This is the sixth week now in our journey into the sporting past, via our MLB Monday series on MVP and Cy Young analysis in baseball history. The methodology is explained here, and it’s clear there were some major studs back in the day. We sometimes forget what it was like 100 years ago.
1916 American League MVP: Tris Speaker
There was a pretty good pennant race this season, between the Boston Red Sox (pennant winners), the Chicago White Sox (two games back), and the Detroit Tigers (four games back)—and each team had an MVP candidate or two. Let’s look at Boston centerfielder Tris Speaker, Detroit centerfielder Ty Cobb, Chicago second baseman Eddie Collins, and White Sox left fielder Joe Jackson a bit more closely.
(It’s crazy to look at these four all-time greats in one season, isn’t it? Wow!)
Speaker had the highest Wins-Above-Replacement (WAR) value at 8.7, while Cobb was second at 8.0, followed by Collins (6.9) and Jackson (6.8). The two White Sox teammates somewhat cancel each other out in a complementary sense, leaving us with the situation between Speaker and Cobb.
The Red Sox star had the better year for the better team, leading the AL in hits, doubles, average (.386), on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS. Meanwhile, the Tigers legend topped the circuit in runs and stolen bases while hitting .370 overall. One thing stands out, though, beyond the offensive numbers: Despite Speaker’s topical dominance, both players notched 8.7 offensive WAR marks—yet Cobb’s defense was in the negative range (-0.7 dWAR).
Combined with the Boston finish atop the standings, that’s enough to hand this award to Speaker again.
1916 National League MVP: Zack Wheat
The other pennant chase was just as good, if not better, as the Brooklyn Robins won the NL, followed closely by the Philadelphia Phillies (2.5 games back), the Boston Braves (4 games back), and the New York Giants (7 games back). Of course, we do have a mixed bag of contenders from those four teams as well.
The NL rarely seemed to produce the same quality of player as the AL, as Giants shortstop Art Fletcher led the league in WAR (6.3), followed by Robins left fielder Zack Wheat (6.0), Cincinnati Reds third baseman Heinie Groh (5.3), Pittsburgh Pirates centerfielder Max Carey (5.2), and Braves shortstop Rabbit Maranville (5.1).
The Pirates (29 games out) and the Reds (33.5 games out) were buried deep in the standings, so we are inclined to dismiss Groh and Carey off hand. That leaves us with Fletcher, Wheat, and Maranville.
Wheat gets an edge for his team winning the pennant, and his numbers are pretty good: He hit .312 while leading the NL in slugging percentage (.461) and total bases (262). His .828 OPS was also the best of this bunch, by far.
Fletcher and Maranville tied for the lead league in dWAR with 3.2 marks each, as neither player was very good at the plate, although Fletcher did top the senior circuit by getting hit by a pitch 14 times. Incidentally, he also led the NL in this category in 1913 and 1914 as well.
Wheat was no defensive slouch, though, registering 1.3 dWAR himself, proving that he deserved the MVP over the other two with a better-balanced, overall game.
1916 AL Cy Young: Babe Ruth
Walter Johnson has won this four straight times, and he didn’t disappoint in 1916, either, posting a league-best 9.9 WAR mark for pitchers. However, the Washington Senators finished 14.5 games out of first place, and his performance wasn’t as dominating as prior seasons, thanks to the arrival of one Babe Ruth, lefty starter for the Red Sox, who posted 8.8 WAR himself on the mound.
The Big Train led the AL in a ton of categories again (wins, complete games, innings pitched, strikeouts, and home runs allowed). He actually didn’t cough up a single dinger in 369 2/3 innings, which is absolutely amazing. Can we vote against that?
Yes, because he did it in a relative vacuum of non-pressure situations. Meanwhile, Ruth actually didn’t surrender a single HR, either, in 323 2/3 innings—while leading the league in ERA (1.75), games started (40), shutouts (9), and fewest hits allowed per nine innings (6.4). Both these guys were complete studs in 1916.
Yet the Babe did it for a first-place team, in a tight pennant race, while Johnson did it without the same kind of pressure. We do realize that without the Big Train, the Senators would have finished 30 games out. But Boston would not have won the pennant without Ruth, and that means more to us, analytically.
1916 NL Cy Young: Pete Alexander
We’ve had just two winners in six seasons for this award, and in 1916, the contest wasn’t even close. Pete Alexander topped the NL in pitching WAR (11.0), and the next-best effort came from Brooklyn’s Jeff Pfeffer (6.5), who only led the league in hit batsmen.
Meanwhile, Old Pete topped the senior circuit in wins (33), ERA (1.55), games started (45), complete games (38), shutouts (16), innings pitched, strikeouts, and WHIP (0.959) for a team that finished just 2.5 games out of first place. He even saved three games for the Phillies.
We call that pure dominance, of course.