Who Ya Got? An MVP Primer

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the MVP Vote

It’s far too early to say, of course. Far too early. But barring injury (or an out-of-character slump), it seems a safe bet that the American League MVP Award is going to be a spirited two-man race between the Angels’ Mike Trout and Boston’s Mookie Betts.

Statistically, it’s close to a dead heat. Betts (.350/.439/.675/194 OPS+/5.8 WAR)* has the modest edge in traditional measures, while Trout (.314/.455/.621/197 OPS+/7.0 WAR)* is favored slightly by advanced metrics. Betts stars for a juggernaut team destined for the post-season, while Trout… doesn’t. Both are able to do just about anything (and everything) asked of a player — and do it better than just about everybody else.

So who ya got?

Actually, hold that thought. Before you answer, a quick (and perhaps predictive) primer on MVP voting.


Since the modern incarnation of the Most Valuable Player award was introduced in 1931, we’ve learned a few things along the way:

  • The MVP goes to the best player on the best team — except when it doesn’t. Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” produced six MVPs in eight years; the 1996–2000 Yankees, with four World Series championships in five years, produced … none.
  • Players from last-place teams never win the MVP — except when they do (Andre Dawson, 1987; Alex Rodriguez, 2003).
  • MVPs are players who show up for work every day — except when they’re not. Gabby Hartnett played a mere 116 games in his 1935 campaign; George Brett suited up for 117 games in 1980; Josh Hamilton missed a month of the season in 2010; Clayton Kershaw made but 27 starts in his 2014 MVP campaign.
  • The MVP award goes to the best all-around player in the league in a given season — except when it doesn’t (see Mays, Willie). MVPs have led their league in WAR about a third of the time.
  • Team performance seems to mean more than player performance when it comes to MVP voting. Which is a little odd if you think about it, since it’s called the “Most Valuable Player Award.” More than 80% of MVP winners since 1931 have come from pennant-winning or playoff teams; of the 174 total awards granted since 1931, only five have gone to a player from a losing team.1
  • Setting a record of some sort goes a long way in the eyes of MVP voters. A record will often overshadow the all-around accomplishments of a superior candidate. George Burns was named AL MVP in 1926 because he hit lots (and lots) of doubles; Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak was the main pillar supporting his 1941 award platform; Maury Wills took 1962 honors because he broke Ty Cobb’s long-standing stolen base record; Denny McLain won 31 games in 1968 and took home an MVP to go along with his Cy Young trophy; you know about Roger Maris in 1961.
  • All-around players who do everything well tend to do worse in the voting than “specialists” who excel at one thing. That one thing is usually driving in runs. MVP voters historically love RBI. Love them. Approximately one-third of all MVP selections since 1931 have led their league in RBI; the majority of all MVP selections have finished in the top-five in RBI.
  • That said, it looks like those RBI fires might be cooling, at least a bit: Since 1998, only two NL MVPs have led their league in runs driven in (Ryan Howard, 2006; Giancarlo Stanton, 2017), while four trophies have gone to the RBI leader in the American League (Alex Rodriguez, 2007; Miguel Cabrera, 2012; Mike Trout, 2014; Josh Donaldson, 2015). Out of a total of 38 awards given to position players since 1998, eight have failed to place among the league leaders in RBI: Ivan Rodriguez (1999), Ichiro Suzuki (2001), Jimmy Rollins (2007), Dustin Pedroia (2008), Joe Mauer (2009), Josh Hamilton (2010), and Andrew McCutchen (2013) and Mike Trout (2016).
  • Latter-day MVP voters are somewhat indifferent to defense. While the writers fall for the rakish, hollow charm of the RBI, dependable, drama-free defense often goes ignored.
  • Designated hitters, as David Ortiz and Edgar Martinez can affirm, have no shot at claiming an award. MVP voters obviously think there’s such a thing as being too specialized.
  • MVP voters are suckers for a narrative. Narrative includes things like “leadership,” “intangibles,” “clutch performance,” “playing the right way,” and “showing a team how to win” (see Stargell, Willie and the 1979 NL vote).
  • National League voters hate pitchers (unless that pitcher is Clayton Kershaw). American League voters had a bizarre fascination with relief pitchers for about a decade (those hazy, crazy ’80s).
  • MVP voters used to love catchers and pitchers. Now they love corner outfielders and first basemen. They hate second basemen like an underemployed son-in-law (only 10 MVP selections out of the 174 awarded since 1931). They should really love catchers a lot more than they do.
  • MVP voters don’t love the Triple Crown as much as one would expect. There have been 15 Triple Crowns since 1900 — with the MVP award in existence for 12 of them. Those 12 seasons produced seven MVPs, meaning Triple Crown titlists have been named MVP only 58% of the time.
  • We’ve learned that it’s really hard to define “value,” which is problematic because the award was created to recognize the most valuable player in each league. Many voters employ Justice Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” criteria. Using this criteria has led to some highly dubious MVP choices over the years.
  • It should also be said that, on the whole, the voters get it right (or at least “right-ish”) more often than not. Historically, MVP voters have proven an obstinate lot, overvaluing RBI and rewarding borderline candidates based on team record. And yet, none of the awards doled out in recent years have been worthy of a general recall. In fact, there really hasn’t been an unmitigated disaster of a vote since the Juan Gonzalez debacle of 1998.

There. That was pretty cut-and-dry, no? Everything you could possibly want to know about MVP voting; everything you could possibly need to predict this year’s vote (Disclaimer: Past results are not an indicator of future success).

So, back to the question at hand.

Who ya got?

Jeremy Lehrman is the author of Baseball’s Most Baffling MVP Ballots. For more baseball, click here.

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*Statistics through July 12, 2018

NOTES

  1. Ernie Banks (1958–59), Andre Dawson (1987), Cal Ripken (1991), Alex Rodriguez (2003), and Mike Trout (2016) are on this illustrious list.