MVP Runner-Up: A Baseball Novel

Jed Jacobsohn

How a 1991 children's novel prophesied the offensive explosion in baseball while subtly pointing out the fickle nature of the BBWAA's MVP voting.

Many folks who make their living, or spend unhealthy amounts of their free time, in the baseball world have loved the game since they were children. When we weren't playing little league, we were collecting cards, watching games, or hearing the roar of the crowd in our head as we circled the bases after an imaginary shot to dead-center cleared the wall in game 7.

Some of us, when forced to leave the field at night, merely read about the game, and may have stumbled upon the novel "Rookie" by Jerry B. Jenkins. For those that haven’t read the book, it chronicles the childhood and coming of age of a gifted boy named Elgin Woodell whose father happens to be a drunk, violent ex-big leaguer. The narrative of baseball combined with life and the detail of how it shapes the little things in Elgin’s world as he grows to love the game, despite the darkness his father brings into his and his mother’s life, makes for a moving tale.

While I can’t recommend the book highly enough to those who have a young child, I have some serious problems with the facts presented by Jerry B. Jenkins relating to Elgin’s MLB career. Here is a screen grab from Rookie’s Epilogue that shows some of Elgin’s career statistics and accolades:

Elginw

  • His career started at age 14.
  • He started out playing 1B and was only 5’9" and received an average of 2.2 AB/game. Either he started about 60% of the 72 games and pinch-hit in the others or he was pulled for defensive reasons. (I think it was poor management to let defense at 1st base drive a decision to deprive him of 1.8 AB’s game when he was hitting .310, and 27% of his hits went for extra bases.)
  • He didn’t grow at all from ages 14 to 15.
  • He grew 3 inches and raised his batting average 45 points between his age 15 and age 16 seasons(we all endured growth spurts and know this is not possible).
  • He lacked the arm strength to play SS as a 17-20 year old, yet was able to develop it as a 21 year old. (By age 17 He was a 3-year veteran in the Big Leagues and his arm strength wasn’t developed to the point of being able to play SS?).
  • He never played 3B following his turn at SS despite being a career INF. This would only be acceptable if he moved to CF (plausible given that he hit between 8-11 triples/season during that time).

Ok, so these are some small, quibbling problems. Beyond that, we know practically nothing about the teams that Elgin played for during his career. Maybe there was a star player blocking him at SS early in his career, maybe the other infielders in his age 14 season were incredibly accurate and didn’t mind a 5’9" first basemen who had failed to go through puberty. However, we can safely assume some very basic facts about Elgin’s career:

  • Regulation games were in fact 9 innings.
  • Elgin probably got up to bat around 4 times a game.
  • Elgin probably didn’t hit an inordinate amount of sacrifice bunts or sacrifice flys.
  • So, utilizing these very simple and safe assumptions, I have expanded Elgin’s batting lines to infer the number of BB’s per season (PA-AB-SF-SAC), and the number of PA’s that would lead to extrapolating his SLG and OBP. The expanded numbers look like this:

    Age

    HT

    Wt

    Pos

    G

    PA

    AB

    R

    BB

    SF

    SAC

    H

    2B

    3B

    HR

    RBI

    Avg

    OBP

    SLG

    OPS

    14

    5’9"

    165

    1B

    72

    176

    158

    17

    14

    3

    1

    49

    10

    3

    0

    20

    0.310

    0.358

    0.411

    0.769

    15

    5’9"

    174

    1B

    160

    636

    571

    84

    56

    7

    2

    197

    29

    10

    0

    100

    0.345

    0.398

    0.431

    0.829

    16

    6’0"

    188

    1B

    158

    635

    570

    119

    55

    9

    1

    222

    45

    9

    7

    118

    0.389

    0.436

    0.537

    0.973

    17

    6’1"

    190

    2B

    156

    619

    556

    120

    53

    9

    1

    223

    44

    13

    24

    115

    0.401

    0.446

    0.656

    1.102

    18

    6’2"

    195

    2B

    156

    617

    554

    116

    53

    9

    1

    226

    41

    10

    27

    121

    0.408

    0.452

    0.664

    1.116

    19

    6’3"

    205

    2B

    155

    596

    535

    118

    55

    6

    0

    205

    39

    12

    33

    105

    0.383

    0.436

    0.686

    1.122

    20

    6’3"

    208

    2B

    153

    595

    534

    112

    55

    6

    0

    208

    38

    13

    32

    104

    0.390

    0.442

    0.689

    1.131

    21

    6’3"

    208

    SS

    160

    615

    552

    116

    57

    6

    0

    205

    36

    9

    41

    118

    0.371

    0.426

    0.692

    1.118

    22

    6’3"

    208

    SS

    159

    626

    562

    114

    57

    6

    1

    207

    39

    8

    44

    120

    0.368

    0.422

    0.701

    1.123

    23

    6’3"

    208

    SS

    160

    604

    542

    122

    50

    10

    2

    223

    47

    9

    43

    130

    0.411

    0.452

    0.769

    1.221

    24

    6’3"

    208

    SS

    158

    613

    550

    119

    56

    7

    0

    219

    46

    12

    51

    162

    0.398

    0.449

    0.804

    1.252

    25

    6’3"

    208

    SS

    158

    626

    562

    144

    56

    7

    1

    230

    47

    11

    49

    167

    0.409

    0.457

    0.794

    1.250

    26

    6’3"

    208

    SS

    160

    653

    586

    119

    56

    10

    1

    215

    45

    10

    40

    146

    0.367

    0.415

    0.683

    1.098

    27

    6’3"

    208

    SS

    114

    439

    394

    80

    35

    10

    0

    166

    33

    8

    30

    83

    0.421

    0.458

    0.774

    1.232

    28

    6’3"

    208

    SS

    155

    719

    646

    140

    63

    9

    1

    256

    50

    13

    58

    171

    0.396

    0.444

    0.783

    1.227

    29

    6’3"

    208

    SS

    161

    712

    639

    161

    62

    10

    1

    274

    55

    20

    67

    188

    0.429

    0.472

    0.892

    1.364

    30

    6’3"

    208

    SS

    160

    707

    635

    150

    64

    7

    1

    263

    51

    21

    62

    189

    0.414

    0.463

    0.854

    1.316

    31

    6’3"

    210

    OF

    157

    647

    581

    141

    54

    10

    2

    239

    40

    11

    49

    170

    0.411

    0.453

    0.771

    1.224

    32

    6’3"

    215

    OF

    159

    637

    572

    137

    58

    6

    1

    227

    41

    8

    48

    161

    0.397

    0.447

    0.748

    1.196

    33

    6’3"

    215

    OF

    156

    614

    551

    93

    55

    6

    2

    218

    43

    9

    45

    162

    0.396

    0.445

    0.751

    1.196

    34

    6’3"

    215

    OF

    157

    623

    559

    94

    54

    10

    0

    217

    40

    8

    40

    145

    0.388

    0.435

    0.703

    1.138

    35

    6’3"

    215

    1B

    156

    637

    572

    104

    58

    6

    1

    209

    38

    9

    42

    141

    0.365

    0.419

    0.684

    1.103

    36

    6’3"

    215

    1B

    151

    616

    553

    95

    51

    10

    2

    191

    35

    6

    40

    131

    0.345

    0.393

    0.647

    1.040

    37

    6’3"

    216

    1B

    140

    628

    564

    104

    54

    9

    1

    193

    30

    5

    37

    120

    0.342

    0.393

    0.610

    1.003

    38

    6’3"

    216

    1B

    141

    619

    556

    71

    56

    7

    0

    185

    31

    3

    37

    101

    0.333

    0.389

    0.599

    0.988

    39

    6’3"

    219

    1B

    140

    500

    449

    60

    41

    10

    0

    150

    28

    1

    30

    90

    0.334

    0.382

    0.601

    0.983

    40

    6’3"

    221

    1B

    130

    462

    415

    50

    42

    5

    0

    132

    20

    2

    22

    82

    0.318

    0.377

    0.535

    0.912

    27

    -

    -

    -

    4042

    16171

    14518

    2900

    1420

    210

    23

    5549

    1041

    253

    998

    3460

    0.382

    0.431

    0.695

    1.126

    Draw your own conclusions and call for your own specific PED testing regimen, but looking at that prolific career, we would expect a fair amount of accolades to be given to Elgin Woodell.

    Accordingly, we have the following:

    In Elgin’s age 20 season he had won 4 consecutive MVPs and the Cubs won the NL Pennant, he posted this line as a second-basemen:

    HT

    Wt

    Pos

    G

    PA

    AB

    R

    BB

    SF

    SAC

    H

    2B

    3B

    HR

    RBI

    Avg

    OBP

    SLG

    OPS

    20

    6’3"

    208

    2B

    153

    595

    534

    112

    55

    6

    0

    208

    38

    13

    32

    104

    0.390

    0.442

    0.689

    1.131

    In Elgin’s age 26 season he had won 5 consecutive MVPs and the Cubs won the NL Pennant, he posted this line as a shortstop:

    Age

    HT

    Wt

    Pos

    G

    PA

    AB

    R

    BB

    SF

    SAC

    H

    2B

    3B

    HR

    RBI

    Avg

    OBP

    SLG

    OPS

    26

    6’3"

    208

    SS

    160

    653

    586

    119

    56

    10

    1

    215

    45

    10

    40

    146

    0.367

    0.415

    0.683

    1.098

    In Elgin’s age 35 season he had won 7 consecutive MVPs and the Cubs won the NL Pennant, he posted this line as a first-basemen:

    Age

    HT

    Wt

    Pos

    G

    PA

    AB

    R

    BB

    SF

    SAC

    H

    2B

    3B

    HR

    RBI

    Avg

    OBP

    SLG

    OPS

    35

    6’3"

    215

    1B

    156

    637

    572

    104

    58

    6

    1

    209

    38

    9

    42

    141

    0.365

    0.419

    0.684

    1.103

    In each of the three seasons outlined above, Elgin Woodell hit for average and power and his team won the NL Pennant. He had all the criteria that one could ask for to win an MVP:

  • Lots of HR’s
  • Lots of Ribby's
  • High batting average
  • "Led" his team to the playoffs
  • Since 1931, when MVP’s were first awarded, exactly 23 seasons have occurred where a player has amassed at least the following in a single-season:

  • 30+ HRs
  • 100+ RBIs
  • .350+ batting average
  • In an odd piece of errata, the strike-shortened 1994 season saw 3 players go 30-100-.350 despite playing less than 115 games. However, since no postseason occurred (and no batting averages regressed), the 3 players have been removed from out data set. Of the remaining 20 seasons, the 10 players who won the MVP also played in the postseason. The 10 players who did not win the MVP also, in a not so surprising coincidence, did not make the postseason.

    We are left with a very difficult story to reconcile: how did the world’s greatest baseball player, a sure-fire hall of famer by the age of 24 or so, get passed up for multiple MVP awards despite spectacular statistical seasons that fell during years where he "led" his team to the playoffs?

    You could chalk it up to a lazy writer just making it so his protagonist didn’t win EVERY year (this is a human story after-all, so the perception of his performance must also be human).

    But, the more obvious answer is that another player had to surpass Woodell by such a substantial margin in raw statistics that the "playoff" factor could not override the statistical gap created by Mystery Player and Elgin. There have been 163 MVP’s awarded since 1931 (One to each league, each season; and Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez tied in 1979 giving us the odd-numbered total) and out of those 163, 115 played for team’s that made the postseason. There have been 48 players to win the MVP and not make the postseason.

    I have analyzed the performance of the other players who were up for MVP consideration in each of these 48 seasons to see how big of a "gap" existed between the MVP winner who missed the playoffs and the highest-OPS performer who made the playoffs in that year. As we would expect, there is a significant difference in the performance of the player who won the MVP and failed to make the playoff (Player A) and the player who made the playoffs but didn’t win the MVP (Player B):

    Player

    HR

    RBI

    AVG

    OPS

    A

    37.04

    123.59

    0.327

    1.019

    B

    30.20

    102.20

    0.305

    0.955

    Difference

    6.84

    21.39

    0.022

    0.064

    On average, an MVP-winner who misses the postseason needs to hit 7 more HR’s, knock in 21 more runners and bat 22 points higher. In terms of counting stats, that’s a solid month of production, in term's of BBWAA columns that's using the word "clutch" ~38 times depending on the player's upbringing, position and demeanor.

    This leads us to extrapolate what the historic seasons that another player in the NL must have posted to beat out Elgin Woodell:

    Age

    HR

    RBI

    Avg

    OBP

    SLG

    OPS

    20

    39

    125

    0.411

    0.461

    0.753

    1.213

    26

    47

    167

    0.388

    0.433

    0.742

    1.176

    35

    49

    162

    0.386

    0.436

    0.743

    1.179

    Finally, we know roughly what a guy had to do to beat out the great Elgin Woodell for the MVP. Only problem is that there have only been 13 seasons in the history of the game that saw an OPS of 1.176 or better. The list reads as follows (in chronological order):

    • Babe Ruth (1931)
    • Jimmie Foxx (1932)
    • Ted Williams (1941, 1957)
    • Mickey Mantle (1957)
    • Frank Thomas (1994)
    • Jeff Bagwell (1994)
    • Mark McGwire (1998)
    • Barry Bonds (2001, 2002, 2003, 2004)>

    A quick look at this list confirms that Elgin was beat out by some epic names and huge seasons. There weren't excellent enough seasons closely bunched with one another until the 90’s and 00’s. Could Elgin Woodell have played against Thomas, Bagwell, McGwire and Bonds? The book was copyrighted in 1991 so it couldn't have been a recounting of past performances. Instead, our only assumption is that Jerry B. Jenkins, author of the Left Behind series and numerous other religious novels, is in fact a baseball prophet and saw the future. He correctly predicted that such fantastic baseball seasons would exist throughout the next 15-20 years that even the incredible fictional seasons by Elgin Woodell paired with postseason appearances would be overshadowed by the likes of Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds.

    The steroid debate may rage on, but one thing is for sure: if you want to impress the BBWAA in real-life or in a children's baseball novel, you had better hit a lot of dingers if you play on a crappy team.

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