OK, lots of personal baseball stuff to talk about today — we’ll get to the main blog post in just a minute.
First, I wanted to let you know that The Baseball 100 won the Casey Award as the best baseball book of 2021. This is such an honor, and I want to thank the great folks at Spitball Magazine who have been giving out the Casey Award since 1983. Whoa. The list of winners through the years is just incredible — The Celebrant, Lords of the Realm, Moneyball, Luckiest Man, The Last Hero, Bill James Historical Abstract, on and on and on.
And there’s this: It’s actually my second Casey Award — the judges were kind enough to honor my first book, The Soul of Baseball, back in 2007. But, bizarrely, there was a mix-up that year with the location, so the ceremony was actually postponed. Now, 15 years later, in early March in Cincinnati, I will not only get the Casey Award for The Baseball 100 but also the one for The Soul of Baseball. My cup runneth over.
And since I’m talking about The Baseball 100, I should throw in here that if you order the book from Rainy Day Books by Tuesday, Jan. 25, I will sign it and inscribe it with anything you want. Anything at all. You will remember I did this for preorders; I’m doing it again now because my pal Michael Schur’s new book, How to be Perfect, is coming out on Jan. 25, and he’s also doing an inscribe-anything-you-want deal.
So, it will be a signing jamboree next week in Kansas City! And, there will be special prizes given out to select people — bookmarks, personalized notes, etc. If you order BOTH books, you have a chance at getting even cooler prizes. A special package with a Buck O’Neil book and a bottle of Kansas City barbecue sauce! Negro Leagues baseballs signed by Mike and me (and, most impressively, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick)! Other surprises!
I’m not putting Mike’s link up again because he still hasn’t paid me the money he owes me OR sent me a copy of his book. How to be Perfect. Right. Bah! Humbug!
Finally, in Publisher’s Marketplace this week, there was a very interesting new book announcement:
Hmm. That looks fun!
OK, enough about me … let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?
Here’s a fun little baseball thing I ran across while doing my early research for WHY WE LOVE BASEBALL.
As part of my early research for WHY WE LOVE BASEBALL — and, oh, by the way, if you would like to nominate your favorite-ever baseball moment please do in the comments as I am considering all awesome, cool, surprising, wonderful moments for the book — I just started looking at every season since 1938 when a player was unanimously named MVP.
It’s interesting. Willie Mays was never a unanimous MVP. Neither was Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Carl Yastrzemski, Albert Pujols, etc. It’s a pretty rare thing — it has happened only 16 times, the last being Shohei Ohtani in 2021.
I thought it would be fun to go down the list to see what seasons had unanimous MVP awards (and, as a bonus, throw in a few seasons where the player ALMOST was unanimous).
And you know what? It is fun. Here you go — all the unanimous MVP seasons:
1953: Al Rosen
— Totally deserved, Rosen just about won the Triple Crown in ’53 along with some pretty stellar third base defense. He missed the Triple Crown, by the way, because his .336 batting average was .0016 points behind Mickey Vernon — one gained hit by Rosen or one lost hit by Vernon would have given Rosen the TC.
It’s fun to look, by the way, if Vernon would have lost one hit.
Vernon: .33552632 average
Rosen: .33555927 average
The battle title would have gone to the FIFTH decimal point.
Anyway, Al Rosen was clearly the league MVP in ’53, and he was unanimously chosen so.
1956: Mickey Mantle
Mantle DID win the Triple Crown and he posted 11.2 WAR and nobody was even close.
ALMOST: Frank Robinson in 1961
Robinson finished one vote shy of unanimity — and that vote, bizarrely, went to his teammate Joey Jay, who finished 21-10 with a 3.53 ERA. The Jay thing makes sense on one level because 1961 was the year the Reds surprised everybody by winning the pennant and the MVP balloting in those days was heavily influenced by team success.* But it makes no sense on any other level since (1) Robinson was on the Reds and (2) Jay wasn’t especially close to being the best pitcher in the league — he finished sixth among NL pitchers in B-R WAR that year — much less the best overall player.
*Dick Young used to call the award the MVPW — the Most Valuable Pennant Winner.
ALMOST: Zoilo Versalles in 1965
Versalles has often been singled out among the worst players to win the MVP award, but it isn’t fair — he was terrific in ’65, leading the league in runs, doubles and triples and playing Gold Glove defense at shortstop. Looking back, I feel sure he was the right choice for MVP and I don’t really see anyone who was all that close to him. The closest was probably his teammate, Tony Oliva, who got the one first-place vote that Versalles missed.*
Fun fact: Versalles credited a Twins coach for his success. Can you name that coach? It was — Billy Martin!
Frank Robinson, 1966
Another Triple Crown winner with the unanimous vote. Can’t really see anybody else that year who had an especially compelling MVP case.
Orlando Cepeda, 1967
Here’s the first real head-scratcher — how did the voters ALL think Cepeda was MVP in ’67? I don’t mean to denigrate his season, it was obviously very good — .325/.399/.524, led the league in RBIs — but it so vividly wasn’t as good as Roberto Clemente’s season (Clemente hit .357), it wasn’t as good as Henry Aaron’s season (Aaron led the league with 39 homers and 113 runs), it really wasn’t as good as Ron Santo’s season (.300/.395/.512, Gold Glove defense at third).
But the ’67 Cardinals ran away with the National League so it HAD to be a Cardinal. Those were the rules in 1967. That team had a lot of MVP candidates — Tim McCarver (who finished second), Lou Brock (who finished 7th), Julian Javier (who finished ninth), Curt Flood (who finished 13th) and pitchers Nelson Briles and Dick Hughes (who finished 15th and 17th, respectively). But Cepeda had the best season of that group so I guess in the 1967 way of thinking, he had to be the MVP.
This really was a Dick Young MVPW special.
Cepeda, incidentally, became the first National Leaguer to unanimously win the MVP award.
ALMOST: Carl Yastrzemski in 1967
If you get The Baseball 100 (remember you can get an inscribed copy from Rainy Day Books!) you can get the full story of how Yaz won the Triple Crown in 1967 and had what can be argued to be the greatest season in MLB history but did not win the MVP unanimously. One voter, incredibly, chose Cesar Tovar.
We like to have fun here at Joe Blogs. Baseball. Football. Tennis. Chess. Family. Basketball. Music. Infomercials. Movies. Olympics. Hockey. Nonsense. Magic. In short, it’s an adventure. I hope you’ll come along.
1968: Denny McLain
I don’t actually think McLain should have been MVP in ’68. Yaz was clearly more valuable, and I feel pretty sure that Luis Tiant was a better pitcher that year too. But he won 30 games — and 30 wins is 30 wins. When someone does something that is a crazy outlier like this, the voters will respond (see Ohtani, 2021).
1973: Reggie Jackson
A great season for Reggie — he led the league in runs, homers, RBIs and slugging percentage. WAR actually seems to prefer Bobby Grich’s season slightly because of all the things Grich did in the field, on the bases and at the plate, but Grich hit .251 that season and, as such had 0.0% chance of winning the MVP. He finished 19th in the voting. It was Reggie and Reggie alone.*
*MVP voters liked Reggie a lot, actually. They gave him MVP votes in 13 different seasons, and on a couple of different occasions he received votes that prevented other players from winning the MVP vote unanimously.
1980: Mike Schmidt
Just a sensational year from Schmitty — led league with 48 homers, 121 RBIs and a .624 slugging percentage. You could argue his only real MVP competitor that year was his teammate, Steve Carlton, who went 24-9 with a 2.34 ERA and 286 Ks.
ALMOST (sort of): George Brett in 1980
Brett didn’t come all that close to unanimity — he received only 17 of the 27 first-place votes — but I’m including him here because I was a bit surprised. I mean, Brett’s 1980 season is an all-timer. He did almost hit .400 for the pennant-winning Royals. But I did not take into account that Brett missed more than 50 games with injury that season, so Reggie, Goose Gossage and Willie Wilson all got first-place votes as well.
ALMOST: Robin Yount in 1982
Yount was incredible in ’82. He hit .331/.379/.578 — that slugging percentage led the league, as did his 210 hits and 46 doubles. Plus he won the shortstop Gold Glove. Plus he led the Brewers to the pennant. Nobody was even close to him, and he still fell one vote shy of unanimity — that vote going to Reggie Jackson, who had what was for him nothing more than an average season (.275/.375/.532, league-leading 39 homers).
That non-Yount vote was so odd that the voter — Toronto’s sportswriter and horserace handicapper Jim Golla — was asked to explain his vote (he not only didn’t vote for Yount, he put him FOURTH), which he was more than happy to do.
His explanation is a classic of the genre:
“I base my MVP selection on a method I use for handicapping horses. Can the horse, or player, carry the weight of a team the distance? Can he carry a team an entire season?
“Does he do something special in the stretch? Does he lift himself up to the occasion and maybe make the other horse or players around him that much better by forcing the pace? To me the answer to all those questions was ‘Yes’ with Reggie Jackson. It wasn’t with Robin Yount.”
This whole thing is so wonderfully scrambled and illogical on its face — I love how he keeps saying “horse or player” as if they’re same thing — but on top of that he was so clearly wrong about Yount. The Brewers had a two-week stretch in September when the Orioles were making a run to try and take the division title away from them. This was the critical moment. And the Brewers went 10-3 to put the title away.
During those 13 games, Yount hit .370/.436/.667 with 19 RBIs. I don’t know, that seems pretty special to me.
1988: Jose Canseco
As mentioned, special and rare achievements (Triple Crowns, 30-game seasons, having a dominant season as both a hitter and pitcher) tend to get MVP voters excited. In 1988, Canseco had baseball’s first ever 40-40 season. It’s hard to fully express how much that meant in ’88. Everybody was pretty consumed by homer-stolen base numbers — the 30-30 season had taken on enormous importance.
And now a guy had a FORTY-FORTY season. Incredible!
Canseco led the league in homers, RBIs and slugging too.
And because of those shiny numbers, nobody really noticed that Wade Boggs — who hit .366 with 125 walks — was probably the more valuable player.
ALMOST: Barry Bonds, 1990
Bonds fell one vote shy — that vote going to his teammate Bobby Bonilla. His reaction to falling one vote short of unanimity was, actually, quite touching.
“I’d spit it in half if I could,” he said. “I wish I could share it with Bobby. To me, he’s just as much the MVP as I am.”
Nice, right? In truth, Bonds was incredibly gracious after winning that MVP award. People forget that he could be like that. This is what he said:
“I think I had an MVP season. This was just an unreal year. I don’t know if I can ever do this again, but I can tell my kids and grandkids that for six months, I was up there with the best of them.”
How much better it all might have been if he’d let us see that side of him more often.
1993: Frank Thomas
It’s funny, at the time this unanimous vote made perfect sense. Thomas was an incredible blend of power and plate discipline, he was larger than life, he led the White Sox to the playoffs, his unanimous MVP selection felt pretty appropriate.
Looking back, however: I have absolutely no idea how it happened. He didn’t lead the league in anything that year, not homers (Juan Gonzalez), not RBIs (Albert Belle), not runs (Rafael Palmeiro), not batting average (John Olerud), not on-base percentage (Olerud), not slugging percentage (Gonzalez).
Looking back,. I have no idea whatsoever how he won the award over Ken Griffey Jr., who hit more home runs, played an incredible centerfield and was the very face of baseball.
Ken Griffey Jr: 8.8/8.4 WAR
Frank Thomas: 6.2/6.3 WAR
I guess you could say that maybe team success made the difference there since the White Sox won their division and the Mariners were a .500-or-so team. But then what of Olerud? His Blue Jays won the division, and he too had a significantly better season.
John Olerud: 7.8/8.1 WAR
Frank Thomas: 6.2/6.3 WAR
This isn’t necessarily the most baffling of the unanimous MVPs, but it has not aged well at all.
1994: Jeff Bagwell
Strike year, so it’s not that interesting — Bagwell was obviously on his way to an all-time monster season with his 1.201 OPS and 116 RBIs in 110 games. But he got hurt, so even without the strike, this is where his season would have ended.
1996: Ken Caminiti
It was certainly a fine season from Caminiti (.326/.408/.621 and he won a Gold Glove) but Barry Bonds was so much better, and a bunch of other guys such as Mike Piazza, Ellis Burks, Jeff Bagwell, Gary Sheffield, Chipper Jones, Bernard Gilkey, heck, Lance Johnson were probably just about as good.
Other than Bonds, Caminiti was as worthy an MVP as any of them … but how in the world was this a unanimous choice when so many players had similar years? It came down to the Padres being surprise division winners after finishing with a losing record in 1995. When a team comes out of nowhere like that, the MVP voters tend to be super-impressed.
1997: Ken Griffey Jr.
Finally. It took a year when Griffey hit 56 home runs and led the league in runs, RBIs and slugging, but finally Griffey won the MVP award after several near-misses. The only real contender that year, I think, was Roger Clemens, who won pitching’s triple crown and had an almost-impossible-to-believe 12.1/10.7 WAR.
But this was before WAR came along and voters have always been reluctant to give starting pitchers the MVP (plus they already gave an MVP to Clemens back in ’86).
ALMOST: Sammy Sosa in 1998
It’s kind of funny looking back — the home run was the only story of 1998, it was covered like, perhaps, no other baseball story ever. It was all anybody could talk about. And so it was no secret that Mark McGwire won the home run race.
It was also no secret that McGwire was a more valuable hitter that year because he walked NINETY MORE TIMES than Sosa.*
*McGwire’s RBat that season — WAR offensive Runs above average — was 87; Sosa’s 54. It really wasn’t close.
And yet, it seemed like the voters almost all had the same epiphany that, despite how it might look, Sosa was actually MORE VALUABLE. How? Well, the evidence seemed to be that Sosa’s Cubs were better than the Cardinals (they ended up getting the wild-card spot) and that Sosa was a better fielder who had more RBIs and runs scored. And so 30 out of 32 voters chose Sosa for MVP.
Just a weird bit of groupthink, I guess. McGwire, in my view, clearly had the better season.
2002: Barry Bonds
It is kind of wild that during Bonds’ absurd four-year MVP stretch — he set the home run and slugging records in one of those years, set the on-base record in two of those years, set all sorts of intentional walk records in three of those years — the only time he was elected unanimously was 2002.
I mean, don’t get me wrong — 2002 was a bananas season. Bonds hit .370 that year with a .582 on-base percentage. He was intentionally walked 68 times. His 1.381 OPS was the highest in baseball history up to that point.
But … he wasn’t unanimous the year before when he hit 73 home runs (Sammy Sosa got two votes). And he wasn’t unanimous in 2004 when he was intentionally walked 120 times (he actually finished eight votes shy that year — Adrian Beltré, Pujols and Scott Rolen all got first-place votes).
Just kind of interesting.
ALMOST: Joey Votto in 2010
Votto fell one vote shy — that vote going to Albert Pujols who basically had an identical season to Joey. This is a good opportunity to share with you a text exchange I had with Votto a couple of days ago;
2014: Mike Trout
By now, people started having access to WAR — and since Trout had led the league in WAR the previous two seasons but had not won the MVP award, it was so clearly his turn. The funny thing is he actually DID NOT lead the league in Baseball-Reference WAR in 2014 — it’s the only season between 2012 and 2016 that he didn’t.
Corey Kluber led the league in bWAR in 2014. Klu-bot finished 11th in the MVP voting.
2015: Bryce Harper
Harper really was, more or less, the only choice in 2015, when he led the league in runs, homers, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. It looked like he might win every MVP award for the next decade.
Instead, he bounced back and forth between good years and so-so years and bad years … until 2021. He wasn’t as good this past season as he was in 2015, but he was plenty good and still won his second MVP award.*
*Being honest and a big Harper fan, I still probably would have voted for Juan Soto.
ALMOST: Kris Bryant in 2016
Somebody voted for Daniel Murphy instead of Bryant, which was weird. I mean, Murphy had a great season, he hit .347 and led the league with a .595 slugging percentage. But considering both offense and defense, he surely wasn’t as valuable as Bryant … but even more to the point, that year was SO ABOUT the Chicago Cubs, I just wonder how anybody passed on Kris Bryant that year.
2021: Shohei Ohtani
It was a season unlike any other in baseball history, and, as mentioned, such seasons get a lot of love from MVP voters.
But it’s almost like Shohei was his own category rather than the Most Valuable Player. He was a force as a hitter, bashing 46 home runs AND a league-leading eight triples, but Vlad Guerrero Jr. had what looks to me like a significantly better offensive season.
And Ohtani was a force as a pitcher, striking out 156 batters in 130 innings. But he wasn’t anywhere close to the best pitcher in the league; he didn’t get a single Cy Young vote, even way downballot.
Add it up, absolutely, nobody can match the value. But it’s just a really odd mathematical equation — superb hitter + excellent pitcher = MVP. Nobody else is in that particular formula. And so I’m a little surprised that there wasn’t one voter who cut against the grain and voted for Guerrero Jr.; you could argue that he was enough of a better hitter that the pitching didn’t quite make up the gap.
Then again, I’m not all that surprised. We all LOVE Shohei Ohtani, he’s one of the best things to happen to MLB in years. and I imagine nobody wants to be THAT person.