Friday, March 16, 2012

In Which Jackie Robinson Wins All the MVPs

 By Bill

Initially, this was going to be about Stan Musial. Through the age of 27, Musial had won three MVP awards in five seasons (ignoring the one he missed while at war) and added a fourth-place finish. He'd never win another, but he would go on to finish in the top ten of the voting for the next nine consecutive years, including second-place finishes from 1949 through 1951 and in 1957. In many of those years (see Jim Konstanty in 1950 and Hank Sauer in 1952, for instance) the actual winner of the MVP Award was substantially less deserving than Stan the Man was. I approached this thinking that maybe the voters just got tired of giving Musial the award -- as they seem to have done much later with Barry Bonds, robbed several times from 1995-2000 -- and that perhaps one could argue that Stan really should've ended up with seven or eight awards.

One can't, though, or at least I can't. It's not that he wasn't better than the majority of MVP winners from 1949 through 1957; he certainly was. And there's a beloved legend who was deprived of multiple MVP awards during those years; it just wasn't Musial. Jackie Robinson, by and large, was even better.

When people think of Jackie, they tend to think primarily of things other than his play on the field. As well they should. But the problem is that it makes it easy to forget or to fail to appreciate exactly how great Robinson was. He was able to log just ten years of MLB service time, and played in 140 or more games in only the first six of them, and aside from his .342 batting average in 1949 and a couple stolen base titles, he never led the league in any of the traditional statistical categories. It's not that hard to find suggestions that he's "overrated" -- and defenders who will insist that he's not because "it's not about the stats." (Ex. A, B, C, D, E.)

He was a great player, though. Really, really great. If racism had never been introduced to the world and it took Robinson until 28 to make the Majors only because, say, he had tried his luck at pro football or real estate investing first, his place in history would obviously be quite different, but you could make a damn good argument that he still belongs in the Hall and among the five or so greatest 2Bs in history. As Adam Darowski writes, he was good at everything. As Chris Quick notes, Jackie even went out on top, putting together the best final season by any player since 1950.

But two or three more MVP awards would certainly have helped Jackie's credentials, and I think there's a very good argument that he deserved them. Behold:

1949: In Robinson's third season, he led the league with that .342 batting average, to go with a .432 OBP (2nd in the NL) and .528 SLG (3rd). He had a career-high 124 RBI (2nd in the league) and 37 steals (1st). He led all of baseball with 10.3 rWAR, and he did actually win his one and only NL MVP, with 12 of the 24 first place votes. Musial finished second with five firsts.

1950: Jackie's offensive numbers took a step back across the board, but were still spectacular: he hit .328/.423/.500, with 39 doubles and 14 homers, finishing second in batting average and third in OBP, and played brilliant defense. His 7.5 WAR was second in the NL. He finished just 15th in the MVP voting, however, and the award was taken by the aforementioned Konstanty, who had a great year in relief for the champion Phillies -- 16-7, 22 saves and a 2.66 ERA in 152 innings -- but was still just a relief pitcher, earning just 3.5 WAR.

Your WAR leader was the Giants' Eddie Stanky, at 8.0, who led the league with 144 walks and a .460 OBP (but put up just a .412 SLG). However, Total Zone's measure of their defense at second base accounts for virtually the entire (already very small) difference between the two -- Robinson gets +10 runs, Stanky +14 -- and over the years, Robinson's defense tended to grade out significantly better than Stanky's. You could make a case for either one -- certainly a better one than can be made for Konstanty -- but I tend to believe Robinson was best in the NL in 1950. I'd give him this MVP, his second in a row.

1951: Jackie had a season virtually identical to his '49 MVP year: .338/.429/.527, with 19 homers and 25 steals, and +16 fielding runs for a league-leading 9.8 WAR. He finished sixth in the MVP voting; the award went to teammate Roy Campanella, who hit .325/.393/.590 with 33 homers while catching 140 games. Campanella gets "just" 7.0 WAR -- he had 80 fewer plate appearances than Robinson did, and gets 14 fewer fielding runs -- but you could give him a ton of extra credit for his being a catcher (Jackie gets more credit in the positional adjustment than Campy does, somehow) and argue that it's justified. You could also argue for Musial, who put up one of his best years with the bat and amassed 8.7 WAR.

We'll keep this one with Campy, because that's how the voters saw them at the time and it's close enough among the three. But Jackie certainly should have finished in the top three. I'm already kind of regretting this, because I suspect Robinson was probably just a touch better, but I don't want to go overboard with the revisionism.

1952: The power dropped off (all in doubles -- he hit an identical 19 homers, but slugged 60 points lower), but Jackie made up for it by leading the league and setting his career high in OBP, putting up a nifty .308/.440/.465 line that was roughly as valuable as his 1949 and '51. He led the league in WAR again, at 8.7. The aforementioned Hank Sauer, who hit 37 homers but was just clearly inferior to Robinson (and others), won the MVP; Musial was great again (league-leading 167 OPS+, 7.0 WAR), and second-finishing Robin Roberts could justifiably have won (28-7, 2.59 ERA in a remarkable 330 innings, 7.8 WAR).

I think this one belonged to Jackie, though. Roberts is the one really serious contender, and Jackie still beat him in WAR (and I'm not a big fan of pitchers as MVP anyway).

1953: After finishing first, second, first, and first, Robinson plummeted all the way to fourth in WAR, at 7.3. His OPS+ dipped just a bit, but most of the difference was that he got 60 fewer plate appearances and shifted off of second base, playing mostly left field and third (Total Zone thinks he fielded both brilliantly). Campanella won the MVP again -- in something of a landslide this time -- but with a virtually identical WAR to Robinson's (7.2). WAR thinks that it was another teammate, though, Duke Snider (at 9.5), who was robbed, and Eddie Mathews put up an 8.9. Jackie deserved much better than his twelfth-place finish (behind clearly inferior teammates Carl Erskine, Carl Furillo and Pee Wee Reese), but it's a bit hard to give this one to Robinson. He should certainly have been in the top five, though -- probably fourth, behind Campanella, Snider and Mathews in some order.

Jackie fell off after that -- he was just as effective with the bat in '54 as he had been in '53, but played in fewer games and (apparently) average defense, then had his "worst" year (still managing a .378 OBP and 2.8 WAR) in 1955, the year the Dodgers finally won it all, then came back with that strong 4.6-WAR finale that Chris wrote about in the link above.

But that's a five-year stretch in which Robinson wins three MVPs, matching Musial's feat, rather than just the one -- 1949, '50, and '52 -- with a very close second in '51 (and you can justly give him that one to make it a Bondsian four in a row, if you want to) and another top-five finish in '53. He'd be one of just eleven players ever to win three or more MVPs, and at the time he did it, he'd have been just the fourth (though followed very closely by Campanella and Yogi Berra). It does more justice to Jackie, and does a much better job of calling attention to how completely dominant he was, albeit for much too short a time.

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