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November 17, 2005

Crooked Numbers

What Were They Thinking?

by James Click

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Earlier this week, the BBWAA handed out the real hardware: the MVP awards. In case you've been too busy watching the newly renamed ESPNTO ("All Terrell Owens, All the Time"), know that Alex Rodriguez edged out David Ortiz in the AL and Albert Pujols squeaked by Andruw Jones in the NL. These races have been covered in detail both here and elsewhere, and we can all agree that, as Keith Woolner put it to the internal BP mailing list, "the anti-DH gene is dominant over the clutch-hitting gene," so instead I want to focus on the bottom of the ballot, to something BP staffer David Haller pointed out.

Down there at the bottom of the NL ballot, we see the names of Scott Eyre and Jose Reyes, indicating that two writers felt that those two players were the 10th most valuable players in the NL last year. Let's put aside Jayson Stark's comments that defense is both intangible and of less value than leadership--the conclusion being that when a player is in the field, saying "Hey batter, hey batter, swing batter" is more important than actually fielding the ball--and instead focus on the fact that Reyes finished the year with a .300 OBP (10th worst in the NL among players with at least 450 PA), but clearly got a vote because of his 60 SBs. Eyre was actually seventh among NL RPs in WXRL, but picked up zero saves on the season. On one hand, we have the classic overrated player and on the other, one who's actually impressively underrated. Neither of them deserves a vote for MVP, but it raises interesting questions about the criteria used by the BBWAA.

Motivations and reasoning aside, the fact of the matter is that Eyre had a 2.5 WARP1 for the season--a thoroughly unremarkable total--and still garnered a vote. Reyes wasn't much better (3.5 WARP1). But were these the worst MVP votes in the history of the game? Hardly.

Going by straight WARP1, only two players have ever garnered MVP votes while performing below replacement level, both way back in 1950: Ken Wood and Sam Dente. Wood, the right fielder for the 58-96 St. Louis Browns, batted .225/.299/.396, was 0-for-4 on stolen base attempts, played the worst defense of his career, and totaled a -0.3 WARP1. The only statistic in which he led his team was GIDP. Dente was the shortstop for the 67-87 Washington Senators with a .239/.286/.299 line on the season that was only hurt more by his -10 FRAA and 1-for-2 record in stolen base attempts. Dente led the Senators in games, ABs, sacrifices, and GIDPs. I have no idea why these two were deemed worthy of MVP votes.

Of course, those were only ninth- and tenth-place votes, so it's possible that local writers had some small motivation and didn't think tossing a tenth-place vote to a terrible local player would hurt anyone. A more egregious offense is to distribute first-place votes to players who were objectively terrible. To determine the worst first-place votes ever cast, let's look at the list of players who ranked lowest in their league in WARP1 and yet still received a first place vote:

                            1st Place                WARP
Year  Player            Lg    Votes    Win   WARP1   Rank
----  ----------------  --  ---------  ---   -----   ----
1992  Joe Carter        AL      4       N     4.3     92
2003  Miguel Tejada     AL      1       N     4.5     91
1956  Pee Wee Reese     NL      3       N     2.6     91
1989  George Bell       AL      4       N     4.9     85
1979  Willie Stargell   NL      4       Y     4.4     82
2003  David Ortiz       AL      4       N     4.9     75
1982  Bruce Sutter      NL      2       N     5.1     70
1996  Juan Gonzalez     AL     11       Y     5.0     68
1989  Dennis Eckersley  AL      3       N     5.2     67
1937  Harry Danning     NL      1       N     3.8     67
As if there wasn't already enough fodder for the "Joe Carter: The Most Overrated Career Ever" campaign, now that group can add "Worst First Place MVP Votes Ever Cast" to their list. Miguel Tejada's 2003 vote is somewhat understandable: he won the award in 2002 and his 2003 campaign, while certainly worse, wasn't a dramatic drop-off. However, 2003 was Tejada's worst year with the glove and while he maintained his walk rate and ISO, the .030 point drop in batting average tanked his WARP numbers.

On this list, of course, are the two worst MVPs ever awarded according to WARP1 rank: Willie Stargell's 1979 and Juan Gonzalez's 1996. Stargell's--a tie with Keith Hernandez, #2 in the NL in WARP1--was largely a result of his storybook year as the captain of "The Family." He was the face of the Pirates as they marched to the World Series Championship, blaring that gawdawful song the entire way. His low WARP1 total was partially due to his limited playing time, but while his .281/.352/.552 line on the season is impressive, it's not quite on par with Hernandez's .344/.417/.513 (11.1 WARP1) or Dave Winfield's .308/.395/.558 (12.1 WARP1), especially when defense is considered.

The 1996 AL MVP race was not unlike this year's contest, as Rodriguez took on a DH in the battle for the hardware. As opposed to 2005, when "clutch" hitting stats were supposedly the reason for considering a DH on equal ground with one of the league's best fielders, the 1996 debacle was a debate about first-place teams and RBI. Gonzalez had a huge season with the bat (.314/.368/.643 with 47 HR and 147 RBI), but AL DHs hit .277/.364/.466 that year. Rodriguez, on the other hand, hit .358/.414/.631 with 36 HR and 123 RBI. His .326 EqA easily trumps Gonzalez's .304, but more importantly, Rodriguez did all this while players like Omar Vizquel were still the norm at shortstop. The average AL SS hit .269/.321/.408 in 1996, a line that Rodriguez destroyed while outperforming every other AL shortstop in the field except for Toronto's Alex Gonzalez.

The 1996 MVP vote is usually cited as one of the worst of all time, and having it validated by Gonzalez's terrible WARP1 ranking only furthers that line of thinking. Is it worse than Stargell's election in 1979? By WARP1 rank, yes, but at least Hernandez was able to split that award. Rodriguez got nothing in 1996 for one of the greatest seasons of all time by a shortstop. At least in 2005, the voters gave the award the most deserving player, even if they tossed a few misplaced tenth-place votes.

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