Was Williams or Joe D. the true AL MVP in 1941?

August 15th, 2016

Ted Williams remains the last player to finish a season with a .400 average, doing so when he hit .406 in 1941. But while he won the American League batting title by a whopping 47 points that year, his efforts fell short in the league's Most Valuable Player Award voting.
The 1941 AL MVP Award went to Joe DiMaggio, who hit 30 homers and paced the Majors with 125 RBIs and 348 total bases. He also led the Yankees to a 101-53 campaign that culminated with their ninth World Series title. And, oh yeah, the Yankee Clipper had a Major League-record 56-game hitting streak along the way.
Yet 75 years later, a reasonable argument can be made -- using stats that either didn't exist or weren't as highly valued in 1941 -- that Williams was the worthier choice.
The MVP Awards are voted on by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, which established the modern voting system following the 1931 season. According to the BBWAA, its most paramount criteria to be considered in voting is the "actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense."
Williams led the Majors in batting average (.406), on-base percentage (.553), slugging (.735), home runs (37), runs scored (135) and walks (147), but the Red Sox went 84-70 and finished well behind the Yankees in the AL pennant race.
While BBWAA measures clearly state a winner doesn't need to come from a division winner or playoff qualifier, that generally has been the case. Of the 40 MVP Award winners in both the AL and National League the past two decades, only five have been players whose teams didn't reach the playoffs -- with the most recent example being in 2015. Voting is always conducted before the postseason.
Harper became just the 17th player in either league to win the award unanimously. And a hefty determinant in that can be ascribed to the metrics that have become vital to judging a player's value, such as wins above replacement (WAR) and on-base plus slugging (OPS). Harper led the Majors in both stats in 2015.
Williams' 1.287 OPS from 1941 is the highest ever among players not named Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth. DiMaggio's 1.083 mark would be All-Star caliber by today's standards, yet that mark has been bettered 118 times in history.
Of course, DiMaggio captivated fans in 1941 with his 56-game hit streak -- unprecedented by both past and present standards. The closest any player has come to matching that was Pete Rose, who hit safely in 44 straight contests during 1978. has notched the longest streak since Rose's, hitting in 38 straight games stretching from 2005-06.
Lou Boudreau, the shortstop for the Cleveland Indians club that ended DiMaggio's streak, claimed that DiMaggio's benchmark is one that will stand the test of time.
"I suppose it's logical to think that a fellow could pass Joe," Boudreau, who passed away in 2001, said according to a recent New York Post article. "But I'm here to tell you: It isn't possible. That record will last forever. Forever."
Yet as impressive as DiMaggio was during the streak, Williams matched or bested him in most major batting categories. DiMaggio's streak lasted from May 15 through July 16 of that year, during which Williams' posted a higher batting average (.412 to .408) and OPS (1.224 to 1.181).
DiMaggio's streak ended on July 17, but he began another the following day that lasted 16 games. All told, he collected at least one hit in 72 of 73 games from May 15 through Aug. 2 and hit .408 during the span. But in that same timeframe, Williams hit a whopping .430.
Another telling statistic was Williams' weighted runs above average, which measures the amount of runs a player contributes compared to the average player. It's league-adjusted, which allows for comparisons of players from different leagues, years and eras. According to FanGraphs, a wRAA of 40 is considered excellent. In 1941, Williams posted a 108.82 wRAA -- a mark that has been eclipsed only twice since, both by Barry Bonds (2001, '02), according to STATS.
For DiMaggio, perhaps most remarkable -- and under-discussed -- was that he struck out just 13 times in 1941. The incredible feat has been achieved only 29 times by 15 players with at least 500 plate appearances in a season since -- none since 1976. Of those 15, five won at least one batting title and five are in Cooperstown.
DiMaggio received 15 of the 24 first-place AL MVP Award votes in 1941 and claimed 291 total points, a comfortable 37 points ahead of Williams. That season wouldn't be the last time the Splendid Splinter was the bridesmaid to a Yankee.
Williams won the Triple Crown in 1942 and '47 -- accounting for two of the 17 trifectas in the game's history -- yet finished second in the AL MVP Award vote to Joe Gordon and DiMaggio, respectively. DiMaggio won the 1947 vote over the second-place Williams, 202 points to 201. Williams was also runner-up to Mickey Mantle in 1957.
In his 19 seasons, Williams was a part of just one AL pennant win and never hoisted a World Series trophy. He finished in the top four in AL MVP Award voting nine times, winning in 1946 and '49.
Williams' MVP Award count might be higher if he played today, as the game seems to treasure his historic 1941 season in more ways now than it did then.