"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Color by Numbers: World Series MVPs

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.

World Series MVPs by Position (and last recipient)

Note: Players considered at the position where they played the most innings.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

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).

World Series MVPs by Regular Season WAR*

*Offensive WAR used for batters.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

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.

World Series MVPs by Age

*Offensive WAR used for batters.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

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.


1 Alex Belth   ~  Oct 28, 2011 9:52 am

Word to Brian Doyle!

2 rbj   ~  Oct 28, 2011 10:39 am

"so come October, just about anyone is capable of being a hero."

Which is why I love baseball. You aren't going to have just about anyone in the game in a critical situation in football, basketball or hockey.

3 William J.   ~  Oct 28, 2011 10:50 am

[2] Excellent point. When's the last time you did a double take when hearing the MVP in the finals of one of those sports?

4 Matt Blankman   ~  Oct 28, 2011 12:39 pm

[3] Timmy Smith, though it was nearly 25 years ago.

5 RagingTartabull   ~  Oct 28, 2011 1:18 pm

we actually have had a fair share of random Super Bowl MVP's. Dexter Jackson, Larry Brown, and Desmond Howard come immediately to mind.

NBA I think is the toughest to find an unheralded MVP in, since the game so obviously hinges on the performance of star players.

6 RagingTartabull   ~  Oct 28, 2011 1:19 pm

also, speaking of a former Yankee World Series MVP, am I the only one who thinks Reggie needs to give this a rest at this point?


7 William J.   ~  Oct 28, 2011 1:33 pm

[6] I am not sure how I feel about it. I loved Billy, but the reality was he did a lot of bad things, may of which were systemic in the game. I think it's important to not lose sight of how bad some things were in the good old days.

8 RagingTartabull   ~  Oct 28, 2011 1:36 pm

[7] I'm not defending anything Billy may have said or done, his transgressions are well known at this point, but saying "Billy Martin was a racist" is different from saying "Billy Martin made game decisions based on race."

9 Matt Blankman   ~  Oct 28, 2011 1:38 pm

It's also a little too easy to call out a dead guy as a racist.

10 joejoejoe   ~  Oct 28, 2011 1:48 pm

Do they still have the Doyle Brothers Baseball Academy? I used to see ads for it in Baseball Digest as a kid. I had reflexive dislike of Denny Doyle who held down 2B for the Red Sox when I was a little kid. Brian Doyle didn't have the longevity of his older brother but all the glory belongs to the kid.

11 Alex Belth   ~  Oct 28, 2011 1:59 pm

9) True. But Reggie said it plenty of times when Billy was still alive.

12 Matt Blankman   ~  Oct 28, 2011 2:20 pm

[11] And he did basically say it to Billy's face. Reggie was and is legendarily sensitive and Billy was no doubt totally insensitive and probably enjoyed pricking Reggie's sensibilities.

13 Matt Blankman   ~  Oct 28, 2011 2:26 pm

[11] That's not to say Billy *wasn't* a racist. Who knows?

14 rbj   ~  Oct 28, 2011 2:27 pm

Billy did come of age in a time when racism and anti-semitism were standard. I doubt he'd have been in the KKK, but various epithets were quite common. I'd put it down to him, like Ty Cobb, being a product of his time & place, without the ability to transcend it.

15 William J.   ~  Oct 28, 2011 2:33 pm

I am also uneasy about piling on a dead man, but I am also not comfortable about telling someone who faced discrimination to give it a rest. In other words, although I won't cover my ears on the topic, I probably will hold my nose.

16 Matt Blankman   ~  Oct 28, 2011 2:40 pm

[15] Good points. I love Reggie, but he can be a bit much (how's that for understatement). If this were coming from say, Roy White or Willie Randolph or Paul Blair, I would be more open. That's not really fair, I realize.

17 Chyll Will   ~  Oct 28, 2011 2:49 pm

[15] I also wonder if the question was posed to Reggie in a way that the questioner knew he would elicit a substantial response or if Reggie brought up the subject himself. Knowing the answer to that would color the commentary strongly in my opinion.

I agree with William, and having been subjected to racism and discrimination most of my life, I have strong opinions and feelings about the subject, but at the same time I try not to let it direct my own judgment, nor does it become the fundamental basis of conversation. It's difficult to discuss or listen to, but I can't pretend it never happens/happened.

18 Alex Belth   ~  Oct 28, 2011 2:54 pm

I always go back to Schulian's quote about Billy, that he was a rat studying to be a mouse. There's no doubt that he was a bigot but he was an angry, paranoid, sick man who probably was an equal opportunity hater. If you didn't play his game, his way, he didn't like you, period.

19 Matt Blankman   ~  Oct 28, 2011 2:59 pm

[18] This is sort of what I was after - Billy was a classic paranoid alcoholic nutjob. Did Billy say racist things? I don't doubt it at all. Did Billy really have racism in his heart or let it guide his managing? Well, I can't say, but I doubt it. Look - it's wrong any way you slice it.

20 Matt Blankman   ~  Oct 28, 2011 3:18 pm

[17] Terrific point. I think part of my reaction to this was thinking "Why is Reggie talking about this now? He'd said this stuff long ago." Curious to know if the interviewer was digging for it.

21 Alex Belth   ~  Oct 28, 2011 4:20 pm

20) The interviewer was Costas. I'm sure Reggie was just "telling it like it was." I don't know if Billy had racism in his heart either but I wouldn't doubt it. LOL. Not sure if it is right or wrong just what it was.

22 Matt Blankman   ~  Oct 28, 2011 4:32 pm

[21] Don't misunderstand me - whether Billy was a bigot or just a jerk is irrelevant if he treated players with any tinge of racism. Costas is not the kind to mine for a phony controversy, generally.

I'd like to give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver