Hey everyone! Dr. Doom here again, with my penultimate post on MVPs from the past.
By 2004, it had become rote; more often than not over the previous six seasons, the Yankees and the Red Sox were both in the playoffs. Unsurprisingly, yet again, the Yanks and BoSox finished with the top two records in the American League. Even thought the final margin was only 3 games, the Yankees led the division from June 1st on, which makes that race a lot less exciting. They won 100+ for the third straight season (exactly 101 for the second year in a row). Was there a little extra drama due to the way they’d beaten the Red Sox the year before? Sure. I mean, if you’re leading the ALCS by 3 in the eighth inning of Game Seven, it’s probably going to add a little fuel to the fire of next year if you lose, as the Red Sox did. But mostly, it was an uninteresting race.
Two years removed from winning the World Series, the Anaheim Angels (this was their last year under that name) had a bit of an exciting season. They edged the A’s in the AL West. After June 9th, the Angels never led until the penultimate series of the year. In fact, they entered a three-game series at Oakland to end the season tied. Anaheim took the first 10-0 to take a one-game lead. With their season on the line the next day, Oakland led 4-2 entering the top of 8. Fortunately for the Halos, they scored three that inning with some clutch hitting, including a go-ahead single by Garret Anderson to seal the division with a 5-4 win.
The Central was the least interesting of the AL’s three divisions. At least in the East, there was something of a race, even if it was a bad one. The Twins won their division by 9, as they were on their way to becoming a bit of a powerhouse team. 2004 marked their third straight division title, third straight 90+-win season, and fourth straight winning season, which sure made all that then-still-recent talk of contracting them seem a little silly. When most people now think of the high-quality Twins of the aughts, they think of defense and good bats in the lineup. But the 2004 Twins were powered by pitching, creating an intriguing setup for a postseason otherwise dominated by power hitters. Unsurprisingly (if you know a lot about baseball history), pitching, despite its perceived dominance in the postseason, usually loses, and so did the Twins.
As everyone remembers, the Red Sox eventually edged the Yanks in 7, coming back from a 3-0 deficit (they had been outscored 32-16 in the first three, before outscoring the Yankees 25-13 over the final four), and then sweeping the Cardinals in the World Series to break the curse, yadda yadda. But before all of that postseason nonsense, there were a few pretty compelling narratives for the Most Valuable Player award, and that is what we’re here to discuss.
We’ll begin with the winner himself (and someone featured in the last post about the 2000 NL), Vladimir Guerrero. Guerrero placed 3rd/9th/3rd in the league with his .337/.391/.598 line for the league’s 3rd-best OPS. He also led the league in R (124) and placed 4th in both HR (39) and RBI (126). It was a well-rounded season for a perennial candidate; but, for a player making his AL debut for a team that would win the division, and doing so as a major free agent signing in a top baseball market, it almost screamed MVP.
From Guerrero, we move on to an AL West counterpart, hit king Ichiro Suzuki. In an era of mashers, one man stands out as completely different – arguably just as effective, but singular (pun intended) in his talents, and thus, perhaps, harder to evaluate. Famously, Ichiro broke George Sisler‘s single-season hit record in 2004 when he managed 262 H. Ichiro’s margin over second-place Michael Young (46 hits) was the same as the difference between 2nd place and 22nd place. Of course, he also won the batting title, hitting .372, a number no player has matched in the twelve seasons since (though, oddly, Ichiro is the fourth player of my lifetime to finish the season with a .372 average – Tony Gwynn in 1997, and Nomar Garciaparra and Todd Helton, both in 2000). Ichiro’s .414 OBP was second in the league, and he slugged a respectable .455 – though, let’s face it, a .455 SLG is pretty empty when you’re batting .372 – still, to paraphrase Bill James, “.372 is .372.”* He stole 36, which was second in the league, and scored 101 R. That run total may not seem like a lot for someone who was on base over 300 times, but Seattle’s offense was worst in the AL, scoring only 698 runs – so, in context, what Ichiro did was quite remarkable, proportionately equal to scoring 137 R for the Red Sox in 2004.
*The original James quotation was in reference to Arky Vaughan’s .385 average in 1935, something along the lines of “when your batting average is a good on-base percentage, that’s something”. It’s somewhere in the New Historical, I’m thinking in the Arky Vaughan player comment, but I’m not going to look it up.
We’ll now leave the AL West for the AL East and, in so doing, we’ll follow a player who traveled that same path – 2002 MVP Miguel Tejada. Tejada had won his MVP as a member of the A’s and spent one more (slightly disappointing) year as a member of that ballclub. In 2004, he left via free agency from cost-conscious Oakland to the riches of the AL East and the Baltimore Orioles. Hitting behind teammate Melvin Mora (who was having a pretty good year himself), Tejada led the AL with 150 RBI, part of a .311/.360/.534 line that gave him the 3rd-most TB in the AL (349). He scored 107 and belted 34 HR (8th) – all from the shortstop position. The Orioles were a bit disappointing (78-84), but Tejada was not.
While we’re in the AL East, let us examine the best candidate of the division champs, the New York Yankees. New acquisition Alex Rodriguez had a stellar year for a normal player, but a disappointing one by the high standards he’d set in Texas, so he was ignored by voters. Instead, MVP runner-up Gary Sheffield was the man the voters pegged as the Yanks’ best candidate. Third in R (117) and fifth in RBI (121), Sheffield batted .290/.393/.534, the 8th-best OBP and 7th-best OPS in the AL. He also ranked sixth in the league with 36 HR.
But if any team was flush with MVP candidates, it wasn’t the Yankees, but rather their rivals, the future World Champion Boston Red Sox. Finishing third in MVP voting was Manny Ramirez. Ramirez topped the league in HR (43) and was fourth in 2B (44), scoring 108 and knocking in 130 (10th and 3rd, respectively). He was the AL’s only player with a 1.000 OPS (as we began the return to more historically-normal batting numbers), his batting line reading .308/.397/.613 (the latter two ranking fifth and first in the league).
Right behind Manny in the voting was his teammate David Ortiz. The “can a DH be MVP?” arguments had begun to heat up the previous year as Ortiz finished fifth – the first of five consecutive top-5 MVP finishes (and five consecutive discussions about whether a DH can be the MVP). But 2004 saw yet another uptick in production, and recognition. Ortiz and Ramirez had awfully similar production in 2004. Ortiz’s .301/.380/.603 (2nd in SLG) led to the league’s 4th-best OPS. He was 2nd in HR (41), 2nd in RBI (139), and scored 94, to boot.
To round things out, we move to the pitchers. We’ll begin with the AL’s win leader, and yet another Bostonian, Curt Schilling. Newly acquired from the Diamondbacks, Schilling actually has a lot of the trappings of an MVP pitcher – a new team which improved following the acquisition, led the league in wins, etc. Maybe Schilling’s MVP chances were hurt by not playing for a first-place team; regardless, his season was more than worthy of consideration. Topping the AL in both W and W-L%, Schilling went 21-6 with a 3.26 ERA (2nd). His 226.2 innings was 3rd, and he, as usual, led the league in K:BB ratio, striking out 5.8 times as many as he walked. His overall strikeout number of 203 was third in the league.
And though we’ve already looked at one pitcher, it’s worth looking at another. As impressive as Schilling’s year was, it’s possible that Johan Santana‘s was even better. Santana was fourth in K:BB ratio, at 4.91 – but he was first or second in everything else. 2nd in innings (228), W and W-L% (20-6, .769) looks pretty good. Tops in ERA (2.61) and K (265) looks even better.
So, do we agree with the BBWAA’s choice of Vlad Guerrero? Do we think it was a different big bopper? Do we prefer one of the pitchers? It’s up to us to decide, so please make your voice heard, both in the discussion and the voting!
DIRECTIONS: Please list 5-10 players on your MVP ballot (ballots with fewer than 5 candidates will be thrown out). Ballots will be scored as per BBWAA scoring (14-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1). Strategic voting is discouraged, though unenforceable, so please just don’t do it, as the goal here is to (somewhat) mimic the BBWAA process. The post will be live for about a week; please discuss and vote whenever you’d like, but there will be no vote changes, so don’t vote until you’re sure you’re ready!