can feel for these two members of the rotation: They effectively paid for the hardware with the rest of their careers.

La Marr Hoyt shortened his career by other means. After two powerful years with the White Sox, things slipped, though a change of scenery to San Diego seemed to revive him. The real crash came in 1986, when three years of league-leading walk suppression collapsed to 3.8 BB/9 and his WAR went underwater. An apparent explanation soon came, with multiple drug arrests and a league suspension he never returned from even when it was commuted. A career foreshortened at just over 1300 innings lands him here.

RP: Jim Konstanty (1950 NL MVP), 1944/1946/1948-1956, 11.0 bWAR/3.0 fWAR

Okay, maybe Zoilo Versalles isn’t the model for this team after all. Jim Konstanty shocked the baseball world of 1950 by winning an MVP Award as a pure relief pitcher for—all together now—the pennant-winning Phillies. He went 16-7 with a 2.66 ERA over 152 innings, and his 22 saves would have led MLB if they had counted saves back then.

Not too surprisingly, it was a fluke year, bolstered by a 6.4 hit-per-nine innings ratio that he never came close to matching. He ran a lifetime 103 FIP- over fewer than a thousand innings and had more career walks than strikeouts. (Just one more, but it works for the narrative.) Relievers often struggle to maintain a spike of success, and Konstanty set the benchmark for that struggle.


Thus closes my tour of ill-starred award winners in baseball. If you need something to wash away the taste of failure this exercise has given you, I can help. Consider that the most recent entry on my single-season list won that MVP Award more than 20 years ago. The voting is improving, at least based on objective measures of playing value.

On the other hand, award voting isn’t much closer to guaranteeing great career numbers for its winners. This isn’t the point of such annual votes, of course, but it still can be disappointing that a pinnacle of success guarantees very little in future years. So if you’re a fan of Kris Bryant, Rick Porcello, or Dallas Keuchel, don’t stop cheering him on yet. He still can use the help.

References and Resources

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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Dennis Bedard
6 years ago

What about Zoilo Versaille in 1965 at SS? He was at best mediocre. BA .273/.319/.462, and 19 home runs. He was not even the best player on his team for that year. Tony Oliva had a much better season.

Rainy Day Women 12x35
6 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

He was mentioned in the article

6 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

Baseball Reference has him leading all position players in WAR that year, so not such a terrible choice

6 years ago

Don Baylor’s win is all the worse once you look at his team’s actual record. Yes they won the AL West, but they would have finished fifth in the AL East. And it’s not exactly as if those teams lacked stars having MVP-caliber seasons. Fred Lynn was better than in his MVP season in 1975; Dennis Eckersley might have had the best season of his career; Ron Guidry had another good-to-great season; Ken Singleton had a very good year; hell, even Gorman Thomas with his 45 home runs would have been a better choice.

6 years ago

Nice job Shane. I can’t speak for all of them…

1964 Ken Boyer – he was the heart and soul of that Redbirds team, the first to win it all since ’46. Yes, there were other players who had higher WAR #’s, but I’m not sure any of them meant more to their team than Boyer. I’m admittedly in the MVP on a winning team camp. The MVP doesn’t have to come for the champs, but should come from a team that was in the race. MVP does not equate best player.

MVP in the 1920’s – previous award winners couldn’t win the award. The AL dropped that rule in 1928, the NL in 1929. So, Hornsby had won in 1925, couldn’t win in 1926. Also, 1926, while still a very good year for Hornsby, was a significant down year for him. He put up his worst #’s since 1919 & the worst OPS+ of his career to that point, so even had he been eligible to win, he probably wouldn’t have. This rule also explains why Babe Ruth only won the MVP once.

David M
6 years ago
Reply to  AaronB

When you say “Yes, there were other players who had higher WAR #’s, but I’m not sure any of them meant more to their team than Boyer.”

You are really saying “I am wrong, but I feel like I am not.”

6 years ago
Reply to  AaronB

The reason Boyer won was because he was on the pennant winner and led the league in RBI (by one), and that was a good enough excuse back then to reward a popular player with a “lifetime” award. It wasn’t even one of Boyer’s three best seasons, and the following year he infamously fell off the cliff productively and was traded the year after that to the Mets.

Good all-star player; borderline Hall-of-Fame (out) and Hall-of-Merit (in). My second favorite player on my favorite team back in my teens. Still, I knew even back then that he should not have been the MVP. Top 10 barely, and only 3rd best 3B that year.

6 years ago
Reply to  BobDD

A Little more context: That was the year of the Phillie collapse, which even over 50 years later that season is still known by that more than anything else. So the first place winner was bigger news that year than usual and therefore would have held even more sway in voter’s minds. Still not enough excuse, but just wanted it on the record.

6 years ago

Regarding the 3 early guys, I recall Bill James writing that repeat winners weren’t allowed at that time. That the winner got a car, and since nobody needed 2 cars, previous car-winners were disqualified. So those guys won in a seriously depleted pool. I think.

Rainy Day Women 12x35
6 years ago

You should have mentioned 1962 MVP winner Maury Wills. Voters were so enamored with his 104 stolen bases they gave it to him, when Mays was far superior. WAR of 10.5! Wills finished 8th in the league at 6.0 AND the Giants won the pennant.

Dennis Bedard
6 years ago

Damn. How did i miss that. Sorry guys.

6 years ago

One can defend Bob O’Farrell a bit considering 2 things:

1) Previous winner were not allowed to win again, knocking players such as Hornsby and Dazzy Vance off the competitors list.

2) O’Farrell had a gun of an arm, throwing out >50% of base runners in 1926, including Babe Ruth to end the World Series. Coming at a time when voters voted after the World Series, this probably had an influence, and his gun of an arm counted more when stolen bases were more en vogue than they were after WW II.

John G.
6 years ago
Reply to  Carl

Also regarding Bob O’Farrell (1926 N.L.)…

3) Carl’s point about the World Series probably having an influence in the regular-season MVP vote is further supported by the fact that the Cardinals’ second-highest MVP vote-getter in 1926 was shortstop Tommy Thevenow (4th overall in the N.L. vote, receiving more votes than StL teammates Hornsby, Bell, and Rhem), who stuffed the regular-season spreadsheets with 2 HRs, 8 SBs, .256/.291/.311 avg/obp/slg, for 2.4 bWAR / 2.5 fWAR with all positive value attributed to his defense.

However, in the 1926 World Series, Thevenow’s below-replacement-level offense morphed into .417/.440/.583, and he drove in 2 of StL’s 3 runs in the decisive Game 7 (O’Farrell had the other RBI). As someone else may have already mentioned, there was no World Series MVP Award at the time, so it would certainly seem that perceived World Series heroics may have been a variable in the MVP vote.

4) O’Farrell’s regular-season September in 1926, during which several N.L. teams were contenders, featured a slash line of .377/.461/.519. Include O’Farrell’s 3-for-7 during an 8/31/26 doubleheader that the Cardinals swept from Pittsburgh to move into first place (passing both those same Pirates and also the Reds on that day), and he hit .381 over several weeks of a multi-team pennant race. Others can research the StL newspapers from that era to see how the Cardinals were covered, but O’Farrell hit particularly well during several weeks of games that were perceived as particularly important.

David M
6 years ago

Zito taking the Cy over Pedro and Howard over Pujols are the worst two of the 2000’s

Paul G.
6 years ago

The follow-up question is if you had these starting line-ups in a regular league with an average bench and bullpen, would they win the pennant?

Joe Pancake
6 years ago

Love this article!

A few thoughts:

-Gonzalez’s award was particularly egregious. He narrowly beat out a far superior A-Rod, and I remember hearing a rumor that two Texas beat writers left A-Rod off their ballots entirely.

-Mike Norris got robbed by the Stone voters in 1980. He had only a slightly worse record and was better in every other major statistical category.

-1987 was Nolan Ryan’s Cy Young season. He led the NL in Ks and ERA, and there was no standout starter that year. Unfortunately, through the quirks of baseball he had an 8-16 record (!), which all but disqualified him from the award out of hand.

-Ted Williams and Willie Mays could have rightfully won the MVP Award pretty much every year of their careers — and that’s not much of an exaggeration. Mays had four seasons of double-digit WAR in which he didn’t win the award; Williams won the triple crown (twice) and hit .400 in seasons in which he didn’t win.

Paul G.
6 years ago
Reply to  Joe Pancake

According to bWAR, Nolan should not have won in 1987. His numbers were good and he had a very good season, but he was pitching in the Astrodome when it was the Astrodome where batting 300 was difficult and hitting 30 homers was a miracle. Among the CYA vote getters he was 5th in bWAR behind Mike Scott, Rick Sutcliffe, Orel Hershiser, and, in all glorious irony, Bob Welch who finished first in bWAR and 8th in the voting.

Johnny P
6 years ago

The Welch decision is 1990 is made worse by the fact that Roger Clemens was much, much, much better than him that season. Consider their bWAR:

Welch- 3.0
Clemens- 10.6

That’s not even close. Interestingly, that year, Clemens finished third in the overall AL MVP voting, while Welch finished 9th.

6 years ago

Still not entirely sure how Mo Vaughn and his bWAR of 4.3 won the 1995 AL MVP over Albert Belle (6.9 bWAR) or even Edgar Martinez (7.0 bWAR). I know Belle was almost universally disliked by the media and rightfully so, but his numbers across the board crushed Vaughn and the Indians had the best record in baseball that season and also won the AL Pennant.

6 years ago
Reply to  Mallow

1995 was a weird year. Belle had a historic season (52 doubles and 50 home runs) in a strike-shortened year for a great Indians team.

According to bWAR, Randy Johnson was the best player in the league (by a lot), going 18-2 while leading the league in ERA and strikeouts for a surprise playoff team that lost its best player for much of the season. John Valentin was the best position player (not his teammate Mo Vaughn), but he had a season that’s hard to appreciate (a Bobby Grich-type). Edgar Martinez was great and carried the Mariners when Griffey was out, and David Cone had a great year for two teams, helping pitch the Yankees to the playoffs for the first time in years. Johnson losing in 1995 was as bad as Pedro losing in `99 (Maddux should have won in the NL, although that’s more debatable).

John G.
6 years ago

Stargell’s 1979 MVP may indeed have been a sort of Lifetime Achievement Award when compared to the varying formulas for WAR, but his off-field impact on the Pirates was acknowledged at the time as having been extraordinarily meaningful. The SABR BioProject article on Stargell touches on this nicely, to some extent. For those who did not witness the Pirates 1979 season firsthand, it is a fun one to read about.

This might be a timely moment for a friendly reminder that, while it generally might be a prerequisite for our friends in the Advanced Metrics Community to regard so-called intangibles (e.g. leadership, morale, “grit,” etc) with responses ranging between disfavor and ridicule, WAR and other metrics *do not disprove* the proposition that those variables might have an effect on a team’s performance. This does not “prove” the proposition, either, of course. The advanced metrics do not measure what, if anything, might be going on inside players’ heads at any given time, nor are they likely to in the future.

What that leaves is a valid *hypothesis*, neither proved nor disproved, that intangibles such as Stargell’s in 1979 might have an effect on the human beings playing the game. As with any valid hypothesis, reasonable people can differ on how likely or unlikely the valid hypothesis might be. But, even though Stargell’s 1979 WAR (as depicted by both of the, um, differing formulas that each definitively start-and-finish all discussion of player “value”) was relatively low for an MVP, his “father figure” intangibles were credited at the time as being invaluable to the Pirates success that year. In 1979, that translated to first-place votes for MVP.

6 years ago

“Some have posited that he won the award with a string of pivotal hits in the stretch drive, with Pittsburgh fighting to win the division down to the final day. The stats don’t back that narrative much.”

From August 28th through September 23rd, the Montreal Expos would go 23-6.

On August 28th at Dodger Stadium, Willie Stargell jumped all over a Charlie Hough knuckle ball, the two-run shot giving Pittsburgh a 4-0 lead in the 5th inning. They would hold on to win, 4-1, keeping pace with Montreal who won earlier that evening on a bottom of the 9th bases loaded RBI walk to Warren Cromartie to win the game, 7-6, over the Astros.

On September 1st in San Francisco in game one of a double header, Willie Stargell’s first of two solo homeruns that day would tie the game at 3-3 in the 4th. His solo shot in the 8th added an insurance run in the Pirates 5-3 victory. Pittsburgh later completed a sweep of the double header, padding a half-game to their now three and a half game lead on the Expos, who had also won that day.

In St. Louis on September 5th, Stargell homered in the 4th to cut a Cardinal lead to 2-1. With Pittsburgh trailing 4-2 in the 8th, Stargell’s one out single advanced Dave Parker to third. Stargell would then leave the game for a pinch-runner, who scored the tying run. It would take 11 innings, but the Pirates would win, 7-5, allowing the Pirates to keep pace with Montreal and maintain a two-game lead in the NL East.

On September 9th at Shea Stadium, the Pirates were tied with the Mets, 5-5, entering the top of the 9th. The Pirates won, 6-5, Willie Stargell’s RBI double scoring Dave Parker. Montreal won that night, too; the Pirates lead in the NL East was one game.

On September 11th the Expos swept the Cubs in a double-header. But in St. Louis, Stargell homered off John Denny to turn a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead. Pittsburgh would hold on to win. At night’s end, the Expos lead was a half-game.

With the Pirates clinging to a one-game lead against the surging Montreal Expos on September 18th, Willie Stargell blasted a 11th, 2-run homerun as the Pirates beat the Expos in Montreal, 5-3.

Five days later in Chicago, Stargell drove in 2 runs with a double to stake Pittsburgh to an early 5-0 lead against the Cubs. The Pirates held on to win shortly after the Expos finished off the Phillies in Philadelphia and the Expos lead remained at a half-game.

On September 25th, the Expos entered their third of a four-game series in Pittsburgh with a half-game lead in the standings. By the end of the 4th inning the Bucs lead 3-2, all three runs scoring on two homers by Stargell. The Pirates were now in first place to stay with 5 games left (Expos with six left).

Entering September 30th, the Pirates held a one-game lead over Montreal. With either a Pittsburgh loss or a Expos win that day, Montreal would still have two make up games to play in their effort to catch the Pirates. But Steve Carlton shut out the Expos with a 3-hit, 12-strike out masterpiece, 2-0, the Pirates were battling the Cubs at home. Stargell’s sacrifice fly in the first gave Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead. Then in the 5th he homered with two out off Lynn McGlothen, his 32nd of the year, giving the Bucs a 3-0 lead. The Pirates held on to win, 5-3, clinching in NL East title. With the Expos now 2 games back, their two make up games were never played since they could no longer catch the Pirates.

“Some have posited that he won the award with a string of pivotal hits in the stretch drive, with Pittsburgh fighting to win the division down to the final day. The stats don’t back that narrative much.”


It would seem they do!

Mike Easler
6 years ago
Reply to  Philip

Good stuff, and I think this is where context comes into play. In sports, it’s often when you do something, not just the total of a month summary. The 1979 Bucs also made trades before, and during the season, and Stargell’s role was key in the clubhouse that season.

Keith Hernandez should be happy with sharing that MVP award. The Cardinals 86-76 record was deceiving, because June 19th was the last date they were under five games from the division lead that season. In other words, Hernandez complied numbers in many less important games, St. Louis just wasn’t a serious contender in 1979.

6 years ago

In 1959 the Pirates were the team on the rise, and I became a Pirate fan. N ow you attempt to put a shine on one of my boyhood hero, but not in a good way. You think you can smooth talk you decision to bring shade upon a true hero of The Game. You were neither cleaver nor correct. There is no good way for you to defame the people who do what you cannot, provide entertainment.

I skimmed to your Pops take down, I read no more. I am so sorry I read your article.

Marc Schneider
6 years ago
Reply to  Stanley7746


Bill Rubinstein
6 years ago

Another strange choice was Jackie Jensen as AL MVP in 1958. He hit .286 with 35 HRs and 122 RBIs, which led the league. Behind him were several better players, especially Mickey Mantle (8.7 WARs which led the AL- Jensen wasn’t among the top ten)- .304 with 42 HRs and 97 RBIs. These numbers appeared bad compared with his numbers the previous two years, but in the context of the AL in 1958 they were very good, and the Yankees won the pennant and the WS. Then there was Rocky Colavito (.303/41/113) or Bob Cerv (.305/38/104) or Roy Sievers (.295/39/108), or Teddy (.328 to lead the AL). I can’t see why Jensen won- they must have been obsessed by the RBIs.

Marc Schneider
6 years ago

I suspect it’s about the narrative. Mantle’s numbers were, as you note, substantially worse than his Triple Crown year of 1956 and so the writers were not disposed to vote for someone who had a lesser year. My guess is that somehow the narrative was that Jensen was having this amazing year; perhaps he had a couple of great games in NY. Maybe Jensen was a nice guy or a good interview. I don’t think award voting was particularly rationale in those days and I suspect it was probably more political (not in partisan terms, but in terms of writers voting for people they liked.)

6 years ago

Hi, Shane:

” Joe beat Ted in the MVP vote, 202 points to 201, due to one of the voters leaving Williams entirely off the ten-person ballot.”

Well, yeah, that gets mentioned a lot, but IIRC, in one of James’ historical abstracts, he points out that three voters left DiMaggio off their ballots. Williams did win the MVP in 1946 with roughly the same season as 1947 (beating Hal Newhouser, who had a great season, with Bobby Doerr and his .799 OPS finishing third for some reason), so maybe there was some Williams fatigue. And I’ve read that Williams always blamed the guy who left him off the ballot for 1947, but look who some people DID vote for:

The voting shows DiMaggio with eight first-place votes to three for Williams. Joe Page got seven first-place votes and George McQuinn got three, as many as Williams. So that’s 18 first-place votes for Yankees, 10 of which didn’t go to DiMaggio, but he won even with a hugely split vote on his own team. BTW, McQuinn, a 37-year-old first baseman, hit .304 with 13 HRs and 80 RBIs to 28-year-old Williams’ .343 with 32 and 114. McQuinn did get on base .395, but I seriously doubt voters were factoring OBP into their decisions.*

Finally, Eddie Joost got two first-place votes for hitting .206 (it appears that’s not a typo), with 13 HRs and 64 RBIs and leading the league in strikeouts while fielding .956. He had an OPS+ of 88. Yet two voters thought Joost was more valuable than Williams. Think about that one awhile. (Joost did, however, lead the league in putouts and range at short, but I have a hard time believing any voters of the day were calculating his range factor into their MVP votes.)

*–FWIW, Tommy Henrich that season hit 35 doubles, 13 triples and 16 homers (64 XBH, more than DiMaggio), plus he led the Yankees in runs scored with 109. He finished 13th in the voting.

Cliff Blau
6 years ago

Re: O’Farrell- The National League Award, which was given to the most valuable player, was not limited to players who had never won it before, as the American League Award was.