Sunday, August 8, 2010

A trip down memory lane

The year was 1930. Elm Farm Ollie became the first cow to fly in an airplane. Hostess Twinkies were invented. Clint Eastwood was born and Arthur Conan Doyle died. It was also the year not a single man was deemed "most valuable" in Major League Baseball.

The lack of MVP's in 1930 was not as sinister or devious as you might expect. There was no boycott or demonstration. In fact, according to the Baseball Almanac, it was simply due to financial strains. However, the Associated Press, Baseball Writers Association, and The Sporting News polled their members and all selected different winners. The reason was, there were too many guys who had great seasons.

Today people love to chirp about smaller ballparks, juiced baseballs, and steroids. Yet it is just another era. For the uninformed, the baseballs used in 1930 were, for some reason, livelier than ever, and the numbers went on to prove it. Just by the simple fact that there was such a debate over who could have won the MVP says how crazy the numbers put up in 1930 really were.

As their National League MVP, the Baseball Writers Association went with a man standing at just 5'6" as their biggest slugger. His name was Lewis Robert Wilson. Better known by his nickname, Hack Wilson didn't exactly take the league by storm in 1930, considering he had finished in the top dozen of the MVP balloting each of the prior four seasons. Yet this season in particular, Wilson and his Chicago Cubs' teammates decided to put together something special. They finished only two games behind the pennant winning Cardinals thanks to their epic everyday lineup. The Cubs finished first in the league in home runs, on-base percentage, and slugging, and finished in the top five in every major offensive category.

This season, the Cubs, as a team, batted .309. They had five players who sported a batting average of .335 or higher. Five. They had three players drive in over 120 runs. A different group of three each notched over 200 hits in the season, while scoring more than 140 runs a piece.

At the center of the fray was Hack Wilson. In 1930, Hack had his best season ever. This was the year Hack Wilson knocked in 191 RBI's. In our current 2010 season, Miguel Cabrera leads the majors in RBI's with 93, through 111 team games. To reach Hack's record, Cabrera would have to drive in just under 2 runs per game, every game, for the remaining 51 games his team has to play. I feel comfortable calling Wilson's record safe for another year.

But 1930 wasn't all about the runs batted in for Lewis Robert. Besides leading the league in that category, he also finished first in home runs, with 56, walks, drawing over 100, slugging percentage, and OPS, while also batting over .350. His 423 total bases logged in 1930 are the 8th most ever in a season in major league history.

It was a good year. But it might not even have been the best for an NL outfielder, let alone the best in baseball. In that very same season, Chuck Klein put together a campaign for the ages. He did not win any of the newspapers' fake votes, yet he very well could have. 1930 saw Klein lead the league in runs scored and doubles. With those 59 doubles, Klein had 107 extra base hits and 250 total hits. For some perspective, 107 XBH is the third most in a season in baseball history. And remember how Hack Wilson led the league in all those categories? Well he didn't lead it in total bases. Chuck Klein did. With 445, Klein's 1930 total ranks as the 4th most ever in one year. Just for good measure, Chuck batted .386 that season, with an 1.123 OPS.

Much like Hack's Cubs, Klein's Phillies had themselves quite an offensive year, even though they finished dead last in the standings. They sported a team batting average of .315 and, including Klein, had three players with 200+ hits. Last year, only four players in all of baseball ended with more than 200 hits! In fact, there hasn't been a season since the turn of the century where more than eight guys ended with over 200 hits and the 1930 Cubs and Phillies had six such players by themselves. Now you tell me which era has inflated numbers.

Overlooked with all those amazing stats was the fact that both Wilson and Klein walked more times in 1930 than they struck out. Another player who can make that claim, and who won the Sporting News' National League MVP vote, is Bill Terry. Terry led the league in hits and batted over .400. He too had an OPS over a thousand and finished just eight total bases shy of 400. (Keeping with the pattern, Terry's team, the New York Giants, finished with a cumulative batting average of .319).

You know how I love perspective. Well, only one player has recorded at least 400 total bases in the last decade, and that was Sammy Sosa in 2001. We have already seen two of our three 1930 MVP candidates do just that, with Terry finishing just eight bases short. And, as you might have suspected, they were not alone. 1930 also saw Lou Gehrig put up an argument to win MVP, buoyed by his AL leading 419 total bases.

If it wasn't for the shear ridiculousness of the competition, Gehrig's 1930 season would be thought of as MVP caliber for sure. His 174 RBI's, 100 extra base hits, and 1.194 OPS would probably secure him a top three MVP finish nowadays. Especially since he accompanied it with over 200 hits, over 100 walks, and a .379 batting average. In 1930? It wasn't good enough to get a win for MVP from any of the three voting groups.

Along with Gehrig on the outside looking in on the fake MVP race was his teammate, Babe Ruth. Now Ruth and Gehrig's Yankees club was not good enough to make the World Series that year, yet it did have seven of its eight everyday batters hit 20 or more doubles, and the team ended the season batting .309. As for Ruth, he really had a historic season by any measure. That is, unless of course, you are comparing it to other Ruth seasons, or to other players during that 1930 season.

49 home runs and 153 RBI's were the starting points. Drawing 136 walks helped Ruth, once again, lead the league in on-base percentage, with a .493 clip this time around. That sounds impressive enough, until you mention that the Babe had five other seasons with an OBP of over .500. To go with his lead league OBP, Babe batted .359, and led the league in slugging. His 1.225 season OPS is good for the 15th highest ever, trailing four separate Barry Bonds seasons, six more seasons of his own, and a couple other Hall of Fame seasons. Babe Ruth's 1930 was great, just ill-timed and had hard shoes to fill.

So what happened in 1930? Well the ball was alive. That's for sure. That season gave us the most hits ever in a season since the 1800's. There also has not been more runs scored in any year since nor more RBI's. And yes, all those figures count the 'steroid era.' What else happened? There was no player deemed Most Valuable, and the timing could not have been better, because really, who deserved it?

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