For the first time in almost 10 years, the World Series will come down to a game seven. It remains to be seen who will get the big hit or make the big pitch in this winner-take-all scenario, but by the end of the game, new heroes will have emerged, and one of them will be named the World Series MVP.
Had the series ended in six games, the Rangers’ Mike Napoli, whom no one seemed to want this off season, was an almost surefire bet to win the MVP. In fact, even if he is unable to play in game seven, the Rangers’ catcher would still be a near lock to win the award if Texas can pull out a victory. Should the Cardinals win, however, the likely MVP is not as clear. With three hits and three RBIs in game six, including a game tying single with two outs in the 10th inning, Lance Berkman has thrown his hat into the ring. Similarly, David Freese, whose WPA of .953 easily became the highest total in a World Series game, has emerged as a strong MVP candidate. In addition, Allen Craig and Albert Pujols, who have each had memorable moments in the series, could earn the hardware with a big contribution in game seven. Even Chris Carpenter could sneak into the mix if he can match his performance in the final game of the NLDS. In other words, the outcome of the MVP race is in just as much doubt as the game itself.
Without a crystal ball, we can’t be sure who will be handed the World Series MVP during tomorrow’s postgame celebration, but at least we can take a look back at those who have won it in the past. In total, there have been 58 honorees since the award was first instituted in 1955. Not surprisingly, the Yankees, at 12, have had the most players named MVP in the Fall Classic, including the only player (Bobby Richardson in 1960) to win the award despite being on the losing team.
Starting pitchers have won 23 World Series MVPs, by far the most of any position. Cumulatively, however, more hitters have been honored. Of the 31 offensive players to be named MVP, third basemen have taken home the most hardware, followed by catchers and shortstops. On the other end of the spectrum, left field and second baseman have almost been shutout, as each position has only featured one honoree.
In terms of batting order, the third and fifth slots have each had six recipients, while, somewhat surprisingly, the seventh and eighth spots have garnered just as many awards as cleanup. Should Mike Napoli win it this year, he would become the fifth seventh place hitter to win the MVP, just one year after Edgar Renteria, who batted eighth, won the trophy for the Giants. At least one player from each slot in the batting order has been named MVP, so come October, just about anyone is capable of being a hero.
World Series MVPs by Batting Order (and last recipient)
Note: Players considered at the lineup slot where they had the most plate appearances. Ninth slot excludes pitchers.
Source: Stats LLC c/o Wall Street Journal
The MVP award isn’t really about positions on the field or slots in the batting order. It is about individuals who rise to the occasion when the games matter most. Normally, when we think about such players, the very best superstars in the game come to mind. And, sure enough, the list of World Series MVPs includes many of these immortal players. From Sandy Koufax, who recorded the highest regular season WAR among all MVPs (10.8 in 1963), to Frank Robinson (8.8 oWAR in 1966) and Mike Schmidt (7.6 oWAR IN 1980), some of the biggest stars in baseball history have shined just as brightly during the Fall Classic.
The World Series MVP has been an All Star 32 times, an MVP five times (Koufax, Robinson, Jackson, Stargell and Schmidt) and Cy Young on seven occasions (Turley, Ford, Koufax (2), Saberhagen, Hershiser and R. Johnson). However, there have been several World Series MVPs who had very little success during the regular season. The most improbable of these was the aforementioned Richardson, who, despite having a negative oWAR and OPS+ of 68, managed to knock in 12 runs, almost half his regular season total, in the 1960 World Series. Bucky Dent, another Yankees’ middle infielder, was also a surprise MVP when he carried the momentum of his three-run homer in the one-game playoff at Fenway Park into the 1978 World Series. In that series, Dent hit .417 with seven RBIs, earning the most valuable player award over Mr. October (2HR, 8RBI, 1.196 OPS).
Among non-Yankees, Renteria (0.6 oWAR), Rick Dempsey (0.6 oWAR in 1983), and Steve Yeager (0.1 oWAR in 1981) rank among the least likely position players to win the MVP in the World Series. The unlikelihood of these players winning the award was summed up best by Dempsey, who while discussing his accomplishment famously joked about his regret over not negotiating a bonus clause into his contract. “Given the odds against that happening, they would’ve given it to me,” Dempsey told reported after the Orioles’ World Series victory. “I’d have asked for $200,000, they would have said, ‘Here, take $400,000.’”
The average regular season WAR of pitchers who have won the World Series MVP is one full win higher than their position player counterparts, but there have still been more than a few improbable honorees. Johnny Podres, the very first MVP in the Fall Classic, was just a 22-year old kid with little success in the majors when the Dodgers took on the rival Yankees in the 1955 World Series. So, needless to say, no one was expecting him to finally make the difference in Dem Bums’ quixotic attempt to beat the mighty Bronx Bombers. However, that’s exactly what the left hander did by winning two complete games. Thanks to Podres, the Dodgers were finally able to enjoy victory instead of being forced to “wait ‘til next year”.
For 30 years, Podres was the youngest player to win the World Series MVP, but in 1985, a 21-year old right hander claimed the mantle from him. That season, Brett Saberhagen took the American League by storm, winning 20 games and earning the Cy Young award in only his second season. The ALCS wasn’t as kind to the young pitcher, however, as the Blue Jays knocked him out before the fifth inning in both of his starts. Saberhagen rebounded from that disappointment in the World Series, surrendering only one run in two complete game victories to give the Royals their first and only championship to date.
So, as the Rangers and Cardinals head into game seven, round up all the usual suspects. One of them is bound to have a big game. At the same time, however, don’t take your eyes off the role players. As the Rangers, and the Brewers before them, have learned, guys like David Freese can be just as dangerous as Albert Pujols, especially when you are one strike away from winning the World Series.