Almost every year, there ends up being some kind of debate about all of the important MLB awards. We all have different ideas about what aspects of the game should be given the most weight, different definitions for what “most valuable” means, etc.. And that is all well and good. People are free to interpret the game however they choose. This is a democracy. But that being said, I still feel that there are methodologies that are objectively better at determining value, and I want to use those methods to take a look at some of the worst MVP seasons of all-time.
Wins Above Replacement is the single best way to do this. WAR provides a great snapshot of a player’s value that year, taking into account all facets of the individual’s game, but not assigning unfair value to players on a successful team, or taking value away for players who happen to be surrounded by lesser teammates. WAR isn’t the be-all-end-all, but it is the best metric for our purposes. This isn’t meant to be a hyper-detailed, scientific determination, just a look back at a few of the worst MVP selections in baseball history.
Dennis Eckersley, 1992 American League MVP
Eckersley certainly had a great career all told, first as a starting pitcher from 1975-1986, and then a closer/reliever from there after. But he wasn’t really an MVP level player, especially in those years out of the bullpen. Still, he was awarded the AL MVP in 1992, and it is pretty clearly a mistake. Eckersley posted just a 3.1 fWAR that season, which is high for a reliever, but pretty low for the sport overall. Obviously WAR wasn’t considered then, but even his 1.91 ERA isn’t that impressive. This was almost certainly a case of voters looking at his save total (which in my opinion is one of the worst mainstream stats) of which Eckersley had 51.
To make this even more clear, let’s look at some of the players who probably deserved the award more than Eckersley. There were plenty, but Frank Thomas and Roger Clemens stand out the most. Thomas posted a 175 wRC+ in 1992, which was the best in the American League and second in all of baseball to only Barry Bonds. That allowed him to overcome poor defensive value and post a 7.1 fWAR, also best among American League hitters with Mark McGwire almost a full win shy.
Clemens, though, may have had an even better case, especially if they were so willing to go the pitcher route for the MVP award that season. Clemens posted a 7.6 fWAR on the year, 4.5 wins higher than Eckersley. His ERA led the AL at 2.41, and his FIP led all of baseball at 2.54. And while Eckersley’s 1.91 and 1.72 ERA and FIP are better, he did so as a reliever, meaning not only did he pitch less, but he had it easier when he did so. Whether you prefer Clemens or Bonds, or someone else, it is pretty obvious Eckersley had no business winning the award.
Here we have another case of a Hall of Fame player getting recognized despite having a fairly undeserving season. He hit well, no doubt, with a 137 wRC+, but plenty of players hit even better, while also providing more overall value than Stargell’s 2.7 fWAR. And similar to how the save totals are likely what prompted voters to go with Eckersley, this was likely due to his team having success that year, and Stargell having cemented himself as the star of said team for the previous 17 seasons.
So who should have won instead? Well, Dave Winfield of the Padres led the NL in both wRC+ and fWAR at 161 and 7.8 respectively. Or, alternatively, Hernandez would have been a fine choice on his own, as his 156 wRC+ and 7.4 fWAR were both just a touch behind Winfield, 2nd and 3rd in the NL ranks respectively.
However, once again, there is a case to be made for a pitcher. Specifically, J.R. Richard of the Astros who was 2nd in the NL in innings at 292.1, 1st in ERA at 2.71, and a distant 1st in FIP at 2.21. In fact, no one else was even below 3.00 in FIP, so we can see how much better he was than the competition. All of that combined for a 8.9 fWAR season, twice as much as anyone else in his league. He appears to have a greater argument than anyone else, but like the former example, there were plenty of more deserving candidates than Stargell.
Mickey Cochrane, 1934 American League MVP
We will go back a little further for this final one, with catcher Mickey Cochrane of the Tigers. Cochrane likely had the best year out of the three I have mentioned in this article, posting a 123 wRC+ and 3.9 fWAR thanks to getting increased value as a catcher. His power took a massive dip starting that year after leaving the Athletics, hitting just 2 home runs with a .092 ISO compared to 15 and .193 the year prior, but he still got on base at a .428 clip.
But that is simply a very good year, not an MVP year, at least not when we consider who the competition was. There were 11 American League hitters with a better wRC+ than Cochrane that year, headlined by Lou Gehrig‘s massive 194 mark. That means Gehrig was a full 36% better at the plate than Cochrane was, overall. Beyond that, Gehrig’s 10.7 fWAR led the AL, and outdid Cochrane by almost 7 full wins, and was a full two wins better than the 2nd place Jimmie Foxx.
And so, while Cochrane’s season was likely better that that of Eckersley and Stargell, his is just as egregious due to the success of the man who truly deserved it. There were 13 AL players with a higher WAR than Cochrane, seven of them beating him out by a full win or more, meaning the margin for error should no longer be a factor, but Gehrig was the clear choice despite finishing 5th in the award voting.
There are more questionable, or downright terrible, choices in baseball history for not just the MVP, but for all of the honors the league gives out. These were just three that I find to be three of the worst offenders for one reason or another, but I would be interested to hear of some other honorable mentions that you find particularly shameful. We will certainly continue to have these kinds of arguments into the future, and as we move along and acquire more data and information, I am sure many of those choices will be similarly frustrating, but ultimately that is how we learn and grow.