16 St. Louis Cardinals MVPs: Who deserved it, who didn’t

The St. Louis Cardinals have had 16 MVPs in their team history. All were good players, but not all of them were deserving of the award.

When it comes to the best, the St. Louis Cardinals have had the most — MVPs, that is. Starting with Rogers Hornsby in 1925, 16 Redbirds have won Most Valuable Player awards, which is four more than the Yankees, Dodgers and A’s — although the Yankees’ 12 winners combined for 21 overall awards compared to 20 for the Redbirds’ awardees.

Here’s a lineup of the Cardinals’ best-player winners:

Pitcher: Dizzy Dean 1934; Mort Cooper 1942; Bob Gibson 1968
Catcher: Bob O’Farrell 1926
First base: Jim Bottomley 1928; Stan Musial 1946; Orlando Cepeda 1967; Keith Hernandez 1979; Albert Pujols 2005, 08, 09
Second base: Rogers Hornsby 1924, Frankie Frisch 1931
Third base: Ken Boyer 1964; Joe Torre 1971
Shortstop: Marty Marion 1944
Left field: Joe Medwick, 1937
Center field: Willie McGee 1985
Right field: Stan Musial 1943, 48

Fair question: Did all these players deserve their MVPs? And which Cardinals deserved honors that went to others? In the 20th century, MVP voters went bonkers over batting averages and RBI totals while paying short shrift to runs scored and on-base percentages. Given a second look, many award-winners — that’s you, 1987 Andre Dawson! — would be stripped of their trophies.

The following are three categories: 1. Cards who earned their MVPs; 2. Cards who didn’t; and 3. Cards who should have won the award.

DESERVING MVPS

“Deserving” doesn’t mean that these players were indisputably the NL’s best performers in the years they won it; it means they were as worthy of the award, if not more so than anyone else on the ballot. There is a long tradition of players on pennant-winners getting an edge over those who missed the postseason, which remains a consideration here. Here are the Cardinals who merited their MVPs:

2005: Albert Pujols, .330 BA, 41 HR, 117 RBI, 1.039 OPS, 8.4 WAR
2008: Pujols, .357 BA, 37 HR, 116 RBI, 1.114 OPS, 9.2 WAR
2009: Pujols, .327 BA, 47 HR, 135 RBI, 1.101 OPS, 9.7 WAR

Pujols had been the NL’s best player not named Barry Bonds from 2001 to 2004, so when an injured BB missed all but 14 games in 2005, Albert finally snatched his first MVP. It didn’t hurt that the ’05 Cardinals won 100 games, 10 more than any other NL team.

In ’08, he edged the Phillies’ Ryan Howard 369-308 in vote points for his second MVP despite the Cards finishing fourth in the NL Central. Pujols was deserving that year, but with a 2020 re-vote, Philadelphia’s Chase Utley (9.0 WAR for a first-place team) might get the nod. In 2009, Pujols finished miles ahead — 448-223 in MVP vote points— of the Marlins’ Hanley Ramirez.

1979: Keith Hernandez, .344 BA, 48 2Bs, 116 runs, 105 RBI, .930 OPS, 7.6 WAR
Keith had a better year than the Pirates’ Willie Stargell, the co-MVP who got credit for being the godfather of the “We Are Family” Bucs, but was the Cardinal first baseman the NL’s best in ’79? You can make that case.

The Padres’ Dave Winfield had the league’s highest WAR (8.3), followed by the Phillies’ Mike Schmidt (7.9) and the Braves’ Phil Niekro (7.7), but WAR is an imperfect metric, especially when a clump of players are within .7 of one another.

A Gold Glover in ’79, Hernandez has been called “the best defensive first baseman of all time,” and his Cardinals posted an 86-76 mark that eclipsed the records of the Padres, Phillies and Braves. In a year with no clear best player, Hernandez was a defensible MVP selection.

1968: Bob Gibson, 22-9, 1.12, 13 shutouts, 268 Ks, 11.9 WAR
“How the hell can you pitch like he pitched,” ex-Mets outfielder Ron Swoboda wrote, “and still lose nine games?” In the Year of the Pitcher, no one came close to what Gibson accomplished. Boyer’s 1964 and Cepeda’s 1967 MVPs can be questioned, but Gibson was absolutely the NL’s best player in 1968, a year in which the pennant-winning Cardinals finished nine games up on the second-place Giants.

1967: Orlando Cepeda, .325 BA, 25 HR, 111 RBI, .923 OPS, 6.8 WAR
While not the NL’s best player in ’67, Cepeda was the Cardinals’ best in a year in which they won the pennant by 10.5 games. The Pirates’ Roberto Clemente (.357, 110 RBI, .954 OPS, 8.9 WAR) and the Braves’ Hank Aaron (.307, 39 HR, 109 RBI, .943 OPS) had great years, but for non-winning teams, which scuttled their MVP chances.

In a modern MVP do-over, the Cubs’ Ron Santo (.300, 31 HR, 98 RBI, Gold Glove, .906 OPS, 9.8 WAR) might edge Cepeda, but playing for a third-place team that finished 14.5 games back hurt his chances at the time. A Santo vote would be justified, but Cepeda wasn’t a bad choice.

1943: Stan Musial, .357 BA, 220 hits, 48 2B, .988 OPS, 9.5 WAR
1946: Musial, .365 BA, 228 hits, 50 2B, .990 OPS, 9.2 WAR
1948: Musial, .365 BA, 230 hits, 46 2B, 1.152 OPS, 11.3 WAR
Stan the Man earned his three MVPs, with nobody even close to his production in any of those seasons. Playing for a pennant winner In ’43, he trounced second-place Bill “Swish” Nicholson of the Cubs by a 9.5-6.5 WAR score.

In ’46, he topped second-place Johnny Sain of the Braves by a 9.2-8.0 WAR score for another pennant winner. The ’48 Cards finished second, 6.5 games behind the Braves, but Musial had his greatest offensive season, falling one home run short of leading the league in doubles (46), triples (18) and home runs — he hit 39, once less than the Giants’ Johnny Mize and the Pirates’ Ralph Kiner.

Musial led the league in every meaningful category, including slugging percentage, where he topped second-place Mize .702 to .564. Stan the Man’s 429 total bases were 113 (!) more than second-place Mize, who had 316.

1942: Mort Cooper, 22-7, 1.78 ERA, 10 shutouts, 8.3 WAR
Cooper’s WAR topped second-place Mel Ott of the Giants 8.3-7.1, and the Cards posted their best-ever record, 106-48. Easy, obvious selection.

1937: Joe Medwick, .374 BA, 31 HR, 56 2B, 154 RBI, 1.056 OPS, 8.5 WAR
The NL’s last Triple Crown winner led the league in those three categories plus hits (237), runs (111) and slugging percentage (.641). The Cards finished fourth (81-73), 15 back of the first-place Giants, but there was no player out there with numbers like Medwick’s.

1934: Dizzy Dean, 30-7, 2.66 ERA, 195 strikeouts, 9.5 WAR.
Dean’s ERA was stunningly low considering the league ERA was two runs higher — 4.68. He was NL’s best player by a fair margin — his 9.5 WAR topped Phillies pitcher Curt Davis’ 8.6 — and he played for a pennant winner. That will get you the MVP nearly every year (one exception: the Giants’ Willie Mays, 1962, dominated the NL for the first-place Giants but lost the award to the Dodgers’ Maury Wills. Try making sense of that one).

1928: Jim Bottomley, .325 BA, 136 RBI, 123 runs, 1.030 OPS, 5.5 WAR
While Sunny Jim’s WAR score is low for an MVP, he was arguably the best player on the NL’s best team in a year where two of the league’s best players — the Dodgers’ Dazzy Vance and the Braves’ Hornsby —played on fair to bad teams; Brooklyn was 77-76 and Boston a hideous 50-103.

1925: Rogers Hornsby, .403 BA, 39 HR, 143 RBI, 1.245 OPS, 10.2 WAR.
The Cardinals finished fourth (77-76) that year,18 games behind the pennant-winning Pirates, but no one had a season like Hornsby. He had overwhelming leads in slugging percentage (.756-.598 over the Pirates’ Kiki Cuyler), OPS (1.245-1.021 over Cuyler) and WAR (10.2-7.0 over Reds’ pitcher Pete Donohue).

UNDESERVING MVPS

There’s always a possibility that a player with lackluster statistics had team value that can’t be quantified decades after the fact. Did Bob O’Farrell in 1926 do positive things that, to quote the cliché, “didn’t show up in the box score?” Maybe. But since we can’t measure intangibles, we have to go with solid evidence. In some of the following cases, a Cardinal had an MVP-worthy season in a year when someone else had a far stronger claim to the award.

1985: Willie McGee, .353 BA, 216 hits, 114 runs, 56 stolen bases, Gold Glove, 8.2 WAR
Make no mistake, McGee put together an MVP-caliber year. He was spectacular offensively and defensively on a team that won 101 games and the NL pennant. But the Mets’ Dwight Gooden (24-4, 1.53 ERA, 268 Ks, 13.3 WAR) was significantly better on a team that finished just three games behind St. Louis.

MVP voters tend to reward players on second-place teams who are head and shoulders above the rest of the league, but you never know what they’ll do when a pitcher is involved.

In the past, many members of the BBWAA have refused to vote for hurlers on the grounds that they “have their own award” — the Cy Young Award. In 1985, Gooden finished fourth in MVP voting, behind McGee, the Reds’ Dave Parker (.312, 34 HR, 125 RBI) and the Dodgers’ Pedro Guerrero (.320, 33 HR, 87 RBI). Gooden should have finished first, and it shouldn’t have been close.

1971: Joe Torre, .363 BA, 37 HR, 230 hits, 137 RBI, .976 OPS, 5.9 WAR
Look at those numbers! Torre led the league by a wide margin in batting average (.363-.343 over the Braves’ Ralph Garr), hits (230-219 over Garr) and RBI (137-125 over the Pirates’ Willie Stargell).

He won the MVP in a landslide, receiving 21 first-place votes to just three for Stargell. Torre had a good-guy, team-leader reputation, which must have helped, and his batting average and RBI totals were off the charts, but Stargell, with his 1.026 OPS and 7.9 WAR, had the better year, and Pittsburgh won the NL East, finishing seven games up on St. Louis.

Rarely does a player on a second-place team with inferior stats (as we now see them) outpoll the star of a playoff team, but it’s possible that Roberto Clemente’s .341 batting average made him appear as the equal or better Buc in some voter’s eyes, splitting Pittsburgh-player votes and easing the way for Torre to win it.

1964: Ken Boyer, .295 BA, 24 HR, 119 RBI, .854 OPS, 6.1 WAR
Did the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) have it in for Willie Mays? Or did they just take him for granted? From 1955-64, the Giants’ WAR numbers ranked first, second, first, first, fourth, first, second, first, first and first in the NL, yet he won ZERO MVPs during that 10-year stretch.

WAR can be quirky and unreliable, but in this case it meshes with what the eye test told every semi-conscious fan: The Say Hey Kid was the best player in baseball (with Mickey Mantle a close second).

Boyer in ’64 led the NL in RBI while playing on a pennant winner, which is a one-two combo that the BBWAA (who vote for MVPs) loved, but Mays (.296 BA, league-leading 47 HR, 111 RBI, league-leading .990 OPS, brilliant center field defense) had a far better year for a Giants team that finished just three games behind the Cardinals. No knock on Boyer, but Mays should have handily won the award.

1944: Marty Marion, .267 BA, 63 RBI, .686 OPS, 4.6 WAR
Marion won one of the closest MVP races, edging the Cubs’ Bill Nicholson (.287 BA, 33 HR, 122 RBI, .930 OPS) 190-189. While Marion was a terrific shortstop (his 3.6 defensive WAR was tied for first in the NL), Musial was the league’s best player in 1946. Stan led the NL in 13 categories, per baseball-reference.com, including on-base average (.440), slugging (.549), OPS (.990), doubles (51), runs created (134) and WAR (8.9).

1931: Frankie Frisch, .311 BA, 96 runs, 82 RBI, .764 OPS, 4.0 WAR
This was Frisch’s fifth — and worst — season as a Cardinal, but he was regarded as a leader and his team dominated the NL, winning 101 games and finishing 13 in front of the second-place Giants.

Frisch’s intangibles may have counted for more than we know, but teammate Chick Hafey (.349 BA, 95 RBI, .973 OPS, 4.5 WAR) had a better claim to the award. Frisch won the MVP in a close vote over Phillies outfielder Chuck Klein (.337 BA, 121 RBI, .982 OPS) and the Giants’ Bill Terry (.349 BA, 112 RBI, .926 OPS).

1926: Bob O’Farrell, .293 BA, 30 2B, 68 RBI, .804 OPS, 3.8 WAR
Hornsby’s vocal backing may have secured the award for O’Farrell. “Bob ought to win the most valuable player prize,” the player-manager said. “He’s done more for us than any other player.”

While O’Farrell had a fine season, he wasn’t the best player on the Cards; that was third baseman Les Bell, who hit .325 with 100 RBI and a .901 OPS. The Cards won their first World Series in 1926, but a pair of Pirates had stronger MVP credentials. Pitcher Ray Kremer went 20-6 with a 2.61 ERA and a 6.5 WAR, and rookie outfielder Paul Waner hit .336 with 101 runs scored and a .941 OPS for the third-place Pirates, who finished just 4.5 games back of the Cardinals.

SHOULD HAVE WON IT

2006: Pujols, .331 BA, 49 HR, 137 RBI, 1.102 OPS, Gold Glove, 8.5 WAR
The Phillies’ Ryan Howard (.313, 58 HR, 149 RBI, 1.084 OPS, 5.2 WAR) beat out Pujols by a 388-347 vote-points margin despite inferior all-around numbers. The Philadelphia slugger amassed staggering home run and RBI totals but Pujols, a far better fielder and base runner, had a higher OPS and played for a playoff team — the Phillies missed the postseason despite winning 87 games, two more games than the Cards.

One significant difference between the two: Howard struck out 181 times; Pujols whiffed just 50 times.

1987: Ozzie Smith, .303 BA, 104 runs, 40 2Bs, 43 steals, .775 OPS, Gold Glove, 6.4 WAR
The Cubs’ Andre Dawson (.287, 49 HR, 137 RBI, .896 OPS, Gold Glove, 4.0 WAR) won the award despite playing for a last-place team and carrying an OPS that ranked just 10th in the NL.

Dazzled by Dawson’s home run and RBI totals, MVP voters ignored everything else. Smith and teammate Jack Clark (.286. 35 HR, 106 RBI in 131 games) may have split the Cardinal vote; they finished second and third in the balloting. The Padres’ Tony Gwynn (.370, 119 runs, .958 OPS, 8.6 WAR) may have been the NL’s best player, but his team compiled the NL’s worst record, 65-97.

1944:  Musial, .347 BA, 51 doubles, 112 runs, .990 OPS, 8.9 WAR
Voters must get tired of picking the same old player year after year. Musial, the defending NL MVP, was the league’s best player by a considerable margin, but teammate Marty Marion (.267, .686 OPS) took the MVP. Musial finished fourth, behind Marion, the Cubs’ Bill Nicholson, and the Dodgers’ Dixie Walker.

1940: Johnny Mize, .314 BA, 43 HR, 137 RBI, 1.039 OPS, 7.7 WAR
First baseman Frank McCormick (.309, 44 2B, 127 RBI, .850 OPS, 5.4 WAR) was the third straight Red to win the MVP, following catcher Ernie Lombardi in 1938 and pitcher Bucky Walters in 1939.

Cincy dominated the NL, winning 100 games and finishing 12 up on second-place Brooklyn and 16 on third-place St. Louis, so it made sense for a Red to win the award, but who deserved it? McCormick had a fine year, but so did Walters (22-10, 2.48 ERA) and Lombardi (.319, 74 RBI, .871 OPS).

With a logjam of Cincy players having good-not-great years, it would’ve made sense to give the MVP to Mize, the league’s best player. The Cardinal first baseman led the league in home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, total bases, OPS, and WAR.

There are other years where a Cardinal could have won the MVP, including 1998 when Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs with a higher OPS (1.222-1.024) and WAR (7.5-6.5) than winner Sammy Sosa. Except Sosa’s team made the playoffs as a Wild Card while the Cards finished third in the NL Central.

Actually, a more logical pick would have been the Padres’ Kevin Brown (18-7, 2.34 ERA, 9.1 WAR), the best player on the NL West winner. Rogers Hornsby finished runner-up for the 1924 MVP after hitting .424, but it’s hard to argue with that year’s winner. The Dodgers’ Dazzy Vance (28-6, 2.16 ERA) had a phenomenal season for a team that finished a game-and-a-half out of first; the Cardinals finished sixth, 28.5 back of the first-place Giants.

Winning an MVP is a matter of skill, timing, and producing fashionable stats. Numerous awards would be altered if today’s baseball writers could travel back in time and cast their ballots. But don’t be so sure that this generation has perfected player analysis.

Next: What are the most valuable Cardinals baseball cards?

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Thirty years from now baseball seamheads might have mastered metrics that conclude the 2019 BBWAA was insane to give last year’s NL MVP to the Dodgers Cody Bellinger over the Mets’ Jacob DeGrom, the Cards’ Jack Flaherty, or maybe even Kolten Wong.

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