Monday, April 14, 2008

How many MVPs should Babe Ruth have won?

It’s rare now days that a player with an historic baseball season is robbed of an MVP Award. Sure, there have been questionable MVP choices. We only need to look to last season to find one of those. My point is that superstars like Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez usually win the MVP when they should win the MVP. A strong argument could be made that Bonds should have won the MVP in ’91 over Terry Pendleton. Still, Bonds has seven MVPs and he should have won no more than eight. A-Rod has three MVPs. He probably should’ve won in ’92 and ’02 but he has won three and he should have won no more than five. There are injustices but the best players end up with their fair share of MVP Awards.

Unfortunately for Babe Ruth, that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, of the 28 players who have won multiple MVPs, you will not find Ruth’s name on that list. You may be even more shocked to find out that the greatest player who ever lived only finished in the top three of the MVP Voting once in his entire career. Most of that has to do with the outrageous manner in which the MVP was awarded in MLB at the time. Two rules in specific made the MVP a joke. First, voters could not vote for more than one player on a team. That meant teammates, more often than not, cancelled each other out. Second, no player could win the MVP more than once...ever. This led to some highly questionable winners and results like Babe Ruth winning one MVP.

Ruth’s shortage of MVPs is a result of terrible luck—the same sort of terrible luck that got him one measly batting title despite having the 6th highest batting average in MLB history (min. 3,500 at-bats after 1900). The MVP wasn’t awarded during Ruth’s career until 1923 which meant his first five prolific seasons couldn’t result in an MVP. There also wasn’t an AL MVP awarded in 1929 or 1930. The rule about no repeat winners meant that once he won the inaugural MVP in 1923, he was never allowed to win the MVP again. As you might have imagined, the MVP didn't last long in that format. Obvious concerns about the validity of an MVP that wasn't actually awarded to the MVP took over and change was afoot in 1929. Even then--when the Baseball Writer's Association of America gave out an MVP in '29 and '30--Ruth was robbed. Instead of the award going to Ruth--who had easily been the best hitter in the game--the award was given to Lew Fonseca and Al Simmons in '29 and Joe Cronin in '30. I’m convinced—although I don’t have proof of this—that voters purposefully voted against Ruth. I’m not sure what their motives would’ve been but an in-depth look at Ruth’s career shows that even with the voting-rules in play, Ruth should have won the BBWAA’s MVP in 1929 and 1930.

Here is a breakdown of the seasons in which Ruth was productive enough to merit consideration…

The Six that Ruth deserved

From 1923-1930, Ruth flat-out deserved six MVPs. The award existed and he should have won it. He won it in ’23 and should have won it from ’26-’30. During that five-year stretch, Ruth was unquestionably the best player in MLB. A comparison of Ruth’s numbers to the actual winners (in order; George Burns ’26, Lou Gehrig ’27, and Mickey Cochrane ’28) isn’t even close. Ruth was the victim of another stretch of bad luck when the AL MVP was inexplicably vacant in '29 and '30 instead of simply having the voting rules amended. He was easily the best player in the majors in '29 and '30 ahead of Gehrig. There was an NL MVP in 1929 which makes the AL not having an award that season curious at best.

Ruth vs. Triple Crown Pitchers

It’s easy to prove that Ruth was the best hitter in the game in ’24 and ‘31. It’s not easy to prove that he was the best player in the game in ’24 and ’31. In ’24, Walter Johnson—who ended up winning the MVP that year—won the Triple Crown and his team won the AL Pennant and World Series. Johnson was certainly a worthy candidate. However, Ruth had one of the greatest offensive seasons in MLB history. Ruth deserved it as much as Johnson, if not more. Johnson's ERA+ was 149. Ruth's OPS+ was 220. Ruth wasn’t even eligible because he won it in ’23 so Johnson won. It’s worth noting that Johnson barely beat out Eddie Collins for the award. Collins’s season didn’t come remotely close to Ruth’s season.

1931 was a repeat of ’24 in the sense that Ruth’s main competition was a pitcher who won the Triple Crown and played for a team that won the AL Pennant. It was different in the sense that Ruth was now eligible to win the MVP for the first time since 1923 because voting rules were mercifully amended. Lefty Grove ended up winning the award, however. Grove’s season was certainly worthy of MVP consideration but Ruth’s season was again one of the greatest in MLB history. The fact that Ruth only managed a 5th place finish in ’31 reeks of collusion by the voters. I’m not going to say Grove didn’t deserve it. His season was phenomenal. I just think Ruth had just as much right to it as Grove.

Pre-MVP years

The MVP was awarded before Ruth’s career from 1911-1914. It was vacated from 1915 through 1922. From 1918-1922, Ruth was the best player in baseball at least three times and possibly during all five seasons. In 1918, it would’ve been a toss-up between Ruth and Cobb. In 1922, I think Ruth had the advantage but it probably would’ve been a toss-up between Ruth and George Sisler. From 1919-1921, it would’ve been all Ruth.

The “Unofficial” total

Assuming the MVP existed over the entirety of Ruth’s career (remember, there was no AL MVP in 1918-1922, 1929, and 1930), and voters a). didn’t have to follow ridiculous rules and b). didn’t hold some sort of grudge against Ruth, I believe Ruth would have won nine MVPs. That is the “bare bones” minimum total. I didn’t count 1918, 1922, 1924, and 1931. Ruth would have had at least a 50/50 shot in each of those seasons under the above mentioned conditions. By my tally, Ruth should have won the MVP in the following seasons:


The current record for most MVPs is held by Bonds who has seven. Had Ruth played under the same voting conditions as Bonds, he would’ve won nine and possibly as many as 13. It would be interesting to look into Ty Cobb's career as well. Under today's voting conditions, I think he would've won close to nine MVPs as well.

I'll leave you with this…

In 1921, Ruth hit 59 home runs. However, balls that hit the foul poll in the air were considered “ground rule doubles” and balls that went over the fence in fair territory but hooked foul after passing the foul poll were considered “foul” balls. This guy re-calculated Ruth’s homerun total that year based on present-day rules where both instances are home runs. The result? Ruth actually hit 104 home runs in 1921.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great post. I myself have wondered how many MVP's Ruth would have won, being aware of the one MVP-per-career style voting back then, but never took into account a possible grudge by the sportswriters. It's kind of a stretch, but not unthinkable.
I've always found it ridiculous that Babe didn't get an MVP for the greatest statistical season of all-time (1921, he set so many records that year, it's amazing). Almost as ridiculous as Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson being robbed of the MVP (that went to Bill Russell) in the 1961-62 season, the year Wilt averaged 50.4 ppg and Oscar had his triple double season.

Great post, loved reading it.



Powered by Blogger