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  • Lincoln Mitchell

The 1974 MVP Decisions

by Lincoln Mitchell

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NOTE - This article comes from Lincoln Mitchell's Substack page, Kibitzing with Lincoln . Please click HERE to follow Lincoln on Substack.

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The 2023 MVP winners are Ronald Acuna Jr. in the National League and Shohei Ohtani in the American League. The voters got it right this time recognizing two great and exciting players The MVP vote is, like the Hall of Fame vote, occasionally about something more than the best player in each league. The ascendancy of Shohei Ohtani has forced MVP voters to think about two-way players for the first time. Occasional dominant seasons by pitchers, like with Justin Verlander in 2011, spark debate about whether pitchers can truly be the MVP. In my view the answer to that is a unambiguous yes. The 2012 MVP contest between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera was substantially a debate between what were then new advanced metrics and older more conventional ways of evaluating players.


There are occasional MVP votes that seem strange at the time or do not age well. Andre Dawson in 1987, Juan Gonzalez in both 1996 and 1998, Jackie Jensen in 1958 and Justin Morneau in 2006 are examples, but for me one year stands out because the voters in both leagues got it so wrong.


It is easy, and often unhelpful, to look back at player evaluations from the past using tools that did not exist at the time, so in looking at the bizarre 1974 MVP vote it is good to draw on both conventional and advance metrics as summarized in the tables below.


The extraordinary thing about the data above is not that the wrong player won the award, but that the voters got it so spectacularly wrong in so many ways. Modern metrics make this point very clearly. Burroughs was 25th in the AL in WAR in 1974, but WAR did not exist in 1974, so that is is not an entirely fair criticism. Nonetheless, five players, Carew, Grich, Perry, Jenkins and Tiant had at least twice as much WAR as Burroughs. That is hard to overlook.


Additionally, there were not just several players who were better than Burroughs, but several different kinds of players who were better than Burroughs. There were four starting pitchers who had standout seasons that put them in contention for the MVP award. Rod Carew and Bert Campaneris were speedy middle infielders; Brooks Robinson was a Gold Glover with some pop; Dick Allen Reggie Jackson were sluggers that were at least as good as Burroughs.


Reggie had won the MVP the previous year and played the same position in the same

division, as Burroughs. Reggie, who played on the division winner, was the better fielder and baserunner whose homeruns and walked contributed to his higher OPS, but Burroughs due to RBIs and batting average beat out Reggie. The 1970s was the era of RBI as king. Ultimately that was enough for Burroughs to win the MVP and for Don Baylor to win the award in a similarly terrible vote five years later.


NL MVP Steve Garvey had a comparable year to Burroughs in 1974, hitting .312 with 21 home runs and 111 RBI while winning Gold Glove. It was a solid year, good for 4.4 WAR, which was 17th in the NL. The top four players in WAR were sluggers whose seasons were by any measure, conventional or advanced, much better than Garvey’s.



Garvey’s MVP is also inexplicable. He clearly benefited from hitting .300 and driving in 100 runs, one of only three NL players to do that in 1974, but it is nonetheless difficult to imagine how any voter, even going on the most basic of numbers could have seen him as having a better year than Schmidt, Morgan or Bench. Morgan got even better in the following two seasons, winning the MVP handily in both 1975 and 1976. If he had won the MVP in 1974, he might have won three in a row. Had Bench won, it would have been his third. Schmidt would go on to win three MVPs, but based on WAR, 1974 was his best season and one of the three greatest ever by a third baseman.



Bench and Morgan were stars on the Big Red Machine who lost the NL West to Garvey’s Dodger by four games, while Schmidt’s Phillies finished in third place, two games under .500. Undoubtedly, Garvey got a lot of votes because he was a key player on a team that made it back to the post-season for the first time since 1966. However, that does not explain why Garvey beat out Wynn who was his teammate and had a much better year. Another of Garvey’s teammates, Mike Marshall had one of the greatest years ever for a relief pitcher, going 15-12 with 21 saves while pitching in an amazing 106 games, 12 more than any other pitcher in a single season before or since.


Interestingly, the player who came in second in a relatively close vote was Lou Brock who hit .306 while setting the all time record for stolen bases with 118. It was one of those years that look great at first glance, but was probably not as good as Garvey’s.


Garvey and Burroughs combined for about the same WAR as both 2023 MVP winners individually and less than both Perry and Schmidt accumulated in 1974.


That vote was 49 years ago, which was also the first season I became aware of baseball. I have a vague memory of watching the final game of the 1974 World Series. The vote is deeply irrelevant to my life, and to baseball, in general, but I still think of it from time to time because it reminds me of how the game and how it is understood have changed since I first became a fan.

2 Comments


Mike Whiteman
Nov 26, 2023

Great research and article. I decided to take a look at The Sporting News coverage of this (through the SABR website) and it seems that Burroughs was a pretty big deal, a onetime #1 draft pick with a big bonus. It seems his improvement and that of the Rangers created a lot of momentum for the award. Burroughs had also won TSN's AL player of the year, which was voted upon by the players.


It was just his year :)

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Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
Nov 26, 2023

Interesting piece, and it really illustrates how we as fans have changed our perceptions of what makes a star ballplayer.


P.S. That Willie McCovey card is a hoot! I don't know what is more ridiculous, the "Washington National League" team or the surreal airbrushing of his Padres cap.

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