The Triple Crown is in his reach. The MVP probably isn’t.
By Benjamin Hoffman
The ball came rocketing off Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s bat at 114 mph. It had an absurdly low 15-degree launch angle, and it landed just over the fence in left field, 356 feet from home plate. And with that — his 45th home run of the year — Guerrero moved into sole possession of the American League lead. One ahead of Shohei Ohtani.
With Guerrero leading the AL in batting average (.318) through Monday, and currently only 4 RBI behind the AL’s leader (103 to José Abreu’s 107), the 27th Triple Crown in major league history — including 10 from the Negro leagues — suddenly seems possible.
That would be the perfect cap to a year in which the slimmed-down Guerrero has realized his enormous potential, has his team positioned for its second straight postseason appearance, and has done it all even as the Toronto Blue Jays were forced to play a game of musical chairs for their home ballpark for much of the season. Yet despite his numbers, and his team’s achievements, Guerrero would have to be considered a sizable underdog to Ohtani, the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way sensation, in the race for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award.
As hard as that might be to imagine, considering the reverence the Triple Crown continues to have, such a result in the voting has a fair amount of historical precedent. Just ask Ted Williams, who won the AL Triple Crown in both 1942 and 1947 only to finish second in MVP voting both years.
This season, the voters could hardly go wrong.
Guerrero is playing for a top team and was leading the league in runs, hits, home runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage through Monday. His 6.2 offensive wins above replacement is second in the majors to Philadelphia’s Bryce Harper, and he has the nice narrative of having been MVP of this year’s All-Star Game.
Ohtani, though, is doing things no one has ever done. Unleashed from the limitations that had been placed on him in the past, he has slugged 44 home runs and stolen 23 bases, through Monday, and is 9-2 with a 3.36 ERA as a pitcher. Unsurprisingly, he leads the majors in WAR at 7.7.
The last time such a debate happened, the voters got a bit sentimental, giving Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers the 2012 MVP after he won the Triple Crown, even though Mike Trout of the Angels had a significant advantage in WAR thanks to his baserunning and defense.
Despite the notion in 2012 that a Triple Crown could not be ignored in the MVP voting, the historical precedent says the opposite.
In 1942, Williams led the AL with a .356 average, 36 home runs and 137 RBI. He scored 141 runs and had a 1.147 on-base plus slugging percentage. In more modern terms, he had a major league-leading 10.5 WAR. Yet for the voters that year, second baseman Joe Gordon’s solid run for the first-place New York Yankees — though he trailed Williams in nearly every offensive category — was more important, and Gordon won the MVP fairly easily.
In 1947, lightning struck twice. Williams led the AL with a .343 average, 32 homers and 114 RBI. He scored 125 runs, had an OPS of 1.133 and produced 9.6 WAR. That time it was Joe DiMaggio of the, you guessed it, first-place Yankees, who beat out Williams despite trailing him in everything.
That had to feel especially familiar for Williams, who also finished behind DiMaggio in the 1941 MVP voting despite batting .406. To the voters in 1941, the math went like this:
First-place team + 56-game hitting streak > Hitting .400
The MVP-less fate that befell Williams twice, and could happen for Guerrero this year, has other precedent as well. Lou Gehrig won the AL Triple Crown in 1934 and finished fifth in MVP voting — he didn’t even place first among his teammates. In 1933, Chuck Klein of the Philadelphia Phillies won the NL Triple Crown but lost the MVP to Carl Hubbell of the New York Giants. In 1912, Heinie Zimmerman of the Chicago Cubs captured the NL Triple Crown and finished tied for sixth in the MVP voting, well behind the winner, Larry Doyle of the Giants.
In some of the other Triple Crown years, no MVP was awarded. And in the case of the 10 triple crowns that Baseball Reference has recognized from the Negro leagues, no MVP information is given.
As for 2021, the decision has very likely already been made by most voters. Either Ohtani or Guerrero would be a fine pick for MVP, but the historical oddity of Ohtani’s season is likely to tip the scale in his favor. A nice way to offset that potential frustration for Guerrero would be to have a nice long playoff run — something that has eluded both Ohtani and Trout so far in their careers, regardless of their greatness.