The 12 unlikeliest MVP Award winners

September 19th, 2017

A few years have gone by since we have had a truly surprising Most Valuable Player. That could change this year with the sudden and marvelous American League MVP Award push of Cleveland's . You would have to say that while Ramirez had a good 2016 season (he even got a ninth-place vote on someone's MVP ballot) he really wasn't on anyone's MVP radar when the season began.

Now, though, with Cleveland's 22-game winning streak electrifying fans across America, everyone got to see the marvelous Ramirez at work. Ramirez is among the league leaders in batting average, he leads the Majors in doubles with 50, he has hit 27 home runs, he has stolen 15 bases, he plays anywhere in the infield Cleveland needs him. Ramirez was absurd during the streak, hitting .423/.462/.944 with eight home runs, each of them seemingly timed for maximum effect.

Ramirez is still very much an underdog in the AL MVP Award race; Houston's seems the clear frontrunner, and perennial best player in baseball has been so absurdly good that he has a real shot at the award even though he missed more than six weeks with a torn ligament in his left thumb.

But Ramirez has a shot anyway. And as surprising as that would be, it still would not rank among the dozen biggest MVP surprises in Major League history.

12. Vida Blue, A's, 1971

There was a lot of hype surrounding Blue, because during his September callup in 1970, he threw a one-hitter and a no-hitter. Still, he was a 21-year-old virtual rookie with 80 innings of big league pitching experience. So no one saw what was coming -- Blue pitched 312 innings, struck out 301 batters, won 24 games, led the AL with a 1.82 ERA and dominated as few pitchers have ever dominated. He won the AL MVP Award in a landslide over teammate Sal Bando. Blue was an often terrific pitcher in subsequent years, but he was never that dominant again.

11. Bucky Walters, Reds, 1939

Walters began his career as an infielder, and when that didn't go well, he reluctantly began pitching. His first full year, he led the Majors with 21 losses. Walters pitched better than his win-loss total for a couple of years when the Phillies, desperate for cash, essentially sold him to Cincinnati (the Reds threw in a couple of players just to make the deal look legitimate). In 1939, finally playing for a great team at age 30, Walters won the pitching Triple Crown (27 wins, 2.29 ERA, 137 strikeouts) and threw 31 complete games. He also hit .325. Walters breezed to the National League MVP Award.

10. Ken Caminiti, Padres, 1996

Everyone knew that Caminiti was a good player. He was an All-Star in 1994 and a NL Gold Glove Award winner in '95. But Caminiti's sudden power surge in 1996 shocked everyone; up to that point, he had a career .403 slugging percentage. In 1996, that slugging percentage jumped up to .621, he hit 40 homers, drove in 130 RBIs, scored 109 runs and he won the NL MVP Award unanimously. All of this took a decidedly sad turn when Caminiti admitted to Sports Illustrated that he used steroids in a story published in 2002.

9. , Twins, 2006

Morneau was coming off his first full season in the big leagues, a season in which he hit .239 and the Twins finished a distant third behind the eventual World Series-champion Chicago White Sox. That made Morneau a pretty unlikely AL MVP Award candidate coming into the 2006 season. But Morneau found his groove, hitting .321 with 34 home runs and 130 RBIs, and Minnesota finished with the second-best record in the AL. That combination led to Morneau edging Derek Jeter for the AL MVP Award in a vote that still sparks controversy and arguments.

8. Jim Konstanty, Phillies, 1950

Konstanty was a 33-year-old jack-of-all-trades pitcher who had spent his baseball life being dealt and sold (while working as a gym teacher during the offseason). No one could have seen 1950 coming ... he became a bullpen weapon for the first time. Konstanty won 16 games, saved 22 more (though saves were not an official stat yet), made a Major League-leading 74 appearances, several of them dazzling (including nine- and 10-inning relief efforts). And somehow the Phillies won the NL pennant. That crazy convergence of events led to Konstanty breezing to the NL MVP Award over Stan Musial.

7. Zoilo Versalles, Twins, 1965

Versalles is often listed as the most surprising MVP Award winner ever, but he actually fits a familiar pattern. He was unquestionably a good player; he had already made an All-Star team and won an AL Gold Glove Award. Then Versalles' Twins shocked everyone by going from a losing record in 1964 to 102 wins and a pennant in '65; the MVP Award voters were definitely going to pick someone on Minnesota. And it just so happened that Versalles had by far his best year, finishing tied for the Major League lead in in runs and doubles, while leading the AL in total bases and finishing tied for the most triples in the AL. He won the AL MVP Award and then declined very quickly. Within two years, injuries and general wear and tear reduced him to a bench player. Versalles was out of the big leagues at 30, and his comeback attempt at 31 fizzled quickly.

6. Kevin Mitchell, Giants, 1989

Mitchell had been a "have bat, will travel" journeyman type of player -- he was traded twice by the time he turned 26. Still, he could hit, and the Giants decided to make him an everyday player. In 1989, more or less out of nowhere, Mitchell slugged a Major League-leading .635, bashed a Major League-leading 47 homers, had a Major League-leading 125 RBIs and was one of the keys for a surprising San Francisco team that won the NL pennant. He breezed to the NL MVP Award over teammate Will Clark, with Mitchell getting 20 out of 24 first-place votes (Clark received three). There are some who argue that Clark had the better season and that if he had won this NL MVP Award, he would have been taken more seriously as a Hall of Fame candidate.

5. Bobby Shantz, A's, 1952

Shantz was 5-foot-6, weighed less than 150 pounds, and had pitched for terrible Athletics teams -- he seemed one of the least likely men to win the 1952 AL MVP Award. But before the season began, the A's switched managers from the venerable Connie Mack to Jimmie Dykes, and this mattered because Dykes allowed Shantz to finally throw the knuckleball he had been working on. The results were staggering: Shantz went 24-7, led the AL in WHIP and fewest walks per nine innings, and rolled to the AL MVP Award.

4. , Phillies, 2006

Most people thought that the Phillies would trade Howard because they already had one of the game's greatest power hitters, Jim Thome, at first base (Thome hit 89 homers in two years for Philadelphia). But after Thome suffered through an injury-marred 2005 campaign while Howard won the NL Rookie of the Year Award with 22 homers in 88 games, the Phils flipped Thome to the White Sox in a deal in which Aaron Rowand and then-prospect went to Philly. Still, no one anticipated Howard's crazy 2006 season. He hit .313/.425/.659 line with 58 homers and 149 RBIs. Howard's 169 runs created that year are (by far) the most in Phillies history. He beat out for the award; Pujols would return the favor two years later by edging Howard for the NL MVP Award.

3. Willie Hernandez, Tigers, 1984

In some ways, this is the most surprising MVP Award winner ever. Hernandez had been a serviceable lefty out of the bullpen, nothing more, when the Tigers at the very last minute decided to acquire him in a trade from the Phillies a few days before Opening Day in 1984. Sparky Anderson made Hernandez his closer, and Detroit shot out of the gate 35-5, coasted to the World Series title, and Hernandez did not blow a save until the very end of the season, taking home the AL MVP Award and the AL Cy Young Award. The only reason Hernandez is not No. 1 on this list is that MVP voters kind of went out of their minds for a while with relief pitchers, between 1981-92 (Rollie Fingers in '81, Dennis Eckersley in '92). For a while there, any relief pitcher who had a good year was an MVP Award candidate.

2. Terry Pendleton, Braves, 1991

Pendleton was coming off a terrible injury-plagued season with the Cardinals (.601 OPS) and Atlanta's new general manager, John Schuerholz, was mocked for signing him ("Rare is the player who hit .230, then is rewarded with a $10 million contract," Atlanta's foremost columnist Furman Bisher wrote). Even Schuerholz himself downplayed the signing, saying he just wanted a veteran player who could help improve the Braves' leaky defense -- even he did not expect Pendleton to offer much on offense. Pendleton then went out and had his best offensive year by a factor of two -- he hit .319 (never hit better than .286 before), slugged .517 (.412 had been his career high), led the NL in hits (187) and finished tied for the NL lead in total bases (303).

Add in that the Braves pulled off one of the more shocking turnarounds in baseball history, going from worst to first and winning the pennant, and Pendleton was the NL MVP Award winner.

1. , Mariners, 2001

What's so hard to remember about Ichiro's insane 2001 season is that before he arrived, no Japanese-born player had ever had even 150 plate appearances in a Major League season. His arrival was hyped, yes, and there was a great deal of curiosity about him. But the idea that a Japanese player could be an everyday player in the Majors, much less a star, was still very much in dispute. And then Ichiro was a phenomenon, hitting .350, stealing 56 bases, leading the Majors with 242 hits, scoring 127 runs, throwing like Clemente in right field. It was stunning and wonderful.

The story of the 2001 Mariners was supposed to be their lack of stars -- Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson had all left in the previous three seasons. Instead, Seattle won more games, 116, than any team in the past century, and Ichiro drove the team's success. He became just the second player, along with Fred Lynn, to win the MVP Award and the Rookie of the Year Award in the same season.