Everybody loves a great debate come MLB awards season in November, and perhaps none more than the most prestigious honor of them all.
The MVP Awards for the American and National Leagues have been overseen by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America since 1931 and are voted on by 60 of its members (two from each MLB city) using a weighted score system. Each writer ranks their top 10 candidates, with points awarded on a 14-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis.
The BBWAA overhauled the voting process in 1938 to the method that's used today, so that's the year we began the study. From 1931-37, only one writer from each league city voted, and first place was worth 10 points. Beginning in '38, three writers from each league city voted and first place was worth 14 points, and with expansion in the early '60s, the committees trimmed the number to two writers from each league city.
Here is every MVP Award since 1938 decided by 10 points or fewer:
1) Tie -- 1979 NL MVP
Winners: Willie Stargell, PIT; Keith Hernandez, STL (216 points each)
The explanation behind this one still remains among the oddest. Stargell had a fine but underwhelming season by his standards, perhaps expected in his age-39 year. He was worth just 2.5 Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball-Reference, and he played in just 126 games. Hernandez was worth 7.6 WAR, posted the Majors’ highest batting average (.344) and a 151 adjusted OPS, where 100 is league average, so statistical hindsight suggests that Hernandez might’ve been the stronger pick.
Here’s where it gets weird: Stargell received 10 first-place votes, six more than Hernandez and Dave Winfield, who finished third. But Stargell was left off four ballots entirely, while Hernandez was the only player included on every ballot. It was a perfect storm of sorts that led to the only tie in the award's history.
2-tie) 1 point -- 1947 AL MVP
Winner: Joe DiMaggio, NYY (202 points)
Runner-up: Ted Williams, BOS (201 points)
The Splendid Splinter and the Yankee Clipper was the greatest player rivalry of their era and might be the best of all time -- especially for stories such as this.
Williams won the Triple Crown in 1947 by hitting .343 with 32 homers and 114 RBIs, well above DiMaggio’s .315, 20 and 97 in each respective category. Williams also was worth more than twice as many WAR than DiMaggio (9.5 to 4.6), and his 205 OPS+ is in a stratosphere of legends (DiMaggio’s was 154). And even by DiMaggio’s standards, his ’47 was fine, but not in the neighborhood of the numbers he had before serving in World War II.
DiMaggio benefited from the Yankees winning the AL pennant, while Williams’ Red Sox finished third. Legend also has it that one Boston writer left Williams off his ballot. Either way, it was a scene Williams was becoming all too familiar with. Williams did win two MVPs, but he’s more remembered for those that got away.
2-tie) 1 point -- 1944 NL MVP
Winner: Marty Marion, STL (190 points)
Runner-up: Bill Nicholson, CHC (189 points)
Marion was highly touted for his defense and aided by thinner competition due to players serving in the war, but his numbers remain the bleakest for an MVP. Marion slashed .267/.324/.362 with six homers, 63 RBIs, a 90 OPS+ (10 points below league average) and 4.6 WAR. Nicholson led the Majors in homers (33) and RBIs (122) and had a 6.0 WAR for a Cubs club that finished in fourth place, well behind Marion’s pennant-winning Cards.
One could even argue that Marion’s teammate was the most fitting candidate; Stan Musial compiled a 9.5 WAR and slashed .347/.440/.549 with 197 hits, including an MLB-high 51 doubles.
4) 2 points -- 2017 NL MVP
Winner: Giancarlo Stanton, MIA (302 points)
Runner-up: Joey Votto, CIN (300 points)
The 2017 race was wide open until late September, when Stanton and Votto -- whose clubs missed the postseason, typically a nonstarter for candidates -- were putting up numbers too great to ignore. They also made discerning one over the other difficult. Stanton had captivated the game with his chase for 60 homers, while Votto was quietly putting up his best season since winning his MVP in 2010, playing in all 162 games and slashing a whopping .320/.454/.578 with 36 homers. It was good for an 8.1 WAR, just ahead of Stanton’s 8.0.
Both received 10 first-place votes, but Stanton received one additional second- and third-place vote more than Votto, which ultimately made the difference.
“I just can't believe coming up two points short,” Votto said after. “It's so cool in a way coming up that short. Most of the time, it's a landslide or it's clear. This wasn't that.”
5-tie) 3 points -- 1996 AL MVP
Winner: Juan Gonzalez, TEX (290 points)
Runner-up: Alex Rodriguez, SEA (287 points)
This one is still considered a snub in Seattle. Gonzalez hit 47 homers, had 144 RBIs and slashed .314/.368/.643 -- all-MVP-caliber numbers until you consider the seasons that Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. had for a Mariners club that finished in second place behind Gonzalez’s Rangers.
A-Rod had drawn attention as an age-20 phenom, hitting .358 in his first full season, the highest batting average for a player that young. He also crushed 36 homers and led MLB with 54 doubles. Griffey hit .303 with a 1.020 OPS, 140 RBIs and outhomered Gonzalez, with 49. Rodriguez (9.4) and Griffey (9.7) also well outpaced Gonzalez (3.8) in WAR.
To be sure, Rodriguez made a run at Gonzalez, with 10 first-place votes to Gonzalez’s 11, though Griffey received just four first-place votes and finished in fourth.
5-tie) 3 points -- 1960 AL MVP
Winner: Roger Maris, NYY (225 points)
Runner-up: Mickey Mantle, NYY (222 points)
Maris made a huge impact in his first season with the Yanks after coming over in an offseason trade with the A’s, leading the AL in RBIs (112), extra-base hits (64) and slugging (.581) while finishing second with 39 homers to Mantle's 40. So it’s not terribly surprising to see that this was among the closest finishes ever, but what was the deciding factor?
It could be that Maris’ season was a true breakout, as he’d hit just 58 homers over his first three seasons to that point, and his .952 OPS was nearly 200 points higher than his career mark. The Mick had already won two AL MVP Awards, in 1955 and ’56, and he did receive more first-place votes than Maris, 10 to eight. Either way, ’60 was one of three instances Mantle was a bridesmaid. Another occurred a year later ...
7-tie) 4 points -- 1961 AL MVP
Winner: Roger Maris, NYY (202 points)
Runner-up: Mickey Mantle, NYY (198 points)
Maris and Mantle again rivaled each other in the great home run race of 1961 as they chased Babe Ruth’s single-season, once-believed-unbreakable record. The race was encapsulating and is still remembered as such today. It likely played a big factor in the voting that Maris went the distance. But through almost any statistical lens outside their home run race, Mantle had the better season.
Maris: 6.9 WAR, .269/.372/.620 (.993 OPS), 61 homers, 141 RBIs, 132 runs, 167 OPS+
Mantle: 10.4 WAR, .317/.448/.687 (1.135 OPS), 54 homers, 128 RBIs, 131 runs, 206 OPS+
Maris received seven first-place votes over Mantle’s six. Baltimore’s Jim Gentile also made things interesting by drawing five votes, and Detroit’s Norm Cash and the Yanks’ Luis Arroyo received one each. Mantle would make up for it the following year when he went on to win his third MVP, which at the time tied a record for the most.
7-tie) 4 points -- 1944 AL MVP
Winner: Hal Newhouser, DET (236 points)
Runner-up: Dizzy Trout, DET (232 points)
An MVP race among teammates is a rare treat, but among pitchers? This is one of four cases in history, given that the Cy Young Award wasn’t established until 1956, and even so, only five sets of teammates have finished 1-2 for pitching’s most prestigious award since.
Newhouser, who was 34-52 in his five seasons prior and legitimately considering quitting baseball, capped a career turnaround and nearly won the Triple Crown, but his 2.22 ERA was bested by Trout’s 2.12. Newhouser’s 29 wins were the fourth-most of the Live Ball Era (since 1920) and set a Tigers record, and his 187 strikeouts led the Majors. But Trout wasn’t far behind, with 27 wins, an MLB-high 352 1/3 innings and a higher WAR (9.3 to 7.8).
Trout actually earned more first-place votes (10) than Newhouser (seven), and was the rotation’s workhorse, pitching on two days’ rest or fewer 28 times, a toll that led to a decline in the immediate seasons after.
9) 5 points -- 1955 NL MVP
Winner: Roy Campanella, BRO (226 points)
Runner-up: Duke Snider, BRO (221 points)
The Boys of Summer Dodgers finally broke through and won their first and only World Series in Brooklyn in 1955, with Campanella and Snider leading the charge. And both received eight first-place votes for the NL MVP Award, with Ernie Banks finishing in third with six.
By most measures, Snider had the better season, with 8.6 WAR, a 1.046 OPS and 42 homers compared to Campanella’s 5.2 WAR, .978 OPS and 32 homers for starters. But Campanella, who was viewed more as the team leader, likely won over more voters than he otherwise would by bouncing back from a hand injury that threatened his career in 1954. He also overcame a knee injury in '55 that sidelined him two weeks near the All-Star break and came back to still contend for the batting title in September. He also handled the rigors of a more demanding position at catcher, and he was widely recognized as the game’s best defensively at the position.
10) 7 points -- 1962 NL MVP
Winner: Maury Wills, LAD (209 points)
Runner-up: Willie Mays, SFG (202 points)
Voters were enthralled when Wills broke Ty Cobb’s record for stolen bases in a season and became the first player ever to cross the century mark, with 104. Stolen bases had taken a huge dip in the 1940s and ‘50s, and no one had swiped more than 70 since Cobb set his record of 96 in 1915. Wills had more stolen bases that year than any other MLB team combined, and his conversion rate of 88.9% remains tied with Rickey Henderson for the highest in history.
But Mays put up a monster year, maybe his best, and his Giants beat Wills' Dodgers in a playoff for the NL pennant that year. Mays was worth 10.5 WAR and led the Majors with 49 homers while driving in 141 RBIs.
11-tie) 8 points -- 2001 AL MVP
Winner: Ichiro Suzuki, SEA (289 points)
Runner-up: Jason Giambi, OAK (281 points)
Giambi followed up his MVP campaign in 2000 with an even better year in ’01, but it had to be hard for voters to deny Ichiro’s unprecedented season as a barrier-breaking rookie from Japan -- even considering that Ichiro was already a shoe-in for the AL Rookie of the Year Award.
Ichiro, then 27, was the first Japanese position player to make the Major League leap, and as such, came over with much hype yet skepticism. He responded by leading the Majors in hits (242) and stolen bases (56) and won the AL batting title as the primary leadoff hitter for a Seattle club that set an MLB record with 116 wins.
Ichiro edged out Giambi with 11 first-place votes to eight, and he also drew 10 second-place votes to Giambi’s 11. Ichiro remains just one of two players, with Boston’s Fred Lynn in 1975, to win ROY and MVP honors in the same season.
11-tie) 8 points -- 1995 AL MVP
Winner: Mo Vaughn, BOS (308 points)
Runner-up: Albert Belle, CLE (300 points)
Vaughn hit .300/.388/.575 with 39 homers and tied Belle for an AL-high 126 RBIs, a fine year for a Boston club that went 86-58 to win its division. Yet the statistical comparisons remain stark.
In a strike-shortened season, Belle became just the third player in 30 years to hit 50 homers, and he remains the only player in history to hit 50 homers and 50 doubles in a single season -- and again, in 18 fewer games. Belle's Indians went 100-44 and won the AL Central by 30 games.
Some suggest that voters held Belle’s corked bat incident from 1994 against him. Others say that his colder personality against the friendlier Vaughn may have played a factor. Either way, there’s context to why this was one of the closest votes ever.
13) 9 points -- 1957 NL MVP
Winner: Hank Aaron, MLN (239 points)
Runner-up: Stan Musial, STL (230 points)
Aaron won his only MVP after hitting .322/.378/.600 with 44 homers and 142 RBIs, both MLB highs while leading the Braves to the NL pennant. Really, this one probably shouldn’t have been as close as it was.
Musial had a great year -- a .351/.422/.612 slash line with 29 homers and 102 RBIs -- and Aaron’s teammate, Red Schoendienst, who came over in a June 14 trade, had 200 hits. Schoendienst drew eight first-place votes but finished third, while Musial was second with five first-place votes and Aaron with nine. That year’s WAR leader, Willie Mays with 8.3, finished fourth.
14) 10 points -- 1966 NL MVP
Winner: Roberto Clemente, PIT (218 points)
Runner-up: Sandy Koufax, LAD (208 points)
Clemente narrowly edged out Koufax for his only MVP after hitting a career-high 29 homers and slashing .317/.360/.536, good for an 8.2 WAR. Clemente was helped by being the only player on all 20 ballots, though Koufax’s nine first-place votes were more than Clemente’s eight.
Koufax had already become the second pitcher in the Cy Young Award era to also win an MVP in the same season, in 1963, but he warranted consideration in '66 after leading the Dodgers to the NL pennant with 27 wins and a 1.73 ERA, both MLB and career bests.
Two days after the MVP was announced, Koufax revealed that he was retiring due to chronic arm injuries. It ended one of the most dominant, albeit brief, runs in pitching history, one that remains the ultimate “what if” story had Koufax been able to stay healthy.