Pujols Snubbed in 2006, But Not For the Reason He Thinks
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
November 30, 2006

The Associated Press is reporting out of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic that Albert Pujols stated at a press conference that he felt snubbed by Ryan Howard winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award when Howard’s team did not even manage to get into the playoffs.

“I see it this way,” Pujols reported said, “Someone who doesn’t take his team to the playoffs doesn’t deserve to win the MVP.”

While Pujols certainly has a right to his opinion, and may in fact have been snubbed by the Baseball Writers Association of America, the organization responsible for MVP voting as well as some other awards, Pujols is mistaken as to the traditional understanding of the Most Valuable Player Award. While the majority of players who have won the award did in fact take their teams to the post-season, observing a rule, whether formally or informally, requiring a playoff berth as a pre-requiste for the Most Valuable Player award would be improper and unnecessary.

There is certainly no shortage of evidence that players do often rightly win the MVP Award despite not going to the playoffs. From 2000 to 2004, the National League MVP was awarded to a San Francisco Giant each season, though the Giants failed to reach the post-season in 2001 and 2004. In 1997, Larry Walker managed to win the award despite playing for the third place Colorado Rockies, and in 1993, Barry Bonds won the award while playing for the 103-59 San Francisco Giants, who finished one game out in the National League West before there was a wild card.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that players have from time to time won the award while not going to the playoffs, more than two thirds of the time the MVP comes from a playoff bound team. Since 1980, Ryan Howard is only the eighth National League player to win the award without being on a playoff bound team. In the American League, the disparity is even greater, as only five non-playoff bound players have won the award since 1980. But does this mean that it should be a rule that the MVP comes from a playoff bound team?

First, we should determine what it takes to win the award without being playoff bound? The answer seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? Intuitively we know that winning the award would require a combination of a superior season from an individual perspective with a dearth of good candidates on the playoff bound teams. Of course, we can also acknowledge that it probably helps if, as with Howard, the team makes a run at the playoffs and just misses.

Taking a look at those players who pulled off the trick, we see that this is often, but not always the case:

1983 Dale Murphy, Atlanta Braves - The Murph had just won the MVP the previous year when the Braves won the NL West for the first time since 1969, and took it again in 1983 even though the Braves finished three games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for second place in the division. Murphy led the league in games, RBI, slugging, OPS, and runs created, while finishing second total bases, runs, and homeruns, and third in on-base percentage. Murphy also went 30/30 that year, and was caught stealing only 9 times.

The top playoff bound vote-getter in 1983 was Mike Schmidt, who had a fine season leading the league homeruns and adjusted OPS, but was doomed by a .255 batting average and only 16 doubles to go with his 148 strikeouts.

The division winner Dodgers' best bet for MVP that year was Pedro Guerrero, who finished fourth behind Schmidt and had a fine but not too glitzy season.

1986 Mike Schmidt, Philadelphia Phillies - Schmidt’s Phillies finished at 86-75 in 1986, good for second place in their division, but also good for 21.5 games back of the 1986 New York Mets, who finished 108-57. Schmidt led an unimpressive National League in homeruns and RBI (with 37 and 119 respectively), as well as extra base hits, and he finished second in walks. He also led the league in OPS, though no one cared.

The Mets’ best candidates for the award were Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez, who finished third and fourth respectively, but Carter hit .255 despite his 24 homeruns and 105 RBI, and Hernandez managed only 13 homeruns and 84 RBI despite his 141 OPS+ and 101 runs created, stats which would not be discovered for years to come.

The second place finisher in 1986 was Glenn Davis for the NL West-winning Houston Astros. Glenn came up big in the showy numbers with 31 homeruns, 32 doubles, 91 runs, and 101 RBI, but hit only .265.

1987 Andre Dawson Chicago Cubs - Andre Dawson is the classic example of subjective qualifications carrying the day in the MVP voting, and Bill James has called his selection in 1987 one of the worst picks of all time. Dawson famously came to the Cubs as a free agent after no other teams would tender him a contract, and he was so desperate to get out of Montreal that he actually signed a blank contract, which the Cubs promptly filled in with a league minimum offer. All this 32 year old veteran with aching knees and a seemingly slowing bat did was go out and lead the league in homeruns and RBI with 49 ad 137, which were the most in the league had seen in either category since George Foster in 1977. Dawson became a cult hero in Chicago, and was awarded the MVP.

The problem with this award was that the Cubs finished in last place in the NL East. But Dawson took the award because a) the NL East champion St. Louis Cardinals featured two legitimate candidates in Ozzie Smith and Jack Clark, who split their votes and finished second and third in the voting, and b) the NL West division winner's best candidate for the award was Will Clark, finished with 35 homeruns and 91 RBI, well behind Dawson in both totals. Additionally, Will Clark was caught stealing an absurd 17 times out of 22 attempts, which may or may not have affected the voters, but is worth mentioning either way.

1993 Barry Bonds San Francisco Giants - Bonds' victory in 1993 is easy to figure out:

a) he was the best player in the National League by a substantial sum;

b) in his first year with the Giants, the team improved from 72-90 to 103-59 and finished 1 game behind the Braves;

c) The second place finisher was Lenny Dykstra, who personified the NL East winning Phillies, but had the unfortunate distinction of leading the league in runs and hits, while Bonds was leading the league in homeruns and RBI, the more glorious MVP stats.

d) NL West winner Atlanta had three candidates - David Justice, Fred McGriff, and Ron Gant – finish third, fourth, and fifth, thus splitting their votes.

1997 Larry Walker Colorado Rockies - In 1997, Larry Walker probably had the most deserving non-playoff bound MVP season since 1980. Ironically, his Colorado Rockies finished third in their division. Nevertheless, the Rockies wound up only seven games behind the division-winning Giants, and Walker was magnificent that year.

Walker came in second to Tony Gwynn in batting, hitting .366 to Gwynn’s .372. But Walker led the league in OBP, SLG, and OPS. He also finished second in the league in runs with 143 and hits with 208. He led the league in total bases with 409, becoming the first player in the National League since Hank Aaron in 1959 to finish with more than 400. He led the league in homeruns with 49, and finished third in RBI with 130. He also led the league in runs created and extra-base hits by wide margins, and managed a .720 slugging percentage. He was also a gold glove right fielder and, oh by the way, went 30-30.

But Larry Walker was helped by one factor which would have hurt if he had put up the same numbers in 2006 - the Rockies had only been playing ball for four seasons in 1997, and fans and sportswriters had not yet begun to treat the stats of Rockies’ players with indifference.

Oddly, the second place finisher in 1997 was also a non-playoff bound player – Mike Piazza of the Dodgers. Once again, the best candidates from a division winner managed to split votes, as Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio each enjoyed monster seasons but managed to finish third and fourth respectively.

2001 and 2004 Barry Bonds, San Francisco Giants - Same story each year: the Giants finished 2.0 games behind the NL West division winners, and Bonds enjoyed one of the greatest offensive seasons of all time. In 2001, Bonds was chased by Sammy Sosa, who enjoyed his finest season ever. In 2004 Barry was chased by Adrian Beltre, who came from absolutely nowhere to put up numbers which would have earned him the MVP in any other season in baseball history.

1985 Don Mattingly New York Yankees - Donnie Baseball’s Yankees finished two games back of the Blue Jays in the AL East, and Mattingly finished with 35 homeruns, 145 RBI, a .324 average, 211 hits and 107 runs. Ironically, he was better in 1986 and probably in 1984 as well, but he finished second behind a pitcher in 1986 and fifth in 1984.

George Brett of the AL West winning Kansas City Royals finished a distant second behind Mattingly, but his glory numbers weren’t as good (despite a better OPS and more runs created) and the Royals actually won six fewer games than the Yankees did. The AL East winning Toronto Blue Jays featured no comparable offensive players to either Brett or Mattingly, and their highest vote getters, Jesse Barfield and George Bell, finished seventh and eighth in the voting.

1987 George Bell Toronto Blue Jays - The 1987 AL MVP should have gone to Alan Trammell of the Detroit Tigers, but Bell led the league in RBI, extra-base hits, and total bases, plus finished second with 47 homeruns and 111 runs. But 1987 was a power year, and the power-obsessed voters favored Bell over Trammell by the slim margin of 332-311. Some Trammell highlights – 205 hits, 28HR 105 RBI 109 runs (remember, he was a shortstop), 21/23 stolen bases, 60/47 BB/K, .343/.402/.551. Trammell led the league in very little, but bested Bell in several categories.

1989 Robin Yount Milwaukee Brewers - Just as Bell won in the power-obsessed 1987 campaign, Yount won in the power-depressed 1989 season. The homerun leader in 1989 was Fred McGriff of the AL East champion Blue Jays, with only 36, and he managed only 92 RBI – not prototypical power standards. The AL West-winning Oakland Athletics featured 1988 MVP Jose Canseco, who was injured, Mark McGwire, who hit 33 HR and 95 RBI but batted only .231, and Rickey Henderson, who was the best player on the team but came over in a mid-season trade from the Yankees.

1989 was a peculiar season in that the battle for AL MVP was fought between Yount of the fourth place Brewers, Ruben Sierra of the fourth place Texas Rangers, and Cal Ripken, Jr., the only player in the top three finishers whose team finished within eight games of going to the playoffs, but who spent 1989 suffering through the worst season of his career to that point. George Bell was Toronto’s leading vote getter despite being their second best player because he bested McGriff in RBI. Relief pitcher Dennis Eckersley was Oakland’s top vote-getter.

1991 Cal Ripken, Jr. Baltimore Orioles - Cal enjoyed the best season of his career for an Orioles team that finished 67-95, 24 games behind the Blue Jays in the AL West. The Blue Jays' best players were Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar and Devon White, neither of whom necessarily had an MVP caliber season by any stretch of the imagination. The AL West-winning Minnesota Twins featured Chili Davis and Shane Mack, each of whom had good but not great seasons, and Kirby Puckett, who had his second consecutive down season by his own standards.

Lots of things came together for Ripken in 1991. First, Jose Canseco and Cecil Fielder split the homerun crown and finished first and second in RBI, but neither player had a particularly good year or went to the playoffs. Ripken finished third in homeruns and fourth in RBI. Paul Molitor enjoyed a very good season for the Brewers, but did not have very good HR/RBI numbers for a Brewers team that finished in fourth place in the AL East. The third place vote getter in the AL was Frank Thomas, who probably had a better season than Ripken and whose White Sox finished second in the AL West, but Thomas was in his first full year and Ripken was one of the most popular players in baseball.

2003 Alex Rodriguez Texas Rangers - ARod took the award in 2003 for the last place Texas Rangers over second place finisher Carlos Delgado, whose Blue Jays finished third in the AL East. ARod’s victory was ironic, because a) Delgado probably had the better season; b) the Rangers finished one game worse than they had the year before and two games worse than they finished two years earlier, ARod’s first on the team; c) ARod’s 2003 season was his worst season in three years, and the first season in which he hadn’t hit 50-plus homeruns since 2000; and d) the Yankees and Red Sox, both of whom went to the playoffs, featured better MVP candidates in Jorge Posada, David Ortiz, and Manny Ramirez. Nevertheless, by 2003, the conventional wisdom existed that ARod had been robbed of the MVP at least twice, and in a season in which the Gold Glove shortstop led the league in homeruns and no one else managed to have a dominant offensive season, the voters gave ARod his “due,” whether just or otherwise.

Which, of course, brings us to 2006 and Ryan Howard’s Most Valuable Player trophy. Ryan Howard’s season is similar to many of the above seasons, but it is spot on with none of them. Unlike Ripken, Dawson, and Rodriguez, Howard’s team was in the playoff hunt as late as the last week of the season. Unlike Schmidt, Walker and Bonds, Howard was not clearly performing on another level from the rest of the league. Unlike Ripken and Yount, Howard was not simply the best of an otherwise lackluster season of offensive performances.

In the end, Howard is probably most similar to George Bell 1987, who had an outstanding offensive season and put up big glory number while barely missing the playoffs, but nonetheless was given the MVP award over a player who had a not-so-deceptively better offensive season for a playoff-bound team.

So, the question is, what do we make of this? Surely we can all agree that if the player who enjoys what is clearly the best offensive season is on a playoff bound team, then that player should almost always win the Most Valuable Player trophy. But should we observe an informal rule that the Most Valuable Player should always go to a player on a playoff bound team? Is the best measure of the league’s most valuable player really whether that player’s team went to the playoff or not?

Unfortunately, in this regard, it is difficult to glean anything from a similar survey of non-playoff bound MVP Award winners, because the examples of undeserving playoff bound winners is not as clear. Ken Caminiti won the award in 1996 for the division winning San Diego Padres, but he had a whale of a year. Terry Pendleton was playoff bound when he won the award with the division Braves in 1991, but the best player in the league, Barry Bonds, was also playoff bound. Kirk Gibson in 1988 beat out the seemingly superior Darryl Strawberry, who was again also playoff bound.

But intuitively, we know the answer, don’t we? If we informally required that the league's Most Valuable Player came from a playoff bound team, that would ignore the reality of baseball, and indeed the reality of teams sports as a whole, which is that the Most Valuable Player in the league does not always go to the playoffs.

Barry Bonds is one of the most valuable players in the history of baseball, but he didn’t always go to the playoffs. Ted Williams is one of the five most valuable players of all time, but he usually didn’t make the postseason. This is because the best teams in the league do not always have the best players in the league. Each of the top 100 players of all time was the best player in his league at some point, yet not one of them went to the playoffs every year.

In order to get to the playoffs in Major League Baseball, a team needs better than average hitting, pitching, and defense. If the best hitter in the league plays on a team that has a bad pitching staff and a bad defense, the best hitter in the league is not going to the playoffs, no matter how much better than the league he is. Just ask Barry Bonds or Ted Williams.

The irony here, of course, is that Albert Pujols probably was the best hitter in the National League in 2006, and probably did not win the Most Valuable Player Award because he missed 19 games with an injury that allowed Ryan Howard to lead the league in homeruns and RBI. Despite Howard’s advantage in these glory numbers, Pujols still bested Howard in runs, doubles, BB/K ratio, average, on-base percentage, slugging, runs created per game, and OPS+. Additionally, Pujols was a better fielder than Howard last season.

Because Albert Pujols was a better player than Ryan Howard overall, and the St. Louis Cardinals went to the playoffs while the Phillies stayed home, Pujols has a right to gripe about Howard beating him out for the National League Most Valuable Player. But only because he was in fact the better player.

If Ryan Howard would have had a better season than Albert Pujols overall, then Pujols would not have been entitled to the MVP simply because his team went to the playoffs. That would have been unjust.

Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Asher resides in Philadelphia, PA and can be reached at asher@baseballevolution.com.