NY Giants outfielder Mel Ott was a scourge on NL pitchers for more than two decades

The Best Ever to Never Claim an MVP Award

Mel Ott (.304/.414/.533/155 OPS+/108 WAR) may be the best position player to never claim an MVP Award[i]. It certainly wasn’t through any fault of his own.

Called a “natural hitter” at the age of 16 by John McGraw, Ott may have had the most unnatural stance to ever grace a batter’s box: The left-handed hitting Ott would cock his lead leg, suspending his knee waist-high while dropping his hands (and the bat handle) well below his belt-line as the ball made its way to the plate (if Ott wasn’t holding a bat in his hands, he might be mistaken for a pitcher in his wind-up). While his approach was unorthodox, his results were extraordinary: He led his league in home runs and walks six times apiece; adjusted production (OPS+) five times; on-base percentage four times. WAR rates him the best position player in his league five times, and his 108 career total is 16th all-time. That his MVP fortunes didn’t match his production is a matter of timing and circumstance.

Take 1929: All of 20 years old, Ott hits .328/.449/.635, with 42 HR/151 RBI/138 R — and leads the league in exactly… none of these categories. His overall performance merits better than the 11th-place finish afforded him by the voters, but there’s hardly a case to be made for the preternaturally talented young player as the league’s most valuable. In an absurd year for offense (teams averaged 5.36 r/g, the second-highest total in history), Ott’s batting line is indistinguishable from half-a-dozen other bloated seasons. MVP Rogers Hornsby hits like Rogers Hornsby: .380/.459/.679. Batting champion Lefty O’Doul slashes .398/.465/.622. Babe Herman (.381/.436/.612), Hack Wilson (.345/.425/.618), Chuck Klein (.356/.407/.657), and Riggs Stevenson (.363/.445/.562)… Ott’s greatness gets lost in this herd.

The NY right-fielder's best finish in the MVP vote was a third-place showing in 1942. While Ott was one of the best handful of players in the league, he was hardly scorned by the voters: St. Louis ace Mort Cooper was the rightful choice, pacing the league in every important pitching category (save strikeouts, finishing second) and leading the Cardinals to an NL pennant. Ott’s Giants finished a desultory third, 20 games afield — a result that would repeat itself throughout Ott’s career and one that undoubtedly dashed his MVP fortunes on more than one occasion.

The Giants did take the NL pennant in 1936, and WAR (7.6) ranks Ott (.328/.448/.588) as the league’s best position player. But he finishes a harsh sixth on the ballot as teammate Carl Hubbell claims his second MVP. The great Hubbell was more than deserving of the honor, claiming the pitcher’s version of the Triple Crown and lapping the field in WAR (10.1).

Ott’s finest season may have been 1938. The NY slugger set career highs in WAR (8.9) and OPS+ (178), leading the league in those categories (as well as runs, home runs and OBP). He settled for fourth in the MVP vote, behind Cincinnati catcher Ernie Lombardi (who led the league with a .342 average), Chicago’s Bill Lee (22–9, league-leading 2.66 ERA), and Pittsburgh’s brilliant shortstop Ark Vaughn (.322/.433/.444). Ott or Vaughn were probably the best choices for the award, but Lombardi’s nod hardly qualifies as a robbery.

We’d be remiss if we failed to mention the role Ott’s home park may have played in his MVP fortunes: Manhattan’s Polo Grounds was a paradise for left-handed pull hitters, and Ott took full advantage of the largess afforded by his peculiar and particular home base, hitting 323 of his 511 career HR at home (it was but 257 ft down the right-field line). Sportswriters at the time may have assigned a “Polo Grounds Penalty” to his achievements (the same standard wasn’t applied to Chuck Klein, who, despite playing in an even more extreme hitter’s park, claimed an MVP and two-runner-up finishes from 1931–1933).[ii]

Other contenders for the pyrrhic title of “Best Ever to Never Claim an MVP” include Eddie Mathews, Adrian Beltre, Eddie Murray, Wade Boggs, and Derek Jeter. None were victims of outright robbery or voter incompetence (and all will eventually be enshrined in the Hall of Fame). Mathews counts two runner-up finishes on his resume (1953 and 1959); both were about right: Roy Campanella (.312/.395/.611/41HR/142RBI) led the league in RBI and the Dodgers to an NL pennant in the former, while Ernie Banks (10.2 WAR) had one of the great seasons ever by a shortstop in the latter.

Baltimore stalwart Eddie Murray peppered the ballot with metronomic consistency, with five consecutive top-five finishes (two runner-up nods) from 1981–1985. He was never the best or most valuable player in his league.

Jeter famously conceded a very close 2006 MVP to an inferior candidate in Justin Morneau, but it was hardly as scandalous as the NY tabloids would have us believe: Jeter was spectacular (.343/.417/.483), but Joe Mauer (.347/.429/.507) and Johan Santana (a pitching triple crown) were at least as qualified for the honor. Jeter’s sixth-place finish in 1999 is probably the bigger snub: Hitting .349/.438/.552, Jeter (8.0 WAR) ranked as the best position player in the league — though not the best candidate for MVP. That would have been Boston’s otherworldy righthander Pedro Martinez (23–4/2.07 ERA/313K/243 ERA+). The award was claimed by Texas catcher Ivan Rodriguez when two writers left Martinez off their ballot.

With only one top-five MVP finish over the course of his brilliant career, Wade Boggs is probably the most overlooked elite player in MVP voting history. Despite leading all position players in WAR and OPS+ from 1985–1989 (hitting .357/.454/.496 over 768 G), Boggs never finished higher than fourth on the ballot. With patience and precision, he dominated in ways that weren’t fully understood or appreciated by voters at the time.

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

Photo: Stuff Nobody Cares About

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NOTES

[i] The MVP award as we know it today was created in 1931.

[ii] It should be noted that Ott was a HOF-caliber hitter away from home as well (Home: .297/.422/.558 Away: .311/.408/.510). The same cannot be said for Chuck Klein, who hit .286/.346/.466 on the road.