Statistical analysis in baseball is advancing every day, improving understanding of the game for those who are not afraid to embrace it. It is easy to look back in time through the lens of what we know now and shake our heads. We can look at Dante Bichette‘s 1995 season, when he led the National League with 40 homers and 128 RBIs and finished third with a .340 batting average, and know that he didn’t deserve to finish second in the MVP voting because his offensive numbers were inflated by Colorado and his defense was awful. But at the time, based on the understanding the voters had in the moment, it was a reasonably defensible result.
Sometimes, though, even without the benefit of hindsight, MVP voters throw out some real clunkers. Sometimes they vote for guys who had terrible seasons by any standard. Those are the seasons that really interest me.
I had this idea a few weeks back, when I was writing about little-known family relationships in Major League Baseball. I came across a guy named Sam Dente, who happened to be the grandfather of current Boston Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello. I noticed that in 1950, Dente received one tenth-place vote in the American League MVP voting, despite a slash line (batting average / on-base percentage / slugging percentage) of .239/.286/.299, good for a 53 OPS+ and a WAR of -1.6. Dente set career highs in runs, home runs, and runs batted in that season, but none of those numbers was actually impressive (56 runs, 59 RBIs, two homers).
So, inspired by Sam “Blackie” Dente, I set out to find some of the most baffling, indefensible MVP votes. Not the guys at the top of the ballot — I know, Ted Williams probably should have won two or three more MVPs than he did — but the guys down lower who don’t jump out until you realize that getting any votes means that someone, somewhere thought he was one of the ten best players in the league.
The MVP Awards as we know them have existed since 1931. Before that, there were league-specific awards with different criteria and different names, but I didn’t look at those. Since 1931, there have been ten names on each ballot, with players receiving one point for a tenth-place vote, two for ninth, etc. The number of points for a first-place vote has changed over time, but that is irrelevant to our current discussion.
So settle in and enjoy reading about some players who got MVP votes when they probably shouldn’t have.
Jimmie Wilson, 1931-32
Jimmie Wilson was a two-sport star, spending a couple years as a professional soccer player before turning his full attention to baseball. He split most of his career between the Phillies and Cardinals (plus 45 plate appearances for the Reds in 1939-40 when injuries forced him out of his coaching job and into a backup catcher role). He received MVP votes in back-to-back seasons, finishing as high as sixth in 1931.
Here’s the thing, though: he wasn’t very good in those seasons. He was a catcher, and we don’t have anywhere near perfect defensive metrics for catchers who are playing today, let alone 85 years ago. But he would have had to be a pretty spectacular defensive catcher to deserve MVP consideration hitting the way he did, and the metrics we do have (and historical records) don’t seem to indicate that level of awesome.
In 1932, Wilson had a WAR of 0.0. He played only 92 games and had 274 at-bats, and in that brief time he slashed .248/.290/.343 for an OPS+ of 67 (that’s 33 percent worse than average). He got five points in the MVP voting, which either means that five people thought he was the tenth-best player in the National League, or one person thought he was the sixth-best player in the league. Both of those propositions are baffling.
Wilson’s 1931 season had been better, but only marginally. He had 383 at-bats in 115 games, hitting .274/.332/.337 for an OPS+ of 76 and a 0.7 WAR. He must have impressed a lot of people, because he finished sixth in the MVP voting with 28 points, ahead of 14 players who had a WAR at least 2.0 wins better than his.
Rabbit Maranville, 1931-33
Rabbit Maranville is a Hall of Famer, inducted a few months after his death in 1954. In his prime, he was an elite defensive shortstop. The MVP Award as we know it did not exist in his prime, although he did finish high in the voting for some of the precursor awards. By the time the MVP award came around, Maranville was 39 years old and a defensive liability. Oh, and he still couldn’t hit.
In Maranville’s last three full seasons, he finished 10th, 17th, and 12th in the MVP voting, respectively. His WARs those seasons were 1.0, -0.3, and -1.0, with OPS+ numbers of 76, 59, and 60. His speed was gone — after stealing as many as 32 bases in a season early in his career, he stole a total of 15 in his final three seasons. But somehow, in those three lousy seasons, he got a total of 31 points in the MVP voting.
Maranville racked up over 2,600 hits in the big leagues, due much more to playing forever (1912-35) than to being a good hitter (career batting average of .258, OPS+ of 82). He was fast and he was good defensively, at least when he was young, and whatever reputation he had built that eventually got him elected to the Hall of Fame was apparently already in force at the end of his career, when he got a bunch of MVP votes he had no business getting.
Pete Fox, 1938
Pete Fox’s real name was Ervin. In 1932, he was playing in the minor leagues for the Beaumont Exporters, with notable teammates Rip Sewell, Schoolboy Rowe, and Hank Greenberg. Pete was fast — we have no record of his stolen bases for the Exporters, but he had 11 triples in just 446 at-bats, so we know he could motor. Because of his speed, the fans in Beaumont nicknamed him Rabbit. “Rabbit” morphed into “Peter Rabbit,” which eventually became “Pete.” The Exporters also had career minor-leaguer Stanley “Rabbit” Benton on the team, but there’s no indication that a glut of Rabbits was a contributing factor to Fox’s switch to Pete.
In 1937, Fox was a pretty decent player, batting .331/.372/.476 with a 110 OPS+, good for 2.9 WAR. He wasn’t one of the ten best players in the American League, but he might have been top 30, and you can forgive the voter who threw his 10th-place vote Fox’s way.
But in 1938, Fox saw a big decline in production. In fact, according to WAR, he was worth less than a replacement player. His slash line dropped dramatically in all aspects, down to .293/.328/.413, going from a respectable 110 OPS+ to a dismal 80. His defense in right field neither helped nor hurt him, as his offensive WAR and overall WAR were an identical -0.4. But Fox got nine points in the MVP voting, good for 20th place right between Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig (4.3 WAR, ten points) and Lefty Grove (4.9 WAR, seven points).
Fox got MVP votes in four different seasons, and while he probably never really deserved any of them, he never deserved anything less than the votes he got in 1938.
Dick Bartell, 1940
Dick Bartell had a couple legitimately good seasons for the New York Giants in 1936 and 1937, finishing 19th and 6th in the MVP voting in those two seasons, respectively. You could even make a case that he was shorted in 1936, when he finished 19th but had the seventh-best WAR in the National League.
In 1940, though, he was not good. In his first season with the Detroit Tigers, he batted .233/.335/.330 for a 67 OPS+ and a -0.3 WAR. But somehow, he got 26 points in the American League MVP voting and finished a couple spots ahead of Ted Williams (.344/.442/.594).
Elden Auker, 1941
Elden Auker’s Wikipedia page says that the first batter he ever faced in the big leagues was Babe Ruth, whom he struck out on four pitches. Unfortunately, Auker’s debut actually came against the White Sox on August 10, 1933, and Babe Ruth did not play in that game (obviously) nor either of the two games Auker pitched against the Yankees that year. He did eventually face Ruth, and he probably eventually struck him out — we only have Auker’s full game logs from 1938 on, and Ruth was already retired by then — but it didn’t happen in his debut. Wikipedia also says that until his death in 2006, Auker was the last living pitcher who had faced Ruth.
Of course, the only mention of Auker’s 1941 season on Wikipedia is that he allowed two hits to Joe DiMaggio during DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. It doesn’t mention that Auker somehow got one tenth-place MVP vote despite being, objectively speaking, a fiery bag of dog poo that season. He pitched 216 innings that season and allowed a league-high 132 earned runs, for an ERA of 5.50 (79 ERA+). He averaged 3.5 walks per nine innings and only 2.5 strikeouts, for a K/BB of 0.71.
Auker’s -1.3 WAR in 1941 is one of the worst in history among players who got MVP votes.
Rick Ferrell, 1942
Rick Ferrell is a Hall of Famer, elected by the Veteran’s Committee in 1984. Like many players elected by that committee, his merits for enshrinement in Cooperstown are debatable. He was very good at getting on base, with a career on-base percentage nearly 100 points higher than his batting average (.378 to .281). But he had no power — 77 percent of his 1,692 career hits were singles, and less than two percent were homers — so despite the great OBP, his career OPS+ was only 95.
One thing that is not debatable is that Ferrell was not very good in 1942. He played in only 99 games, and in 312 plate appearances he slashed .223/.307/.253 with six doubles and one triple for an OPS+ of 57 and a WAR of -0.4. But somehow, when the season was over, he ended up with eight points in the MVP voting. It is fun to ponder whether eight people thought he was the tenth-best player in the league, or one voter thought he was third-best.
The funny thing is, although Ferrell is in the Hall of Fame, he probably wasn’t even the best baseball player in his own family. His brother Wes is not in the Hall of Fame, but he was a six-time 20-game winner who went 193-128 with a 116 ERA+ in 15 seasons as a major league pitcher. Wes also hit ten more homers than Rick (38 to 28) in 19 percent as many plate appearances.
And every time Wes got MVP votes, he actually deserved them.
Al Lopez, 1945
Al Lopez is in the Hall of Fame as a manager, and deservedly so. In 17 seasons at the helm of the Indians and White Sox, he led his teams to a record of 1410-1004, for an outstanding .584 winning percentage. As a player, he was solid. Catchers in his era were not expected to hit much, and he didn’t, posting a career line of .261/.326/.337 for an OPS+ of 83. Only twice in his 19 seasons did he post an OPS+ above 100, putting up a 108 in both 1933 and the partial season of 1946 (only 178 plate appearances).
Lopez’s worst season came in 1945, when he played only 91 games and put up a 56 OPS+ in 280 plate appearances (.218/.317/.251) for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The 36-year-old Lopez was the second-best catcher on his own team (Bill Salkeld put up a 163 OPS+ in 317 plate appearances), and his OPS+ would have ranked dead last in the National League had he had enough plate appearances to qualify.
And he got two points in the MVP voting. He might have been the worst player in the league that year, but a couple people thought he was in the top ten.
Johnny Berardino, 1946
Johnny Berardino was a weak-hitting infielder who played eleven seasons for the St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Indians, and Pittsburgh Pirates. He missed almost four full seasons from 1942-45 due to World War II, during which he served in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
Berardino started acting during his playing career, appearing in several movies beginning in 1948. In 1952, he injured his leg and was released by the Pirates, at which point he decided to stick full-time with acting. Perhaps his most memorable role came in a 1953 episode of “The Abbott and Costello Show,” in which Berardino appeared as “Husky Man Who Grabs Lou’s Tie” and his name was misspelled as John Bernadino in the credits.
Just kidding. His actual most memorable role was his 33-year stint on General Hospital as Dr. Steve Hardy. Berardino, who by then had changed his name to John Beradino, was an original cast member and acted on the show until shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1996.
As Johnny Berardino the baseball player, he never had a full season with an OPS+ better than 95, and his 81 in 1946 was only slightly better than his career mark of 77. He batted .265/.306/.357 that year, and he contributed only slightly more WAR than he had when he was in the War, posting a 0.1.
Maybe it was his good looks, or maybe there was something on defense that doesn’t show up in the numbers, but Johnny Berardino’s 1946 season, which rates as just barely above replacement level, “earned” him two points in the American League MVP voting.
Mark Christman, 1947
Mark Christman was a shortstop who never made an All-Star team but got MVP votes in three seasons. In the first two, 1944 and 1945, if you look at his stats and you consider how many players were serving in World War II and you squint just right, you can make a case for him getting some attention (although you have to squint pretty hard to overlook the fact that he played only 78 games in 1945).
But in 1947, the War was over, the players were home, and Christman was awful. His slash line in 110 games was .222/.287/.281 for a 60 OPS+ and a -0.8 WAR. If he was known as an outstanding fielder, that reputation was lost to the annals of time and does not show up in the numbers we have available.
Christman got four points in the MVP voting, more than Eddie Lopat, who finished fourth in the league in WAR.
Granny Hamner, 1957
Granny Hamner was a middle infielder for the Phillies, one of the leaders of the “Whiz Kids” team that won the National League pennant in 1950. He received MVP votes in 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, and 1954, all of which were relatively good seasons. He had decent power for a shortstop, putting up as many as 21 home runs in a season.
Hamner debuted as a 17-year-old in 1944 and became a regular at age 21 in 1948. His last full season came in 1957, when, as a 30-year-old second baseman, he slashed .227/.274/.345 for an OPS+ of 67 and a -1.1 WAR. For that performance, Hamner received three points in the MVP voting.
Hamner played sporadically the next two seasons, even trying to make it as a pitcher, but his career was over after 1959 (except for a brief three-appearance pitching stint with the Kansas City A’s in 1962).
Ted Williams, 1959
Ted Williams played in 19 major league seasons, and in 18 of them, he received MVP votes. The lone exception was 1952, when he played only six games before shipping off to the Korean War.
There should have been two exceptions, though. In 1959, Williams was nearing the end of a spectacular career, and for the first (and only) time, he was not great. He batted just .254 — his career low otherwise was .316 — in 103 games for the Red Sox. He still got his share of walks, and his .372 OBP contributed to a 114 OPS+, which is good by regular standards but far below his career mark of 190 (and, for that matter, his previous single-season low of 160).
So Williams was un-Williams-like on offense, but still decent. But Williams was never good on defense, and the 40-year-old Williams was downright awful. Without the spectacular offense, he was below replacement level overall. After never having a WAR lower than 6.0 in a full season before he turned 39, he put up a -0.2 in 1959.
And then he got two points in the MVP voting.
Elston Howard, 1967
From 1957 through 1965, Yankees catcher Elston Howard was an All-Star in nine consecutive seasons and had three top-ten finishes in the AL MVP voting, including winning the award in 1963. He was very good in most of those seasons, putting up 25.5 WAR in that nine-year span.
By 1966, Howard was pretty bad, and in 1967, after slashing .196/.247/.271 through July, the Yankees traded him to the Red Sox for Pete Magrini and Ron Klimkowski, both of whom were much better Scrabble words than baseball players. Howard was even worse for the Sox, hitting .147/.211/.198 in 42 games. His overall stat line for 1967: 108 games played, 345 plate appearances, .178/.233/.244, 42 OPS+, -1.3 WAR. It was a horrendous season for a once-great player.
But when the ballots came around, a few voters marked his name, perhaps out of habit. He received seven points in the voting, which means either multiple people listed him or one voter considered him the fourth-best player in the league. Neither thought makes much sense.
Ernie Banks, 1969
In 1969, Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson led the National League with an 11.3 WAR. He received two points in the MVP voting and finished tied for 30th. That same season, Cubs first baseman and future Hall of Famer Ernie Banks finished 12th in the voting, the 11th and final time he would receive MVP votes.
Unlike the ten other times, though, Banks was not very good in 1969. Yes, he hit 23 home runs and had 106 RBIs, but he slashed just .253/.309/.416 for a 92 OPS+. While he did come as close as he ever had to reaching the postseason — his Cubs blew an 8.5 game lead in the last six weeks of the season to the Miracle Mets — his -0.7 WAR was the worst of his career.
Somehow, he got 15 points in the MVP voting, finishing ahead of at least seven players who put up WARs of 6.0+ and literally hundreds of people who put up WARs above -0.7. Perhaps it was a lifetime achievement award; perhaps it was a reliance on shiny round numbers like 100 RBIs. Whatever it was, it was a bad vote.
Jack Billingham, 1974
In 1974, Jack Billingham finished sixth in the National League Cy Young Award voting and 16th in the MVP voting. Strangely enough, Cy Young winner Mike Marshall, who threw 208.1 innings in relief, was the only pitcher to finish ahead of Billingham in both votes. Andy Messersmith, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, and Al Hrabosky were all deemed more worthy of the Cy Young Award, but equally or less worthy of the MVP.
The thing is, he finished higher than he should have in both votes. He had a nice win total, going 19-11, but his 3.94 ERA, 89 ERA+, and 1.399 WHIP were all unimpressive. He finished the season with a 0.0 pitching WAR, and when you factor in his utter ineptitude with the bat — 5-for-67, .075/.088/.075, -54 OPS+ — his overall WAR was -0.8.
But those 19 shiny wins got him four points in the MVP voting.
Joe Carter, 1990
Joe Carter was involved in three very big trades in his career. On June 13, 1984, the Cubs sent him to the Indians in exchange for the struggling Rick Sutcliffe, who went 16-1 for the Cubs the rest of the season and won the NL Cy Young Award. On December 6, 1989, the Indians traded Carter to the Padres for a package including Sandy Alomar Jr. and Carlos Baerga, who both went on to become stars. And 364 days later, the Padres packaged Carter with future Hall of Famer (and Sandy’s little brother) Roberto Alomar in a deal with the Blue Jays for Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff.
In 1990, his lone season in San Diego, Carter put up some big numbers, including 24 home runs, 115 runs batted in, and 22 stolen bases. Unfortunately, those 24 homers were his lowest total between 1986 and 1996, and his slash line of .232/.290/.391 was only good for a 85 OPS+. Oh, and his defense in center field was horrendous. Add it all up, and you have a WAR of -1.8, one of the lowest numbers in baseball history for a player who received MVP votes that season.
Carter worked his magic when he homered off Mitch Williams to win the 1993 World Series, but his greatest magic might have been pulling in seven MVP points in the worst season of his career.
Or maybe it was something in the water — both Paul O’Neill (0.3 WAR) and Pedro Guerrero (-0.1) also got MVP votes in 1990 despite lousy seasons.