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That time Shannon Stewart was 4th in MVP voting

Sometimes, baseball does weird things. This is one of those times.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The early aughts were a time of transition in baseball. Moneyball was still in its infancy in Oakland, Cleveland and other small markets hunting for edges, and outside of the pages of the Bill James Baseball Abstract and Baseball Prospectus, advanced stats meant on-base percentage and maybe ground ball rate. Front offices, fans, and of course sportswriters were all just a little bit less informed than you’d think considering it was only about fifteen years ago. It’s amazing how far we’ve come. In the middle of all this, the last days of rampant steroid usage, hallowed records falling, of baseball analysis quietly changing and the Yankees losing to expansion teams in the World Series twice, was Shannon Stewart coming in fourth in MVP voting in 2003.

You’d be right not not remember Shannon Stewart. He was a good player for the Blue Jays in the late 90s, helped the Twins make the playoffs in the early 2000s, and earned 24.8 bWAR over his career. But he wasn’t exactly some remarkable player that seared his image in the memory of fans. A typical player that baseball is replete with, vital in a championship run but forgotten by all but the die-hards. But for one season comported himself with such skill and excellence, he gained enough renown to be regarded as equal to true stars of the day. For reference, the top 10 in MVP voting that year:

2003 Top 10 MVP Finishers

Rank Name Tm Vote Pts 1st Place Share WAR OPS HR RBI SB
Rank Name Tm Vote Pts 1st Place Share WAR OPS HR RBI SB
1 Alex Rodriguez TEX 242 6 62% 8.4 .995 47 118 17
2 Carlos Delgado TOR 213 5 54% 5.9 1.019 42 145 0
3 Jorge Posada NYY 194 5 49% 5.9 .922 30 101 2
4 Shannon Stewart TOT 140 3 36% 3.1 .823 13 73 4
5 David Ortiz BOS 130 4 33% 3.4 .961 31 101 0
6 Manny Ramirez BOS 100 1 26% 5.4 1.014 37 104 3
7 Nomar Garciaparra BOS 99 1 25% 6.1 .870 28 105 19
8 Vernon Wells TOR 84 1 21% 4.5 .909 33 117 4
9 Carlos Beltran KCR 77 0 20% 5.8 .911 26 100 41
10 Bret Boone SEA 65 0 17% 5.9 .902 35 117 16

Players not pictured include Pedro Martinez, who earned 8 bWAR and put up a 211 ERA+ while striking out 211 in 186 innings. Or Esteban Loaiza (yes, that Esteban Loaiza) and his 7.6 bWAR, 156 ERA+ and league-leading 207 Ks. But they’re pitchers, and even if this was just two years after Eric Gagne won the Cy Young and came in sixth in MVP voting, pitchers had to be either otherworldly or named Dennis Eckersley to win an MVP.

Still, the ignoring of Magglio Ordonez (5.6 WAR, .926 OPS) or even bigger names at the time like former MVP Jason Giambi (4.8 WAR, 41 home runs) as top 10 vote getters makes you scratch your head when Stewart rests so high in the rankings.

Stewart’s numbers that year weren’t that amazing. But this isn’t just about raw, full season numbers. Even if it should be. It’s that damn word “valuable”. It makes the whole process needlessly muddled. Writers like a narrative. Even journalists think they’re more a writer than just a mouthpiece. Stewart did capture that narrative, to a degree at least. He came to the Twins in the middle of July that year, when Minnesota was 44-49 and vacillating between second and third in the Central Division. Joe Mauer was still abusing pitching in Double-A, Justin Morneau played 40 games, Torii Hunter had a down year at the plate and Johan Santana was but a young phenom just then breaking out. The Twins were still ostensibly rebuilding, but found themselves on the edge of a pennant race. They needed a bat and an outfielder, and Stewart was their man, coming from Toronto for Bobby Kielty, an outfielder who earned 6.4 bWAR in his seven year career. Stewart was, evidently, the missing piece.

In fairness to Stewart and the voters that picked him, he was excellent for the Twins. He did demonstrate that “value”. In his stretch with Minnesota he hit .322/384/.470 and knocked in 38 from the leadoff spot. Prorated to a full season that slash line would be the best of his career. But he wasn’t especially world-beating in the second half. That .854 second half OPS was the 43rd best in baseball over that span. First was Javy Lopez at 1.166, Alex Rodriguez was second at 1.105, Manny Ramirez put up a 1.060 second half OPS, and Jim Thome was .994, while also leading baseball in RBI’s after the break with 64. Thome came in fourth in NL MVP voting, possibly driven by that massive RBI total. Like Stewart, he wrote a narrative for writers to follow. But unlike Stewart, he actually did something superlative. Stewart just did it on a divison winner.

The Twins made the playoffs. Obviously someone on that team was valuable, and we didn’t have WAR to look at and say “A.J. Pierzinski or Doug Mientkiewicz should get these votes”. They were the top positional players on the team, but even then Pirezinski’s 4.5 was the team high. That’s fringe All-Star level at best. Stewart earned 2.6 wins in his Minnesota stint and at the time gaudy numbers with the Twins. He was a playing left field since Hunter was way better at it though, so you’d think some certain better left fielder on another divisional winner, in Boston say, might have received a bit more consideration.

You like to think we’ve come a long way from then, even if Mike Trout doesn’t win it every year. It’s usually hard to find a really weird name in the top 10. Maybe 2012 was a little odd with Derek Jeter popping up 7th. But even that was five years ago, a time when the Astros and Cubs shared the cellar of the Central Division. And the right guy did win the award in 2003 as A-Rod committed felonious assault to pitching to the tune of a .298/.396/.600 with an MLB high 47 home runs and an AL-best 8.4 WAR. But these weird blips where you see a name you simply don’t recognize above that of then-superstars like Manny, David Ortiz, Carlos Beltran or a not yet dead Vernon Wells, it reminds us that it’s a game of people, watched by humans.

We still demand a story, a narrative, and whether right or wrong, Stewart told the right one that year. He was the hero of the Twins, battling with the upstarts against the mightier forces on the coast, and he gave them a glimpse at glory. He never approached those heights again even as the Twins had their run in the sun, and ended his career back in Toronto as a bit player in 2008. Many players like Stewart, classically pretty good if somewhat anonymous, they don’t have anything inscribed in the record books as their day, their shining moment. Stewart, at least, has a couple sportswriters who believed in him that gave him that moment inscribed for all time.

Merritt Rohlfing writes about the past, present and future of baseball for Beyond the Box Score, and much the same about just the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch.