By Louis Addeo-Weiss
This will be brief, but given the circumstances of the quarantine, most of us have nothing more to do but reflect.
Whether that reflecting is on our lives and past decisions we’ve made, or just mere recanting and dissecting of moments captured in time through sport, we’ve all been subject to bouts of nostalgia during these trying times.
For the avid baseball fan writing this, and to the avid baseball-statistical junkies who will read this – if you’d be so kind as to do so – let us go back to 1961, a year personified by one number: 61.
61, for those who don’t know, was and still, despite some rather morally-lacking characters who’ve surpassed it, was the number of home runs hit by Yankees right fielder Roger Maris in 1961 – a mark that broke Babe Ruth’s single-season total of 60 – done so back in 1927.
Given the significance of Maris’ accomplishment, breaking a record most thought unbreakable, it comes as no surprise that Maris captured his second consecutive AL-MVP.
A general gloss at Maris’ ‘61 season would tell you that his winning of the award was justified: a sport-leading 132 runs scored, 61 home runs, an AL-best 141 RBI, 366 total bases (also an MLB-best that season), a .620,SLG, a 167 OPS+, and 6.9 baseball-reference WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Overall, a fantastic season regardless of the outcome.
But what if I told you that Maris wasn’t even the best player in the American League that year? You’d probably think I were crazy. May even resort to quips such as “he hit 61 home runs! What else do you need a guy to do?”
And my answer to that: assess more value than anyone else.
Which he didn’t.
Given analytics and sabermetric thought existed the same way CD’s did in the early-1960s, measures of winning awards such as the Cy Young (then only given to one pitcher across the entire sport), and league MVPs were based on factors such as team success and now-arbitrary measures of performance such as RBI.
Looking at things in perspective, I present to the actual 1961 AL MVP: Detroit Tigers’ first baseman, Norm Cash.
A brief look at the two’s respective seasons, seen below, tells us all we need to know at how much better Cash was in his magical 1961 season.
WAR, which we look over when highlighting Maris’ season, contextualizes player performance relative to the league around him. What that tells us is this: the player who accumulated the most WAR over the course of a season is the most deserving of the MVP.
Cash’s 9.2 WAR that season was second in the AL, trailing only Maris’ teammate and future hall of famer, Mickey Mantle, who posted a whopping 10.4 WAR that year.
Could we make a case for Mantle to win it given his season in ‘61? Absolutely. 10 win seasons don’t come around all-too-often, but for the sake of this piece, we’ll focus on Cash.
Cash finished the season with an OPS+ of 201. Let’s contextualize how seldom-seen that kind of offensive production is.
The baseball-reference play index tells us that since 1871, only 64 times has a player with enough appearances to qualify for a batting title posted an OPS+ of 200 or higher.
Again, metrics such as WAR and OPS+ weren’t around during the late-50s and early 60s, so this is more for the sake of contextualizing past player performance and critiquing voter decision making.
Despite the fact that Cash paced Maris in everything from BA, H, OBP, SLG, WAR, oWAR, OPS, OPS+, WPA, SB, BB%, and a bevy of other reasons listed in the screenshot above – as we said at the outset of this – end of season awards were greatly predicated on team success, Cash still played on a Tigers’ team that won 101 games.
However, they finished second to, you guessed it, Maris and Mantle’s Yankees, who won 109 games en-route to defeating the Cincinnati Reds in that year’s fall classic.
Like he did so playing alongside Al Kaline for fifteen seasons in Detroit, Norm Cash’s 4th place finish in MVP voting that year served as a symbol of the second-fiddle nature of his career.