Here we go with new coverage during this COVID-19 pandemic where even the 2020 Summer Olympics are getting postponed. We had our own endurance event postponed, so we understand the disappointment. Welcome to the new world order, for now.
We start off with our MLB Monday series, retroactively analyzing the Most Valuable Player awards in both the American and National leagues since 1911—and while also awarding Cy Young awards for both leagues retroactively (1911-1955) and analyzing again (1956 to the present).
Yes, we realize this is almost two years’ worth of posts ahead, but we’re doing it anyway. And why not? Modern sports often suck, anyway, so why not savor and analyze the past? It was better back then, anyway, right? Glory days and all …
We will be using baseball-reference.com a lot for statistical analysis and sabermetric critique (using Wins-Above-Replacement [WAR] numbers), so that’s our primary methodology, combined with modern interpretation of situational performance as well (the “value” part of the awards, of course—these are not awards for the “best” player/pitcher, per se).
One huge note: We do believe the Cy Young Award is an MVP designation for pitchers, and since we’re retroactively awarding them, pitchers are not eligible for the MVP. Consider both awards equal, basically: We just want to simplify and streamline, while not comparing apples to oranges, as it were.
A second caveat: We are not going to go back and award Rookie of the Year honors from 1911 forward (too confusing with rules changes). However, when our 1947 column comes around in approximately nine months from now, we will start analyzing those awards for both leagues, as well, just as we’re doing now for MVP and Cy Young awards.
[The same applies to Manager of the Year awards, starting with out 1983 column, which is so far in the future, we’re not even going to guesstimate the months until then.]
We have no other set criteria here, although a pattern certainly will emerge over the next two years. Enjoy!
1911 American League MVP: Ty Cobb (original winner, confirmed)
This is pretty straightforward, as Cobb was the best position player in the AL by a mile in 1911, the first year an official MVP award was given. Playing centerfield for the Detroit Tigers, Cobb hit .419 over 592 at-bats, which is insane, of course. He drove in 127 runs and stole 83 bases, too, for a 10.7 WAR season (including 0.5 dWAR), as the Tigers still finished 13.5 games behind the Philadelphia Athletics in the AL pennant chase. The next best player in the league, right fielder Joe Jackson, played for the third-place Cleveland Naps compiling 9.2 WAR with a .408 batting average, and the best player on the A’s—second baseman Eddie Collins—posted 4.1 less WAR than Cobb did, while playing on a dominant team. Case closed. Cobb was the AL MVP, hands down.
1911 National League MVP: Frank Schulte (original winner), Honus Wagner (revised winner)
In our first column, we already righting a historical wrong. Schulte played RF for the second-place Chicago Cubs, a team that finished 7.5 games behind the New York Giants for the NL pennant. Wagner, of course, played shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, third-place finishers seven games behind the Cubbies. The Giants were placed by two amazing starting pitchers (see below), and that means their top position player—2B Larry Doyle and his 5.2 WAR—can’t really hold a candle to Wagner (6.6 WAR), considering the supporting cast. Schulte also posted a 5.2 WAR, for the record. The way we see it, Doyle was not a dominant force for the pitching-strong Giants, and Wagner was more valuable to the third-place Pirates than Schulte was to the second-place Cubs, based on WAR and standings. Wagner’s season featured a .334 average, 87 RBI, 20 SBs, .930 OPS, and 0.6 dWAR, too, at the toughest position on the field, defensively speaking. Doyle (-0.9 dWAR) and Schulte (-0.2 dWAR) were both negative defenders in 1911, by the way. Case closed.
1911 AL Cy Young: Ed Walsh
The Chicago White Sox finished just 77-74, a whopping 24 games behind the A’s, but their ace Walsh posted one of the more dominant seasons you’ll ever see in the era. He tossed 368 2/3 innings on his way to a 27-18 record and a 2.22 ERA with 255 strikeouts. He also added four saves for good measure. That totals out to 9.1 WAR, ahead of Washington’s Walter Johnson (8.8), Cleveland’s Vean Gregg (8.5), and New York’s Russ Ford (7.3). The White Sox finished two games behind the Naps, while the Senators and the Highlanders were in the basement of the league. The A’s best pitcher, Jack Coombs, finished with just a 3.8 WAR. Therefore, Walsh’s dominant effort takes the prize.
1911 NL Cy Young: Christy Mathewson
This is an interesting case as Brooklyn’s Nap Rucker actually led NL pitchers with 8.7 WAR, yet he pitched for a team that finished 33.5 games out of first place. We always will argue it is easier to pitch well in a basement vacuum than in the spotlight of a pennant race. Thus, Mathewson—despite a “lesser” 7.8 WAR—wins this award over Pete Alexander and his 7.7 WAR for the fourth-place Philadelphia squad. Mathewson tossed 307 innings with a 1.99 ERA for the Giants, while compiling a 26-13 record and three saves. Alexander pitched 60 more innings and won two more games, but his 2.57 ERA was considerably higher—and again, he was pitching for a Phillies squad that finished 19.5 games out of first place. Big Six, as they used to called Mathewson, wins the award.
Check in every Monday for our MLB awards historical analysis on The Daily McPlay!