Friday, November 21, 2008

History of the MVP Award

Earlier this week, Albert Pujols and Dustin Pedroia won their respective MVP Awards. I thought I'd take a moment to talk about the history of the MVP Award.

Record books often list Frankie Frisch and Lefty Grove as the first official MVP winners, both in 1931. But that’s just the first award sanctioned by the Baseball Writer's Association of America; MVP awards as voted on by sportswriters actually date back to the Chalmers Award. What's that?

Baseball’s earliest official most valuable player award, the Chalmers Award was originally instituted in 1910 to reward the major leagues’ batting champion. But after the controversial 1910 batting race, in which the St. Louis Browns conspired to hand the batting championship to Nap Lajoie instead of Ty Cobb, Chalmers changed its policy and awarded the prize—a Chalmers automobile—to the player in each league selected most valuable by a vote of sportswriters. The winners were: 1911, Wildfire Schulte (NL) and Ty Cobb (AL); 1912, Larry Doyle and Tris Speaker; 1913, Jake Daubert and Walter Johnson; 1914, Johnny Evers and Eddie Collins. After those awards, the Chalmers Company had fulfilled its five-year commitment to the award, and the honor was discontinued. Within a few years, the Chalmers company itself was discontinued.

A few years after Chalmers stopped awarding its autos as prizes, the leagues picked up the idea. American League president Ban Johnson wanted his league’s winners, selected by a poll of sportswriters, to have their names engraved on a monument to be built in the nation’s capital. The National League, by contrast, offered $1,000 cash for its winners. These League Awards, as they were called, were handed out from 1922 until 1928 for the AL and 1925 until 1929 for the NL.

They fell out of favor for a number of reasons: the AL’s monument was never built; MVP winners started demanding more money from their teams; and the AL disallowed repeat winners, which made a sham of the award because it shut out the league’s best players—Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

In the absence of League Awards, The Sporting News began selecting MVPs. The BBWAA started up in 1931, which is the award we recognize today. TSN continued to hand out its awards in direct competition with the BBWAA, and in the early years, the TSN award may have been more prestigious. For several years in the late 1930s and 1940s, the BBWAA and TSN unified their awards, but then they split again, and today, the honors compete with each other—although now it’s the BBWAA trophy that means more.

With a few minor changes, the voting structure in the 1930s is basically what we have today: two writers in each city rank 10 players on their ballots, the first place winner receiving 14 points, second place getting nine, third place eight, and so on.

For a long time, the record for MVP victories was three, held by Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Mickey Mantle, and Mike Schmidt. But Barry Bonds put that record out of reach earlier this century and owns 7 MVP Awards.

There has long been controversy about what constitutes an MVP winner. Is he the league’s overall best performer? Or is he the player who was most valuable to his team? Does his team’s position in the standings have any effect? How can a player be valuable to a last-place team when they could have finished last without him? MVP voters have never addressed these questions meaningfully. For example, in 1958 and 1959, they selected Ernie Banks, even though his team never contended for the pennant, because he was the best player in the league. But in 1947, Bob Elliot of the second-place Braves captured the award over Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize, who dominated the league’s offensive categories but didn’t play on pennant contenders. Ted Williams lost out on about three awards because his teams didn’t win the pennant (and because many writers hated him). And Joe DiMaggio won at least one award when he didn’t deserve it simply because his name was Joe DiMaggio. More recently, the strange voting criteria robbed Mark McGwire of the 1998 award, when he smacked a record 70 home runs, because his team didn’t compete for the pennant while the MVP winner, Sammy Sosa, played on a wild card team.

So what does it take to be the MVP? Let’s look at the statistics. Generally speaking, of course, you have to play on a pennant contender. In the history of the modern MVP award, only a handful of players won despite playing on losing teams. It helps to play a key defensive position like catcher or shortstop because you can win even if you don’t have the best batting totals. The most important offensive statistic is RBIs: over 40 percent of all MVP winners also led their league in RBIs; in fact, 11 MVPs led their league only in RBIs. The next most important statistic is slugging percentage (over 30 percent of winners led their league in that category), then home runs (about 30 percent). The least important offensive statistic? Stolen bases; only three stolen base leaders have won the MVP. Finally, it helps to be a nice guy: The media’s dislike of Ted Williams probably cost him a couple of awards. More recently, Mo Vaughn won the 1995 award over Albert Belle in no small part because Vaughn is a likable guy while Belle is not.

I'm sure somebody has done a true study of the MVP Award. I'm going to try to track one down and post a link.

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