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MLB’s Vexing Voting: How Sub-Replacement-Level Players Found Their Way to the MVP Ballot

Even in the era before anyone fully understood the concept of value, MVP voters were throwing it out the window when casting their ballots.

Baseball has a rich historical tapestry of stupidity. If the Cardinals possibly facing felony charges of stealing secrets from the Astros isn’t enough for you, just remember how wonderfully dumb the baseball world can be when we add voting to the equation.

Managers and coaches somehow gave Rafael Palmeiro a Gold Glove at first base in 1999 despite the impossible-to-research fact that Palmeiro had spent 128 of his 156 games that year at designated hitter.1 Fan votes have Omar Infante, currently in the middle of one of the worst hitting performances of the last century, as the starting second baseman for the AL in this year’s All-Star Game. And a poll of active baseball players by ESPN The Magazine this past winter voted Bryce Harper as the league’s most overrated player for the second consecutive year. Harper, hitting .344/.476/.720 this year, seems unlikely to make it to a three-peat.


1.

To be fair, this was the year before Baseball-Reference.com launched, so what would now take about four seconds to look up might have required a full minute of research.

The most notable voting flashpoint in recent years, though, has been with the Most Valuable Player award. The Mike Trout–Miguel Cabrera debate in 2012 and 2013 further illuminated just how entrenched two sides (roughly, “RBIs” versus “everything besides RBIs”) of voters can be when trying to come to an honest conclusion about player value. Even if the Trout side was clearly right, there’s probably a place for a nuanced conversation about what really represents “most valuable” in 2015 and whether we should be voting to the letter of the instructions or to the way in which the baseball world has come to define value.

This is not the day for that debate. This is a time for the Palmeiro Gold Gloves and the Infante All-Stars to have their day. It’s one thing for a truly great player like Miguel Cabrera to win MVP. It’s another for a player who is actively detracting from his team to receive MVP consideration. If you head to the wonderful Baseball-Reference.com and check out its award pages (like this one from 2014), you’ll note that the site includes each player’s WAR2 next to his name and the number of votes/voting points he received in that year’s balloting.


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For the purposes of this article, while there are obviously various flavors of WAR, I’m referring to Baseball-Reference.com’s current interpretation.

Having those two figures next to one another made me wonder: Are there any players who have garnered MVP votes despite posting a WAR below zero? In other words, are there players who were given meaningful consideration as the best baseball player in their league when they were actually performing below the level of freely available talent?

The answer, blessedly for this article, is yes. By my count, 36 players have received MVP votes for sub-replacement seasons3 since 1931, when the American League joined the National League in adopting the current selection model, without any restrictions on multiple-time winners. As you might expect, many of those votes came in what might be considered less enlightened times; 31 of the 36 instances occurred before 1970, and nary a single player has come in under zero WAR and received an MVP vote since 1997.


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Baseball-Reference sometimes rounds WAR to 0.0 and sometimes to minus-0.0. For the purposes of this piece, players with a minus-0.0 WAR are treated as sub-replacement-level players.

I think that might change this year. Before getting to the prohibitive favorite and the rest of the 2015 candidates, let’s run through some of the sub-replacement MVP vote-getters from the past and try to figure out what on earth happened with each of their unlikely cases. In reverse chronological order …

Detroit Tigers shortstop Deivi Cruz

MATT CAMPBELL/AFP/Getty Images Detroit Tigers shortstop Deivi Cruz.

Ghosts From the Past

1997: Deivi Cruz, SS, Tigers
Vote Points: 2.0
Slash Line: .241/.263/.314
WAR: minus-0.5
Team Record: 79-83
What Happened: Defense? Cruz’s MVP status is basically a mystery. A Rule 5 pick out of the San Francisco organization, Cruz posted a 51 OPS+ over 467 plate appearances, the eighth-worst OPS+ for a player with 400 PA or more during the ’90s.4 Cruz was thrown out six times in nine steal attempts and spent nearly the entire season as the no. 9 hitter on an anonymous Tigers team. It’s not like Detroit was any good, as Buddy Bell’s club went 16-6 in September to squeak over .500 before losing its final five games.


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In the steroid era! His numbers translate to a .234/.256/.306 line in the run environment of the 2014 Tigers.

The only explanations for Cruz appearing here is defense. He was regarded as above-average at short, with USA Today’s Mel Antonen suggesting that September that Cruz “might be the Tigers’ MVP because of his defense,” which is distressing in its own right. Cruz’s defense was credited for six-tenths of a win and would be worth 2.2 WAR the following year, but even if you give him massive amounts of defensive credit,5 there’s no way he should have ever sniffed a down-ballot MVP vote.


5.

It’s also worth considering that similarly styled contemporary Rey Ordonez, who had a historically impressive reputation as a slick defender, never received an MVP vote.

1997: Tony Womack, 2B, Pirates
Vote Points: 2.0
Slash Line: .278/.326/.374
WAR: minus-0.9
Team Record: 79-83
What Happened: Speed. Cruz wasn’t the only one-trick rookie middle infielder on a 79-83 team to get MVP votes in 1997! Womack, though, was basically Cruz’s inverse as a player. While he wasn’t much of a hitter, Womack provided some offensive value as an effective, efficient base stealer, swiping 60 bags in 67 tries for a success rate just south of 90 percent. The Pirates suffered by insisting on using Womack and his .326 on-base percentage as a leadoff man, but lineup placement isn’t really Womack’s fault. He’s credited as being worth nearly two full wins as a hitter during that 1997 campaign.

Instead, Womack was a mess at second base. B-R suggests he was 26 runs below average with the glove, leaving him 2.3 wins below replacement. His Baseball Prospectus blurb from that year’s annual agrees, calling Womack “probably the worst-fielding second baseman in the NL.” Given that Womack was worth 1.5 wins with his glove over the remainder of his career while moving to shortstop for a time, I’m going to say that this looks a little harsh in hindsight. Womack wasn’t a great or even good player, but his candidacy seems less egregious than Cruz’s. He wasn’t the only Pirates player to see action, either, as Kevin Young managed to finish ahead of Womack in voting with a 120 OPS+ despite playing just 97 games. I wonder if they were on the same ballot.

1992: George Bell, OF, White Sox
Vote Points: 3.0
Slash Line: .255/.294/.418
WAR: minus-0.2
Team Record: 86-76
What Happened: RBIs. Bell, who beat out a far superior Alan Trammell for the 1987 AL MVP based almost solely upon his RBI total, took home three vote points in 1992 under similar logic. Bell knocked in 112 runs while being primarily featured as the cleanup hitter for the White Sox, good for the fourth-highest total in the American League. Of course, it’s probably not a coincidence that the three players hitting ahead of him most of the time were Tim Raines (who posted a .380 on-base percentage), Robin Ventura (.375), and Frank Thomas (.439).

The veteran contributed precious little else besides those RBIs; his OBP started with a 2, he grounded into a league-high 29 double plays, and he spent virtually the entire season as a designated hitter. He went unselected in that winter’s expansion draft and was out of baseball one year later.

1990: Joe Carter, OF, Padres
Vote Points: 7.0
Slash Line: .232/.290/.391
WAR: minus-1.8
Team Record: 75-87
What Happened: RBIs. Few baseball players have lived a more charmed life than Carter, who came of age as a proven RBI man at just about the last moment in baseball history when people thought proven RBI men were real creatures. Carter was a competent hitter during the prime of his career, from 1986 to 1994, as this was the only season when he didn’t post an OPS+ over 100. Of course, given that he managed to muster only an 85 OPS+ and was somehow a staggering 3.1 wins below replacement while playing in the outfield, his case as an MVP candidate amounts to his 115 RBIs, third-highest in the National League. Carter would be traded to the Blue Jays after the season with Roberto Alomar, beginning the most famous stretch of his career.

1974: Jack Billingham, P, Reds
Vote Points: 4.0
Stats: 19-11, 3.94 ERA
WAR: minus-0.8
Team Record: 98-64
What Happened: Wins. Acquired in the trade that sent Joe Morgan to Cincinnati in 1971, Billingham had pitched like an ace for the 1973 Big Red Machine, but he wasn’t anywhere near as effective in 1974, when he posted an 89 ERA+. Billingham’s presence on the MVP ballot surely came because he won 19 games, the third-best figure in the NL, and his 19 wins surely came because he was pitching behind a dynasty, as Billingham mustered only 18 quality starts among his 35 trips to the mound.

To be fair, Billingham’s pitching was only as bad as replacement-level, as he posted minus-0.0 WAR as a pitcher. The remainder of his lack of value came as a hitter, where he posted minus-0.7 WAR by rapping five singles and taking one walk across 79 plate appearances, good for a .075/.088/.075 line. As one of the rare pitchers on this list, though, Billingham is worth mentioning.

1950: Ken Wood, OF, Browns
Vote Points: 2.0
Slash Line: .225/.299/.396
WAR: minus-2.2
Team Record: 58-96
What Happened: Genuinely No Idea. Wood’s vote is incomprehensible. No player has posted a WAR worse than Wood and come away with an MVP vote, and I can’t find any reason why he would have even been under consideration. At 2.2 wins below replacement, Wood was the worst player in baseball in 1950. He was well below replacement-level as a hitter (minus-1.4 WAR) and as a fielder (minus-1.2 WAR). Wood wasn’t fast, as he was thrown out on all four of his steal attempts. His team was terrible, and even if the local beat writers wanted to throw somebody a bone, Wood was charitably the team’s fifth-best player.

Wood’s slash line translates to .201/.269/.348 on the 2014 Cardinals. That’s well worse than what Allen Craig (.237/.291/.346) did in St. Louis before being dumped to the Red Sox, and that was on a good Cardinals team. Imagine St. Louis being 32 wins worse and Craig getting an MVP vote. And not even a lone 10th-place vote, either! That’s how bizarre Ken Wood’s 1950 vote was.

Most of the other players who earned MVP votes with sub-replacement seasons fit into similar categories. There were legendary players who were shells of their former selves, like Ted Williams (1959, minus-0.2 WAR) and Elston Howard (1967, minus-1.3 WAR). There were middling players who got votes for being scrappy parts of winners, like Bobby Richardson (1961, minus-0.7 WAR) and, well, Bobby Richardson (1965, minus-1.0 WAR). There was even Rabbit Maranville, who fit both categories while he received multiple MVP votes during the final days of his career in the ’30s.

And there are echoes of the past in the players who might realistically be considered as possible candidates here in 2015. Remember that I’m not suggesting that these guys will win or even come close to winning the actual trophy, merely that they could be in consideration to pick up a ninth- or 10th-place spot at the bottom of somebody’s ballot.

I found five players who are either at or around replacement level here in June who could reasonably attract attention, and there’s one who stands out as the clear favorite. I’ll finish up with him, but let’s start with an Internet darling:

Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon is tied for the third-most wins in MLB but has a negative WAR.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon is tied for the third-most wins in MLB but has a negative WAR.

The Present

5. Bartolo Colon, P, Mets
Stats: 9-5, 4.81 ERA
Current WAR: minus-0.2

Everyone’s favorite plus-size pitcher has already banked nine wins before the All-Star break, which has him tied for third in baseball behind Gerrit Cole’s 11 and Felix Hernandez’s 10. Colon has managed to come away with a decision in each of his 14 starts, and while he’s produced quality starts in nine of those outings, those other five starts have produced 27 earned runs in 26.1 innings. Thanks to playing in Citi Field, Colon’s 4.81 ERA yields a 78 ERA+. And yes, what you were hoping is true is actually true: Colon has generated more WAR as a hitter (0.1) than as a pitcher (minus-0.3) this season.

Colon’s path to a down-ballot vote involves those wins. If he can stay healthy and the Mets can keep on track for an unlikely division title, it’s not out of the question for Colon to lead the league in wins. He’ll have to toe the line of competence, being bad enough to get under replacement-level but good enough to keep the Mets from replacing him in the rotation with star prospect Steven Matz. Some enterprising older writer should give him a 10th-place vote to get on baseball Twitter’s good side before dropping some traditionalist column a few weeks later.

4. Luke Gregerson, RP, Astros
Stats: 2-1, 4.00 ERA, 17 saves
WAR: minus-0.0

3. Evan Gattis, DH, Astros
Stats: .231/.260/.441, 12 HRs, 39 RBIs
WAR: 0.2

Let’s take these two Astros together. Gregerson and Gattis, two of the veterans brought in this offseason in an attempt to create a winner in Texas, have seen Houston surge into contention without actually contributing all that much to the cause. Gregerson’s peripherals (29 strikeouts and six walks in 27 innings pitched) suggest he’s been a reasonably effective pitcher for most of the season, but when he’s been bad, he’s been a mess. He’s allowed runs in only seven of his 28 appearances, but he’s allowed two runs four times and given up three runs in one-third of an inning to the Blue Jays in June.

The more plausible candidate is Gattis, one of the many all-or-nothing sluggers in the Houston lineup. The former Braves catcher has spent 2015 as Houston’s designated hitter, and while he’s managed to pop 12 homers, Gattis’s plate discipline remains a work in progress. He’s swinging at more first pitches than ever before and is taking aim at 44.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, the fourth-highest rate in the majors. He has struck out six times for every time he’s walked.

What Gattis has done, though, is drive in runners. He leads the Astros with 39 RBIs, leaving him just outside the top 10 in the American League. If he can come up with a few big hits during the second half, Gattis could go into the books as a poor man’s Pedro Alvarez, and if the Astros win the AL West without anyone else in their lineup producing a big season, Gattis could pick up a vote or two as a notable name on a surprising team.

2. Kendrys Morales, DH, Royals
Stats: .283/.344/.452, 7 HRs, 43 RBIs
WAR: 0.8

Morales is the outlier on this list, nearly all the way to a full win ahead of replacement. He has twice as many walks and about half as many strikeouts as Gattis, but like the Astros slugger, Morales’s MVP candidacy is built around his RBI total. Having spent most of the year in the 5-hole behind breakout seasons from Eric Hosmer (.366 OBP) and Mike Moustakas (.380),6 Morales has had a steady diet of baserunners and produced 43 RBIs this year, sneaking him into the AL’s top 10. The only player in baseball who has had more RBI opportunities, per Baseball Prospectus, is Giancarlo Stanton.


6.

To be fair, that also includes Alcides Escobar and his .300 OBP in the leadoff spot.

For that RBI total, Morales really isn’t hitting very well, relying mostly on singles. His .170 isolated power is 72nd among qualifying hitters, as Morales has chipped in all of seven homers across three months. His 120 OPS+ is competent, but given that he can’t run and doesn’t play the field, it’s also all he contributes. Morales should still get RBI opportunities by virtue of hitting in the middle of Kansas City’s lineup, but if the singles start to fade, he could rapidly approach replacement level while remaining a viable down-ballot MVP vote candidate.

1. Torii Hunter, OF, Twins
Stats: .260/.320/.410, 8 HRs, 36 RBIs
WAR: minus-0.2

Our best candidate by a country mile, though, is Hunter. Signed to serve as a veteran presence for a moribund Twins franchise, Hunter has presided over a luck-fueled resurgence in his return to Minnesota. The 36-30 Twins have outperformed their BaseRuns-projected record by eight wins across three months, with FanGraphs suggesting they’re playing like a 28-38 team. Hunter has combined whatever leadership he offers with marginal hitting and below-average play in right field, keeping him locked around replacement level for most of the campaign.

If there’s any place where random luck and variance don’t fly, though, it’s in award voting. The Twins probably aren’t going to keep this up all season, but they’ve already banked these wins, and if the likes of Byron Buxton catch fire and propel Minnesota toward competency the rest of the way, the Twins might already have profited from enough luck to compete for a wild-card spot.

And if that happens, writers are going to look for a reason. The smart ones might head for Brian Dozier, who has been the team’s one above-average hitter, but there aren’t many other candidates. They won’t look at Joe Mauer, who has struggled since returning from the 2013 concussion that led him to become a first baseman. They’ll want to find a cause who wasn’t on those awful Twins teams from years past, and Hunter will stand out as the obvious candidate. Throw in his (mostly) media-friendly reputation and his status as a well-known player in a small market, and the pieces all fit. If Hunter can continue to lead the Twins in RBIs while vaguely hinting at contention, he’ll be our best hope for a sub-replacement MVP vote in years.

This article has been corrected to reflect that coaches and managers, not writers, vote on Gold Glove awards.