What a year it’s been for MLB Monday, since we started this weekly column back on March 23, 2020, in a pandemic world that shut down a lot of current sporting events. This is our 51st entry in the series, as we took a holiday at the end of December, and perhaps it’s perfect that we hit 1961 with this last column for the editorial year it was. We all know what this season means to professional baseball history, right?
Right. On with the awards analyses!
1961 AL MVP: Roger Maris (original), Mickey Mantle (revised)
The New York Yankees won another pennant with a 109-53 record, but what a lot of people do not remember is that the Detroit Tigers won 101 games—finishing 8 games back. The best players in the league, accordingly, were Yankees center fielder Mickey Mantle (10.4 WAR), Tigers first baseman Norm Cash (9.2), and Detroit outfielder Al Kaline (8.4).
New York right fielder Roger Maris (6.9 WAR) won the vote, due to his 61 home runs, which set the all-time, single-season record. But his .269 average and -0.7 dWAR hurt him overall. He finished way down the value list, and Cash later admitted to cheating with a doctored bat.
This leaves the issue between Mantle and Kaline: The Mick obviously has an advantage, and Kaline had better help with cheatin’ Cash as well as outfielder Rocky Colavito (7.6 WAR). Mantle’s defense dropped off in 1961, as his glove rated out to -0.1 dWAR, but that’s not disastrous in anyone’s record, really, especially with the 2-WAR gap between Mantle and Kaline. The Mick carried a big load for the Yankees in 1961, more than anyone imagined.
We revise this award for Mantle, therefore, for his fifth MVP nod from us, with these numbers: .317 average, 54 HRs, 128 RBI, 12 steals, 126 walks, .687 slugging percentage, and a 1.135 OPS. The walks and SLG led the AL, while Cash won the batting title with a .361 mark, and Maris topped the league in HR (61) and RBI (141).
1961 NL MVP: Frank Robinson (original), Willie Mays (revised)
The Cincinnati Reds won the league pennant by 4 games over the Los Angeles Dodgers and 8 games over the San Francisco Giants. The Milwaukee Braves finished 10 games out of first place, creating quite an MVP-candidate logjam, as the top players in the NL were as follows: Braves OF Hank Aaron (9.5 WAR), Giants CF Willie Mays (8.7), St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Ken Boyer (8.0), Reds OF Frank Robinson (7.7), Cincy CF Vada Pinson (7.5), and Milwaukee 3B Eddie Mathews (7.3).
Robinson won the vote, although he was barely better than Pinson on his own team. The Cardinals finished 3 games behind Milwaukee, with 80 victories, but it would be hard to give Boyer more consideration here than Mays, for example. Aaron and Mathews were a strong duo, just like Robinson and Pinson.
Pinson played excellent defense (1.8 dWAR), while Robinson was an average defense (0.0 dWAR), so we’d give Pinson the edge there among teammates. Aaron actually played most of his time in center during the year, putting up 2.0 dWAR, while Mathews was slightly above average at the hot corner (0.2 dWAR).
What about Mays? Like Aaron (39 doubles, 358 total bases) and Pinson (208 hits), he led the NL in an offensive category (129 runs). But he also carried his team alone, relatively speaking, to within shouting distance of the pennant. The next-best Giants player registered 5.7 WAR, showing Mays’ strong effort in putting the S.F. roster on his shoulders. His glove was very good (1.4 dWAR), too.
To us, this gives the Say Hey Kid more value to his team than any other MVP candidates here. This is Mays’ fourth MVP Award from us, and his primary numbers—.308, 41 HRs, 123 RBI, 18 SBs, .977 OPS—are pretty good, too. This isn’t the easiest decision, but we’re confident in it as the right one. He was better than the Reds’ duo, and while Aaron may have had the “better” season, Mays’ year was more valuable.
1961 AL Cy Young: Whitey Ford (original), Camilo Pascual (revised)
Yankees ace Whitey Ford won the MLB Cy Young with just 4.1 WAR, so we can’t really give him the AL nod under these circumstances. The problem is that in an expansion year, the entirety of MLB had some low pitching WAR numbers. Ford won the award due to 25 victories—thanks to Mantle, Maris, et al—but a 3.21 ERA wasn’t that stellar (115 ERA+, the worst of his career at the time).
So who in the AL finished above our 5.0-WAR threshold? Minnesota Twins workhorse Jack Kralick (6.0), Twins veteran Camilo Pascual (5.3), and Los Angeles rookie starter Ken McBride (5.1). Those are all expansion-team hurlers, and both squads won just 70 games on the season. The key here is that Pascual actually led the AL in both shutouts (8) and strikeouts (221), while the other two guys did not lead the league in anything.
Yes, he posted just a 15-16 record with a 3.46 ERA, and normally, we really wouldn’t give the Cy Young to a pitcher with those numbers on a losing team, but this expansion year was wonky on pitchers, especially in the junior circuit. Pascual was a 7-time All Star, and he was just entering his prime—leading the AL in Ks for three straight years starting with 1961. We’re good with this.
1961 NL Cy Young: Jim O’Toole
The only four pitchers in the NL to top the 5.0-WAR level were Chicago Cubs workhorse Don Cardwell (6.1), Dodgers phenom Sandy Koufax (5.7), L.A. star Don Drysdale (5.4), and Reds ace Jim O’Toole (5.1). The Cubbies won just 64 games, so Cardwell is not in consideration, and with the Dodgers having two aces, it’s easy for us to look at O’Toole for this award.
Koufax probably had the better season—topping the circuit in Ks (269) and fewest hits allowed per 9 innings pitched (7.5)—but his 3.52 ERA was rather high under the circumstances (122 ERA+). Drysdale didn’t lead the NL in anything, although O’Toole did not, either. But we like O’Toole’s 130 ERA+, along with his 19-9 record, his 3.10 ERA, his 3 shutouts, and his 2 saves. He finished 10th in the MVP balloting, too, so we’re not off in our analysis.
1961 AL ROTY: Don Schwall (original), Ken McBride (revised)
The best rookie was McBride (5.1 WAR), but Boston Red Sox pitcher Don Schwall (3.5 WAR) won the vote despite walking 110 batters and striking out just 91 hitters. The Red Sox won just 6 more games than the expansion Angels, as well. No rookies really contributed to winning teams’ efforts in the junior circuit this season, so we’re going to give the award to McBride: His 12-15 record with a 3.65 ERA and 180 Ks in 241 2/3 IP do the trick.
1961 NL ROTY: Billy Williams (original), Joe Torre (revised)
Cubs LF Billy Williams (1.2 WAR) won the vote, somehow, probably because he hit 25 HRs and drove in 86 runs. His .822 OPS was fine, but his glove was atrocious (-1.8 dWAR). No way he wins this award, when he was not even the “best” rookie on his own team. That honor went to pitcher Jack Curtis (1.3 WAR).
Instead, this award goes to Milwaukee catcher Joe Torre (3.4 WAR), who provided positive defense (1.5 dWAR) at a key position for a pennant contender. His .754 OPS was nothing to write home about, but Torre was better at the plate than most at his position (106 OPS+) and a positive contributor there as well.