In the first of a series, we're going to take a look back at some questionable MVP winners. We appear safe from disaster in 2011 -- none of the leading candidates getting mentioned is a bad choice. For example, the Tigers' Jose Valverde hasn't blown a save, but nobody is talking about him as an MVP candidate. At one point in history, that wouldn't have been the case. But perhaps voters are getting smarter as they learn to consider sabermetric data and rely less just on RBIs and batting average.
So let's take a look back to 1987 and perhaps the oddest MVP winner of all time.
The winner: Andre Dawson, RF, Cubs (.287/.328/.568, 49 HR, 137 RBI, 90 R, 11 SB)
The runner-up: Ozzie Smith, SS, Cardinals (.303/.392/.383, 0 HR, 75 RBI, 104 R, 43 SB)
Other candidates: Jack Clark 1B, Cardinals (.286/.459/.597, 35 HR, 106 RBI); Tim Wallach, 3B, Expos (.298/.343/.514, 123 RBIs); Eric Davis, CF, Reds (.293/.399/.593, 37 HR, 100 RBIs, 120 R, 50 SB); Tim Raines, LF, Expos (.330/.429/.526, 123 R, 50 SB); Tony Gwynn, RF, Padres (.370/.447/.511, 119 R, 56 SB); Darryl Strawberry, RF, Mets (.284/.398/.583, 39 HR, 36 SB)
If you know your baseball history, 1987 was the rabbit-ball year; for whatever reason, home runs were flying out of the park that season. In 1986, NL teams averaged 4.18 runs per game; in 1987, 4.52; in 1988, it was back down to 3.88. As you can see from the numbers above, many players posted big offensive numbers. And that's what makes Dawson such a poor choice: Sure, he led the league in home runs (by five over Dale Murphy) and RBIs (by 14 over Wallach), but he ranked just 10th in OPS, sixth in slugging percentage and 42nd in on-base percentage. Yes, that's 42nd, just below Gerald Perry. His OBP is the third-lowest for an MVP position player and one of just seven MVP winners with an OBP under .350. If you're a WAR person, Dawson's 2.7 bWAR (Baseball-Reference), is the second-lowest for any MVP winner, hitter or pitcher, behind only Willie Stargell in 1979.
And here's the kicker: the Cubs finished in last place. Dawson is one of only five MVP winners to play for a losing team (Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez with the Rangers and Ernie Banks twice are the others).
So how did he win? Three reasons:
1. Even though Bill James' "Baseball Abstract" had been a best-seller for years by 1987, many writers still lived and died by the RBI.
They believed Dawson was the best hitter in the league. While many hitters had superior years to Dawson in '87, only Wallach was reasonably close in RBIs. As Orange County Register columnist Randy Youngman wrote, "Never mind that the Cubs will finish last. Right fielder Andre Dawson ... still was the most valuable (and most underpaid) player in the league. The Cubs didn't win with him, but they would have finished in the Florida State League without him." For some reason, that last-place finish or losing record didn't bother voters, unlike pretty much every other MVP vote. "But in the absence of a player-of-the-year award, the MVP has often saluted the season's outstanding performance, regardless of the standings," wrote Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times. "There is no rule, in other words, that says the MVP has to belong to a winning team, though the baseball writers, who do the voting, justifiably lean that way when possible. ... Dawson's statistics were overwhelmingly the league's best. He was a marked man on a bad team but remained at his own high level rather than sinking to his teammates', not an easy thing to do."
2. Dawson was a great story.
Youngman alluded to the strange winter of 1986-87, when owners were refusing to sign free agents (we now know they colluded). Dawson had been one of the best players in the National League with the Expos in the early '80s and twice finished second in the MVP vote. But bad knees had led to a move from center field and right field and he'd had three mediocre years from 1984 to 1986. Determined to leave the concrete turf of Montreal, he gave the Cubs a blank contract. The Cubs signed him for $500,000, making him the lowest-paid regular on the team. It was a redemption and it happened to one of the nicest guys in the game. The writers loved it.
3. Jack Clark got hurt.
The Cardinals won the NL East and entering September, Clark was the overwhelming MVP favorite. But he injured an ankle on Sept. 9 and only played three games the rest of the season. He also wasn't a favorite of the media. Tom Cushman of the San Diego Union-Tribune explained why Clark wasn't the league's MVP: "Except for one futile swing last weekend, he since has been unavailable during the Cardinals' September struggle with the Mets and Expos. Clark's tendency to remove himself from the lineup through peculiar incidents and at critical times has not escaped the good fans of St. Louis." He then went on to rip Clark for striking out too much, not hitting with runners on base (he actually hit .330/.550/.661 with runners on that year) and saying he was only the fourth-most valuable player on the Cardinals.
In the end, Dawson got 11 first-place votes, Ozzie got nine (but was left off two ballots entirely) and Clark finished third, getting three first-place votes. Eric Davis scored 30 more runs than Dawson, had a better on-base and slugging percentage, played a wonderful center field and stole 50 bases to 11, but only finished ninth in the voting.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.