Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton is in the midst of a historic power surge. The slugger is already in rarified territory, notching the 44th 50-home run season in Major League Baseball history. Stanton managed that before the end of August.
While the all-time single-season record of 73 seems unlikely, Stanton’s recent performance has made him the talk of baseball. Over the past 49 games, Stanton has hit a Bondsian .339/.444/.906, with 30 bombs.
The day after Stanton hit his 50th home run, the Marlins were just three games out of a wild-card spot. He singlehandedly propelled them from afterthought to playoff contender.
That was also the moment when some people may have assumed Stanton locked up the National League MVP award. His .292/.384/.665 slash line is impressive on its own, but his league-leading 51 home runs make him seem like the clear choice.
Despite that, Stanton doesn’t have a massive lead in either version of WAR. According to Baseball-Reference, he’s tied with Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt at 6.3 bWAR. Anthony Rendon barely trails with a 5.6 bWAR. If you look at FanGraphs’ version, Rendon actually leads all of baseball with a 6.4 fWAR. Stanton sits barely behind at 6.0, while Goldschmidt is third with a 5.7 fWAR.
WAR isn’t perfect, and those differences are small enough to make a legitimate case for each player. Considering Stanton’s historic home-run season, you might think that immediately pushes him ahead as the no-doubt NL MVP. You would be wrong.
Though it rarely even happens, crossing the 50-home run threshold does not guarantee a player will win the MVP.
The 50-home run milestone has been reached 44 times in MLB history, but not all of those players were eligible for the MVP. Babe Ruth reached 50 home runs four separate times, but only won one MVP award due to the strange voting rules at the time. No MVP award was given out in 1930, so that excludes Hack Wilson. And the 2017 season hasn’t concluded yet, so we have to remove Stanton.
That’s leaves us with a sample of 38 players who hit at least 50 home runs in a season and were eligible for the MVP. Of those 38, 27 came up empty.
That number is slightly misleading, though, as there have been some seasons where multiple players in the same league have hit over 50 home runs. Think 1998, when Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Greg Vaughn all reached the milestone. Only one of them could win — Sosa, in this case — so we can’t hold that against McGwire and Vaughn.
If you strip out all those instances, you’re left with 21 players who hit more than 50 home runs in a single-season and still lost out on the MVP.
A close examination of those 21 instances reveals a trend that could mean trouble for Stanton: Guiding your team to the postseason matters.
In 13 of those examples where the 50-home run guy lost, the MVP was given to a player on a team that made the playoffs. In the earlier years where the playoffs weren’t structured the way we know them today, the award was given to the player on the team that finished higher in the standings.
This was the case in 1949 and 1955. Ralph Kiner and Willie Mays each hit more than 50 home runs, but the awards went to Jackie Robinson and Roy Campenella, who finished on the first-place Brooklyn Dodgers. Kiner and Johnny Mize lost out to Bob Elliot in 1947 because Elliot’s Boston Braves finished higher in the standings than Kiner’s Pittsburgh Pirates and Mize’s New York Giants.
That leaves a total of four cases where there’s no obvious reason why the 50-home run player lost out on the award. Three of those instances came in three consecutive seasons: 1995, 1996 and 1997.
In 1995, Boston Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughn barely beat Cleveland Indians outfielder Albert Belle. Both teams made the playoffs, but Belle rated higher in both bWAR and fWAR.
Juan Gonzalez of the Texas Rangers beat out Brady Anderson of the Baltimore Orioles in 1996. Anderson finished ninth that year. Both teams made the playoffs, but the Rangers won the division and the Orioles were the wild card. It’s possible that had an impact on the voters. The award should have gone to Ken Griffey Jr., according to bWAR and fWAR.
In 1997, Colorado Rockies outfielder Larry Walker beat out St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire. This one is really tough, as McGwire was dealt from the American League to the National League midseason. He finished 16th in MVP voting based on his NL-only numbers. McGwire totaled 58 home runs between both leagues. McGwire losing is somewhat fitting, though. He hit over 50 home runs in four different seasons and lost out on the MVP award every time.
Finally, 2005 saw Albert Pujols of the Cardinals defeat Andruw Jones of the Atlanta Braves. Both teams made the playoffs. WAR is split here, as bWAR favors Pujols and fWAR gives the slight nod to Jones.
Even in the four outliers, there wasn’t an instance where a player from a non-playoff team defeated a player on a playoff team for the MVP.
What about the 11 winners? There’s at least some hope there. Of that group, four players were on non-playoff teams. Two others played on teams that finished second for the pennant. Still, that only makes six instances in 38 where missing the playoffs didn’t matter.
This could be a significant problem for Stanton. Since bringing the Marlins within three games of the wild card, the team has lost three straight. They sit at six games back as September begins.
In nearly every instance where the numbers are close, the player on the playoff team takes home the award. Stanton’s main competition for NL MVP — Rendon and Goldschmidt — are in great shape as far as that’s concerned.
Stanton could be the rare outlier. His home run lead is impressive, and he might be the first player in 16 years to cross the 60-home run threshold. Though the sample is small, that would give him a much better shot, particularly considering no one else may reach 50.
That may have to be the goal. Unless the Marlins suddenly get their act together, Stanton will need to pile on to his impressive home-run binge to ensure some hardware at the end of the season.
As crazy as it sounds, MVP voters aren’t all that impressed with 50 home runs if your team is sitting at home come October.
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