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Roger Clemens and the 1997 AL MVP Award

Baseball fans love debate, and what have given us many season-ending arguments over the years have been Major League Baseball's Awards.  Every season, newspaper columnists, bloggers, and thousands of message board members argue over who deserved the MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year Awards.  Even major league players, such as Albert Pujols, have found a way to bring controversy into these honors.

Like many have done in the past, I'm going to make the case for an MVP candidate who didn't win the award.

I'm going back to 1997, in the American League.

1997 was a year to remember for Ken Griffey Jr.  Junior was coming off a terrific 1996 season in Seattle where he launched 49 home runs, hit .303/.392/.628 and was worth 8.7 wins above the replacement player.  He also finished 4th in American League MVP voting.  All Griffey did the next season was improve:  He hit 56 home runs, hit .304/.382/.646 and this time, he was worth 10.6 wins above the replacement player.  

Griffey did it all in 1997.  He was terrific on the offense front; his .304/.382/.646 line looks even better considering the American League average centerfielder hit .269/.340/.418 that season.  He was also terrific on the defensive end.  His Rate2 was 102 which is particularly strong from a centerfielder and he won a Gold Glove.  Best of all, this was all done for the 90-72 Mariners who won the American League West.  As a result, Griffey won the American League MVP Award, recieving every first place vote.  

However, I can't help but feel the award is somewhat undeserved.  Griffey indeed had a terrific season, but as far as total value is concerned there was another award winner that season who I believe deserved more recognition for the Most Valuable Player Award.

1997 was also a year to remember for Roger Clemens.  "The Rocket" was 34 years old at the time and was in the midst of his first of two seasons in Toronto.  That season, Clemens was simply incredible.  He pitched 264 innings, which tied for first in the American League with teammate Pat Hentgen, and he was dominant doing so.  His ERA+ was a ridiculous 226, he gave up only 9 home runs that season which equated to 0.2 HR/9 innings, and he made the American League All-Star team. When all was said and done, Clemens was worth 14.9 wins above the replacement player, the highest single season number he has accumulated during his illustrious career.

As a result, Clemens won the American League Cy Young Award, recieving all but 3 first place votes.

Yet Clemens was shown no love during the MVP voting process.  Here is a look at all the top 20 American League MVP finishers along with the points they accumulated during the voting process, the primary position they played, the team they played for, and their WARP during that 1997 season:

How Juan Gonzalez was more valuable than Roger Clemens by the end of the 1997 season is beyond me:  Clemens was worth almost 10 more wins in the standings, according to WARP, compared to Gonzalez that season, but here is where other debates arise.

How come Roger Clemens received very little recognition for the AL MVP Award?

For one his team may have hurt him.

The 1997 Blue Jays went 70-92 and, as if it wasn't easy to tell, didn't make the playoffs.  The widespread argument among many baseball fans is that an MVP winner must come from a playoff team, which would essentially rule Clemens out of serious competition for the award that year.

I know Albert Pujols would agree with this notion, and I do believe this had something to do with Clemens finishing so low in the MVP voting results.  While this is an argument I try to stay away from, I will say this:  I strongly disagree concept than an MVP winner must come from a playoff team.

Another factor that may have influenced the voters to shy away from Clemens in the race was simply the fact Clemens was a pitcher.  After all, he won the AL Cy Young Award, something major league hitters have no chance at all to compete for.

Let's take a look at Clemens' season from a historical perspective.  

Below is a list of every pitcher that has won the MVP Award.  Listed next to them are the year they won the award in, league they played in, ERA+, and their WARP3 that season, which adjusts for league difficulty.

I must also mention one important factor.  It was much more common for pitchers to win MVP Awards before the Cy Young Award was initiated in baseball 1956.  As a result, 13 of our 22 MVP pitchers won the award before the Cy Young Award was introduced as a major award in baseball.

From Walter Johnson in 1913 to Bobby Shantz in 1952, these are the pitcher's who won the MVP Award when the Cy Young Award wasn't around.  Since then, it's become increasingly difficult for pitcher's to win the MVP Award.

But back to the original point, for any (if any) arguing Clemens wasn't as dominant as previous pitchers who won the MVP Award, I beg to differ:

Only two starters (Johnson in 1913 and Gibson in 1968) and one relief pitcher (Fingers in 1981) top the ERA+ Clemens put up in 1997.  Amazingly, only one MVP Award winning pitcher, once again Johnson in 1913, top the WARP3 Clemens put up in 1997.  

In fact, Clemens Adjusted ERA+ of 226 that season was the 12th highest single season Adjusted ERA+ posted in major league history.

Clemens 1997 season was better than most of the seasons in which pitcher's won the MVP Award. The fact his team didn't make the playoffs along the fact he was pitching during an era in which MVP voters were, and still are, shy to elect pitchers as the most valuable players of each league certainly contributed to his poor showing at the MVP polls if not killed them completely.

But did he deserve the 1997 American League MVP Award?

I would argue he did.  He was the most valuable player among candidates going by WARP, and when compared to other pitchers who have previously won the MVP Award, Clemens stacks up nicely against them.

Unfortunately, it was the MVP voters who prevented Clemens for capturing what would have been his second Most Valuable Player Award.