Claiming a Most Valuable Player Award typically means that a player was the best of anyone who suited up in his league. But what if he wasn’t even the best player on his own team?
Yes, hindsight is 20/20, and plenty of MVP votes have been scrutinized and analyzed as the years go by and metrics evolve. Box-score statistics like batting average and RBIs often pointed to the winner in past generations, and sometimes a narrative can carry a player all the way. But every now and then, in a crowded year at the top, a club’s top performer can get overshadowed by the eventual MVP.
Below, we’re taking a look at seven of the most extreme examples of players who outperformed their MVP teammates. For this exercise, offensive wins above replacement (oWAR) -- and not overall WAR -- is our chief sorting tool, in order to strip away defensive metrics that get murkier the further one goes back in time, and also because it has traditionally not been a major factor in MVP discussions. Plus, oWAR makes a positional adjustment, which made a difference in several of the comparisons you’ll see below. By looking at oWAR, we are excluding seasons in which pitchers claimed the MVP.
We recognize that oWAR was not part of the discussion when these voters made these votes, but that’s kind of the point. We’re using a modern tool to point out differences that perhaps were not obvious at the time. Additionally, oWAR does not consider any of the intangible factors that come into play when parsing the relative value of teammates.
Many point back to 2006 as a year that Derek Jeter should have been MVP, but there was an equally compelling competitor on Morneau’s own club. Morneau had some gaudy statistics with a career-high 34 homers and 130 RBIs, though Boston’s David Ortiz topped him in both power categories. At midseason, Morneau wasn’t playing well enough to be an All-Star; Twins manager Ron Gardenhire had benched Morneau with a .236 average on June 7 before he went on a second-half tear. Meanwhile, Mauer entered the break hitting .378, and he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in early August.
Mauer might not have had Morneau’s slugging numbers in 2006, but he did become the first American League catcher to win a batting title -- and he got on base roughly 15% more than Morneau. When Mauer’s superb hitting is adjusted for the rigors of catching, his season looks superior. (It should be noted that it was actually a third Twin who led the AL in total WAR -- Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana. But since this exercise is based on oWAR, he's not a factor here).
The story surrounding 1995’s AL MVP vote was that the affable Vaughn beat out Cleveland’s surly Albert Belle, despite the fact that Belle outhit and outhomered the Boston slugger. But 25 years of hindsight tells us that Vaughn’s teammate, Valentin, might have deserved a higher finish, too.
A’s star Marcus Semien’s third-place finish in 2019’s AL MVP vote might be a comparable starting point for Valentin in 1995, with both players accumulating a ton of value by combining excellent -- if not world-beating -- numbers at the plate with excellent defense at shortstop, one of the most demanding positions on the diamond. While Vaughn outslugged Valentin, his power was more commonplace for a first baseman of his day. Valentin’s .931 OPS was nearly 250 points higher than the next-closest qualified AL shortstop.
Unlike the two AL races above this (2006, 1995), this vote was not close, which goes to show how obvious it was to folks in 1985 that Mattingly was the pick. Nothing carried more weight than RBIs in MVP discussions during that era, and Mattingly’s league-leading 145 RBIs were the most by a Yankees hitter since Joe DiMaggio in 1948. He also led the AL in total bases (370) and doubles (48) while hitting .324 with 35 homers and more walks (56) than strikeouts (41). Mattingly, who also won a Gold Glove and was considered the best defensive first baseman in the AL in the 1980s, received 23 of 28 first-place votes, with the other five going to second-place finisher George Brett.
But it might surprise you that Henderson, making his Yankees debut after an offseason trade from the A’s, had a 48-point edge over Mattingly in on-base percentage (.419 to .371), something that probably would get more attention these days. As a result, he scored 146 runs, the same as Donnie Baseball. Additionally, Henderson stole 80 bases and was caught just 10 times. That 88.9% success rate is tied with Maury Wills (1962) for highest ever in a season with at least 70 swipes, and that efficiency, combined with his OBP, is a big reason why Henderson led the AL in oWAR that year.
Perhaps most remarkable is that the Yankees, despite getting Hall of Fame-level seasons from both Mattingly and Henderson, did not make the playoffs. They did win 97 games -- more than in their World Series-winning seasons of 1996 (92) and 2000 (87) -- but because this was before the introduction of the Wild Card, they finished two games behind the Blue Jays. Brett led the Royals to the AL West crown that year, which helps explain his second-place finish.
The sport’s taste in offensive stats is much different now than in 1974, and the competition between these two Dodgers might be fairly cut and dried the other way if the vote was held today. Garvey did have the advantage in average and (just barely) RBIs, but Wynn both outslugged and outpaced his teammate in the on-base department, walking 77 more times. Runner-up Lou Brock stole a then-record 118 bases (and expected to win), but Wynn outperformed both he and Garvey in the modern OPS+ and oWAR statistics.
This might have been one of several times that the excellence of Wynn, who passed away in March, was overlooked. Primarily known for his Astros tenure, Wynn retired after 1977 having accumulated roughly 56 WAR and a 129 era-adjusted OPS+ -- both marks ranking among the 30 best center fielders in history -- but he failed to receive a single Hall of Fame vote when he became eligible in '83.
You could blindly pick any star of the Big Red Machine for MVP without being all that wrong in the 1970s, but this points to how Morgan might have deserved even more than his two career NL MVPs. Rose claimed the 1973 batting title with a .338 average, racked up 230 hits (tied for the NL’s highest single-season total of the decade) and hit leadoff for the league’s top club, and he likely edged out Pirates slugger Willie Stargell because Pittsburgh missed the postseason. However, Morgan reached base just as much, swiped 57 more bags once he got there and represented a bigger power threat at the plate. Voters couldn’t go wrong with either Red, but Morgan might have been the slightly greater all-around threat.
Outperformed while passing the Babe? Yes. Maris’ 1961 was a season for the record books, but Mantle -- whether it be by average, on-base percentage, slugging or baserunning -- was better than Maris in nearly everything outside their famous homer race. This was probably Mantle’s third-best season following his epic back-to-back MVP years in 1956-57, and in fact it’s the best season (by oWAR) submitted by anyone in a non-MVP campaign since the end of World War II.
While not as extreme a case, Mantle (6.7 oWAR) also finished as the runner-up to Maris (5.6) in 1960, though Maris had more total WAR that year.
This comparison is obvious, and in fact Marion was also bested by Cardinals teammates Johnny Hopp (5.6 oWAR), Ray Sanders (3.6), White Kurowski (3.5) and Walker Cooper (3.3) at the plate. Marion was voted MVP much more on the strength of his glove at shortstop (he was nicknamed “The Octopus” for his long arms), and a field weakened by many stars serving in World War II was also part of the equation. Marion won the MVP by just one vote over Cubs outfielder Bill Nicholson, but it’s easy to argue that this should have been MVP No. 4 for Musial, who led baseball in both oWAR and overall WAR that year.
Other seasons of note
• 2001 AL MVP: Bret Boone had a career year (7.7 oWAR, third place) but Mariners teammate Ichiro Suzuki (6.2) understandably won out due to his astonishing all-around performance as a barrier-breaking rookie from Japan.
• 2000 NL MVP: Fans might think of winner Jeff Kent and runner-up Barry Bonds here, but the Giants sluggers were virtually tied in oWAR (7.3 for Bonds, 7.2 for Kent). Bonds had the gaudier rate stats and 16 more homers, but Kent played 16 more games, at the more demanding defensive position.
• 1979 NL MVP: A runner-up twice earlier in his career, a 39-year-old Willie Stargell (2.9 oWAR) was the sentimental choice for helping inspire the "We Are Family" Pirates to a division title, and later a championship -- also winning NLCS and World Series MVP trophies along the way. But younger teammate Dave Parker (6.4, 10th place) played 32 more games and was a threat on the bases as well (20 stolen bases).
• 1955 AL MVP: Mantle (8.4 oWAR, 5th place) was beaten out by Yankees teammate Yogi Berra (4.1) for the second year in a row despite an OPS more than 200 points higher. Of course, Berra had to work behind the plate, too.
• 1955 NL MVP: Hall of Famer Duke Snider was never an MVP but certainly could have won over Dodgers teammate Roy Campanella in 1953 (third) or '55 (second), when he had the 8.2 to 5.3 edge in oWAR, to go with a 169 OPS+. But like Berra, Campanella was putting up great offensive numbers while also behind the plate.