Mickey Cochrane won the 1934 American League MVP award. That must have been news to Lou Gehrig. Cochrane, the Detroit Tigers catcher/manager and Hall of Famer, batted a respectable .320 with 74 runs scored and 75 RBIs for a Tigers team that went 101-53 before losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in the Fall Classic. Gehrig’s Yankees team surprisingly did not make the World Series that year, winning only 94 games. Gehrig delivered the only Triple Crown season of his career, slashing .363/.465/.706 with 49 home runs and 166 RBIs. For his efforts, he was rewarded with a fifth place finish in the vote behind two more members of the Tigers, Charlie Gehringer and Schoolboy Rowe.
The effects of this vote are still felt today. Gehrig was hands down the best player in the league in 1934, but Cochrane was the leader and a national hero on the best team in the league. Voters shunned the Triple Crown by Gehrig to give the award to a player from the Tigers. It’s not as if Gehrig was putting up great numbers on a bad team. His Yankees still won 94 games. Baseball Reference classifies any season of eight-plus WAR as MVP-caliber. Back in 1934, WAR was still a thing you did to help your country vanquish its enemies, but Cochrane and his 4.0 WAR barely held a candle to Gehrig’s 10.4 WAR. Cochrane won the award largely for his work as the leader of the Tigers, not what he actually did as a player. To this day, the definition of the “v” in MVP is still a nebulous thing, open for debate at the close of every season.
Though there is no actual stipulation in the voting process that states the MVP must come from a winning team, this debate pops up every time a player from a bad team has the audacity to put up really good numbers. On July 30, when the Washington Nationals were in first place, Bryce Harper, who is having himself one of the 100 greatest seasons in MLB history, was the clear-cut MVP favorite. Now, on September 11, with his team out of the playoff picture, there are questions about his candidacy for the award. All Harper has done in August and September is hit .352 with seven home runs and 17 RBI. On the season, Harper has accumulated 9.0 WAR. The other position players on the Washington roster have combined for a 5.6 WAR. Minus Harper, the seven other Nationals taking the field have produced below the level of a replacement player. Without Harper, this team would probably be a sub-.500 ballclub. If that’s not value, I don’t know what is.
For some reason, the MVP award has always had team performance (or worse, popularity) dragged into the equation. It’s not a team award. Mickey Cochrane was no better than Lou Gehrig in 1934 because his team went to the World Series, just as Anthony Rizzo and Andrew McCutchen are no better than Harper this year. The MVP debate has dragged on for over 80 years, and it’s high time it was settled. Baseball has evolved in many ways since the 1934 season, but the same attitudes regarding team performance continue to pervade the MVP discussion. Lou Gehrig was the 1934 MVP. Bryce Harper is the 2015 MVP. Gehrig did not play in the World Series, and neither will Harper, but when will we stop caring?