As I’ve been doing cursory research for my “This Day in Transaction History” series, I have gone over the voting results for many of the awards handed out in the 1990’s. Back then, everyone still used only batting average, home runs, and RBI to evaluate hitters and wins, ERA, and saves for pitchers. As a result, the voting was laughably atrocious in retrospect.
This is not to say that the voting in previous or later decades wasn’t bad. For instance, Angels starter Bartolo Colon won the AL Cy Young Award in 2005 despite a 3.48 ERA, which ranked eighth among qualified starters. Sabermetrics were only just starting to take hold in the mainstream back then, but even by the rudimentary statistics they used a decade and a half ago, Colon still fell short compared to his peers and still managed to go home with the hardware. But, largely, the voting in the 2000’s was much better than in the 1990’s, and the voting in the 2010’s was much better than in the 2000’s.
Let’s go over some of the not-so-great award recipients in the 1990’s:
1990 AL Cy Young
Oakland’s Bob Welch earned the AL Cy Young ahead of Boston’s Roger Clemens because he won 27 games. No one has won that many games in a season since. The closest has been 24 wins done by John Smoltz in 1996, Randy Johnson in 2002, and Justin Verlander in 2011. Still, a feat being rare does not make it noteworthy. Clemens crushed Welch in ERA (1.93 to 2.95), strikeouts (209 to 127), walks (54 to 77), home runs allowed (seven to 26), and WAR (10.4 to 2.9). Welch’s only other redeeming stat was that he pitched 9 2/3 more innings than Clemens, that’s it. Clemens had an adjusted ERA (ERA+) of 211. In the integration era, a pitcher has posted a 200+ ERA just 22 times. The next-closest pitcher to Clemens in ERA that year was Houston’s Danny Darwin at 169. Welch ranked 17th at 125.
1991 NL MVP
The Braves’ Terry Pendleton narrowly topped the Pirates’ Barry Bonds for the 1991 NL MVP Award in part because the Braves defied expectations. The Braves were coming off of three consecutive last-place finishes in the NL Wast, but shocked everyone by winning the division with a 94-68 record. Pendleton’s Braves defeated Bonds’ Pirates in seven games in the NLCS, then lost to the Twins in seven games in the World Series. (To be clear, voting is completed before the start of the postseason.)
Pendleton did have better numbers than Bonds in a few categories: hits, batting average, and slugging percentage (narrowly). Bonds, however, absolutely crushed Pendleton in RBI, stolen bases, walks, and on-base percentage. On-base percentage was a long way away from being valued as a statistic, so this isn’t terribly surprising. Still, Bonds also had about 31 percent more WAR than Pendleton, 8.0 to 6.1. Lost in the shuffle was Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg. He had 7.0 WAR, second among position players, but finished 17th in voting. Barry Larkin (6.1) was also deserving of more recognition as he, too, finished 17th in voting.
1992 AL MVP
Athletics closer Dennis Eckersley won the 1992 AL MVP. How you feel about that speaks to how you feel about the value of relievers and closers in particular. Some believe that, because they often pitch in the most important spots of games, their value is immense. Others feel that they don’t rack up nearly enough innings to make a meaningful impact. Though a truism, it applies here: the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.
Baseball Reference credited Eckersley with 2.9 WAR, which ranked 17th among the players that received MVP votes that year. Two starting pitchers — Clemens and Mike Mussina — were the WAR leaders. In 80 innings of work, Eckersley recorded 51 saves with a 1.91 ERA and a 93/11 K/BB ratio. At the time, 50-save seasons were rare. Bobby Thigpen accomplished it for the first time in 1990 with the White Sox. Eckersley was No. 2. The feat helped Eckersley win both the MVP and the Cy Young Award in 1992.
As mentioned, Clemens and Mussina were better picks if you’re the sort who values WAR or high innings pitched totals. Among position players, Kirby Puckett (7.1 WAR) and Frank Thomas (7.0) were also worthy. Interestingly, Eckersley wasn’t even the best MVP candidate on his own team. That was Mark McGwire, who posted a .970 OPS with 42 homers and 104 RBI. His 6.5 WAR led the A’s.
1993 AL Cy Young
After flirting with winning a Cy Young in 1992, White Sox starter Jack McDowell finally won it in ’93. He won a major league-high 22 games, but didn’t lead in any other categories. He had a 3.37 ERA and 158 strikeouts over 256 2/3 innings. The award should have gone to Royals pitcher Kevin Appier, who finished third in the balloting. He won 18 games with an AL-best 2.56 ERA and 186 strikeouts across 238 2/3 innings. McDowell had a slightly higher innings-pitched total, but Appier was nearly a full run better per nine innings.
Appier, in fact, should have won the AL MVP that year as well. White Sox slugger Frank Thomas went home with the hardware, but Baseball Reference credited Appier with 9.3 WAR and Thomas with a comparatively tiny 6.2 WAR. Thomas, playing first base at the time, was hurt in WAR by playing subpar defense at a non-premium position.
1995 AL MVP
Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn trailed Indians outfielder Albert Belle in nearly every offensive category but still won the award, albeit barely. He earned 308 total vote points while Belle had 300. However, Belle’s reputation as a bad boy likely influenced a writer or two not to hold him in such high regard.
In 1995, Belle hit 52 doubles and 50 home runs. To this day, he is the only player in baseball history to have a 50-double, 50-homer season. As I mentioned above, a feat being rare doesn’t necessarily make it meaningful, but the win statistic is influenced by so many other factors (e.g. run support, bullpen quality) whereas doubles and home runs don’t have that kind of noise. Regardless, just compare the other stats:
- Vaughn (636 PA): .300/.388/.575, 39 HR, 126 RBI (led AL), 98 runs, 28 doubles, 11 SB, 4.3 WAR
- Belle (631 PA): .317/.401/.690 (SLG led MLB), 50 HR (led MLB), 126 RBI (led AL), 121 runs (led AL), 52 doubles (led MLB), 5 SB, 7.0 WAR
1996 AL MVP
The American League voting in the 1990’s really isn’t looking good so far. 1996 was another abomination that went in Juan González’s favor, just barely finishing ahead of Álex Rodríguez. While González’s numbers were eye-popping, it was the era of eye-popping numbers. Neither his 47 home runs nor his 144 RBI led the league. His 1.011 OPS also wasn’t a league-best. Ken Griffey Jr. had better numbers across the board, as well as much, much better defense. Among those who received AL MVP votes, Griffey had the most WAR (9.7), Rodríguez had the second-most (9.4), and González had the 17th-most. Honestly, the 1996 AL MVP Award could’ve gone to a swath of deserving candidates, but González was not among them.
1998 NL Cy Young
Largely due to winning 20 games, Braves lefty Tom Glavine earned the 1998 NL Cy Young Award. He posted a 2.47 ERA with 157 strikeouts and 74 walks over 229 1/3 innings. The Padres’ Kevin Brown won two fewer games, but had a slightly better 2.38 ERA along with 257 strikeouts over 257 innings. Interestingly, Glavine’s teammate Greg Maddux had the best season of the three, winning 18 games with a 2.22 ERA and 204 strikeouts in 251 innings. His adjusted ERA of 187 topped Glavine’s 168 and Brown’s 164. And, hey, we can’t forget about Al Leiter. For the Mets that year, he matched Glavine’s 2.47 ERA, won 17 games, and struck out 174 across 193 frames. The ’98 Cy likely should’ve gone to Brown but an argument definitely could’ve been made for Maddux as well.
. . .
To the Baseball Writers Association of America’s credit, their electorate has done a lot better in the time since. In part, that’s because the average age of its membership has decreased, especially after opening to Internet writers. Additionally, Sabermetics (or analytics, more generally) got bigger and bigger in the 2000’s. By the mid-2010’s, front offices were boasting their own analytics departments. Now, it’s part and parcel of running a team. The writers, like front offices, have had to adapt with the times. Voting in more recent years has generally been pretty good. Who knows if we’ll feel that way two decades from now, when people develop even better and more accurate ways to assess a ballplayer’s value.