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The best seasons that didn't win MVP

Trout, Williams among those who made history without the hardware
November 14, 2019

Choosing an MVP was far from an easy task for BBWAA voters in either league in 2019. Between Alex Bregman vs. Mike Trout in the American League and Cody Bellinger vs. Christian Yelich in the NL, the simple fact was that whoever finished second would be doing so after having

Choosing an MVP was far from an easy task for BBWAA voters in either league in 2019.

Between Alex Bregman vs. Mike Trout in the American League and Cody Bellinger vs. Christian Yelich in the NL, the simple fact was that whoever finished second would be doing so after having completed an MVP-caliber season. In this case, those unlucky runners-up turned out to be Bregman (who knocked 41 homers while also tallying 100-plus RBIs, runs and walks) and Yelich (an eye-popping .671 slugging and 11.1 HR per AB rate before a fractured kneecap cut his season short).

Their second-place showings highlighted how hard it is to win the MVP; it’s only given out to one player per year. Even some truly historic player seasons have fallen shy, thanks to either a narrative, a poor team around him or, sometimes, simply a flat-out miss by BBWAA voters.

Below, in reverse chronological order, is a look at the best seasons that didn't result in an MVP, with that player's actual vote placement in parentheses. (We're pulling from Baseball-Reference's totals wherever wins above replacement (WAR) is referenced.)

Mike Trout, 2018 (2nd)
Key stats: 39 HR, .460 OBP, 185 OPS+
Trout tied for the sport’s highest single-season OBP in a decade, helping him compile a career-best 1.088 OPS, and he also knocked 39 homers and stole 24 bases. But an injury to Trout’s right wrist sapped him of playing time and opened the door for an equally deserving Mookie Betts to capture his first AL MVP.

Mike Trout, 2012 (2nd)
Key stats: 30 HR, .963 OPS, 49 SB
Trout became the first player to hit 30 homers, steal 45 bases and score 125 runs in a season in one of the greatest Rookie of the Year seasons ever. But he finished second to AL Triple Crown winner Jose Cabrera after a spirited debate between Trout's new-school analytics and Cabrera's more traditional box score statistics.

Ichiro Suzuki, 2004 (7th)
Key stats: .372 BA, 262 H, 36 SB
Suzuki broke George Sisler's 84-year-old record for hits in a season, posted some of the best defensive numbers of his career and even led the AL with 19 intentional walks. But Ichiro's all-around game didn't approach MVP winner Vladimir Guerrero in the eyes of voters, though Suzuki's WAR total was nearly four wins higher.

Sammy Sosa, 2001 (2nd)
Key stats: 64 HR, 160 RBI, 425 total bases
This is one of only two 60-homer, 160-RBI seasons in history (the other being Babe Ruth's mythical 1927 campaign), but Sosa suffered from poor timing. Barry Bonds broke the single-season record with 73 homers, capturing the first of his four straight MVPs.

Todd Helton, 2000 (5th)
Key stats: .372 BA, 1.162 OPS, 147 RBI
This was the closest Helton came to an MVP, and he probably should have won after pacing the Majors in batting average, slugging percentage (.698), OPS, doubles (59), RBIs (147) and total bases (405) while also pacing the NL in hits (216) and on-base percentage (.463). His 8.9 bWAR was nearly two wins better than Giants second baseman Jeff Kent, who took home the honor.

Pedro Martinez, 2000 (5th)
Key stats: 1.74 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, 284 SO
We could have picked either of Martinez's untouchable seasons in 1999-2000, but the latter gets the nod here on the strength of his outrageous 11.7 bWAR -- the sixth-highest by any pitcher in the Live Ball Era. The Red Sox finished that year 85-77, but they might have finished below .500 without their ace.

Alex Rodriguez, 2000 (3rd)
Key stats: 41 HR, 132 RBI, 10.4 bWAR
Rodriguez and Martinez may have both been more deserving than actual AL winner Jason Giambi in 2000. A-Rod was the complete package in his final year in Seattle, compiling career-best numbers in both defensive (2.4) and overall WAR (10.4).

Mark McGwire, 1998 (2nd)
Key stats: 70 HR, 147 RBI, 162 BB
McGwire won baseball's most famous home run race but ultimately lost the MVP to Sosa, who hit for a higher average and drove in more runs for the playoff-bound Cubs. Still, McGwire paced the Majors in OBP (.470), OPS (1.222) and walks (162) to go with those 70 homers.

Roger Clemens, 1997 (10th)
Key stats: 2.05 ERA, 292 SO in 264 IP
Clemens was likely content with the AL Cy Young, but his massive comeback season with Toronto probably deserved more MVP consideration after he paced the Majors in innings and compiled an MLB-best 11.9 bWAR -- the fourth-highest total by any Live Ball Era pitcher.

Ken Griffey Jr., 1996 (4th)
Key stats: 49 HR, 140 RBI, .628 SLG
This was the year when Griffey took the next step as a pantheon slugger. Though he would capture his first MVP the following year, The Kid finished 1996 nearly six wins better than first-place finisher Juan Gonzalez.

Dwight Gooden, 1985 (4th)
Key stats: 1.53 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 268 SO
By some metrics, including his incredible 12.2 bWAR, Gooden's 1985 campaign is the best by any pitcher in modern history. Certainly no player was more dominant over his opponents that year, but Gooden finished fourth behind position players Willie McGee, Dave Parker and Pedro Guerrero.

Rickey Henderson, 1985 (3rd)
Key stats: 80 SB, 146 R, .934 OPS
It's hard to believe that Henderson, one of the greatest all-around players in history, only claimed one MVP in 1990. He probably should have won in '85, too. This campaign is one of just two recorded since 1900 with at least 80 steals, 20 home runs and a .900 OPS, with the other being Eric Davis the following year.

Cal Ripken Jr., 1984 (27th)
Key stats: 27 HR, .884 OPS, 10.0 bWAR
There's really not much that separates Ripken's MVP-winning 1983 season (27 homers, .888 OPS) from his numbers the following season, when better defense actually made him more valuable in terms of bWAR. But perhaps voters were looking for something new, since Ripken appeared on just one BBWAA ballot in '84.

Tom Seaver, 1973 (8th)
Key stats: 2.08 ERA, 251 SO in 290 IP
The 1973 Mets remain one of the biggest underdog pennant winners in history, but there wouldn't have been much belief in Queens without the workhorse Seaver atop the rotation. Tom Terrific paced the NL in ERA, WHIP and complete games while claiming 19 of the Mets' 82 wins that season.

Steve Carlton, 1972 (5th)
Key stats: 1.97 ERA, 310 SO in 346.1 IP
Carlton's 1972 season ranks just behind Gooden's '85 campaign atop the bWAR leaderboard for pitchers, and it remains one of just four Live Ball Era seasons with a sub-2.00 ERA, a sub-1.00 WHIP and 300 strikeouts over at least 300 innings, alongside two Sandy Koufax years (1963, '66) and one from Vida Blue ('71).

Gaylord Perry, 1972 (6th)
Key stats: 1.92 ERA, 29 CG, 342.2 IP
Sure, Perry captured the first of his two Cy Young Awards, but maybe he should have taken home more than that after compiling a sub-2.00 ERA over an incredible 342 2/3 innings. He even recorded a save for good measure.

Wilbur Wood, 1971 (9th)
Key stats: 1.91 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 334 IP
Wood's 1971 season isn't talked about all that often, but it might have just been an MVP campaign had another pitcher, Blue, not stolen much of Wood's thunder.

Carl Yastrzemski, 1970 (4th)
Key stats: 40 HR, .452 OBP, 1.044 OPS
Yaz had already reached the top of the mountain by winning the AL Triple Crown and leading the "Impossible Dream" Red Sox to the 1967 pennant. But Boston's hero was also spectacular in '68 and even better in '70, when he paced the Junior Circuit in runs, OBP, slugging, OPS and total bases. Yastrzemski finished the year nearly four and a half wins more valuable than first baseman Boog Powell, who played for a dominant World Series champion in Baltimore.

Willie Mays, 1962 (2nd)
Key stats: 49 HR, 141 RBI, .999 OPS
Like Henderson, it feels like Mays should have taken home more MVPs -- and 1962 was a perfect example. The Say Hey Kid led the Majors in homers and total bases, compiled the first of four straight 10-win seasons and helped San Francisco win the '62 pennant. But he finished runner-up in the MVP vote to Maury Wills, who stole 104 bases but also recorded a below-average 99 OPS+.

Mickey Mantle, 1961 (2nd)
Key stats: 54 HR, 128 RBI, .687 SLG
Someone had to lose the thrilling home run race between Mantle and Roger Maris in 1961, and someone also had to finish second in MVP voting. That was Mantle on both accounts, though he did lead the Majors in walks and slugging (.687) while finishing with an MLB-best 10.5 bWAR.

Ted Williams, 1941 (2nd)
Key stats: .406 BA, 1.287 OPS, 37 HR
The hotly-contested MVP battle between winner Joe DiMaggio and Williams still feels like a toss-up nearly eight decades later. Williams' .406 average hasn't been touched since, and he also led the Majors in homers, runs, walks, OBP, slugging and OPS. But Joltin' Joe's 56-game hit streak ultimately won the narrative.

Hank Greenberg, 1938 (3rd)
Key stats: 58 HR, 147 RBI, 143 R
Greenberg's 58-homer season, logged while Ruth was still alive to see his record challenged, probably doesn't get enough attention. Detroit's star recorded 11 multi-homer games that season, which wouldn't be matched until Sosa did the same 60 years later. But Greenberg still finished behind Jimmie Foxx, who was a justifiable MVP winner with a .349 average, 50 homers and 175 RBIs.

Lou Gehrig, 1934 (5th)
Key stats: .363 BA, 49 HR, 166 RBI
Tigers catcher Mickey Cochrane took home the award as a player-manager for a pennant winner, so the narrative overcame a dominant season from Gehrig. Of course, this was one of many such campaigns by the Iron Horse, so perhaps he fell victim to voter malaise.

Babe Ruth, 1931 (5th)
Key stats: .373 BA, 46 HR, 162 RBI
Suprisingly, the Babe did not take home the first BBWAA MVP Award despite a typical Ruth-ian year in which he led the Majors in homers, walks, OBP, slugging and OPS. Perhaps the Bambino had set the bar too high, since voters cast more ballots for four other players, topped by 31-game winner Lefty Grove.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.