Every month, a player (occasionally multiple players) from each league is awarded "Player of the Month" honors for his performance. I was curious as to who the worst Player of the Month was -- whether a mediocre performance had ever earned a player the award. So I did some digging, and some more digging, and I stumbled across some interesting stuff.
- I looked at every Player of the Month in April, May, June, July, and August. I ignored data from September because Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference, at least to my knowledge, don’t split it up like that -- instead, they combine September with October. March was also combined with April, but I figured the effect there would be negligible enough since a player generally only has one game played in March, at most. A few games in October could really skew things, though. I looked at all data from 1974 to present. I chose 1974 because that’s the year in which the award was integrated into both leagues (it was originally an NL-only honor). I created spreadsheets for each month/league, recording the player’s total fWAR for the month, where their fWAR total ranked among qualified players for the month, and an arbitrary call on whether the accolade was reasonably awarded or not. In cases where it was too tough to call, which were many (we’re dealing with one-month samples here, and defensive metrics alone can swing the numbers considerably), I just wrote "eh."
- I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the flaws in my approach. For one, WAR data is imperfect, especially in one-month samples from decades ago. Secondly, there are important factors that extend beyond the raw data, and there are important numbers that this particular raw data neglected to capture. For example, if a player performed exceptionally well in high-leverage situations in a given month, that would and should make a significant difference. Maybe a given Player of the Month was outpaced by a fair amount in fWAR, but happened to make huge contributions to his team in the clutch. Thirdly, I’d only be kidding myself if I didn’t acknowledge that my assessments here of what is reasonable and not were somewhat inconsistent. I am human, after all. Of course, I was merely trying to get a rough picture of how often the Player of the Month is the "right choice," and I think it was goo enough for that purpose.
- One last note: I tossed out pitcher fWAR data from this project because of its shortcomings and because there weren’t many pitchers to win the award (pitchers haven’t been eligible for the award in the NL since 1975, and they haven’t eligible in the AL since 1979).
Without further ado, here’s a rundown of what I found:
- Roughly 70% of the Players of the Month I looked at were reasonable choices; these were generally within a couple tenths of a win of the league lead, or otherwise passed the sniff test. Roughly 15% were classified as "clearly wrong" choices, while the remaining 15% were borderline calls.
- Slightly less than half of the Players of the Month (47%) led their league in fWAR for that month.
- There was a clear and predictable pattern in the award voting: the value of batting average, home runs, and RBIs was overemphasized, while factors like position, defense, and on-base percentage were not given ample weight. Even as recently as May of this season, we can see the effect of HR/RBI fetishization. Player of the Month Domonic Brown led the NL in home runs and RBIs, but also barely eclipsed a .300 OBP. In fact, he did not draw one walk the entire month. His 1.0 fWAR placed him 17th in the league for the month of May, nearly a win behind Joey Votto.
- The worst Player of the Month ever: Dante Bichette, July 1995. He earned the award after hitting .296/.313/.639 in 115 plate appearances, which, while highly respectable, was only good for a 115 wRC+ after accounting for park and league factors. He cost his team a few runs with the glove as well, ultimately only tallying 0.2 fWAR; that placed him 204th in fWAR among NL hitters for the month of July.
- There were 14 other players who won the award despite failing to reach 1.0 fWAR for the month. Bichette, however, was the only player to do it with less than 0.5 WAR.
- The best player to never win the award: Chipper Jones. Although he did lead the NL in fWAR in July of 1998 and 1999.
- Edgar Martinez, notably, won the award in May 2003 despite being outpaced in fWAR by five of his teammates. Also notable: Alex Rodriguez won AL player of the month in August 2003, leading the league with 2.8 fWAR that month. Joe Randa and Joe Crede finished second and third. Their combined WAR: 2.7