A New York state of mind

Gotham once had a strange (and irrational) lock on baseball’s big awards

Yes, Jacob deGrom is a wonderful pitcher, perhaps the best in baseball. But let’s stop all of this nonsense about him being the Most Valuable Player in the National League.

A spate of injuries has limited deGrom to 15 starts this season. Forty-five NL starters have appeared more frequently, including two of deGrom’s teammates on the Mets.

It’s especially noteworthy that New York has won 11 of deGrom’s starts, accounting for only 22% of the club’s overall victories. That puts him behind fellow Mets pitcher Taijuan Walker’s 14 starts resulting in wins.

The MVP case for deGrom doesn’t seem all that strong, does it?

There was a time when these facts and figures wouldn’t matter in the least — a half-century of irrationality from 1931 (when the Most Valuable Player was established in its present form) to 1979. New York was the unquestioned media capital of America in those years, and the Yankees were the dominant franchise in the major leagues.

Those factors combined to yield a series of strange choices for MVP and the Cy Young Award (which debuted in 1956). Eight especially egregious examples are listed below.

Each league’s MVP is elected by a panel of Baseball Writers’ Association of America members. Their accuracy and diligence are taken for granted these days. Information about top players is widely available, and most panel members seem to pay close attention to the facts when casting their ballots.

That wasn’t the case between the 1930s and 1970s. Any player enjoying a halfway decent season in a Yankees uniform found himself a contender for a trophy. And many of them emerged as winners, often to the detriment of Ted Williams.

If similar pro-New York conditions existed today, the engravers could get started right now on deGrom’s MVP trophy. But common sense will certainly triumph, and someone from a smaller town will win.

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American League 1939 MVP

  • MVP winner: Joe DiMaggio (Yankees)

  • Should have been: Bob Feller (Indians)

  • Details: Fifteen of the 24 voters picked DiMaggio, who truly had a wonderful season. The Yankees center fielder batted .381 with 30 homers and 126 runs batted in. But what about Feller? The Cleveland fireballer led the league with 24 victories and 246 strikeouts. Nobody else in the American League had more than 21 of the former or 192 of the latter. Only three voters thought Feller was the MVP, but that newfangled measure of overall excellence, wins above replacement, disagreed. WAR gave Feller a sizable edge over DiMaggio, 9.7 to 8.3.

American League 1941 MVP

  • MVP winner: Joe DiMaggio (Yankees)

  • Should have been: Ted Williams (Red Sox)

  • Details: Yes, yes, DiMaggio ran up his amazing 56-game hitting streak in 1941. But Williams countered with his own breathtaking accomplishment, a .406 batting average. Four-oh-six! That was 49 points better than DiMaggio’s .357, and the Red Sox left fielder also outdid his rival in homers (37 to 30), walks (147 to 76), on-base percentage (.553 to .440), slugging average (.735 to .643), and WAR (10.4 to 9.4). So what did the writers do? They broke for DiMaggio, 15-8. (The 24th voter, a true contrarian, opted for Thornton Lee, a pitcher who went 22-11 for the White Sox.)

American League 1942 MVP

  • MVP winner: Joe Gordon (Yankees)

  • Should have been: Ted Williams (Red Sox)

  • Details: The results in 1942 were even more astounding than those from the previous season. Gordon, a solid second baseman, edged Williams by a 12-9 count, even though the Red Sox star won the Triple Crown with 36 home runs, 137 RBIs, and a .356 batting average. Williams also led the league in runs scored (141), on-base percentage (.499), slugging average (.648), and WAR (10.5). Gordon topped the AL in only two categories: strikeouts (95) and groundouts into double plays (22).

American League 1947 MVP

  • MVP winner: Joe DiMaggio (Yankees)

  • Should have been: Ted Williams (Red Sox)

  • Details: Notice a pattern here? Williams became only the second batter to win a second Triple Crown (.343 BA, 32 HR, 114 RBI), yet he once again lost the MVP election to a New Yorker. DiMaggio’s season was inferior by any measure (.315, 20, 97), yet he edged Williams by a single point in the MVP tabulation. WAR made it clear that Williams was the best player in the AL. His 9.6 put him far ahead of runner-up Lou Boudreau (7.3) of the Indians. DiMaggio didn’t even make the top 10 in WAR.

American League 1951 MVP

  • MVP winner: Yogi Berra (Yankees)

  • Should have been: Ted Williams (Red Sox) or Ned Garver (Browns)

  • Details: This wasn’t Williams’s best season by a long shot. He batted .318, which would turn out to be the fourth-lowest average of his career. Yet he still led the AL in on-base percentage (.464), slugging average (.556), and WAR (7.2). If not Williams, then Garver would have been an excellent MVP choice, based on his 20-12 record for the hapless St. Louis Browns, who stumbled to a 32-90 record in their other games. But the nod went to Berra, even though he fell short of Williams by three homers, 38 RBIs, and 24 points in batting average.

American League 1963 MVP

  • MVP winner: Elston Howard (Yankees)

  • Should have been: Bob Allison (Twins), Camilo Pascual (Twins), Gary Peters (White Sox), or Carl Yastrzemski (Red Sox)

  • Details: Fifteen of the 20 voters opted for Howard, a surprisingly lopsided outcome in a contest with no clear frontrunner. The Yankees catcher had a nice year with a .287 BA, 28 homers, and 85 RBIs. But Allison flashed more power (35 homers, 91 runs driven in), Yastrzemski hit for a much higher average (.321), and Pascual (21-9, 2.46 ERA) and Peters (19-8, 2.33 ERA) were dominant on the mound. All four of these contenders posted WARs of 6.6 or better, led by Allison at 7.4. Howard was eighth in the league at 5.2.

American League 1976 MVP

  • MVP winner: Thurman Munson (Yankees)

  • Should have been: George Brett (Royals) or Mark Fidrych (Tigers)

  • Details: Munson was renowned as the hard-nosed captain of the Yankees, an image that went a long way to capturing the MVP trophy. Eighteen of the 24 voters agreed that he deserved the award for his .302 batting average, 17 homers, and 105 runs batted in. Never mind that Brett won the batting title with a blistering .333 average or that Fidrych galvanized the baseball world with an astounding rookie year (19-9, 2.34 ERA, 24 complete games). WAR disagreed with the consensus. It dubbed Fidrych as the league’s most valuable pitcher (9.6) and Brett as the leading offensive force (7.1). Munson was far behind at 5.3.

American League 1977 Cy Young

  • Cy Young winner: Sparky Lyle (Yankees)

  • Should have been: Jim Palmer (Orioles), Nolan Ryan (Angels), or Frank Tanana (Angels)

  • Details: Palmer won 20 games for the third consecutive year, while leading the league in starts (39), complete games (22), and innings pitched (319). Ryan smoked 341 batters for strikeouts, exceeding the next AL pitcher by 97. And Tanana was the stingiest in allowing runs, based on his league-best ERA of 2.54. But they all took a back seat to Lyle, who was given the Cy Young Award for his 13-5 record and 26 saves. WAR put the other contenders at 8.3 (Tanana), 7.8 (Ryan), and 7.3 (Palmer), while Lyle was only half as good at 3.7.