September 22, 2017

Book Review: “Baseball’s Most Baffling MVP Ballots”

May 3, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

For years I’d toyed with the idea of writing a book about Most Valuable Players and MVP ballots, mostly because one hadn’t been written in a while—or at least to my satisfaction—and none that I was aware of used stats like Wins Above Replacement or Win Shares to compare players. I was also curious to know what contemporaries thought of the winners, runners-up and voting in general and these things marinated in my head while I pursued other things. So when I saw Jeremy Lehrman’s book Baseball’s Most Baffling MVP Ballots I was anxious to dig in and I wasn’t disappointed.

Lehrman’s book is expertly researched and written, and rarely gets bogged down or boring. You might be worried that a book that compares statistics of players for 200 pages would read like a text book, but that’s never the case. Lehrman does an excellent job keeping the subject matter light and humorous—about Willie Stargell circa 1979 he writes, “his knees were strictly ornamental at that point in his career”—but that’s not to say he treats the exercise or men with a lack of respect.

On the contrary. He calls Boston Braves second baseman Johnny Evers a “live wire of frayed nerves and inexhaustible energy,” who “fought for every hit, every stolen base, and every deftly turned double play” before explaining why Evers was a “dubious” choice to win the 1914 National league MVP Award. In fact, during my own research about the 1914 Miracle Braves I learned that many writers thought shortstop Rabbit Maranville was the most valuable player.

Of course before we reach that point in the book, Lehrman addresses the elephant in the room: What does “Most Valuable” mean? According to auto magnate Hugh Chalmers it meant giving a new car to the player “deemed most useful to his club,” which he did from 1911-1914 (his plan of giving a car to the batting champion turned into a fiasco in 1910, so he changed the parameters in 1911). The NL officially adopted an MVP Award in 1924 and controversy immediately rose it’s ugly head when Brooklyn flamethrower Dazzy Vance won the award over Cardinals great Rogers Hornsby, who batted .424, the highest NL average of the modern era. He also reached base at a .507 clip, slugged .696, and led the league in almost every offensive category.

Vance was no slouch, going 28-6 with a 2.16 ERA and fanned 262 batters in a league whose runner-up struck out only 135. Brooklyn came in second, only a game and a half behind the pennant-winning New York Giants, the Cards came in sixth with a losing record, and that was all she wrote. Vance took home honors by a vote of 74-62, prompting Cardinals owner Sam Breadon to wonder “what does a man have to do to win this thing?” And that’s been a rally cry ever since. One need look no further than last year’s American League Cy Young voting, a close race between Boston’s Rick Porcello and Detroit’s Justin Verlander won by the former and prompting the latter’s girlfriend and brother to rant on Twitter, but I digress. Horsnby’s 12.1 WAR not only topped Vance’s 10.3, but it ranks fifth all time among position players since the dawn of the 20th century. Breadon had a point.

It’s safe to say everyone realizes that WAR is not the definitive answer to every debate and Lehrman is quick to point that out. “WAR is just one supporting pillar in the broader MVP argument,” he writes. In fact he uses traditional stats and contemporary accounts, in addition to WAR, to make his point. One of the more interesting arguments is against Cardinals catcher Bob O’Farrell, who took home NL honors in 1926 on the strength of a World Series performance that saw him hit .304 and throw out Babe Ruth at second base for the final out of the Series. Lehrman admits it’s impossible to know for sure whether newspapers swung the vote in O’Farrell’s favor by noting his “brilliant performance,” and “power on the defense and at bat,” but he speculates the award was “likely decided by a strong throw to end the World Series.” O’Farrell’s WAR of 3.5 ranked 14th in the NL that season and he led the league in only one category—putouts—yet he took the award by 19 points.

One of my favorite features of the book is the way it’s broken up to give the reader a change of pace. The first few chapters discuss the 1914, 1925, and 1926 awards before the fifth chapter delves into which players might have won MVP Awards in years where there were none. Lehrman speculates, for example, that the great Honus Wagner would have won four times between 1901-1910; that Grover Cleveland Alexander would have won every year from 1915-1917; and that Ruth might have won as many as eight awards, including one as a pitcher. The Bambino actually won the award in 1923, but rules at the time stated a player was ineligible for future awards if he’d already won, which explains why he was shut out afterwards. Other breaks in the action include “most career MVP snubs,” “most curious (and dubious) MVP selections of all time,” and “MVP mosts (and leasts).” Lehrman also addresses how race might have played a factor in voting, and attitudes about pitchers, especially relievers, being eligible for the award.

As I said before Lehrman does an excellent job with the research and writing, and Baseball’s Most Baffling MVP Ballots is a fun and easy read that I couldn’t have done better myself. There are a few missteps along the way—referring to Jimmie Foxx as “Jimmy,” for example—but that’s just nitpicking. Part of me is disappointed that someone wrote this book before I made time to do so, but Lehrman did a fantastic job and it’s a book I’ll gladly use as a resource for future projects or read through again when I’m bored.

“Ever since Justin Morneau beat out Derek Jeter and a cast of thousands for the MVP,” writes Rob Neyer on the back cover, “I have been waiting for exactly this book.” Amen.

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