Biggest MLB MVP Snubs of All Time

Five cases where the runner-up could have easily won the award.

The thing about doing an article about MVP snubs is saying that the person who won the award in that particular season didn’t deserve it. Well, I for one trust the Baseball Writers Association of America to make the best choices for MLB’s awards. Two writers from each team’s city vote for the awards in that league, with writers splitting which awards they cast ballots for (one writer from each each voted from 1931-38, while three voted from 1938-61).

With metrics now heavily involved in a player’s worthiness, stats such as WAR have been applied to previous outcomes to back up narratives. Also, the Player of the Year argument has been used to supplant MVP — in other words, a player who had the best season as opposed to a player who was valuable to his team’s success. But the BBWAA has not defined what MVP is, leaving that open for interpretation.

This year’s MVPs will be announced Nov. 17, following Rookie of the Year (Nov. 14), Manager of the Year (Nov. 15) and Cy Young Award (Nov. 16). The top three finishers from each league for each award are being revealed today, a week before their order of finish is disclosed. As a reminder, voting for postseason awards is completed before the postseason begins, so only regular-season results are considered. For a lot of this discussion, only first-place votes were available.

Three caveats for this exercise: To be snubbed, a player needs to have finished second. Also, only MVP awards from 1931 on will be considered, as that is when the BBWAA took control of voting (under a prior format, previous winners were not eligible, leaving Babe Ruth with one AL MVP award in his career). Finally, I didn’t get into the apples-and-oranges argument where a position player and a pitcher finished 1-2.

With all that said, here is my list of worst MVP snubs (all references to WAR are from Baseball Reference):

 

1962: Mays Victim Of Wills’ Thievery

 

Believe it or not, Willie Mays only won two NL MVP awards, in 1954 and 1965, during his Hall of Fame career. He had two runner-ups (1958, 1962) and was third twice (1960, 1966). He was still receiving MVP votes at age 40, finishing 19th in 1971. But it was 1962 that sticks out. The San Francisco Giants center fielder had a slash line of .304/.384/.615 and led the NL with 49 homers and 382 total bases, while also driving in 141 runs and scoring 130.

Down the coast, Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Maury Wills slashed .299/.347/.373 and led the NL in plate appearances (759), triples (10) and became the first played in MLB history to hit triple digits in stolen bases with 104 (caught a league-high 13 times). Of the 20 voters, eight gave their first-place spot to Wills and seven to Mays. Dodgers teammate Tommy Davis, a left fielder-third baseman, received three first-place votes and Cincinnati Reds right fielder Frank Robinson two. Robinson was the 1961 NL MVP. Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale was fifth in voting and Giants pitcher Jack Sanford seventh.

Wills outpointed Mays 209-202, but with all the votes that went to teammates Davis and Drysdale, Wills could have won by a much wider margin. Whose team was better? The Giants and Dodgers each won 101 games during the first 162 games (the first season of that length), so a best-of-three series broke the tie, with San Francisco winning 2-1.

While Mays certainly had the better overall offensive numbers, Wills’ run to triple digits was the headline-grabber of the season. Wills’ 104 bags were 72 more than another Dodgers teammate, center fielder Willie Davis (32) and broke the MLB record of 96, set by Ty Cobb in 1915, also the last year anyone stole more than 70 until 1962. Mays’ WAR of 10.5 was easily ahead of Wills’ 6.0, which was fifth-best in the NL. However, Wills matched the WAR of the AL MVP, New York Yankees center fielder Mickey Mantle. Mantle’s 6.0 was fourth-best in the AL.

Have to chalk this one up to the infatuation with Wills’ stolen base record.

 

1955: Snider Topped By Teammate Campy

 

Typically, teammates having MVP seasons pull votes from one another. But six times since divisional play began in 1969, two players on the same team finished first and second in MVP voting (could we see another one this year with St. Louis’ Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado?). This case, however, takes place before then.

First baseman Duke Snider and catcher Roy Campanella were the primary reasons the Brooklyn Dodgers easily posted the best record in the NL at 98-55, 13½ games ahead of the second-place Milwaukee Braves. Campanella had a slash line of .318/.395/.583 with 32 homers, 107 RBIs and 81 runs scored. Snider, meanwhile, slashed .309/.418/.628 with 42 homers and NL bests in RBIs (136) and runs (126). All that resulted in Snider’s WAR being 8.6 to Campanella’s 5.2.

Each received eight first-place votes, but Campy outpointed Snider 226-221. Chicago Cubs shortstop Ernie Banks finished third in the voting and drew six first-place votes. What likely made the difference between Snider and Campanella was the catcher’s story. Campanella broke a bone in his left hand during spring training in 1954 and returned early from the injury. He also missed time in 1955 with a bone spur broke off in his left knee. Campanella was also considered the best defensive catcher in baseball and an unquestioned leader on the Dodgers.

Snider? He was in a stretch in which he finished in the top-10 of NL MVP voting for six of seven years, including taking third and fourth in the previous two years. His runner-up finish in 1955 was his highest.

 

1996: Young A-Rod Upended By Juan Gone

 

Two things worked against Alex Rodriguez in the voting for 1996 AL MVP. First, it was A-Rod’s first full season in MLB with the Seattle Mariners. He had 65 games the previous two seasons and was no longer a rookie. Second, A-Rod played alongside the game’s best player, center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., who was in the middle of five of six seasons finishing in the top five of MVP voting (he broke a wrist making a catch in 1995 that limited him to 72 games).

A-Rod, just 20 years old for most of the 1996 season, lived up to his massive hype by slashing .358/.414/.631 with 36 homers and 123 RBIs. He led the AL in batting average, runs (141), total bases (379) and doubles (54) while playing the premium position of shortstop pretty well. But Texas Rangers right fielder Juan Gonzalez, himself only 26 but an established major-leaguer after breaking in at 19, slashed .314/.368/.643 with 47 homers and 144 RBIs. Already a two-time AL home run champ, Gonzalez did not lead the league in any offensive categories in 1996. Griffey, in his age-26 season, slashed .303/.392/.628 with 49 homers and 140 RBIs.

The Rangers won the AL West, five games better than the Mariners, with Gonzalez posting a 3.8 WAR compared to Griffey’s MLB-best 9.7 and Rodriguez’s 9.4. When it came to voting, Gonzalez pulled down 11 first-place votes, A-Rod 10, Griffey four and Cleveland’s Albert Belle two. Gonzalez finished with 290 points, with A-Rod second at 287, Belle third at 228 and Griffey fourth at 188.

With the difference between a first- and second- place vote being five points (14 or 9), a vote for Griffey over A-Rod certainly would have created the margin that gave the MVP to Gonzalez.

 

1995: Belle Rung Up By Vaughn

 

Speaking of Albert Belle, this one is complicated. First, the 1995 season was delayed by the continuation of the players’ strike, which started in 1994 and forced the World Series to be canceled for the first time in MLB history. Once the strike was settled, officially April 2, teams played a 144-game schedule. Next, Belle was baseball’s bad boy — and that was before knocking over Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Fernando Vina while running between first and second in 1996. One of the reasons was his suspension in 1994 for using a corked bat, which was a whole incident upon itself.

As for the on-field performances, Belle had an incredible season, becoming the first player in MLB history with 50 homers and 50 doubles. Again, it was a 144-game season. Belle slashed .317/.401/.690, driving in 126 runs. His 50-50 totals, slugging percentage and 377 total bases led MLB, while he also paced the AL in runs scored (121). Belle was also the first player to have 100 extra-base hits since Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1948. The Cleveland Indians, as they were known then, were by far the best team in MLB, going 100-44 and winning the AL Central by a whopping 30 games.

This is where Mo Vaughn comes into play. The Boston Red Sox first baseman had a slash line of .300/.388/.575 with 39 homers and matched Belle with an AL-best 126 RBIs. The Red Sox won the AL East by seven games over the Yankees. In addition to having his personality questioned, 31 of Belle’s homers came in the final two months of the season with Cleveland already having the division well under control. Vaughn beat Belle 308-300 for the MVP. Vaughn had 12 first-place votes, 12 seconds and four thirds, while Belle had 11 firsts, 10 seconds and seven thirds. Seattle’s Edgar Martinez drew four first-place votes and Cleveland closer Jose Mesa one. The eight-point margin was the closest MVP vote since 1961, when Roger Maris beat Yankees teammate Mickey Mantle 202-198.

“I guess it really does say something,” Vaughn said at the time. “Character is important. They’re looking at the whole thing, not just the numbers. If it’s just numbers, Albert probably wins. He had a great season. But I feel that I did, too.”

 

1991: Bonds Knocked Off By Pendleton

 

Barry Bonds won four straight NL MVP awards from 2001-04 with the Giants as he dominated headlines with his home run prowess. Of course, there are questions about his use of performance-enhancing drugs during that stretch, which included his single-season MLB record of 73 homers in 2001. But before he transformed his body into that of a bodybuilder, he was a fairly skinny guy who almost won four straight NL MVP awards during his days with the Pittsburgh Pirates as he established himself as the best player in baseball.

In 1991, coming off his first NL MVP in his age-25 season, Bonds slashed .292/.410/.514 with 25 homers, 43 stolen bases and 116 RBIs. The left-handed slugger led the NL with his .410 on-base percentage, as well as a .924 OPS and a 160 OPS+. To be fair, compared to the other three seasons sandwiching 1991, this one would rank fourth in that stretch. The Pirates were the best in MLB in 1991, going 98-64, winning the NL East by 14 games over the St. Louis Cardinals (it was a two-division setup in each league then).

On the other hand, Atlanta Braves third baseman Terry Pendleton had a slash line of .319/.363/.517 with 22 homers, 10 steals and 86 RBIs. Pendleton led the NL in average, hits (187) and total bases (303). In a twist, Pendleton put up similar numbers in 1992 only to finish second to Bonds in MVP voting. Those were his only top-10 finishes for the award. The Braves won the NL West (yes, a team in the East Coast and South played in the West Division) by one game over the Dodgers. One thing that likely swayed voters Pendleton’s way was he had just signed with the Braves prior to that season and was key in the Atlanta going from worst to first that year.

The voting was the closest since 1979 (when Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell had the only tie in MLB history) as Pendleton had 274 points to Bonds’ 259. Pendleton also had two more first-place votes (12-10), with Bonds’ teammate Bobby Bonilla finishing third with 191 points and one first-place vote. Bonds had a superior WAR to Pendleton 8.0-6.1, but the feel-good story of the young Braves turning things around in such a dramatic fashion was the difference. It also started a dynastic run of 14 division titles in 15 years. Coincidentally, the Pirates were in the middle of three straight division titles after finishing fifth of six teams in 1989.

 

Photo By John Cordes/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)

Steve Drumwright

Steve Drumwright is a lifelong baseball fan who retired as a player before he had the chance to be cut from the freshman team in high school. He recovered to become a sportswriter and have a successful journalism career at newspapers in Wisconsin and California. Follow him on Twitter @DrummerWrites.

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