The Most Egregious MVP Snubs of All Time (at Least on Paper)
Not long ago I was watching an episode of “Prime 9” on the MLB Network about the nine biggest MVP snubs of all time. Before the show even began, I knew what would be ranked number one because it’s always mentioned as the biggest injustice in the history of MVP voting: Yankees second baseman Joe Gordon winning over Red Sox great Ted Williams in 1942, even after Williams won the Triple Crown and led the American League in walks, runs and total bases. To most writers Williams was a horse’s ass, while Gordon was considered a class act —he would later go out of his way to make Larry Doby feel welcome when Doby made his major league debut as the first African-American in A.L. history in 1948—and that attitude and reputation cost Williams more than once. Sure enough “Prime 9” listed that snub as its number one selection.
So, since Mr. Announcer Guy always ends each episode with: “That’s our Prime 9. What’s yours?,” I thought I’d oblige with a list of my own.
I’m guessing the crew at MLB Network put together a list of snubs, discussed each one ad nauseam, chose nine and ranked them. I know some of the guys who participate in these shows and not only do they know their stuff, they take this seriously. What I don’t know is what they used to determine their choices and rankings, other than traditional statistics, whereas I attempted to rank my snubs using a rudimentary formula. Neither method is right or wrong, but not only do I have a very different top nine (actually top 11 because I wanted to do 10 but I wasn’t convinced one belonged, so I expanded it just in case) but the 1942 A.L. MVP debacle didn’t even make the cut.
Before I proceed, I should mention a few things:
- Everyone defines value differently. For a while it seemed if you were a good catcher on a very good team, you were likely to be considered an MVP. I conducted a study three years ago that showed MVP’s on pennant-winning teams from 1911-1960 were almost twice as likely to play up the middle as their brethren who manned the corners (65% were catchers, second basemen, shortstops and center fielders) and the gap was even wider—68% to 32%—if the MVP played for a World Series winner. Voters clearly considered the up-the-middle guys more valuable, or at least they did for a very long time.
- There are also the intangibles. A hardcore red-ass of note, Billy Martin scratched, clawed and fought his way through an 11-year career that garnered him all of 3.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) (7.2 with the Yankees, -3.5 with everyone else) but five World Series appearances, in which he posted a .937 OPS. Manny Ramirez spent most of his career acting like a clown from outer space, but was 10 times the hitter Martin was, and made four World Series appearances. Who’s more valuable? I have no idea. On paper, it’s clearly Ramirez. Martin was a guy you wanted to go to war with but wore out his welcome in New York and was shipped to Kansas City, the baseball Siberia of the mid-50s to late 60s. Ramirez was a guy who kept things loose and appeared to enjoy himself (when he knew where he was) but quit on three teams in his last four seasons. Despite the disparity in talent, some would consider Martin more valuable, others would take Ramirez. I guess it all depends on your needs and team chemistry.
- The award is called the “Most Valuable Player” Award, not the “Most Statistically Superior” Award. Unfortunately I haven’t the foggiest idea how to quantify “valuable” so I went with a couple of metrics to create my list. I have no doubt that shortstop Miguel Tejada was a valuable member of a 103-win A’s team in 2002 when he won the A.L. MVP award, but Indians first baseman Jim Thome was 80% better (I’ll get to that later) and finished seventh only because his team finished with a losing record. Winning is the name of the game in all sports, but that didn’t stop the BBWAA from handing Andre Dawson an MVP in 1987 even though he toiled for the last-place Cubs. And, yes, that definitely made my list. So, with all due respect to the men who actually won the award, the following list is composed of players who were better statistically but not necessarily more valuable.
So here’s the rudimentary formula I mentioned before that I used to come up with a top 11 (if you’re a stat nerd and plan on tearing me a new one, save your breath; I’m well aware this isn’t exactly Einsteinian): ((WSAB/3)+WAR)/2.
I considered using Win Shares and WAR but that didn’t quite fit. Then my buddy KJOK suggested I use Win Shares Above Bench (WSAB) instead, which made more sense. Since each WS equals a third of a win, I took WSAB and divided by three to come up with Wins Above Bench, added that to Wins Above Replacement and averaged the two for a final score, which we’ll call WA2RB (again, save your breath; I have no idea if that even makes sense but it looks fancy and kind of like I know what I’m doing). Then I compared the WA2RB of every MVP since 1931 to their runners up and calculated how much better the runners up were than the MVP (stated as a percentage, which I used in the Tejada/Thome comparison above). After that it was just a case of listing the snubbed in descending order.
Perfect? Not necessarily. But it’s a fun way to look at the MVP voting from a different angle.
So without further ado*:
*WS and WSAB figures are courtesy of The Baseball Gauge at Seamheads.com. WA2RB scores have been rounded off, so DIFF will differ if you do the math yourself.
#11. Mo Vaughn over Albert Belle for the 1995 A.L. MVP:
Remember what I said about Ted Williams being a horse’s ass? Meet Albert Belle, who once tried to run over a group of egg-throwing trick-or-treaters with his truck, and gave Brewers second baseman Fernando Vina a forearm shiver in 1996 that would have knocked Hulk Hogan on his ass. As you can see by the black ink above, Belle led the American League in runs, doubles, homers, RBIs (tied with Vaughn) and slugging. He also led in total bases and extra-base hits, and became the first and only player to double and homer more than 50 times in the same season. And his Indians went all the way to the World Series where they lost to the Braves. But Belle’s checkered past and volatility caught up with him. “Albert didn’t trust people. He was always sure that somehow, somebody was out to get him,” Peter Gammons once said of the slugger.
On the other hand, Vaughn was called the “anti-Belle” by Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, who also called him a “smiling, affable, caring, decent man who was giving kids someone to look up to and adults someone to admire.” Of course that came immediately after Vaughn ran into a car in the breakdown lane of Route 95 at 2:15 AM while driving drunk on his way home from a strip club in 1998. Prior to that, though, Vaughn “had done more for the Red Sox in the local community than anyone in memory” and, to this day, is still active in community affairs, owning and operating a company that rehabilitates distressed property and offers them as low-cost housing in different cities around the country.
Still, there are awards for humanitarian efforts and awards for being the most valuable player in one’s respective league, and Albert Belle was a far better player on the field and on paper than Vaughn. In fact, Vaughn wasn’t even the best player on his own team. That honor belongs to shortstop John Valentin who finished with a WA2RB of 5.2, good for eighth in the A.L. and first among junior circuit shortstops. Had he been born in an earlier era, he might have been awarded the MVP trophy just for being a very good shortstop on a winning team. But nice guy Mo Vaughn was handed the award instead and that ranks as my #11 most egregious MVP snub of all time.
#10. Joe DiMaggio over Ted Williams for the 1947 A.L. MVP:
Most believe that Williams being shafted in 1942 when he won his first of two Triple Crowns but lost the MVP voting to Joe Gordon was the biggest slight in the history of MVP voting, but according to WA2RB, it wasn’t even the biggest slight of Teddy Ballgame’s career. In 1947 Yankee great Joe DiMaggio had a very good season, not up to par with his pre-World War II campaigns, but still very good. Even at that, he led the league in only one category—fielding percentage (.997)—while committing only one error in 139 games. Meanwhile Williams led the league in homers, RBIs and batting, winning his second Triple Crown, as well as runs, walks, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, OPS+, total bases and every other metric you can possibly conjure up. Yet he lost the MVP to DiMaggio by one vote. “Joltin’ Joe” played center field for a pennant-winning team on the verge of copping its seventh championship in eight tries during the DiMaggio era; Williams played left field for a team that finished in third place, 14 games behind the Yankees, and hadn’t won a title since 1918.
And did I mention the writers thought Williams was a horse’s ass? “The right turn could have made Ted Williams a second Babe Ruth, for he might have become not only the greatest, but the most popular big league player since the Babe,” wrote Al Hirshberg. “Instead, Williams’s entire career was blighted by intense personality problems, and these problems actually changed the face of baseball.” According to Bill James, Williams was “despised everywhere in the American League, including Boston for at least the first half of his career.” And Austin Lake once wrote, “When Ted’s name is announced, the sound is like the autumn wind moaning through an apple orchard.”
Legend has it that one writer left Williams completely off his ballot and that’s why he lost. DiMaggio, though, was allegedly left off of three ballots and two jokers gave first-place votes to .206 hitting A’s shortstop Eddie Joost, who walked 114 times but led the A.L. with 110 strikeouts, 23 more than runners up Jeff Heath and Rudy York, and committed 38 errors, second most among junior circuit shortstops. DiMaggio is at least in the conversation, having finished second in the A.L. in WA2RB; Joost posted a mark of 1.7, tied for 59th with guys like Ray Scarborough and Al Gettel. Who? Exactly.
#9. Ken Boyer (and others) over Willie Mays for the 1964 N.L. MVP:
In their book, Baseball’s Best: The MVPs, Dave Masterson and Timm Boyle wrote, “Without Ken’s brilliant play in 1964, it’s doubtful that St. Louis could have edged three contenders for the NL pennant.” That’s probably true but you could say that about all of the MVP contenders, most of whom played key roles in a pennant race that ended with five teams within five games of first place. Three years before the American League would boast a similarly epic chase for the flag, the senior circuit had the Cardinals, Phillies, Reds, Giants and Braves battling to the wire, with the Cardinals finally taking the flag by only a game over both Philadelphia and Cincinnati. That season was made famous (or infamous) by Philadelphia’s choke job down the stretch, but the Cards also deserve credit for going 28-12 in their last 40 games to catch and pass the Phils.
Over that 40-game stretch, Boyer batted .268 with 8 homers, 28 runs scored and 30 RBIs, and during the entire season had a great .909 OPS in high leverage situations. He was great in clutch situations, driving in more than a third of his runs with two outs and runners in scoring position, and posting an .875 OPS in 112 late and close plate appearances. But he led the league in only one category—RBIs with 119—and was only 24th in WAR at 4.6. Mays paced the loop in homers, slugging, OPS, OPS+ and WAR and was also a beast in high leverage situations, driving in 47 of his 111 RBIs and posting a 1.010 OPS in 137 high leverage plate appearances. His WAR of 9.5 was more than twice that of Boyer’s and he had 75% more Win Shares Above Bench than the St. Louis third sacker. But though the Giants went 22-17 and trimmed four and a half games off their deficit down the stretch, Mays batted only .229 with 9 homers, 25 runs and 24 RBIs in his final 131 at-bats and slugged at a .511 clip, almost 100 points off his season total.
It’s hard to get on a player’s case for slugging “only” .511 in his final 40 or so games, but Mays was much more productive in the Giants’ first 40 games than he was in their last 40 and that probably cost him an MVP award. This is a case of a player looking way better on paper than the guy who copped the hardware, but it’s hard to blame the writers for giving it to Boyer. In fact, you can make a case for all five players who finished ahead of Mays in MVP voting that year so this may not be as egregious in practice as it looks on paper.
#8. Juan Gonzalez over Alex Rodriguez for the 1996 A.L. MVP:
It seems like only yesterday that Alex Rodriguez was still a skinny, baby-faced kid, Juan Gonzalez was a pumped up behemoth affectionately known as “Igor” and we all had our heads in the sand when it came to performance enhancing drugs. According to Jose Canseco, Gonzalez began using steroids as early as 1992 when he belted a league-best 43 home runs. According to Selena Roberts, A-Rod was suspected of steroid use way back in high school, which also would have been around 1992, and eventually copped to PED use, but claimed he did it only while with the Texas Rangers. Regardless, this is about the numbers, no matter how they were come by, and Rodriguez was clearly superior to Gonzalez in 1996.
Gonzalez led the league in exactly zero categories in ’96, was a terrible outfielder and didn’t even make the All-Star team. Rodriguez paced the league in runs, doubles and total bases and won his first and only batting title, while playing a very good shortstop. Gonzalez’s team, the Rangers, won the AL West division title with 90 wins, while A-Rod’s Mariners came in second with 85 wins. So it looks like the voters chose the guy on the slightly better team who drove in more runs. Ridiculous. He all but “disappeared” down the stretch and his OPS dropped almost 10% from 1.114 on August 1 to his final mark of 1.011. It’s almost unfair to claim a player disappeared while slugging .538, but he most likely won the MVP due to his high RBI total, although he wasn’t the RBI machine in his last 50 or so games that he was in his first 100. He was also awful in clutch situations. In fact, according to WA2RB, Gonzalez wasn’t even the best player on his own team, finishing behind pitcher Ken Hill and backstop Ivan Rodriguez.
A-Rod, on the other hand, was at his best in July and August when the Mariners pulled to within a game and a half of first place before he cooled off in September. Had he stayed hot, the M’s might have won the division, but he couldn’t maintain his torrid pace and they finished a respectable 4 1/2 games back. He was excellent in close and late and high leverage situations, and 46% of his runs and 43% of his RBIs came in that two-month stretch from the beginning of July to the end of August. And, oh yeah, Rodriguez was a shortstop and Gonzalez a right fielder.
Gonzalez edged Rodriguez by only three points in MVP voting, but it should have gone the other way and it shouldn’t have been close.
#7. Dick Groat over Willie Mays for the 1960 N.L. MVP:
In terms of black ink, league standings and the defensive spectrum, there’s little to argue about here: Groat won the N.L. batting title and played an excellent shortstop for a Pirates team that won the World Series; Mays led the league in hits and played an excellent center field for a Giants team that finished in fifth place, 16 games behind Pittsburgh. But the difference between the two in WA2RB is night and day. Mays led the majors in WA2RB at 7.8, edging out Braves sluggers Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron. Groat finished in a tie for 16th place with teammate Vern Law and Braves catcher Del Crandall. But Groat won the award by a large margin, finishing 114 points ahead of runner-up Don Hoak, and 121 points ahead of Mays.
Whether or not Mays really deserved the award is debatable—his worst months were July, August and September/October, his OPS fell in each month and he drove in only 29 runs in his last 59 games. He was very good in the clutch, with runners on base and in high leverage situations, but it looks like most of the damage he did to opposing pitchers came in the season’s first months. On the other hand, Groat missed most of the last three weeks of the season with a broken wrist and the Pirates kept on winning with Ducky Schofield at shortstop. Granted their .579 winning percentage without Groat wasn’t as impressive as their .616 percentage with him, and Schofield played way over his head, but one has to wonder how valuable a player is if his team wins 58% of their games in his absence.
The real controversy, though, came from Roberto Clemente, who believed Pittsburgh writers campaigned against him and that resulted in his eighth-place finish. He also believed racial prejudice was afoot. Not only was Clemente a dark-skinned man, although lighter-skinned than contemporaries such as Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Willie McCovey, but Spanish was his native language. He must have felt he had two strikes against him, but the vote clearly had nothing to do with the color of his skin—black players had won the previous seven NL MVP awards and nine of the previous 11, dating back to 1949. Prior to 1960, Hank Sauer was the last white National Leaguer to win the award and that was in 1952.
As far as I can tell, it was Clemente’s statistics that kept him from receiving more support from the writers. His WA2RB of 2.7 ranked 30th in the league in 1960 and though voters didn’t have the metrics we have today to evaluate players, they clearly weren’t impressed enough by Clemente to give him the votes needed to finish higher on the list. Ironically, six years later the writers voted Clemente the NL’s MVP even though his WA2RB shows he was the 10th best player and well below Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Willie Mays and Dick Allen.
#6. Dennis Eckersley over Frank Thomas for the 1992 A.L. MVP:
I’m not one of those guys who thinks pitchers shouldn’t be eligible for an MVP because they already have their own MVP award, but I wouldn’t be heartbroken if MLB adopted a rule that prohibited pitchers from winning the MVP Award. According to the voting in 1992, that still doesn’t mean Frank Thomas would have won the award instead of Eckersley; in fact “Big Hurt” finished only eighth between Mike Devereaux and Cecil Fielder.
But according to WA2RB, Thomas was the best player in the American League that year and it wasn’t even close, and only Barry Bonds had a better season in all of baseball. Sure, you could argue that without Thomas the White Sox would still have finished slightly above .500 and still would have been a third-place team, whereas the A’s without Eckersley probably wouldn’t have won their fourth division title in five years.
With 15 first-place votes and a comfortable lead over runner-up Kirby Puckett, Eckersley was clearly the writers’ darling that year, but how Thomas finished eighth is beyond me. The next closest regular to Thomas in terms of WA2RB was Mark McGwire, who finished fourth in MVP voting despite posting a WA2RB that was 25% worse than Thomas’. Thomas would go on to win the AL MVP in 1993 and ’94, but he easily could have copped his first trophy in 1992.
#5. Willie Stargell over The Field for a share of the 1979 N.L. MVP:
Tell Stargell’s old teammates, the Pirates organization and the city of Pittsburgh that Wilver didn’t deserve a share of the 1979 NL MVP Award and be prepared to duck. The 39-year-old “Pops” practically willed his team to a World Series title and captured the country’s imagination with his Stargell stars, seemingly infinite uniform combinations and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” blasting through Three Rivers Stadium. But it’s the ’79 NL MVP that forced me to go all Spinal Tap on you and crank it up to 11 instead of going with a top-10 list like everyone else (or top 9 if you’re “Prime 9”).
Though Stargell’s WA2RB was inferior to 41 other National Leaguers in ’79, including John Fulgham, a Cardinals pitcher I forgot ever existed, Keith Hernandez, who shared the award with Stargell, ranked fourth and was less than 13% worse than the NL’s top player, Dave Winfield. But rather than count Stargell and Hernandez as one entity, I separated the two to see who might have been a better candidate, at least statistically, to share the MVP award with Hernandez. As you can see above, Winfield had almost as many RBIs as Stargell had hits, and the San Diego slugger led the league in ribbies, OPS+, total bases and intentional walks.
The problem was that he played for the lowly Padres, a fifth place team with a 68-93 record and a 22-game deficit, and he disappeared in August before rebounding in September, though not to levels he’d achieved over the season’s first four months. Regardless, only Hernandez and Stargell earned more votes than Winfield, who might have won the MVP outright had he played for a more competitive team and not fallen off so drastically in the dog days of summer.
Others who were statistically superior to Stargell that year were Mike Schmidt, who finished second in WA2RB but 13th in MVP voting, and J.R. Richard who was third in WA2RB but finished 19th in the voting.
#4. Mickey Cochrane over Lou Gehrig for the 1934 A.L. MVP:
If you think Ted Williams was robbed when he lost the MVP Award both times he won the Triple Crown, imagine how Lou Gehrig must have felt when he not only failed to snare the honor after winning the Triple Crown in 1934, but finished fifth in voting. To that point in baseball history, only Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx and Hack Wilson had posted those kinds of numbers, but “The Iron Horse” finished behind Tigers catcher and manager Mickey Cochrane, Detroit second baseman Charlie Gehringer, his Yankees teammate Lefty Gomez, and another Tiger, pitcher Schoolboy Rowe.
Cochrane had a very good season both at the plate and behind it, hitting .320 with an excellent .428 on-base percentage, and throwing out 50% of opposing basestealers, but it wasn’t otherworldly. In fact, his .840 OPS in 1934 ranks only 22nd best among major league catchers from 1901-1934, well behind Gabby Hartnett’s 1930 mark and Cochrane’s own marks from 1930-1933. But, according to Cochrane’s biographer Charlie Bevis, “Black Mike” won both of his MVPs “primarily on his leadership abilities rather than his statistical accomplishments. On the field, Cochrane had a certain inspiration that infected other players to do their best.” Indeed, he also managed the Tigers and led them to their first pennant since the 1907-1909 squads copped three flags in a row.
But Gehrig was out of his mind in 1934, finally stepping out from under Ruth’s aging shadow and becoming the star of the Bronx Bombers. Gehrig led the league in games, homers, RBIs, batting, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, OPS+, total bases and just about every metric ever devised. At first base he committed only eight errors for a .994 fielding percentage. And he played for an excellent Yankees team that won 94 games and finished in second place, seven games behind Detroit.
For the most part, Gehrig was a model of consistency, slugging exactly .706 in both halves of the season and at least .667 in every month after April. Cochrane wasn’t as consistent and faltered toward the end of the season, but he heated up in August just when the Tigers needed him most and took his team from a first-place tie on July 31 to a five-game cushion on August 30. Though Cochrane’s bat went cold in September, Detroit was able to fend off the Yankees and finish the season with a healthy seven-game lead over the runners up.
I can see why the BBWAA named Cochrane its choice for AL MVP, but Lou Gehrig was far and away the best player in all of baseball in 1934.
#3. Andre Dawson over Tim Raines (and The Field) for the 1987 N.L. MVP:
Considering Raines and Dawson are best friends, I think “The Hawk” owes “Rock” a dinner, a beer or at least an apology for screwing him out of the 1987 NL MVP Award and being inducted into the Hall of Fame before Raines. As a kid and through my teenage years I was a fan of both, although I liked Dawson more because he had more power than Raines and I’m more of a power guy than a speed guy. And the Cubs happened to be my favorite National League team in 1987, so I had no problem with Dawson winning the award, although I wondered how a last place team could have a player deemed “Most Valuable” when there were plenty of other deserving candidates. No one in 1987 was more deserving than Raines, who finished seventh in voting that year.
Looking at it in hindsight, one of the knocks against Raines is that he led the league in only one category, although that category happens to be the backbone of baseball—runs scored—while Dawson paced the senior circuit in two sexier categories–home runs and RBIs. But Raines reached base at a clip more than 100 points higher than Dawson, while slugging only 42 points lower than Dawson, which is pretty damn good considering nearly 43% of Raines’ plate appearances came as a leadoff hitter.
Both were at their best in August—Raines posted an OPS of 1.018 and scored 25 runs in 29 games; Dawson posted an OPS of 1.098 and blasted 15 homers in 27 games—but Raines was in the middle of a pennant race, and the Expos entered August with a five-game deficit and left it with a six-game deficit, while the Cubs were already 10 1/2 games off the pace and, despite Dawson’s power outburst, finished the month with an even steeper 13-game deficit. So how valuable could Dawson’s contributions have been?
Raines was a better hitter, better outfielder and more valuable to his team in 1987 than Andre Dawson, who, according to his WA2RB score, was only the 42nd best player in the National League in 1987 and definitely not the NL MVP that year. Raines would have been a far better choice, as would have Jack Clark, Eric Davis, Darryl Strawberry and a host of others.
#2. Yogi Berra over Mickey Mantle for the 1955 A.L. MVP:
According to Yankee manager Casey Stengel, taking Berra out of the lineup in 1955 would have caused the Bronx Bombers to “fall apart.” Hyperbole? Probably. In 1955 the Yankees had a young back-up catcher named Elston Howard, who would go on to win his own MVP award in 1963 and was already showing promise as a major league backstop. That’s not to say Berra wasn’t important to the Yanks or that they would have won the AL pennant without him, but I’d rather take my chances without Berra than without Mantle. Berra led the league in catching opposing basestealers with a 47% success rate, but he also paced the loop in errors and tied Boston’s Sammy White for the worst fielding percentage among regular backstops. And not only is Berra’s black ink non-existent in ’55 but he never led the American League in any category during his excellent 14-year career.
A close look at Berra’s splits shows he was much better at home than on the road that season–he hit 20 of his 27 homers and drove in 70 of his 108 RBIs in “The House That Ruth Built”– and was good in the clutch, but also slugged only .413 in 310 at-bats from June through August while the Yankees struggled to stay ahead of or keep pace with the White Sox and Indians.
Mantle, on the other hand, led the league in triples, homers, walks, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS and OPS+, and committed only two errors in 145 games in center field. He also took advantage of Yankee Stadium, but not to the extent Berra did, was brilliant in the clutch, and was at his best in August, posting a 1.218 OPS in 28 games. He wasn’t too shabby in July and September, either, sandwiching OPS’s of .943 and .944 around his fantastic August. One could possibly argue that Joe Collins, Bob Cerv or Irv Noren could have ably filled in for Mantle, and that the Yankees still would have finished ahead of Cleveland, but I’m guessing most of us would prefer to have Howard behind the plate with Mantle in center field, than Berra behind the plate and any of those three in center field.
Oh, and one more thing—Not only was Mantle the best player in the American League in 1955, but his WA2RB of 9.6 was almost 58% better than runner-up Al Kaline’s 6.1. It’s a crime that Mantle finished only fifth in voting that year.
#1. Marty Marion over Stan Musial for the 1944 N.L. MVP:
The 1944 St. Louis Cardinals almost went wire-to-wire, passing the Cincinnati Reds into first place on May 7 and cruising the rest of the way to 105 wins and a 14 1/2-game cushion over the second place Pirates and an eventual championship. Not surprisingly they led the league in hitting, pitching and defense, and only two of their regulars—second baseman Emil Verban and shortstop Marty Marion—posted an OPS+ below 100. In Marion’s case, though, whatever he hit was icing on the cake; in a 13-year career he posted an OPS+ above 100 only once and finished his major league stint with a career mark of only 81. In his four seasons prior to 1944, “The Octopus” led the NL in only three categories–games and sacrifice hits in 1941 and doubles in 1943. But he was far and away the best defensive shortstop in baseball.
In his original Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James wrote that Marion was “one of the few players to win an MVP award almost entirely with his glove…” and he couldn’t have been more correct. Not counting positional adjustment, 84% of Marion’s WAR in 1944 (no pun intended) came from his glove, and 98% of his WSAB came from the leather. In fact, by the end of the 1944 season, Marion had almost twice as many fielding Wins Above Replacement in the NL from 1940-1944 as runner-up Eddie Miller, and nearly 78% more fielding Win Shares Above Bench than Miller. Both Connie Mack and Billy Southworth ranked Marion the best shortstop they’d ever seen.
So his glove and the Cards’ dominance over the rest of the league–only one other team won as many as 90 games–gave Marion a one-point victory over Cubs slugger Bill “Swish” Nicholson, who led the NL in runs, home runs, RBIs and total bases. With a WA2RB of 6.4, Nicholson actually wasn’t a bad runner-up, although Dixie Walker would have been a better choice. But what about Stan Musial? Well, they didn’t call him “The Man” for nothin’.
Musial’s WA2RB was more than 163% better than Marion’s and he easily led the National League in WAR, WS and WSAB. And lest you think Musial did all that damage with just his bat, think again. In fact, Musial finished fourth in the NL in fielding WAR in 1944 and he was 55% better than the next best outfielder. During his first three full seasons in the bigs, no one can touch him, even if you adjust for players who missed time due to WWII. He didn’t dominate other outfielders the way Marion dominated his contemporaries at shortstop, but he wasn’t Bill Nicholson with a glove on his hand either.
Like a lot of the snubbed on this list, Musial led the league in a bunch of offensive categories, including hits, doubles, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS and OPS+, and extra-base hits, and came close to leading in a handful of others but failed to lead in the ones that get noticed, especially in 1944. He hit only 12 homers, drove in “only” 94 runs and didn’t win a batting title. On the other hand, he was tops in the categories we now place more import on, like the aforementioned OBA, slugging, OPS and OPS+, but also runs created, adjusted batting runs, adjusted batting wins and offensive win percentage.
Without Marion, the Cards might have ended up with George Fallon and his -0.2 WAR at shortstop. Without Musial, Southworth might have penciled Augie Bergamo and his 1.3 WAR into the outfield. Without either, the Cardinals probably still would have won the NL pennant, but by a greater margin with Musial than Marion. Picture Rey Sanchez winning an MVP over Tony Gwynn and that’s pretty much what happened to Musial in 1944.