The Weirdest MVP
Over on his blog, Joe Posnanski just posted a piece about the weirdest award winners, from all sports. As usual, I strongly recommend it. I’ve actually been looking at baseball MVP awards in a similar way, and I’ll have a longer piece about that shortly. But, for now, I wanted to mention just one weird MVP award that didn’t make Joe’s list.
In 1934, Lou Gehrig had an all-time great season. It wasn’t quite as good as his Murderer’s Row MVP season in 1927, when he had 11.9 WAR and a 1.240 OPS, but it was close. In ‘34, Gehrig won the Triple Crown, with 49 homers, 166 RBI, and a .363 batting average. No one was particularly close to him in any of those categories - he won the HR title by 5, the RBI title by 24, and the batting title by 7 points. His 10.1 WAR led the league by 1.3 wins.
But, that year the Yankees didn’t win the pennant. They were tied for the league lead with Detroit as late at July 31st, but then the Tigers had a ridiculous August, posting a 23-6 record and building a 6.5 game lead that they never relinquished. They ended up winning by 7 games over the Yankees, and that held a lot of sway with the voters. Gehrig and his Triple Crown finished 5th in the MVP voting.
So, obviously, the MVP went to a Tiger. Here were their top candidates:
Charlie Gehringer, the Mechanical Man, had perhaps the finest season of his Hall of Fame career. He batted .356, led the league in hits with 214, runs scored with 135, and drove in 127 despite hitting just 11 homers. He also drew 99 walks and played an excellent second base. All of it added up to 8.8 WAR, second in the league behind Gehrig (it was a big year for guys whose names started with ‘Gehri’).
Schoolboy Rowe, in his first full season, went 24-8 with a 3.45 ERA. That ERA may sound mundane, but this was in a league where the average ERA was 4.50, so Rowe was actually 27% better than the league overall. He led the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio and compiled 6.9 WAR. He was also an excellent hitter, particularly for a pitcher, batting .303 and driving in 22 runs.
Hank Greenberg, just 23-years old and also in his first full big league season, led the league with a preposterous 63 doubles. He also had 201 hits, 26 homers, 139 RBI and batted .339. His OPS was 1.005 and he posted 6.3 WAR.
Tommy Bridges won 22 games and led the league with 35 starts. He made the All-Star team and totaled 5.4 WAR.
Billy Rogell played an outstanding shortstop, batted .296 and drove in 99 runs. He played every game and posted 5.6 WAR.
None of these Tigers won the AL MVP award. Gehringer finished 2nd, Rowe 4th, Greenberg 6th. Bridges and Rogell didn’t receive any votes. Three other Tigers did though.
Third baseman Marv Owen had the best season of his career. He drove in 98 runs, batted .317, had 3.2 WAR and played every game. He finished 9th in the voting.
Future Hall of Famer Goose Goslin, in his first season with the Tigers, batted .305 and drove in 100 runs while scoring 106. He finished 14th in the voting.
Then there was catcher Mickey Cochrane, the actual 1934 American League MVP winner.
After seeing the accomplishments of Gehrig and all of Cochrane’s teammates, he must have had a helluva year to take the MVP from them, right?
Well, sort of.
Cochrane batted .320, which was good. But it was actually just 7th-best of his 10 seasons to that point, and it was in a league that batted .279 overall, so it actually wasn’t that impressive. It was third-best on the Tigers, and 13th in the league. He had 75 RBI, good for just 6th on the Tigers and 26th in the league. He scored 74 runs, 8th on the Tigers and 33rd in the league. He hit just 2 home runs, the lowest total of his career.
His defense was very good, but not the best in the league for a catcher. He threw out 52% of attempted base stealers, 3rd in the league. He was 3rd in assists, 4th in range, and 5th in double plays. All solid numbers, to be sure, and when added to his solid offensive production as a catcher, he managed to total 4.5 WAR, which was the best mark among all AL catchers that year.
Still was his season much better than, say Bill Dickey’s?
Personally, I don’t think so, yet Dickey receive precisely zero points in the MVP voting. So why on earth did the writers decide that Cochrane deserved to be the MVP?
Because he was also the Tigers’ manager that year.
It was his first season as a manager, and he took the club from a 75-79 record and 5th place finished all the way to a record of 101-53 and the pennant. A 26-game improvement in a single season is certainly impressive, but it should be noted again that Detroit got full seasons from Rowe and Greenberg for the first time, along with top reliever Elden Auker. The acquired Goslin to play right field. And they got career-best seasons from Gehringer and Owen and Rogell and Jo-Jo White. Some of that can likely be credited to Cochrane, but much of that is just lucky timing.
But even if we give him credit for all of it, that shouldn’t make him the MVP. The ‘P’ in that acronym stands for Player, not Manager. Mickey Cochrane may well have been the best manager in baseball in 1934, but he wasn’t particularly close to being the best or most valuable player on his own team, let alone in the entire American League.
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