With a bit more than a week left in the 2015 MLB regular season, the Washington Nationals were officially eliminated from playoff contention. As the Mets sealed the NL East title, the Nationals were certain to complete what can now be considered one of the most disappointing seasons in recent baseball history. Washington’s offseason will now be certainly full of drama and question marks all around the roster, as the franchise has to wonder why it all went wrong.
In the middle of all this mess, the Nationals can at least take solace in the fact that they employed 2015’s best hitter. In his age-22 season, Bryce Harper delivered on his promise and then some, posting a truly historic season. He leads the National League in runs and homers, while also being tops in three slash-line categories (average/OBP/slugging). He is first in WAR among hitters by a more than two full wins over second-place Joey Votto, while having almost the same advantage over pitching leader Clayton Kershaw.
What pushes Harper over the top comes from his weighted runs created plus (wRC+), which stands at a staggering 203. This means that, adjusted for ballpark and run environment, Harper’s offensive output is more than twice better than league average. Should Harper hold this figure to close out the season, he will join the likes of Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, and a few other historic batters as the only ones who posted a wRC+ season above 200.
Harper has been the MVP front-runner for most of the season, and it seems as if he will be able to overcome the fact that his team won’t make the postseason. While we continue to struggle in define what value means exactly, Washington’s right fielder has been the best player in the National League by a wide margin, and it is not his fault that the team around him has underperformed. Even as a few voters might downgrade Harper for his non-playoff status, he remains the odds-on favorite to win the MVP.
If this comes to pass, Harper will join a different select club: MVP winners who didn’t make the playoffs. If we start with the Divisional Era (from 1995), we have seen a total of 40 MVP honorees, and only six of them didn't make the playoffs (15%). It makes sense that you would need to have a special season to get the MVP despite not making the postseason, as Harper and the six previous instances can attest.
So, have the previous non-playoff MVP’s deserved their awards? Today we take a look at the Divisional Era players who won an MVP but didn’t make the playoffs. While Harper will most certainly join their select club after the season is over, he would likely trade the distinction for a shot at a World Series title.
1997 – Larry Walker
In the pre-humidor days of Coors Field, offensive stats used to be a thing of beauty, with homers coming in bunches. But even as the environment inflated a bunch of stats, Larry Walker’s 1997 MVP was actually a legitimate and defensible selection. Walker led the NL in homers, OBP, and OPS, while being first in WAR by virtue of his offense but also his base running (33 steals), and solid defense in right field, which actually earned him a Gold Glove.
The problem for Walker is that the Rockies finished 83-79, with Andres Galarraga being the second most valuable hitter for the team with six full wins below Walker’s production. The most valuable player from a playoff team was Craig Biggio playing for the Astros. While he would have been a worthy selection, especially considering he played second base, Biggio finished a distant fourth in the voting.
2001 – Barry Bonds
In what would be the first of four consecutive MVP ‘s for Bonds, he was a very obvious pick after breaking the homerun record, while posting one of his patented hard-to-believe seasons. While it could be easy to just fall for his 73 dingers, he also posted a .515 on-base percentage, and almost twice as many walks as strikeouts. This just serves as a reminder that is always a good idea to browse Bonds’ Baseball Reference site and glance at his stats.
Despite a 90-72 season, the Giants and Bonds couldn’t reach the playoffs, falling two games behind Arizona in the NL West. Bonds had a solid core around him on offense, with Rich Aurilia and Jeff Kent posting 5+ WAR seasons, but the Giants were a bit too top-heavy and with no pitching depth, which made them fall out of the race. Bonds the league’s top WAR by a mile, while the best player from a playoff team was Arizona’s Luis Gonzalez, who finished third in the voting after a 57-homer campaign.
2003 – Alex Rodriguez
After signing his monstrous 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers, Alex Rodriguez was living up to the end of his deal, and in 2003 posted his third straight 8+ WAR season with the franchise. While he could have deserved an MVP in both 2001 and 2002, the award finally came in 2003, when A-Rod continued his domination of the American League with 47 homers and an unfathomable .600 slugging percentage. He was the best AL hitter by more than two wins.
Despite A-Rod’s contributions and a solid offense, the Rangers posted a team ERA of 5.67 (!!!), and stumbled to a 71-91 record and a last place finish in the AL West. Rodriguez won a close vote against fellow non-playoff hitter Carlos Delgado, while Jorge Posada finished third and was the highest possible candidate for a playoff team. Following the season, A-Rod would be traded to the Yankees.
2004 – Barry Bonds
In the last of his record 7 MVP awards, Bonds again dominated in 2004, with a staggering .609 OBP (not a misprint). Bonds hit 45 homers and was walked intentionally 120 times, while posting the best OPS+ of his career at age 39. In what may be the most amazing stat among them all, he struck out only 41 times in 617 plate appearances.
The Giants finished 91-71, but fell by two games to the Dodgers in the NL West. Bonds received 24 of the 32 first-place votes in the NL balloting, eclipsing a Dodgers player who also posted a historic season. Adrian Beltre had 9.5 WAR and 48 homers, but it was hard to deny Bonds’ amazing on-base prowess and all the records he broke. Even as Beltre would have been a defensible winner, Bonds deserved the award.
2006 – Ryan Howard
While we have been filled with deserving MVP’s so far, Ryan Howard’s pick has to be considered one of the most egregious in modern baseball history. Howard’s case was built on his league-leading 58 homers and 149 RBI, but those were mostly empty stats for a flat-footed first baseman. In terms of WAR, Howard was only the seventh-most valuable hitter in the National League.
To add insult to injury, Howard player for the non-playoff Phillies, who finished 85-77 and 12 games behind the Mets in the NL East. The award probably should have gone to St. Louis’ Albert Pujols, who led the NL in WAR and actually made the postseason – later leading the Cardinals to a World Series title.
2008 – Albert Pujols
After being robbed of the award in 2006, it was probably karma that determined that Pujols won the MVP in 2008 despite not being part of a playoff squad. The first baseman, who hit 37 homers and had 116 RBI, led the NL in WAR by almost two full wins over Chipper Jones, earning his second of 3 career MVP’s, so far.
In a cruel twist of fate, it was actually Ryan Howard who finished a close second. Howard led the Phillies to a division title and eventual championship, but he only posted a paltry 1.8 WAR (35th in the NL) despite leading the league with 48 homers and 146 RBI. Pujols played for the 86-76 Cardinals, who only missed the playoffs four times during Pujols’ 11 years with the franchise.