The "Worst" MVP Winners Ever

Ezra Shaw

There's been a lot of discussion over the past couple of days about the American League Most Valuable Player award going to Miguel Cabrera, even though Mike Trout had a far superior WAR. Thought it might be fun to dig into the record books and see where this ranked in the realms of MVP choices.

What I did was scan the MVP voting back to 1956, and look for cases where the league leader in position player WAR was superior to the Most Valuable Player in WAR, by the biggest margin. Why 1956? That was the first year a Cy Young award was given out; since then, pitchers have tended to be at a disadvantage for the MVP award. They have still won it occasionally, but I feel uncomfortable comparing pitcher WAR and hitter WAR, so I've discarded all cases where a pitcher was named MVP. Also excluded are cases where a pitcher had the league's best WAR, but was not MVP - as noted, they have the Cy Young, so those cases are, at least to a certain extent, explicable.

This year, Mike Trout had a WAR 3.8 wins better than MVP Miguel Cabrera. However, that doesn't even make the top 10 of MVP "travesties" - the gap needs to be four WAR to qualify for that. And, of course, I use quotes around "travesties," as I did around "worst" in the title of this piece. Because there are factors which the BBWAA explicitly state need to be taken into account by voters, that don't show up in WAR, such as "General character, disposition, loyalty and effort." Still, one does wonder how much "disposition" it takes to overcome a gap of four WAR - or, as we'll see shortly, quite a lot more than that. Here, in reverse order, are the six biggest WAR crimes.

5. NL 1964. Ken Boyer (5.8 WAR) over Willie Mays (10.7 WAR) = 4.9 WAR

Mays won the MVP twice, in 1954 and 1965, but there were no less than seven other occasions where he led the National League in WAR. In most of those seasons, he was three-plus WAR better than the actual MVP, and this was the most yawning gap of them all. He was more than two wins ahead of any other player in the league, but as this year, the voters went for a third-baseman over a center-fielder - however, unlike this year, Mays was clearly the superior hitters, with an OPS 136 points better than Boyer. Despite this, Mays did not just fail to win, he didn't even get a single first-place vote, and came in sixth.

4. AL 1979. Don Baylor (3.5 WAR) over Fred Lynn (8.6 WAR) = 5.1 WAR

This was a landslide for current Diamondbacks' hitting coach Baylor, who took 20 of the available 28 first-place votes. However, it seems to have been a triumph of seriously traditional metrics, as outside of leading the league in RBI and Runs, Baylor didn't have much to offer. Lynn's triple-slash numbers were better than Baylor by 37, 52 and 107 points respectively, leading to an OPS advantage of 158 points. Here again, there are echoes of this season, with Lynn being a center fielder on a third-place club, rather than a division winner, as was the case with Baylor. Lynn ended up in fourth, again without a first-place vote.

3. NL 1974. Steve Garvey (4.3 WAR) over Mike Schmidt (9.5 WAR) = 5.2 WAR

Player A: .312/.342/.469 = .811 OPS
Player B: .353/.383/.503 = .886 OPS
Player C: .282/.395/.546 = .941 OPS
Player A was Garvey, who couldn't draw a walk to save himself (less than one BB every five games). Player B was Ralph Garr, who won the league batting title, but finished 12th in the MVP voting, with a superior line to Garvey. And Player C was Schmidt, who may have been penalized for leading the league in strikeouts, it being an era where more people cared about that.

2. NL 1979. Willie Stargell (2.3 WAR) over Dave Winfield (8.1 WAR) = 5.8 WAR

Yes, 1979 again. I almost missed this, because it was the only time the MVP award was shared - co-winner Keith Hernandez posted an entirely respectable 7.4 WAR, so it nearly slipped through. Stargell's 2.3 is among the lowest WAR values ever - even relief pitcher Dennis Eckersley, when he won in in 1992, was worth half a win more. As a yardstick, know how disappointed we were with Justin Upton's season? He was worth 2.1 WAR. Stargell scored only 60 runs, which must be an all-time low for an MVP. Even though Hernandez got more first-place votes, 10-4, Willie picked up enough minor places to sneak into a tie, though it's possible this might have been a miscount.

1. AL 1996. Juan Gonzalez (3.5 WAR) over Ken Griffey Jr. (9.5 WAR) = 6.0 WAR

Six WAR. That's like giving the NL MVP to Jay Bruce instead of Buster Posey. Or alternatively: Gonzalez was 31st by WAR in his league. 31st in their leagues this season were David Murphy and Jon Jay. Want it put another way? The difference between the best player on the D-backs this season (Aaron Hill) and the worst (Jacob Elmore) was only 5.2 WAR. A close vote, it wasn't Griffey in second, but A-Rod, whose 9.2 WAR would also have been more deserving. This could have been a ballot mistake too: Ivan Rodriguez got a first-place vote from someone, and was no higher than fifth everywhere else; did that voter intend to vote for Alex? That would have turned the entire result in his favor.

Here is the full chart of every occasion since 1956 where the chosen MVP has come in at more than two WAR below the MWP [Most WAR Player].

Year MVP WAR MWP WAR Diff
1996 Juan Gonzalez 3.5 Ken Griffey Jr. 9.5 6.0
1979 Willie Stargell 2.3 Dave Winfield 8.1 5.8
1974 Steve Garvey 4.3 Mike Schmidt 9.5 5.2
1979 Don Baylor 3.5 Fred Lynn 8.6 5.1
1964 Ken Boyer 5.8 Willie Mays 10.7 4.9
1987 Andre Dawson 3.7 Tony Gwynn 8.3 4.6
1970 Boog Powell 4.8 Carl Yastrzemski 9.3 4.5
1962 Maury Wills 5.8 Willie Mays 10.2 4.4
1995 Mo Vaughn 4.1 John Valentine 8.1 4.0
1974 Geoff Burroughs 3.2 Rod Carew 7.2 4.0
1955 Roy Campanella 5.0 Willie Mays 8.8 3.8
1958 Jackie Jensen 4.6 Mickey Mantle 8.4 3.8
1969 Harmon Killebrew 5.7 Rico Petrocelli 9.5 3.8
2004 Vlad Guerrero 5.2 Ichiro Suzuki 9.0 3.8
2012 Miguel Cabrera 6.9 Mike Trout 10.7 3.8
1999 Juan Gonzalez 4.6 Alex Rodriguez 8.3 3.7
1987 George Bell 4.6 Wade Boggs 8.2 3.6
1961 Roger Maris 6.7 Mickey Mantle 10.2 3.5
1985 Don Mattingly 6.4 Rickey Henderson 9.8 3.4
2002 Miguel Tejada 5.3 Alex Rodriguez 8.6 3.3
1960 Dick Groat 6.0 Willie Mays 9.2 3.2
2006 Ryan Howard 5.0 Albert Pujols 8.2 3.2
1967 Orlando Cepeda 6.6 Ron Santo 9.6 3.0
1989 Robin Young 5.4 Rickey Henderson 8.4 3.0
2000 Jason Giambi 7.4 Alex Rodriguez 10.1 2.7
1993 Frank Thomas 5.9 Ken Griffey Jr. 8.5 2.6
1976 Thurman Munson 5.0 Graig Nettles 7.6 2.6
2007 Jimmy Rollins 6.0 Albert Pujols 8.5 2.5
2006 Justin Morneau 4.0 Grady Sizemore 6.5 2.5
1982 Dale Murphy 5.8 Gary Carter 8.2 2.4
1963 Elston Howard 5.0 Bob Allison 7.2 2.2
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