Manny Ramirez had all of 229 plate appearances for the Dodgers. C.C. Sabathia pitched all of 130.2 innings for the Brewers. Both have been bandied about as potential award candidates: Ramirez for the MVP and Sabathia primarily for the Cy Young but probably also some MVP as well. To me, it’s fairly preposterous that samples that truncated could be most valuable overall, but I don’t have a vote, so it doesn’t matter what I think.
What would matter, however, is if the BBWAA thinks it’s preposterous. So what I’ve done is filled out a team of historical small-size MVP candidates, i.e. the fewest plate appearances/innings pitched for a top-10 MVP season by position. By looking only at top-10 in a season, it at least ensures that more than a few voters thought the player should be recognized for their half-season efforts.
There aren’t a lot of serious MVP candidates from second and third base, so the plate appearances totals are high in both cases and I might have missed a lower total, but as best as I combed the data, here’s the team:
C: Wally Schang, 1913, 252 PA, 8th place
Catchers are not hard to find in terms of small playing time with high MVP voting. “Regular” catchers were rare back in the day, and it seems from the data that a solid catcher on a championship team stood a good chance of doing well in the MVP race, especially if they hit some. And Schang, here in his rookie season, hit a ton—a 138 OPS+ from a .266/.398/.415 line. To be fair, his team had a 126 OPS+, but that’s a historically good figure; Schang had a great season on a great offensive team, and the voters saw fit to honor it. It was actually a more perceptive pick than old-timey analysis usually made; only six of his extra-base hits were triples or home runs, and clearly from the triple-slash stats, most of his value was in walks. They weren’t calling this on batting average; they were calling it because he was a great hitter at a key defensive position on a championship team. At least from that perspective, you can’t argue with the pick. That said, this is the fewest plate appearances for any top-10 MVP candidate ever.
1B: Willie Stargell, 1978, 450 PA, 9th place
This is another defensive spectrum difference; there aren’t a lot first basemen who are valuable for anything but offense, so it’s rare that a first baseman with missed time accumulates enough glitzy counting stats for the writers to notice. Stargell, however, was different, as his leadership of contending Pittsburgh teams was so prominent that it counted for intangibles as much as all those “little things” that shortstops and catchers get MVP credit for if they’re even halfway decent. Mind you, Stargell could still rake; .295/.382/.567 (158 OPS+) ain’t bad at all, and it wasn’t that far behind teammate and actual MVP Dave Parker.
I’d dare say his consideration in ’78 was more appropriate by the numbers than in ’79, when he produced less in slightly more playing time (still some of the lowest for a first baseman) and actually co-won. 1979 must have been some funky year or something, as the NL MVP and AL Rookie of the Year awards were both tied. Maybe the writers were pigheaded and cliqueish. It just seems really weird that the only two award ties happened in the same season. Can anyone illuminate us on Ballhype as to why this might have been?
2B: Tony Lazzeri, 1928, 463 PA, 3rd place
Not a hard standing to justify. In Lazzeri’s third season, he played less but produced better. He hit double digits in doubles, triples, home runs, and steals on the way to a .332/.397/.535 season (146 OPS+), his first season and only one of three in which he cleared .500 SLG. In an era where the rules forbade repeat MVP winners, Lazzeri was the foremost Yankee in the voting, and while he was never as amazing as his teammate ex-League Award winners Ruth and Gehrig, he was still a premier performer.
SS: Lou Boudreau, 1945, 402 PA, 8th place
World War II messed with playing times and candidate viability, so Boudreau’s standing here is generally defensible. His numbers—.307/.374/.409 (131 OPS+)—were the type he posted every year, and every year he got serious MVP consideration, placing in the top 10 seven years in a row. I’m wondering if part of it was his player-manager status; a .300-hitting shortstop is valuable every year, but one who manages too? Sign up the intangibles voters now! Maybe that’s what the AL League Award rules writers had in mind in the 1920s when they prevented player-managers and former winners from receiving votes; I don’t know. But Boudreau’s hitter-shortstop-manager combination was too delicious to resist. It’s probably due to my lack of age, but I’ve never been overly impressed with Boudreau’s playing or managing career; I think Hall of Fame entry was stretching it. I just can’t see what everyone else did. Maybe I had to be there.
3B: Bob Horner, 1980, 495 PA, 9th place
Oddly enough, second-lowest at third base is apparently George Brett‘s .390 season of the same year. Horner hit 35 home runs in his limited playing time, and he was only 22, so there’s some good story on a guy that young doing that well. But I’m not even sure he was better than teammate Dale Murphy, who placed 12th with a better OPS+ (133 to 127). Atlanta wasn’t exactly a difficult place for racking up home runs either, and unless Horner’s defense was stellar, he wasn’t contributing much else (15 doubles, 27 walks). I’m not feeling it for Bob, but it wasn’t a bad season by any means.
LF: Dick Wakefield, 1944, 332 PA, 5th place
This is the best Ramirez parallel in the bunch, not only for position but for timing. Wakefield came out of military service in July and hit .355/.464/.589 (189 OPS+) to help the Tigers to an almost-pennant. Of course, had it not been wartime, Wakefield would have been a full-time player and there would have been other MVP candidates besides, but this is as close to Manny’s situation as the voters have ever come. Still, Manny had 103 fewer plate appearances than Dick, which shows just how strange/idiotic it would be for Manny to win.
CF: Tito Francona, 1959, 443 PA, 5th place
Up to June 2, John Patsy Francona had been in 20 games with 20 plate appearances, all as a pinch hitter and never putting on a glove. After that, he took off, hitting .363/.414/.566 (171 OPS+) and even flirting with .400 in late July and early August. The 1959 Indians are one of my favorite teams to look at for a number of reasons (first in home runs, last in walks, and one of the few teams ever to contend while having no eventual Hall of Famers on it, even washed up ones), and Francona was a large part of the last Indians team to matter in September until 1995. His career had some reasonable production afterwards, mixing in the occasional good year with a tepid one, but this was the year of Francona, and I can’t say his MVP votes were silly.
RF: Harry Rice, 1925, 420 PA, 5th place
I admit freely; other than his name and general time period, I know nothing about Harry Rice. This was his first full season, and it was a productive one for the third-place Browns: .359/.460/.598 (152 OPS+) is nothing to sneeze at, and his nonadjusted OPS was fifth in the league and third among League Award eligibles (the top two in OPS were Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, but both were player-managers). He was at least a better choice than actual winner Roger Peckinpaugh (shortstop on a championship team, but that’s about all to recommend him). All in all, a decent guy to give votes to considering voting restrictions and how much worse they chose in the end.
SP: Hank Borowy, 1945, 122.1 IP, 6th place
Borowy’s story is fairly well-known, not for its own sake but for him being the centerpiece of all 1945 Cubs discussion. Sold by the Yankees on July 27 in one of the few years New York wasn’t dominating (it was still a seven-team race!), Borowy made 14 starts and one relief appearance for the Cubs, throwing a stunning 11 complete games and posting an 11-2 record with a 2.13 ERA to keep the Cubs in first place. They were four games up when they purchased him and three games up when they won; they needed all the help they could get against the perennially-contending Cardinals. If this sounds like C.C. Sabathia minus 63 years, that’s because it is, almost pound-for-pound on impact both regular season and postseason for both teams. The main difference is that Sabathia is actually more deserving of MVP votes (if at all) than Borowy was; C.C. had the same record in Milwaukee, but with more innings (8.1, but still) and a 1.65 ERA. If you’re going for good story angle, the Cubs haven’t made the World Series since then, but nobody knew that at the time; they were just seven years removed from an NL pennant. The Brewers, on the other hand, have only made the playoffs once in my lifetime. I’m not sure either of them should have gotten as much MVP press as they have, but I’ll give the edge to Sabathia over Borowy.
RP: Dennis Eckersley, 1989, 57.2 IP, 5th place
Several relief pitchers of yesteryear threw more innings for their MVP consideration than Borowy did for his, but it’s Eckersley that defines the reliever MVP consideration. Not that he was the first modern closer to draw votes; Goose Gossage threw 47.2innings (about 66 over a full season) in 1981 but had an 0.77 ERA and got 9th place in the voting. Eck’s save totals and innings were down from most years in his run of dominance, and it wasn’t the year of his 0.61 ERA either, but he had 55 strikeouts and only three walks, an all-time low for pitchers with that many innings. (The next year, he would become one of two players to issue exactly four walks in that many innings. Not bad, I suppose…) I can’t say I would have considered him for MVP back then, but he was as good in ’89 as the other seasons they gave him MVP votes, so it was no better or worse in the height of Eck-mania to choose this year.
Overall, I was surprised at the level of sanity the writers have possessed when dealing with small sample sizes. It would actually be a first if Manny Ramirez got serious NL MVP consideration, given how little he played. Hopefully, the writers will stay sane and responsible and all those things they have been in situations like this one. Even Sabathia would be better than Ramirez, because at least Sabathia would be better objectively than a previous candidate. I still feel nervous about this year for some reason, but if history is any guide, we should be safe from small sample size fever this year.