The race for the 1995 American League Most Valuable Player Award was the tightest in more than 30 years, but should it have been that close? And did the right man win?
It marked the closest AL MVP vote since Roger Maris edged Mickey Mantle by four points in 1961, and just as many believe Mantle’s ’61 season was the more dominant of the two (he had a 1.135 OPS and 10.4 WAR compared to Maris’ .993 and 6.9 in the year Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season home run record with 61), Belle’s second-place finish raised plenty of eyebrows, given his 50-homer season.
Both Vaughn and Belle were listed first, second or third on all 28 ballots in 1995. But what if the vote was held today?
To answer that question, MLB.com gathered 13 of its writers and asked them to vote for the 1995 AL MVP with the benefit of hindsight. In other words, if that vote was held today, knowing what know now about how players are valued and evaluated, would the results differ?
The scoring used was the same as the BBWAA’s: A first-place vote is worth 14 points. From second through 10th, the ballot spots are worth 9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 points, respectively. And to keep the re-vote based somewhat in the reality of 1995, voters were only allowed to consider the 21 players who received MVP votes that year.
The real top 5
- Mo Vaughn, 1B, BOS
- Albert Belle, LF, CLE
- Edgar Martinez, DH, SEA
- Jose Mesa, RP, CLE
- Jay Buhner, RF, SEA
The "new" top 5
- Albert Belle, LF, CLE
- Edgar Martinez, DH, SEA
- Randy Johnson, SP, SEA
- Tim Salmon, RF, CAL
- Frank Thomas, 1B/DH, CWS
Not surprisingly, given what we know now about how teams value individual power numbers and on-base percentage over RBIs, Belle finished No. 1 this time around. And there is a lot we can glean based on the all the results. Let’s dig in.
THAT WAS THEN …
Back in 1995, Belle’s Indians stormed their way to a 100-44 record in the strike-shortened season, winning the AL Central by 30 games. He led the AL in home runs (50), RBIs (126), doubles (52), runs (121) and slugging percentage (.690), hitting .317 with a .401 on-base percentage.
He remains the only player in history with 50 homers and 50 doubles in the same season. Those numbers would be outstanding in a full 162-game season, but Belle recorded them in only 143 games.
Vaughn’s Red Sox also won their division, going 86-58 to beat the Yankees by seven games in the AL East. He hit .300/.388/.575 with 39 homers and 126 RBIs, tying Belle for the league lead in the latter. The only other category in which Vaughn led the league? Strikeouts, with 150.
Conspiracy theories were hatched immediately, suggesting Belle’s prickly personality cost him votes against the congenial Vaughn. Or perhaps voters held Belle’s 1994 corked-bat incident against him. After all, while the BBWAA specifies that there is “no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means,” one of the criteria listed on the ballot is “General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.”
Even Vaughn seemed to believe his personality helped him beat Belle.
“It’s not just numbers,” Vaughn said after winning the award. “It’s important to have character.”
BIGGEST GAINERS IN THE RE-VOTE
As expected, Belle’s season was recognized in the re-vote. He was listed first on eight ballots, second on four and third on one. His 156 points made him a relatively easy winner, but what was even more interesting was the rest of the ballot beneath him.
Martinez (120 points, 2 first-place votes) and Randy Johnson (102 points, 3 first-place votes) finished second and third, respectively. The Mariners’ dynamic duo helped Seattle win a tight AL West race, with the Big Unit allowing one run in a complete game vs. the Angels in a one-game tiebreaker to send the Mariners to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Martinez (.356/.479/.628, 29 HR, 113 RBIs) finished third in the actual vote in 1995, while Johnson (18-2, 2.48 ERA, 214 1/3 IP, 294 K's) placed sixth. Martinez received seven second-place votes in our updated balloting, more than any other player.
If you went only by WAR (per Baseball Reference), Johnson should have won, based on his AL-leading 8.6 mark, but we were in the midst of a long drought of starting pitchers being recognized as MVP. Although a few closers won MVP Awards in the '80s and '90s -- Rollie Fingers (1981), Willie Hernandez (1984), and Dennis Eckersley (1992) -- only one starting pitcher (Roger Clemens, 1986) had won an MVP Award since MLB lowered the mound prior to the 1969 season. In recent years, we’ve seen a pair of starters (Justin Verlander, AL in 2011; Clayton Kershaw, NL in '14) take home MVP honors.
Another big gainer was Tim Salmon (.330/.429/.594, 34 HR, 105 RBIs), who finished fourth in the re-vote after placing seventh in 1995.
BIGGEST FALLERS IN THE RE-VOTE
Where was Vaughn, you ask? The real-life 1995 AL MVP finished sixth in our re-vote, listed no higher than third on any ballot. Vaughn received two third-place votes and was listed fourth (2), fifth (2), seventh (2), eighth (3) and ninth (1) on 10 other ballots. One voter left Vaughn off their ballot entirely.
Although WAR was not a factor in 1995, it certainly is now. Vaughn’s 4.3 WAR that season ranked 15th among AL position players, trailing the likes of Tony Phillips, Tino Martinez and Robin Ventura, none of whom were listed on a single ballot that season.
Valentin (8.3), Martinez (7.0) and Belle (7.0), Chuck Knoblauch (6.7) and Salmon (6.6) led AL position players, all finishing higher in the re-vote than they did 25 years ago.
Mesa finished fourth in 1995 after converting a league-high 46 of 48 save opportunities with a 1.13 ERA. Mesa, who also placed a distant second to Johnson in the AL Cy Young Award vote that year, was named on just three of our ballots, receiving an eighth-place vote and two 10th-place votes. He finished tied for 14th with Jim Thome, who received a single sixth-place vote.
A quarter-century of hindsight didn’t help Jay Buhner the way it did for his Seattle teammates; Buhner (.262/.343/.566, 40 HR, 121 RBIs) fell from fifth to 12th.
WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
Belle’s second-place finish was considered something of a surprise 25 years ago, so it was somewhat predictable that the Indians' slugger emerged as the top choice in the re-vote.
Vaughn’s drop from first to sixth was the most notable change, as voters examined the statistics rather than factoring in any narratives or character-related issues.
Based on the numbers alone, it’s difficult to believe that Belle didn’t win the AL MVP Award in 1995. His second-place finish turned out to be the highest of his career, though he placed third in both '94 and '96.
Vaughn went on to finish fifth in MVP voting in '96 and fourth in '98, but he never appeared on another ballot after leaving Boston at the end of the ’98 season.
Although Thomas won back-to-back AL MVP Awards in 1993-94, no other player who received a vote in 1995 won another MVP during their careers.