Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The 1954 American League MVP

By Brad Oremland

Who was the most valuable player in the American League in 1954?

If you are a student of baseball history, you might know the official answer to that question. But there's also a good chance you feel like the voters could have or should have gone in a different direction. In any case, a number of players had great seasons.

Just to set the context, AL teams averaged 4.22 runs per game, with a league-wide ERA of 3.72. The eight teams in the league collectively batted .257 / .331 / .373. Eleven players hit .300, and two of them hit over .340. Only three players hit more than 25 home runs, and no one hit as many as 35. Seven players scored 100 runs, and seven had 100 RBI. There were 358 stolen bases, about 45 per team, and only one American Leaguer stole more than 20 bases.

What makes this MVP race so interesting? The 1954 Cleveland Indians are one of the best teams in American League history. Only three AL teams won 70 games that season: Cleveland won the pennant, 111-43, besting the Yankees (103-51) and White Sox (94-60). Those three teams finished over .600, and everyone else was under .450, led by the 69-85 Red Sox.

But when it came to MVP voting, Cleveland had too many stars. Four Indians ranked among the top six in AL MVP voting, splitting the vote so that none of them won. That includes the top two pitchers, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, who won the same number of games and whose ERAs were only one point apart. Looking back, probably neither of them was the best pitcher in the league. Three of the top 10 vote-getters came from teams that failed to win 70 games, and two of the greatest players in history got snubbed.

It all adds up to a debatable MVP choice that's still fun to discuss, more than 60 years later. Here are some of the players who didn't win the 1954 AL MVP Award.

Nellie Fox and Harvey Kuenn tied for the American League in hits, 201 each, and both were excellent defensive players. Fox hit .319, with 51 walks and only 12 strikeouts. He scored 111 runs, 4th-best in the AL, and he was probably the best-fielding second baseman in the league. Kuenn, just 24, was in his second full season. He was still playing shortstop then, and the available defensive stats show him as an excellent fielder; he led the American League in assists. According to the sabermetric Total Zone statistic, Fox and Kuenn were the 2nd- and 3rd-best fielders in the American League in 1954. Kuenn ranked 8th in AL MVP voting, and Fox 9th.

The one player who rated as a better fielder than Fox and Kuenn was Fox's double play partner in Chicago, shortstop Chico Carrasquel; Total Zone shows him as by far the best defensive player in the league, sort of the Andrelton Simmons of 1954. Carrasquel hit only .255, but he walked 85 times, giving him a .348 on-base percentage — higher than hit leader Kuenn's .335. Carrasquel scored 106 runs and drove in 62, a higher combined total (168) than Fox (158) or Kuenn (129). Three White Sox received MVP votes that season, but Carrasquel was not one of them.

I don't think anyone would suggest Carrasquel should have won the AL MVP Award in 1954, but it's jarring to see Kuenn and Fox in the top 10, and Carrasquel without a single vote. His BA was almost exactly league average, and a lot of his value was tied up in defense and bases on balls, which voters sometimes overlook, but he certainly deserved some votes. FanGraphs WAR shows him as the 7th-best position player in the league.

Red Sox shortstop Jackie Jensen, who would later win the 1958 AL MVP Award, had a fascinating season. He hit .276 / .359 / .472, with 25 HR, rare offensive performance from a middle infielder. Jensen stole a league-leading 22 bases. with only 7 caught stealing, also excellent. But he somehow grounded into 32 double plays. Thirty-two. Next-worst was 21, by a 19-year-old outfielder named Al Kaline. But Jensen's mark exceeded Kaline's by over 50%; he was in another universe of GIDP.

The more you think about it, the stranger that is. Jensen was among the league's HR leaders, and fly ball hitters don't ground into many double plays, because they don't hit a lot of ground balls. Jensen played shortstop and led the league in steals, with a good SB%, and fast players seldom ground into many double plays, because they beat the throw to first. Jensen, a fast fly ball hitter, not only failed to avoid GIDP, but led the league by a mile. More than a mile. He led by a marathon. Not being old enough to have seen Jensen play, and with film of double plays from 1954 understandably scarce, I can't explain how Jensen not only led the league in GIDP, but blew it away. Anyway, he ranked 14th in MVP voting.

That's the second-best MVP result on the 69-85 Red Sox, behind Ted Williams. Williams played only 117 games, missing April with a broken collarbone. He won the "Slash Stat" Triple Crown, leading the league in batting average (.345), on-base percentage (.513), and slugging percentage (.635), though according to the rules in place at the time, he didn't qualify for the batting title. Williams made 526 plate appearances and clearly deserved consideration as a full-time player, but because he also led the league in walks (136), he fell 14 at-bats short of the 400 then needed to qualify.

Williams placed 7th in MVP voting. That's understandable. He missed nearly a quarter of the season, and he played on a team that was out of contention by the Fourth of July. He had already won two MVP Awards, and he was widely disliked. But Williams led the league in OBP by over 100 points. He led in slugging by 100 points. His 1.148 OPS led the AL by over 20%. He walked 100 times more than he struck out (136-32), and he ranked 2nd in home runs (29) despite getting so few at-bats that he didn't qualify for the batting title. He was by far the most efficient hitter in the league.

I promised two of the greatest players in history, so let's go straight from Williams to Mickey Mantle. Mantle led the American League in runs scored (129), ranking 3rd in BB (102), HR (27), TB (285), OBP (.408), and SLG (.525). Pulling off a top-three finish in both walks and total bases takes a special player, and obviously Mantle was special. While he didn't share Williams' otherworldly efficiency, Mantle played a full schedule (146 G, 649 PA) and a premium defensive position. So where did Mantle place in MVP voting? Second? Third? Perhaps sixth, just ahead of Williams? Actually, he tied for 15th. It's a strange world.

Thirty-six-year-old Mickey Vernon led the league in doubles (33) and extra-base hits (67); he ranked 2nd in total bases (294). Vernon tied for 9th in MVP voting (with Nellie Fox). The only player with more total bases (304) was White Sox outfielder Minnie Miñoso. It was the best season of Miñoso's excellent career, setting highs in hits, extra-base hits, batting average, slugging, runs, and RBI. He trailed only Williams in OBP (.411) and SLG (.535), and he played sensational defense; Total Zone shows Miñoso as the 3rd-best outfielder in the American League.

Lest anyone be skeptical about how well Miñoso played, he led Mantle in BA, OBP, and SLG, in more games and more plate appearances. He and Mantle were the only players with 100 runs and 100 RBI, and Miñoso led the league in combined R + RBI (235). Miñoso came 4th in AL MVP voting, including two 1st-place votes.

Next, the elephant in the room: the 111-win Cleveland Indians. Catcher Jim Hegan got a handful of MVP votes and placed 22nd in the voting. He hit .234 / .289 / .374, with 99 hits, 11 home runs, and about half as many total bases (158) as Minnie Miñoso. By WAR, Hegan wasn't one of the 10 most valuable players on his own team. I suppose he got some extra credit for handling a successful pitching staff. Cleveland had a 2.78 ERA, best in the American League by more than a quarter of a run.

Reigning MVP Al Rosen had another great season, batting .300 / .404 / .506. He ranked among the top five in both OBP and slugging average. He hit 24 home runs, tied for 5th, and with 102 RBI, also tied for 5th. Rosen tied for 15th in MVP voting, perhaps a victim of his success the year before, the since the voters normally prefer to honor players who haven't received the award previously.

Second baseman Bobby Avila hit .341, and technically led the league (since Williams was ineligible). He ranked 6th in the league in OBP (.402) and 9th in slugging (.477), and played excellent defense. He had the 3rd-most hits in the AL, behind Fox and Kuenn, but walked more (59) than either and hit more home runs (15) than both combined (7). Avila was the best bunter in the American League, with 19 sacrifice hits. Still the last Indian to lead the league in batting, he was rewarded with a 3rd-place MVP finish, just behind teammate Larry Doby.

Doby led the AL in home runs (32) and RBI (126). He hit .272 / .364 / .484, and he played a good center field. Doby ranked 2nd in MVP voting, 7 points ahead of Avila. Granted that I didn't see them play, I'd score it the other way around. Doby led in two of the three Triple Crown categories, but the home run difference is misleading — Avila's slugging average (.477) was basically the same as Doby's (.484) — and Doby got more RBI because he hit third in the batting order, frequently with Avila already on base. Avila, who hit second, had fewer RBI because he had fewer men on base in front of him. He scored 112 runs, 3rd-best in the AL, to Doby's 94.

I've already mentioned Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, the Cleveland pitchers who placed 5th and 6th, respectively, among MVP vote-getters. Lemon went 23-7 with a 2.72 ERA and 3.26 FIP. He threw 110 strikeouts and had a 1.24 WHIP. Wynn went 23-11 with a 2.73 ERA and 3.18 FIP. He threw 155 strikeouts and had a 1.14 WHIP, and he saved 3 games.

Both pitchers won 23 games, and their ERAs were essentially equal, but Lemon — who had fewer losses and could hit — swamped Wynn in MVP balloting, 179 points to 72. According to FanGraphs, however, Cleveland's best pitcher in 1954 was Mike Garcia. Among the Cleveland rotation, Garcia had the best ERA (2.64), FIP (2.55), and WHIP (1.12). He pitched five shutouts, as many as Lemon (2) and Wynn (3) combined, and went 19-8 with 5 saves.

FanGraphs' FIP-based WAR shows Garcia (6.5) far ahead of both Wynn (4.7) and Lemon (4.2). RA9-WAR, based on runs allowed, ranks Garcia (6.7) just ahead of Wynn (6.6) and comfortably ahead of Lemon (5.6). Garcia tied for 19th in MVP voting, far behind his teammates. Don Mossi, pitching mostly in relief, went 6-1 with a 1.94 ERA, but he was in the wrong league to receive any MVP notice. In the NL, New York Giants relievers Hoyt Wilhelm (12-4, 2.10 ERA) and Marv Grissom (10-7, 2.35) both received MVP votes.

The Yankees' Bob Grim ranked 11th in AL MVP votes, and he relieved in 17 of his 37 appearances, but he went 20-6 with a 3.16 ERA. Yankees ace Whitey Ford pitched more innings with a lower ERA (2.82), but his record (16-8) didn't match Grim's, and he didn't receive any MVP votes. Ford was probably the best left-handed pitcher in the league (unless you prefer Mossi as a reliever).

Three pitchers on losing teams showed up toward the bottom of the MVP ballot. Baltimore's Bob Turley went 14-15 with a 3.46 ERA and almost as many walks (181) as strikeouts (185), plus he was a bad hitter even among pitchers. But he had a blazing fastball, and led the league in strikeouts, and I guess he must have impressed somebody, because he got 4 points in MVP voting. Fellow Oriole Joe Coleman went 13-17 with a 3.50 ERA — worse record, worse ERA — but got 6 points from the voters. Coleman had an average season, and I flatly don't have an explanation for his MVP support.

Detroit's Steve Gromek, who got one last-place vote and tied for 26th, had a better case. Gromek went 18-16 for a team that was 50-70 in its other games, with about the same ERA (2.74) as Lemon or Wynn. Gromek had a 3.75 FIP, though, since he didn't get a lot of strikeouts and did give up a high rate of home runs. Teammate Ned Garver went 14-11 with a 2.81 ERA and 3.50 FIP. Gromek had slightly better results, but he was lucky; Garver was the better pitcher.

The other pitcher of interest in the 1954 American League was Chicago's 37-year-old Virgil Trucks. He finished 19-12 with a 2.79 ERA and 2.98 FIP. By RA9-WAR, which removes fielding from the equation and charges a pitcher for all runs allowed, he was the best pitcher in the league. Trucks ranked among the RA and ERA leaders, and only Wynn pitched more innings.

According to rWAR, Baseball-Reference.com's Wins Above Replacement, the 10 best players in the AL in 1954 were:

1. Minnie Miñoso, CHW (119 R, 116 RBI)
2. Ted Williams, BOS (245 TB, 1.148 OPS)
3. Bobby Avila, CLE (.880 OPS, good defense)
4. Mickey Mantle, NYY (129 R, 102 RBI)
5. Steve Gromek, DET (2.74 ERA, 1.16 WHIP)
6. Larry Doby, CLE (32 HR, 126 RBI)
7. Early Wynn, CLE (270.2 IP, 2.73 ERA)
8. Yogi Berra, NYY (285 TB, 125 RBI)
9. Chico Carrasquel, CHW (85 BB, superior defense)
10. Nellie Fox, CHW (201 H, 111 R)

Yogi Berra won the AL MVP Award in 1954, his second win. He had a great year, batting .307 / .367 / .488. Berra had 179 hits, including 56 extra-base hits, with as many total bases (285) as Mickey Mantle. He drove in 125 runs, only one behind Doby for the league lead. And of course, he was a fine catcher, a good defensive player and a good handler of pitchers.

Five years ago, I wrote a column very similar to this, about the 1935 National League MVP. For that season, I concluded that quite a few players had better seasons than the catcher who won the BBWAA award. In the 1954 AL, I don't think it's so obvious. But I don't believe Berra was the best, or most valuable, player in the league.

In my mind, there are four first-place candidates. First, Minnie Miñoso. You want a player with no weakness in his game, that was Miñoso in '54. He led the league in times on base (275), total bases (304), and runs produced (216), and he played excellent defense.

Second, Ted Williams. I know he missed a lot of games. I know he wasn't a defensive asset. He wasn't anything special on the basepaths, he was kind of a jerk, and his team had a losing record. Williams had a .513 OBP. That was the highest (in either major league) since 1941, when Williams himself posted an astronomical .553 OBP. From 1901-2000, the only players with a .500 OBP were Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Williams, and Mantle.

Third, with all due respect to Berra, I believe Mantle was the most valuable player on the '54 Yankees. Both players had 285 total bases, and that favors Berra, since he was more valuable defensively. But Mantle had 102 walks to Yogi's 56. He was a better baserunner, and he slugged almost 40 points higher.

Fourth, depending on how you feel about pitcher value, I might consider Mike Garcia. Bob Lemon and Early Wynn are Hall of Famers, but Garcia had the best ERA (2.64), FIP (2.55), and WHIP (1.12) on the team. Lemon and Wynn had slightly better luck, but Garcia had the best season. Chicago's Virgil Trucks has an argument, too, but if I had to put a pitcher in the MVP conversation, I'd lean toward Garcia.

Those four plus Steve Gromek were clearly the most valuable pitchers in the AL; they were the top five in innings pitched, and the top five in ERA- (min. 155 IP), all between 73-76 (135-140 ERA+).

I never saw these guys play. I wasn't even alive in 1954. And my intention here is not to prove that Berra was a bad choice as MVP. It's just to highlight some great seasons and shed some light on a fascinating MVP race.

Larry Doby, Bobby Avila, and Bob Lemon got 5 first-place MVP votes apiece, splitting Cleveland's vote and setting up Berra for the win. There's teammate-vs-teammate politics, pitcher-vs-hitter, winning-team-vs-losing-team. This was still the first decade of integration, and it's hard to guess what role racial attitudes might have played in the voting. I'm not sure you could ask for a more interesting backdrop for an MVP vote.

We're over 60 years removed from this season, and there's only so much you can get from analyzing statistics and reading about the players. But since we've gotten this far, here's my own MVP ballot, nearly 63 years late:

1. Ted Williams, RF, BOS
2. Minnie Minoso, LF, CHW
3. Mickey Mantle, CF, NYY
4. Yogi Berra, C, NYY
5. Bobby Avila, 2B, CLE
6. Larry Doby, CF, CLE
7. Mike Garcia, RHP, CLE
8. Early Wynn, RHP, CLE
9. Bob Lemon, RHP, CLE
10. Chico Carrasquel, SS, CHW

Like the actual voters, I see Cleveland's excellence being a product of the team, with five players in my top 10. Likewise, I divide the Yankees' greatness between Mantle and Berra, and the White Sox's among Miñoso, Carrasquel, Virgil Trucks, and Nellie Fox. That leaves Ted Williams, of the 69-85 Red Sox, atop my list. Adding BB + TB, Williams' total is equal to Miñoso's (381). Miñoso, however, made 431 outs, compared to 266 for Williams. Yeah, Miñoso was a better fielder, he led the league in HBP, and he stole some bases. It's not worth 165 outs. I'm not saying my list if perfect. It's the way I see it. I think Williams' exceptional performance at the plate was more valuable than Miñoso's defense and extra field time, or Berra's leadership, or the Indians' pitching. I could be wrong.

Finally, here are the actual results, via Bill Deane's Award Voting and the invaluable Baseball-Reference.com. Berra, Doby, Avila, Miñoso, and Lemon are the only five to receive first-place votes, and all rank far ahead of anyone else. Mantle, 15th in the balloting, is the most glaring omission from the top 10. But the lack of respect paid to Garcia, relative to his 23-win teammates, and to Chico Carrasquel, who didn't get any votes, is even more grievous, I think.

Part of what makes this sport fun is that we can still have arguments like this about an MVP race two-thirds of a century old.

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