The most unlikely MVP award winners in last 20 years, featuring Ichiro and Justin Morneau
Looking back at the players that were the least likeliest to win an MVP award since 1998
Major League Baseball will announce the 2018 Most Valuable Player Award winners on Thursday night. Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts is expected to add an award to his World Series ring on the American League side of the things. The National League picture is fuzzier. Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich is the favorite, but it's possible voters opt for Chicago Cubs infielder Javier Baez or Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado.
Whichever way the vote breaks, it's fair to write the winner wasn't among the league's top candidates entering the season. Both Yelich and Baez established new high marks in performance, while Arenado has always fought the uphill battle that is the Coors Field factor.
As such, let's examine the unlikeliest MVP winners since the last round of expansion in 1998. These exercises are always open for debate, of course, but the MVP winners listed below tended to surprise us for one of three reasons: 1. Uncharacteristic performance; 2. Seemingly undeserving; and/or 3. Something else about their win. The seasons are ranked in order of perceived likeliness, with the most likely ranking 10th and the least first.
10. Dustin Pedroia, 2008
Pedroia was a defensible MVP pick. He led AL vote-getters in Wins Above Replacement in 2008, and finished second overall. (Nick Markakis led, believe it or not.) He's on here because it was his second full season, and because he manned the keystone. Nearly 50 years had passed since a second baseman had last won the AL MVP prior to Pedroia's victory.
9. Jeff Kent, 2000
You can probably guess why Kent is on here. Foremost, he was arguably not the most productive Giants hitter that season -- some guy named Barry Bonds had a higher WAR in fewer games and a higher OPS. Beyond that, Kent was the first second baseman to win the NL MVP since 1984. It's hard to win the MVP award if you play the keystone.
8. Sammy Sosa, 1998
Sosa is on here because his 1998 was well beyond his previous level of production, and because in retrospect he was less deserving than others. Sosa receives credit for the Cubs making the playoffs and for partaking in the home-run race. But he didn't win the race -- Mark McGwire did. And he wasn't the best among playoff-team performers -- Chipper Jones was. In fact, Sosa ranked behind McGwire, Jones, and three other NL position players in WAR.
7. Miguel Tejada, 2002
As with Howard, Tejada wasn't a clear-cut choice. He finished third on his team in WAR, behind Barry Zito and Tim Hudson. He also finished third among AL shortstops in WAR, behind Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra. You can rationalize Tejada's win by pointing out he was the highest ranking hitter on the A's, and that the A's won more games than either Garciaparra's Red Sox or Rodriguez's Rangers. Those logic trains vary in mileage for everyone.
6. Ryan Howard, 2006
There were a few things working against Howard winning the MVP. For starters, he wasn't clearly the best first baseman in the NL. If anything, that distinction belonged to Albert Pujols, who outhit and outfielded Howard. Additionally, Howard seemed like the second- or third-most valuable Phillies hitter, behind Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. None of that was enough to stop Howard from winning the award, however.
5. Jimmy Rollins, 2007
The weird thing about Rollins' win is it seemed rooted in the Mets' collapse. Had the Mets held on to the division, David Wright probably wins the NL MVP. Neither, as it turns out, led the NL in WAR -- that was Albert Pujols. It's worth noting that Chase Utley finished with more WAR than Rollins -- as such, there's an argument to be made that the most deserving Phillies player over the last 15 years was the one who went unrewarded.
T-4. Justin Verlander, 2011; Clayton Kershaw, 2014
Simply put, pitchers seldom win the MVP award. To wit, prior to Verlander's win in 2011, a pitcher hadn't been crowned the AL MVP since Dennis Eckersley in 1992. On the NL side, Kershaw's 2014 win was the first since Bob Gibson in 1968. No pitcher has won either since.
2. Justin Morneau, 2006
In retrospect, it's amazing Morneau won the MVP award. By WAR, he was the third-most deserving Twins player -- well behind Johan Santana (overlooked because he's a pitcher) and Joe Mauer (who had fewer homers and RBI but a higher OPS while catching). Extend it to non-Twins, and Moreanu ranked 19th among AL vote recipients in WAR. He also hadn't performed to the level he did in 2006 before. Basically, that's the perfect storm of unlikeliness.
1. Ichiro, 2001
Ichiro Suzuki is one of the most skilled hitters of all-time. Back in 2001, he was a rookie transitioning to a new culture and league. It's a testament to his work ethic and skill that he took to the majors so quickly and effectively. But it's fair to rank him here seeing as how he remains the only foreign-born rookie in history to win the MVP award. Ichiro ranked second on his 116-win Mariners team in WAR (behind Brett Boone) and was fourth among AL position players that year.
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