By the Numbers: MVP awards have gone to some unlikely candidates

Greg Jayne: By the Numbers

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 

It is the realm of the immortals, the place for the greatest players in baseball history.

There’s Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams and Stan Musial. There’s Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron and Joe Morgan. And any list of league MVPs would have to include Barry Bonds — regardless of what you think about him — because he won the honor a record seven times.

So, yes, the list of baseball MVPs reads like a Who’s Who.

But it also reads like a Who’s That? Because over the years — or at least since the award was first presented in its current format in 1931 — the occasional doppelganger has snuck in there to earn the award.

You know, guys like Ken Caminiti, who turned two great months and a truckload of steroids into an MVP award in 1996. It’s not that Caminiti didn’t deserve the award (he did), it’s just that sometimes an otherwise unremarkable player has a magical season and his team does well and he wins the MVP award.

So, who are the worst of the best? Here is a lineup of the guys who have had the least-productive careers among the 124 individuals who have won an MVP award:

C — Elston Howard, AL 1963

1B — Justin Morneau, AL 2006

2B — Nellie Fox, AL 1959

3B — Terry Pendleton, NL 1991

SS — Zoilo Versalles, AL 1965

LF — George Bell, AL 1987

CF — Willie McGee, NL 1985

RF — Jeff Burroughs, AL 1974

SP — Denny McLain, AL 1968

RP — Jim Konstanty, NL 1950

This doesn’t mean they weren’t good players or didn’t deserve the award in the season they won it. It just means they are the ones who have a single MVP season that stands out like Mount Hood in the middle of a desert.

By my best calculations, that lineup of everyday players would have a record of about 86-76 if they all had their typical season and were backed by average pitching. But if they all had their MVP seasons at the same time, that team would win about 98 games.

That difference isn’t nearly as large as I expected. Which just goes to show that they were good players who had really good seasons at the right time but didn’t put together historic seasons. There were no Albert Pujols among this group.

Take Zoilo Versalles, who played from 1959-71 and had the remarkably unoriginal nickname of “Zorro.”

In 1965, Versalles led the American League in runs, doubles, triples and total bases. He batted .273, which was 35 points higher than his average over the rest of his career. He played shortstop and his Twins won the pennant.

Add it all up, and you had an MVP season, and it was an MVP that Versalles probably deserved. That’s more than you can say about George Bell’s 1987 award.

In his career, Versalles played 1,400 games while batting .242 with a .290 on-base percentage, which makes him the worst of the best — the least-productive position player to win an MVP award.

Overall, the flukiness of Versalles’ award is challenged only by Jim Konstanty, who was the NL MVP in 1950 after going 16-7 with 22 saves and a 2.66 ERA. Konstanty led the Phillies to their first pennant in 35 years, which probably had something to do with him winning the MVP. Well, that and the fact that his real first name was Casimir.

All of which proves two things: It helps to be on a team that wins a surprise pennant; and it helps to have an unusual first name.

After that, you can spend the rest of your life being introduced as a “former MVP.” And there’s a certain amount of immortality that comes with that.

Question or comment for By the Numbers? Contact Greg Jayne, Sports editor of The Columbian, at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at greg.jayne@columbian.com. To read his blog, go to columbian.com/weblogs/GregJayne