The RBI obsession is still tainting the MVP voting

When Mike Trout lost out to Miguel Cabrera for the Most Valuable Player Award in 2012, everybody said not to worry; Trout would get another shot someday. When Trout lost out to Cabrera in 2013, everybody said not to worry; Trout would get another shot someday.

And of course he did, as the best player in the major leagues at 20 and 21 and 22 finally did win the big prize in his third full season. In the process, Trout became the third MVP in his franchise’s history … and the first deserving MVP.

Yes, that’s right: I’m going to suggest that neither Don Baylor in 1979 nor Vladimir Guerrero in 2004 should been MVP winners. Essentially, both won because they drove in a bunch of runs for a division-winning team. Now, it’s one thing when Miguel Cabrera wins the thing; in both 2012 and ’13, he posted truly massive numbers. No, I wouldn’t have voted for him. But he certainly did have great seasons, and was among the very best players in the American League.

In 1979, Baylor finished twenty-second in’s Wins Above Replacement. Actually, he might have finished even lower than that; he finished 22nd among American Leaguers who showed up on at least one voter’s ballot. Now, I’ll grant you a couple of points. One, bWAR literally did not exist in 1979. Nothing like bWAR existed. And two, WAR doesn’t tell us everything. Baylor was long considered a great clubhouse leader, and there certainly were voters in 1979 who knew things we don’t.

Still, though. Twenty-second, really? Of the 28 first-place votes, 20 went to Baylor (first-place Angels), three went to Ken Singleton (first-place Orioles), three went to Mike Flanagan (Orioles) … and two went to George Brett, whose second-place Royals finished exactly three games behind Baylor’s Angels. Would the balloting have gone quite a lot differently if the Royals had won four more games, and the Angels three fewer? History suggests that it would have. History suggests that the voters went for Baylor (in a big way!) because he knocked in 139 runs for a first-place team.

Fast-forward 25 years, when Guerrero became the Angels’ second MVP. He did finish sixth in the league in bWAR, but it was a distant sixth, far behind Ichiro Suzuki and Johan Santana. So how did Guerrero win? I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn (if you don’t actually remember) that Guerrero, like Baylor, knocked in a ton of runs for a first-place team. Guerrero picked up 21 of 28 first-place votes, compared to zero first-place votes for Miguel Tejada, who a) drove in more runs than Guerrero, while b) playing shortstop … but for a third-place team. Guerrero really did have a big year with the bat but by then had little defensive value and probably should have been DH’ing already. Tejada was just as good with the bat, and was still a pretty good shortstop. This seems a prima facie case for Tejada as the better, more valuable player. But no, the voters, as they usually have, lassoed the MVP candidate’s performance together with the performance of his teammates.

So does Mike Trout’s MVP signal a sea change? Hardly. Because of course he played for a first-place team, so it was easy to vote for him. Oh, and he led the American League in RBI, so it was REALLY easy to vote for him. If you want to know if the Conventional Wisdom about MVP candidates has really changed so much, though, just look at Victor Martinez, who finished second in the balloting. Or read this:

Martinez finished fourth in the league in homers and seventh in RBI … for a first-place team. So he obviously deserved to finish higher than seventh, right? Well, except he finished 14th in the league in bWAR, or 18th if you count pitchers. Now, maybe you want to give Martinez bonus points for his sterling leadership and a few more for his clutch hitting. But considering what we know in 2014 about baseball and how to measure a player’s worth, which seems more reasonable to you? A second-place vote, or a seventh-place vote? Well, he got 16 second-place votes and one seventh-place vote. So you tell me how far we’ve come since 1979.

Actually, the voters have gotten smarter in 35 years. In the National League balloting, Jonathan Lucroy finished fourth, Anthony Rendon fifth. Those results do suggest some real progress. But the writers’ obsession with RBI guys on first-place teams has long outlasted any excuses for it, and I’m tired of them.