16 January 2020

How did Robin Roberts Lose the NL MVP in 1952? (Hint: Not the Ladies' Fault)

The latest in Joe Posnanski's series on the top 100 baseball players of all time, over at The Athletic, is Robin Roberts.

Among the other compelling stories he tells about Roberts is this little tidbit:

The Baseball Writers of America gave out the first Cy Young Award in 1956, one year after Roberts’ historic run. So, one of the greatest pitchers ever never won a Cy Young.
He also didn’t win an MVP award, though it’s hard to see how he lost the award in 1952. They gave it Hank Sauer, who led the league in homers and RBIs. Here’s how Oscar Fraley of the United Press International responded to that vote:
“Anybody who knows the difference between a bunt and punt must be completely flabbergasted at the selection of Hank Sauer in the National League. Most of the voters obviously never heard of Robin Roberts … one theory is that they were all on vacation and the ballot was filled in by the editor of the women’s page.”
Yes, there was always time for a little misogyny in 1950s baseball writing!
But the main point was sound: Roberts went 28-7 with a 2.59 ERA, and his last 23 starts the Phillies went 21-2; both losses came when Philadelphia was shut out. By WAR, Roberts was three wins better than Sauer. And it’s not like Sauer played a significant role in the pennant race; his Cubs were mediocre non-contenders.
The rest of the story on Roberts is of course excellent and well worth the pittance you need to invest to break down the Athletic's paywall, but this got me to wondering how that could happen.  How does a pitcher who so clearly outclasses the rest of the league, who wins 28 games for a decent team,* not manage to win, or at least come closer to winning, the MVP? 

* The 1952 Phillies started out just awful.  They were 10 games below .500, at 29-39 as late as June 23rd.  Manager Eddie Sawyer - who had perhaps gotten some grace for finishing 73-81 in 1951 because he had helmed the 1950 "Whiz Kid" Phillies to their second franchise pennant ever, had run out of rope with which to hang himself.  He was fired five days after that, ironically after the team had won 4 of  5 games.  

Steve O'Neill, who had managed the Tigers to the 1945 World Series championship, took over and the team immediately improved, going 59-32 the rest of the way, and finishing "just" 9.5 games out of first.  That doesn't sound so great until you notice that they were 17.5 back when O'Neill was handed the reins.  

This was, interestingly, the third time in his career that O'Neill had taken over a team mid-season and gotten immediate improvement from it.  He led the 1950 Red Sox to a 63-32 record after the great Joe McCarthy was forced to resign, with the team at 31-28, and he led the 1935 Indians to a 36-23 record after Walter Johnson (!) had stumbled to a 46-48 record.  He's one of two managers in history with 1000 or more career wins to his credit whose teams never played below .500 ball on his watch.  The other is, ironically, the great Joe McCarthy.   

Anyway, here is, I think, how Roberts lost the MVP in 1952:

The voting - and my understanding of the reasons for it - was as follows:

#1 Hank Sauer (226 points): Led the league with 37 HR (tied with Ralph Kiner, on the last place Pirates).  Only Gil Hodges (32) was even in the same neighborhood.  Nobody else in the NL hit more than 25 that year.  Also led the NL in RBIs with 121.  Second was Bobby Thompson with 108, only three others had over 100.  Remember the sports writers LOVED RBIs in those days.  He got *8* 1st place votes. This will be important later.   

#2 Robin Roberts (211 points): Had the amazing season noted by Posnanski above.  Led the NL with 8.5 bWAR, tied with Jackie Robinson, who somehow finished 7th.  (Robinson had by then led the NL three of the previous four seasons in bWAR, but nobody knew that at the time, and anyway  the writers tend to want someone new to vote for because it makes for a better story.)  Roberts outclassed all other NL pitchers by nearly two whole bWAR (Warren Spahn was 2nd with 6.6).  Roberts received seven 1st place votes.

#3 Joe Black (208 points), a rookie reliever with the pennant-winning Dodgers.  Went 15-4 with 15 Saves* in 142 IP and led the NL in games finished with 41.  Also won RoY honors.  He, like Sauer, received eight 1st place votes.

  • * The Save Rule was not codified until 1969, and was then applied retroactively, so nobody knew this at the time, but the writers must have been aware of how frequently someone like Black was used to save (lower case) a baseball game.  

#4 Hoyt Wilhelm (133 points), another rookie reliever, this one for the Giants, who finished a close 2nd in the NL pennant race.   They were as close as 3 games back on September 17th but went 4-5 the rest of the way, losing 4 of those games to the Phillies (Two to Roberts!) and finished 4.5 out.  Wilhelm led the NL in games, ERA (2.43 in 159 innings, all in relief), and winning percentage (.833, with his 15-3 record). 

Duke Snider got the other first place vote, though he finished 8th over all.  Nobody on a losing team finished higher than 13th that year.  The writers simply wouldn't vote for players on bad teams, almost ever. 

They would, however, vote for starting pitchers.

In the years before the Cy Young award was instituted, specifically since the sportswriters had been given charge for the decision in 1931 but prior to 1952, starting pitchers had won it nine times, not quite a quarter of the time.  Carl Hubbell and Hal Newhouser had each won it twice.  Bobby Shantz won it in the American League THAT VERY YEAR.  So how did Roberts miss out?  Was it the writers' fault for allowing (gasp!) the ladies' editors to vote Sauer, as Fraley intimated? 


The writers who blamed other writers for electing Sauer were missing the mark, it seems.  Really, it was the writers who voted for relief pitchers who perhaps should have been shamed.

At the time, the relief ace was just becoming a Thing.  Prior to 1950, there had only been two pitchers to appear in 50 or more games and pick up 15 Wins without starting at least five times: Jim Konstanty - who won the 1950 NL MVP for the Whiz Kid Phillies - and someone named Mace Brown of the 1938 Pirates.

Those Pirates were a decent team, finishing in second place at 86-64.  They had a solid pitching staff (3rd in ERA) that lacked stamina (second to last in complete games).  So Brown, who was eminently mediocre (100 ERA+) but apparently perpetually available, vultured off 15 Wins from the starters.  It was more out of necessity than intent that he managed to win so many.  He also lost nine and had a 3.80 ERA.

With Konstanty, it was different.  He was intended to be the relief ace. They pitched him every other game, for a couple of innings, on average, and he led the NL in appearances, games finished and Saves (22), while racking up 16 Wins and pitching 152 innings.  He made the All Star team and won the MVP pretty handily over Stan the Man Musial, picking up 18 first place votes, while nobody else on the ballot got more than two (Granny Hamner and Eddie Stanky).  It was a great story.

So in 1952, when not one but two spectacular rookie relievers came along at the same time, and their two teams finished 1st and 2nd in the NL, with each picking up 15 Wins for them, I guess those guys vultured off a lot of the sportswriters' attention just as they vultured off credit for "Winning" games in which they had pitched two innings while someone else covered the first seven.

And Joe Black, being on the first place Dodgers, got more of the votes than Wilhelm, or, as it would happen, than the preposterously amazing Robin Roberts and his 28 (mostly deserved) victories.  Wilhelm, as a knuckleballer, may also not have been given as much credit as he deserved.  He got zero first place votes for MVP and finished a distant second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Black despite having, on paper, almost exactly the same season.

The MVP voting system follows a curious, top-heavy approach, in which a first place vote is worth 14 points, but second and beyond are worth 9, 8, 7, 6, etc. on down to 10th, worth just one point.  There are three writers for each city with a team assigned to vote, which at the time meant 24 total writers for the eight-team National League.  It's a feature, not a bug, as they want the players writers think are the best to have an advantage over everyone else.

So those eight first place votes that Black received were worth 14*8 = 112 all by themselves. His 96 other points meant that he averaged just six points each from the other writers, or a 5th place vote.  Roberts' seven first place votes netted him 98 points, which meant the average of his remaining voters was 6.65 points, almost a 4th place showing per writer.  But those five extra points for a first place vote are key, and that's where the issue lies.

If three - just three - of the voters who thought that Joe Black was the NL MVP had instead voted for Roberts, he would have gotten at least 15 extra points in the voting and tied Sauer for the award.  And that assumes that the voters who gave Roberts 9 points, for second place, voted for him first instead.  If any one of those who had given him a third place or lower vote changed his mind to recognize the absurdity of voting for Black over Roberts, Roberts would have won the award, as he deserved to do.

Instead, somehow Black received eight first place votes compared to Roberts' seven.  And this for winning slightly more than half the games (15 to 28), striking out slightly more than half as many batters (85 to 148) and walking almost as many (41 compared to 45) despite pitching far less than half of Roberts' innings (142 to 330).  Just bizarre.

Black, you may think, led the league in Games Finished! Which meant he was often on the mound for the deciding moment at the end of a game!  It's the timing, is what it is!

Which is fair...except that Roberts led the NL with 30 COMPLETE games, and also pitched in relief, finishing two other games.  Which means of course that he actually finished 32 games overall, while also starting 30 of those.  There is just no plausible way to suggest that Black was anywhere near as valuable a pitcher as Roberts was in 1952.

On the plus side, according to most sources, Roberts was such a humble and pleasant man that it probably never bothered him nearly as much as it bothers me. 

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dbriz said...

There were rumors around Philadelphia at that time that one of the Philly beat writers held the opinion pitchers should not win over every day players and did not vote for Roberts.

Travis M. Nelson said...

That may be. This was long before my time, and I have no easy way of reading the 1950s Philly beat writers' opinions.

However, given that Phillies' reliever Jim Konstanty had won it just two years earlier (Roberts and Curt Simmons had also gotten votes that year) and that Philadelphia A's starter Bobby Shantz actually won the AL MVP in 1952, it seems highly unlikely that the Philly BBWAA voters suddenly developed an aversion to voting for pitchers for the MVP.

I think, to some degree, these things tend to follow a narrative, and at the time, the narrative was that having a really excellent relief pitcher was really valuable. Not enough to win the award for either of them (at least not that year) but enough to siphon off votes that may have gone to Roberts if Hoyt Wilhelm and/or Joe Black had not been there. That Black and Wilhelm both played in New York probably didn't help either, since six of the 24 writers who voted for the NL MVP that year would have been from there.

dbriz said...

Yes but...Shantz won by almost 100 votes and Konstanty by 130, so the same guy (if they didn’t rotate him off) could have done the thing without effecting the outcome. I have discussed this very question with a couple of the Whiz Kids before they passed, though not Robin, and they were non committal but both said there was one guy in particular that wasn’t trusted by the players.

Travis M. Nelson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Travis M. Nelson said...

Hard to say, and your suggestion is certainly more than possible, though I would imagine that a Philly beat writer would far prefer to vote for a Phillies' pitcher than a hitter from another city, given the chance. If anything, it would make more sense that some rival city's writer might have left Roberts off the ballot entirely or something, as happened with Pedro Martinez back in 1999.

He lost the MVP to Pudge Rodriguez despite having a markedly better season by WAR, mostly because (I think) two New York writers left him off the ballot completely. When confronted they said it was because they did not think pitchers should get MVP votes, but then it was discovered that they had voted for David Wells just the year before. The difference perhaps is that Pedro was kind of a hothead and had a rep as a headhunter - probably one he deserved, honestly - whereas Roberts was about the nicest guy anyone would ever want to meet.

Anyway, I'm really glad someone is reading my stuff! Thanks!

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