My favorite Cleveland Indian as a kid was Albert Belle. In an era where you had a big friendly oaf, a happy-go-lucky slugger and an ever-grinning, wall climbing center fielder, somehow I was drawn to a pillar of pure fury. Nothing Belle did was calm, he was simply anger barely restrained, then unleashed in the batter's box. I either didn't process or care about the bad times that surrounded Belle, I just liked his battery of baseballs.
So naturally, I continue to be bothered to this day about his being snubbed for the AL MVP in 1995. For a man to hit .317/.401/.690 and knock 50 home runs and 50 doubles in 143 games, to be the centerpiece of one of the best single season offenses ever, and get slighted simply because he was a bit of a bastard is just a miscarriage of justice. But in looking through the voting more in general for the 1995 MVP, it struck me at how odd it was. Like glimpsing into another world entirely.
This was a season in the heart of the steroid era, and also the first back from the strike that cancelled the World Series. Baseball was at its nadir. Traditional metrics still ruled the day with their aged iron fist, with Bill James and his SABR boys just a small cadre of rebels and revolutionaries. Very Star Wars, if you think about it. The winner of the American League MVP was Mo Vaughn o the Boston Red Sox. It's not as if Vaughn didn't have good numbers, he hit .300/.388/.575 with 39 home runs and 126 RBIs. He also stole 11 bases that year, which if you know anything about Mo Vaughn, this is simply incredible. He was also nicer to the media. Not that that should count for anything, but it helped Vaughn. Instead of getting an award, all Belle got was a bigger chip on his shoulder. Perhaps that’s why he broke down physically. You can only carry so much rage before you crack.
These other names though, it's amazing to look back on in our enlightened age. The AL had Jose Mesa fourth in voting. The Indians closer owned a 1.13 ERA, 46 saves and a 1.07 WHIP. He was quite incredible for a closer and his getting a single first place vote was likely influenced at least in part by Dennis Eckersley winning the MVP just a few years prior. But Randy Johnson was two slots behind him. Johnson threw 214 innings to Mesa’s 64 and had a 2.48 ERA to lead the league, as well as the 193 ERA+ to lead the league, AND 294 strikeouts. This last led all of baseball.
I understand that a closer held (and continues to hold) some incredible panache and an elevated sense of value among the public, but this is one of the more head scratching votes. Yes, Mesa did have that crazy low ERA in a very inflated offensive environment, but he didn’t even have a strikeout per inning, 58 all told. He was very good, but also obviously lucky and benefited from Omar Vizquel, Carlos Baerga and the rest of that great defense. It could also be argued the first place vote Mesa got instead of Belle cost the Tribe outfielder the award. He got 11 to Vaughn's 12. Yet another reason to scapegoat Mesa, if you want.
The National League was no better. Or worse, depending on how you look at it. Barry Larkin was the winner, and for the life of me I can't figure out why. Perhaps because he was the best, or at least biggest name, on a first place team Not to say he wasn’t great, he was. But he only earned 5.9 wins above replacement. Even by traditional numbers, he slashed .319/.394/.492. That didn’t lead to a batting title, and he hit 15 home runs. Even being a shortstop you’d hope for more. He did steal 51 bases and was only caught five times, so that must have been it.
You need a flashy number and black ink somewhere to win the award, hence the number two guy in voting, Dante Bichette. Despite being worth 1.1 WAR, and because writers and baseball people were still experiencing the full Coors Effect for only the first season, his insane sounding .340/.364/.620 line with 40 homers and 128 RBIs blew minds. He also walked 22 times. That 24 point difference between average and OBP is amazing to me. He was Trevor Story of the 90's, really.
Now, the thing I can get over with '95 is Greg Maddux not winning. Yes, he led all vote getters with 9.6 wins above replacement, and was generally incredible. But he also won the Cy Young. He got his award, and even if "pitchers shouldn't win MVP" as some state dumbly, and even if Eckersley won the damn award just literally the same decade, Maddux and Johnson were both at least saluted in one way. But to ignore Barry Bonds? Madness.
The only excuse is Bonds being his own worst enemy. Perhaps he suffered from the same problem Mike Trout or LeBron James do. You're so good that when you drop a 7.5 win, .294/.431/.577 season and go 30/30, it's seen as a step down. Which it was. He did win three MVP's between 1990 and '93, averaging .310/.433/.595 with 34 home runs and 41 stolen bases a year. Then in only 112 games he batted .312/.426/.647 with 37 home runs in 1994. And came in fourth in voting. So his merely amazing rather than otherworldly 1995 is colored by his own feats rather than his contemporaries'. he was still the best player in the world though.
Bichette was on a pretty good team, but he just got to enjoy an insane baseball land that nobody had ever seen before and had a ton of RBIs and dingers. I confess to be a sucker for such things, but you’d think voters would have some better sense. Larry Walker was on that same team. He was way better than Bichette yet came in 7th.
So maybe Belle's not winning wasn't the biggest error the voters made. That’s probably a toss-up between Mesa and Bichette, especially since the two best players the the National League has seen in a long, long time were in their prime yet were non-factors. And Reggie Sanders had a better year for Cincinnati (306/.397/.579, 28 homers and 39 steals, 6.6 WAR) than his more famous teammate Larkin. And again, this cannot be stressed enough, the best position player came in 12th. But despite all that, the young fan within me will never forgive the voters for ruining the chance for Belle to ascend to his rightful place.
Of course, third in the AL in voting was Edgar Martinez, who earned 7 WAR (Belle at 6.9) and hit .356/.479/.628. Which is pretty good. Maybe Belle's problem was the team had too many stars, with Manny Ramirez getting votes along with Mesa. Even if that was the case though, Belle’s was one of the non-Bonds most incredible offensive seasons in my lifetime, and even if it's colored with the simple joys of youth and nostalgia, I'll never get over it.
So there you have it, the story of my first grudge.