Baseball's MVP award has a long history of controversy
In 1927 Babe Ruth set a record with 60 homers, which was more than any other American League team hit. He batted .356 with a .486 on base percentage, led in runs scored with 158 and was second in RBIs with 164. An amazing season.
But here’s the remarkable fact: He didn’t receive a single vote for MVP after that season.
At that time the AL and NL handed out separate awards. Under the American League rules previous winners were ineligible for a second award and since Ruth had won it in 1923, he couldn’t be considered again. Lou Gehrig won the 1927 MVP instead, not a bad choice since he hit .373 with 49 homers and 149 runs scored, and led in RBIs with 175.
Baseball writers start voting in 1931
Since this was an unsatisfactory way of voting, the award was discontinued after the 1928 season. The NL gave out their award until the 1929 season. There were no MVP awards in 1930. Then in 1931, baseball allowed the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) to vote on one award per league, and that’s been the MVP award we’ve known ever since.
Originally one voter from each city with a team voted, with first place worth 10 points. In 1938 that was changed to three voters from each city with a team, with 14 points for first place. Then in 1961 the number of voters was reduced to two writers per city with a team. So, in the NL this season it means 32 voters, while the AL has 28 voters.
The writers who vote are members of the BBWAA, usually beat writers who follow the team all season. Each writer votes of his top 10. First place still counts for 14 points, with second 9, third 8, all the way down to 1 point for a 10th place vote.
Voting rules are intentionally vague
You would expect the BBWAA to have some fairly specific rules as to how to determine what makes a player most valuable. But since 1931 they have had only five guidelines:
1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
2. Number of games played.
3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
4. Former winners are eligible.
5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.
The only hard and fast rules are that the writer must fill out all 10 spots on his ballot, and that only regular season performances can be considered. The writers are told that it is up to each writer to decide who is most valuable in each league to his team.
As you can see, this leaves a lot of leeway for the writers and, therefore, plenty of room for controversy.
Over the years, some writers have viewed the MVP as the best player in the league, others have seen is as the most valuable to his team; some have based their decisions solely on statistics while others have looked at intangibles such as leadership. Although the voters are told that everyone, including pitchers and designated hitters are eligible, some believe that it should only go to position players. And, based on the guidelines, none of them are wrong.
It doesn't take long for controversy to begin
Not long after the BBWAA received the right to vote, controversy began. In 1934 Lou Gehrig won the Triple Crown (.363, 49, 165) with an OPS of 1.172. But the award went to Mickey Cochrane, who caught 129 games for Detroit with a .320 average, but two homers and 78 RBIs. He was also a player manager, so perhaps voters felt No. 3 among the guidelines was more important than just stats.
Ted Williams won two MVPs in this career but could have won perhaps three more. Unfortunately, he was notoriously rude to the press, especially members of the Boston press, and that apparently became a factor. In 1941 Williams batted .406 with 37 homers, 120 RBIs and 135 runs scored. But Joe DiMaggio won the MVP award, although it was hardly an awful choice since DiMaggio hit .357 (including his 56-game hitting streak), had 30 homers, 125 RBIs and 120 runs, plus played considerably better defense than Williams.
The next season Williams again finished second, this time to Yankees’ second baseman Joe Gordon. Williams won the Triple Crown (.356, 36, 137 with 141 runs) while Gordon came in at .322, 18, 103. While Gordon was a defensive whiz and Williams was indifferent with a glove, it still seemed like Williams was slighted.
The bizarre vote of 1947
It happened again in 1947 when Williams won his second Triple Crown (.343, 32, 114) but finished second by one point to DiMaggio (.315, 20, 97). This may have been the strangest voting year of all time. DiMaggio received eight first place votes, Yankee reliever Joe Page (14-8, 17 saves) got seven. Williams and Yankee first baseman George McQuinn (.304, 13, 80) both garnered three first place votes. A’s shortstop Eddie Joost (.206, 13, 64, led the league in strikeouts) got two firsts (two writers deemed him worthy of the MVP?) and Cleveland shortstop-manager Lou Boudreau (.307, 4, 67) had one.
That’s a pretty big split among players who really weren’t that close to Williams’ ability. Baseball-Reference.com lists only first-place votes but allegedly a Midwestern writer left Williams completely off the ballot. Had he placed him even ninth Williams would have won.
Williams reportedly was extremely rude to reporters and many of them resented it. While some people thought they were petty for docking Williams in the MVP voting, according to guideline No. 3 they were within their rights. Disposition and general character play a role. Still, it’s hard to explain Eddie Joost.
Voting preferences change from year to year
While voters often have favored the sluggers with the big stats from teams contending for the pennant, that hasn’t always been the case. Shortstops and catchers often received awards without the big stats because of the importance of their positions. At times they’ve voted for sluggers with big stats from awful teams (such as Andre Dawson of the last-place Cubs in 1987). Sometimes they preferred relief pitching over better hitting candidates (Jim Konstanty 1950, Willie Hernandez 1984).
Despite the presence of the designated hitter, the American League writers seem much more willing to present the award to a pitcher than their NL counterparts. In 1968 both leagues gave pitchers the MVP, Bob Gibson in the NL and Denny McLain in the AL. Since then no NL pitcher has won the award. The AL has had six (Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, Willie Hernandez, Roger Clemens, Dennis Eckersley, Justin Verlander).
This season promises more controversial voting
There have been many discussions over the years about the proper way to vote for MVP. Some voters argue that value doesn’t necessarily translate to stats; in the past few years others have argued that new stats like Wins Above Replacement (WAR) clearly tell who’s the best player and best translates to most valuable.
This year promises to bring more controversy, especially if Miguel Cabrera hangs on to the lead in the Triple Crown categories. WAR indicates that rookie Mike Trout is the best player in the AL, so some writers claim that makes him the MVP. (Two rookies have won the MVP award, Fred Lynn of Boston in 1975 and Ichiro Suzuki of Seattle in 2001.) Others say a Triple Crown season is such a unique achievement that it should be considered the most valuable season (even without the Triple Crown Cabrera posted the type of numbers that often in the past resulted in an MVP award).
There may even be controversy in the NL, where Ryan Braun is having a huge season but some writers feel that catchers Buster Posey and Yadier Molina, by virtue of their defense, are more valuable. (Should either Posey or Molina win, it would be the first NL MVP to a catcher since Johnny Bench in 1972.) And WAR shows that Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen is the best player, even though his team will have its 20th consecutive losing season.
As long as the BBWAA leaves the guidelines intentionally vague, there will probably always be a measure of controversy regarding the MVP vote. At least one good thing is that no one will be shut out from winning the award because of having won previously, the way Babe Ruth was in 1927.