If you’ve browsed around enough baseball articles over the Internet, you will be very familiar with the fact that baseball makes it very difficult to agree in a large number of matters. Despite the endless efforts to create stats and analytics that can standardize how the sport is measured, its nature is perfect to create debate, discussion, and controversy. Remember that this is a sport where not even Babe Ruth was considered a unanimous choice for the Hall of Fame, so it is always kind of surprising when we can find consensus.
Just a couple of days after Cubs’ third baseman Kris Bryant was voted NL Rookie of the Year in unanimous fashion, the NL voters again showed a unified voice by selecting Bryce Harper as the league’s MVP, also earning 100% of the first-place votes. By achieving this, Harper became the youngest unanimous MVP in baseball history, and crowned his full potential in what was his fourth full season in the league, all at the tender age of 22.
Despite his Nationals being a disappointment that missed the playoffs by a mile, the voters had no way to deny Harper’s historic season, which included finishing first in Wrc+ by 25 points, slugging .649, while also leading the NL in homers, runs, and OBP. Harper’s season can now be considered as one of the best of baseball’s modern era, rivaling some of the best years of Barry Bonds. Also, by earning a unanimous nod as the MVP, he has joined a special club of select players who had the same level of domination and voter recognition.
Tracing back to the origins of the MVP award, some historic players were able to win unanimous nods, like Ty Cobb in 1911 and Babe Ruth in 1923. Hank Greenberg also did it in the AL in 1935, while the first time it happened in the NL was for Carl Hubbell in 1936. During the 50’s and 60’s, it became a more frequent sight, as it was accomplished by Al Rosen (1953), Mickey Mantle (1956), Frank Robinson (1966), Orlando Cepeda (1967), and Denny McLain (1968). Post 1970, unanimous MVP’s have been a bit more spaced out, with Harper becoming only the 11th player in this span to earn such a distinction.
The previous 10 have been mostly some of the most defining and important players in modern baseball history, so how does Harper’s consensus MVP rank against them? Today we take a look at the exclusive club joined by Bryce Harper, and how each special season was achieved.
1973 – Reggie Jackson
From 1969 to 1975, Mr. October finished in the top 5 of the MVP voting four times, crowning his biggest achievement in a 1973 season in which the Athletics won the World Series and Jackson also won World Series MVP. In terms of WAR, ‘73 was only the second-best in Jackson’s career, and while his 7.8 WAR was only the fifth-highest in the NL, the only comparable batter was Baltimore’s Bobby Grich, who finished 19th in the voting. Jackson’s lofty homerun and RBI totals were more than enough to secure the award, as the eventual Hall of Famer solidified his case by what he did in the postseason.
1980 – Mike Schmidt
In one of the greatest peaks in MLB history, Schmidt finished with at least 6 WAR in 13 out of his 14 seasons from 1974 to 1987, and earned consecutive MVP’s in 1980 and 1981. Similar to Reggie Jackson, Schmidt had had a better season in terms of WAR before his MVP, but in 1980 he was clearly the best hitter in the National League with 48 homers and 121 RBI. By WAR, he was a full two wins better than second place Andre Dawson, and Schmidt also crowned his memorable season with a World Series MVP. In his second MVP award, he again came close to a consensus pick, earning 21 of the 24 first-place votes.
1988 – Jose Canseco
At age 23, Canseco became the youngest unanimous MVP at the time, even if his selection would be considered questionable nowadays. In the early days of Oakland’s Bash Brothers, Canseco delivered his best all-around season with a 7.2 WAR that would end up being his best career year by almost 2 full wins. In 1988, Canseco was only the fourth-best hitter in terms of WAR, but his league-leading 42 homers and 124 RBI were impressive enough to overcome the better integral efforts of Wade Boggs and Kirby Puckett. Despite what seemed like an early path to the Hall of Fame, Canseco would become better known for his connections to steroids and for becoming a baseball pariah after his retirement.
1993 – Frank Thomas
To this day, Thomas’ 1993 MVP remains controversial, and more so considering that he earned all of the first-place votes. Even as the Big Hurt was only the AL’s 7th-best hitter in terms of WAR, he edged the likes of Ken Griffey Jr., John Olerud, and Rafael Palmeiro, who contributed better all-around season. Thomas’ case was built on him helping the White Sox earning a 10-year playoff drought, with 41 homers and 128 RBI. Thomas earned a second MVP in 1994, winning 24 of the 28 first-place votes, and then became a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2014.
1994 – Jeff Bagwell
While this award could come with an asterisk considering the broken nature of the cancelled 1994 season, what Bagwell accomplished in only 110 games was truly astounding. He was the NL’s best hitter by two wins over Barry Bonds, with 39 homers and 116 RBI to complement a .368 average and .451 OBP. While it was likely that Bagwell would have cooled off a bit over a full season, his unanimous MVP was warranted and deserved. Despite playing more than 110 games in 13 other seasons, he never came close to match the 8.2 WAR he got in 1994, while it is likely that Bagwell will make the Hall of Fame someday.
1996 – Ken Caminiti
Caminiti’s MVP remains one of the biggest flukes in MLB history, especially considering that he only made 3 All-Star games over his 15-year career, and didn’t receive MVP votes in any other season. Even as Caminiti’s case looks pale in comparison to what Barry Bonds did in ‘96, his award was built on a narrative that followed the surprising Padres that also saw Bruce Bochy win the NL Manager of the Year. This season was the best of Caminiti’s career by a wide margin, while the years surrounding his death saw him more as just a product of the steroid era that cashed in on a big year.
1997 – Ken Griffey Jr.
As a player who is about to enter the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, it seems weird that Griffey only earned one MVP over his career. He had 4 other top-5 finishes, and probably was robbed out of a couple of awards, but in the time he won, at least he did it in style. While Roger Clemens and his 12.1 WAR would probably command more attention today, he finished 10th in the MVP voting, while Griffey was clearly the AL’s best hitter. With 56 homers and 147 RBI, Griffey led the Mariners to the playoffs and added to his legend in Seattle.
2002 – Barry Bonds
It is a bit surprising that despite earning a record 7 career MVP’s, only once was Bonds able to do it unanimously. Despite being the clear-cut best player in the league, Bonds only earned a consensus vote in his 5th MVP, when he outlasted the NL’s second-best hitter by almost 5 wins. This was the season in which Bonds finished with a .582 OBP (!!!), slugging .799 with 46 homers and 110 RBI. Just for comparison’s sake, in the six other MVP’s won by Bonds, he earned at least 90% of the first-place votes.
2009 – Albert Pujols
Just like Orlando Cepeda, Frank Robinson, and Mike Trout, Pujols is one of the few players in history who earned unanimous votes as the Rookie of the Year and an MVP, winning the distinction in his third career selection. By WAR, it remains the best season of Pujols’ career, as he topped the NL in WAR, finishing with 47 homers and 135 RBI to aid a .443 OBP. Even as this year was the peak of a career that has gone downhill ever since, there is no way to deny that Pujols’ unanimous MVP was the correct pick.
2014 – Mike Trout
Baseball is a weird sport sometimes. In the three full seasons in which Mike Trout finished with at least 9 WAR, he finished second in the AL MVP vote. In the season he finished with 7.9 WAR, he won the award unanimously. And yet, even in a “down” year, Trout was clearly the best player in the league, with 36 homers and 111 RBI. While he probably deserved the award in all four seasons, it’s important to remember that he is only 24, and will get many chances to add more to his ledger.