Every year since 1931 the Baseball Writer's Association of America (BBWAA) has determined the two players – one in each of the American and National Leagues – who will be recognized as their league's most valuable player (MVP). Since 1949 they have also determined each league's Rookie of the Year. In the 67 years since there have been 134 chances for the two awards to end up in the same hands, yet it has happened only twice: in 1975 (AL) and 2001 (AL). Fred Lynn, center fielder for the Boston Red Sox, accomplished the feat first and held the title of "only player to do so" for 26 years. Then, in 2001, our man of the day Ichiro Suzkuki entered the major leagues with the Seattle Mariners and joined Lynn as an MVP-Rookie of the Year titleholder. Other players have been close to getting on this short list (e.g., Mike Trout was Rookie of the Year in 2012 and runner-up for the MVP), but only Ichiro and Lynn have achieved this honour. Here is a look at their standout seasons, a comparison between the two – who did it better? – and a brief consideration of how similarly their careers progressed after opening with award-winning seasons.
Fred Lynn's 1975 season
After spending two seasons smashing minor league pitching, Fred Lynn got his call to the big leagues in September, 1974. He spent that month knocking the ball all over the park (.513 wOBA, 226 wRC+ in 51 plate appearances), establishing himself as a capable major league player, and by the end of the season, he appeared ready to assume the role of starting center fielder for the Red Sox. In 1975 he did just that, as a 23-year-old Lynn was slotted into the lineup almost every day as the four-hole hitter, behind Red Sox legend and future Hall-of-Famer Carl Yastrzemski, and in front of fellow rookie and future Hall-of-Famer Jim Rice. Lynn excelled in his role as the meat between Hall-of-Fame bread. He posted a .427 wOBA (161 wRC+) with 21 home runs, and an American League leading 47 doubles; only Pete Rose knocked at least that many doubles in 1975.
While Lynn was obviously an offensive threat, he was no slouch roaming center field. By Total Zone (TZ) he was 8 runs above average, enough to earn him Gold Glove honours in center field that season (an honour he would also earn in 1978, 1979, and 1980). It is worth noting that Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) pegged his work in center as 4 runs below average. Regardless of the discrepancy in metrics, Lynn played the position aggressively, perfectly illustrated by his effort in Game 6 of the incredible 1975 World Series:
Despite appearing unconscious (or even worse) for a few moments, he stayed in the game, contributing a single and a run scored to the Red Sox comeback in the 8th inning.
Altogether Lynn accumulated 7.1 fWAR in 1975, which was second best in the AL that year behind John Mayberry's 7.3. By Baseball Prospectus' WARP he was worth 5.7 wins (8th best in the AL) and by Baseball Reference's bWAR he was worth 7.4 wins (2nd best in the AL). Unfortunately, by all measures he was a top performer in 1975 but never the true most valuable player (although more things should and do go into such voting than wins above replacement). Nevertheless, voters did not see the field as murky at all; to them Lynn was clearly the most valuable man in the league. According to Baseball Reference's awards voting totals he garnered a 97 percent share of the total vote points he could possibly receive for MVP, only slightly less than the share of vote points he received for Rookie of the Year (98%). I suspect the Red Sox 95 wins and position atop the East Division contributed positively to Lynn's MVP status.
Ichiro Suzuki's 2001 season
For nine seasons Ichiro Suzuki terrorized the pitchers of the Japan Pacific League, slashing .353/.421/.522, and piquing the interest of MLB teams. After negotiating a 3-year, $14 million deal with the Seattle Mariners in November of 2000, Ichiro was set to become a 27-year-old rookie for the 2001 season. While his rookie status remains debatable – owing to the nine years of professional baseball in Japan – his adjustments to major league-level play were swift and effective. In his first month as a Mariner he posted a strong .338 wOBA (109 wRC+) but only improved from there, finishing the season with a .360 wOBA (124 wRC+) on the back of an MLB-leading 242 hits – 192 of which were singles – outpacing second place finisher and teammate, Brett Boone, by 36. Ichiro became rightfully known for making contact. In 2001 he struck out in only 7.2 percent of his plate appearances, the lowest among qualified hitters by almost two percentage points. Once he got to first base he was also a threat to take second, doing so 56 times while only getting caught 14 times (SB% of 80).
Ichiro paired his slap-hitting, speedy ways on offense with above-average defense in right field. TZ credits him as being 15 runs above average, while FRAA has him at +9. His arm was something to behold, as he sent eight advancing baserunners back to the bench that year, and likely prevented many more from even trying to test the rocket launcher that is attached to his right shoulder. In his eighth major league game he did this:
Opponents were officially put on notice: don't run on Ichiro.
Ichiro posted 6.0 fWAR in 2001, which was fifth-best in the AL and well below top performer Jason Giambi (9.2). The story is similar when using Baseball Prospectus' WARP and Baseball Reference's bWAR. Ichiro was great in 2001, but unequivocally not better than Giambi or Alex Rodriguez. While Ichiro ran away with the Rookie of the Year award, taking 99 percent of the vote total, the MVP voters evidently recognized the deep pool of talent from which the winner would emerge. Regardless, Ichiro narrowly edged Giambi for top spot, taking 74 percent of the maximum votes he could receive to Giambi's 72 percent. Team performance likely contributed to the slight difference in MVP voting. While Giambi was the better individual player, as measured by the various wins above replacement metrics, Ichiro's Mariners won 116 games to take the AL West, while Giambi's Athletics won only 102 games and had to settle for the Wild Card.
Comparing the noteworthy seasons and subsequent careers
Here is a table with some relevant numbers for these seasons:
As you can see, Lynn got on-base at a higher rate and hit for more power than did Ichiro, while Ichiro was a better defender and better baserunner. Depending on the measure of overall value you use, either Lynn's season was substantially better (+1.1 fWAR), Ichiro's season was slightly better (+0.7 WARP) or they were about the same (0.3 bWAR difference). It is difficult to definitively determine whose season was better. Considering things like age, experience and the offense of the era, Lynn's season stands out as the better of the two. But Ichiro came at a time of huge offense and slugging, and just slap-hit his way into the record books. He really was a unique player for the time.
Interestingly, in addition to their multi-award winning rookie seasons these two players have similar career trajectories.
Due to the occasional discord among the three wins above replacement measures, I used the average of the three for each player's season. As the figure shows, despite starting in the big leagues at an age five years older than Lynn, by 34 Ichiro accumulated roughly the same number of wins as Lynn had to that same point in his career. From there Lynn managed just two more productive seasons (2.6 wins at age 34, 2.5 at age 36) before leveling off with replacement level seasons to end his career. Years of injuries eventually caught up with the player who enjoyed playing with "reckless abandon". Ichiro, however, produced three more strong seasons after turning 33 (4.8 wins at 34, 4.8 at 35, 3.7 at 36) before leveling off at age 37.
Neither Ichiro nor Lynn went on to win another MVP award in their careers. I suppose Ichiro still has a chance this year with the Miami Marlins, but even though it is Ichiro Day here at the site, we need to recognize that the likelihood of him doing so is very low. These two got their major award winning done early. Sure, they both played in multiple All Star Games, nine for Lynn and 10 for Ichiro, and won multiple Gold Gloves, four for Lynn and 10 for Ichiro, but neither captured a season's attention like they did as rookies in '75 and '01, respectively. They made it to the big leagues through remarkably different paths, and played the game quite differently from each other, but will be forever linked by their historic MVP-Rookie statuses.
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