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Recalling the 1998 home run race and thoughts on the NL MVP

I don’t remember too much about it, but I do remember how fun it was. The NL MVP was more interesting than I remembered, too.

Cincinnati Reds vs. Chicago Cubs

There has been a lot of talk recently about the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. ESPN recently released a 30 for 30 documentary on the chase for Roger Maris’s home run record that captured the attention of baseball fans everywhere, and even people who were not very big fans at all.

What amazes me about the attention this garnered is that baseball has always been more of a local sport than the other three major sports. Remember, there was no MLB.tv back then, no social media, and no easy way to track stats. Baseball Reference was still a couple years away from being launched. I was in high school at the time growing up in northern New Jersey, and even though my Mets were doing well and John Olerud was great, this home run race probably had more of my attention. Every morning I would eagerly turn on SportsCenter first thing to see if McGwire or Sosa had hit anymore dingers.

I have to confess that I have yet to watch the documentary, but I do remember one thing I thought was funny at the time: nobody cared how the Cardinals were doing. The Cubs were actually good and captured the Wild Card that year, but the Cardinals were a mediocre 83-win team that finished seven games behind the Cubs for that last playoff spot. Whenever SportsCenter covered the previous night’s Cardinals game, they focused almost exclusively on McGwire’s plate appearances, and then mentioned the actual results of the game as an afterthought, sometimes jokingly so.

I wish I could say I remember the moment when McGwire crushed that pitch off of Steve Traschel, but I can’t say I remember much. I’m 90 percent sure I saw it live. I think I recall either the game was nationally broadcast because of the historical implications, or ESPN was just cutting to every McGwire plate appearance. All I remember for sure was thinking how cool it was.

I still do think it was pretty cool. I know a lot of fans feel it is tainted or discredit it because they believe steroids are magic, but I myself as an experienced medicinal chemist believe that their effects are largely overblown, so I still look back on it fondly.

One thing I don’t recall is any discussion on the NL MVP at the time. Obviously the home run record overshadowed it. After all, there are two MVP winners every year, but how often does a single season home run record get broken? And not just broken, but shattered?

Sosa won easily, and I assume everyone expected that long before the season ended. Obviously the consensus criteria for the MVP back then was the best player on the best team, and the best player was determined by Triple Crown stats. Sosa fished the season with a .308 average, 66 HR, and most importantly at the time, a league leading 158 RBI. Also important at the time was that Sosa did this for a playoff team, while McGwire did not. It looks bad through a modern lens, but I don’t think it is fair to come down hard on the voters. Again, it was a different time.

That being said, Sosa’s near unanimous MVP win does not look so good looking back on it now. Sosa hit .308/.377/.647 with a 159 wRC+, while McGwire hit .299/.470/.752 with a Ruthian 205 wRC+. McGwire’s near 100-point advantage in OBP is the real killer. As you can see in the absurdly big difference between his average and OBP, he walked a TON. He walked 162 times in about 24 percent of his plate appearances! Only 28 of those were intentional.

The funny thing about Sosa was that for all his hitting talent, he really didn’t get on base that much. His career .344 OBP is pretty underwhelming considering he was a right fielder and the era in which he played. It’s only a 101 OBP+. In 1998, it was just a 111 OBP+ to McGwire’s 138 OBP+. (It should be pointed out that OBP+ does not adjust for league and park effects.)

It appears that McGwire should’ve been the clear MVP pick over Sosa, and that is even before we look at WAR, where he had at least a one-win advantage at Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, though less than that at Baseball Prospectus.

McGwire came in second, which raises the question that is fair to use as criticism for voters at the time: if playing for a winning team is so important, why was he second? Why was he on the ballot at all? Looking at the voting results, after McGwire you don’t get to a player on a non-playoff team until Barry Bonds at eighth place, who finished for a Giants team that missed the playoffs by just one game. Funnier still, Bonds had a comparable season to McGwire! Bonds had “only” a 170 wRC+, but he was a whopping 26 runs better than McGwire defensively.

There’s nothing that I’ve written here about the 1998 NL MVP that hasn’t been discussed before, but it seems to me that people think that it should’ve been McGwire one and Sosa two on the MVP ballot. I don’t think it’s that simple.

There’s a reasonable case that John Olerud, who finished 12th in MVP voting, had a better season than Sosa. Even though he hit only 22 HR, there’s obviously more to offensive production than the long bomb. He hit .354/.447/.551, good for a 167 wRC+ that season, better than Sosa’s 159 wRC+. Again, it’s the difference in OBP that’s carrying a lot of weight here, with Olerud enjoying a 70-point advantage. However, he was also an excellent defensive first baseman. As a result, he finished about a win better than Sosa according to Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. Baseball Prospectus actually has Sosa over a win better than Olerud because their offensive metric, DRC+, rates Sosa far better than Olerud for reasons that are not clear (166 DRC+ vs. 150 DRC+, though the the standard deviations overlap at the extremes).

For these reasons I’d put Olerud over Sosa, but we’re not done yet! There is an MVP candidate from that year that doesn’t get much attention: Kevin Brown. Yes, a pitcher!

Brown should’ve inarguably won the Cy Young that year, but lost to Tom Glavine because he had 20 pitcher wins. Again, it was a different time. Teammate Trevor Hoffman finished ahead of him even though he pitched barely more than a quarter as many innings as Brown. The Padres’ ace had a 2.70 RA9 with both strikeout and walk rates that were among the best in baseball. He was even a good hitter for a pitcher, hitting .207/.244/.244 over 93 PA. Because the bar for pitcher hitting was so low, his hitting alone was worth half a win! So including his hitting, he was worth 9.1 bWAR, 10.1 fWAR, and 11.2 WARP! (I couldn’t find Brown’s batting WARP.)

You really could make an argument that Brown deserved the NL MVP. I still would’ve given it to McGwire, because 70 HR and a 205 wRC+ is too much to overlook. He definitely should’ve been in the top five at the absolute worst, and certainly much better than his actual 16th place finish. The voters didn’t even care that he was on a 98-win team, even though they cared about that with respect to Sosa and McGwire!

I know considering pitchers for MVP is unpopular even in the analytics community (Yelich won two years ago when I would have had three pitchers ahead of him), but even if you fall in that camp, I hope at the very least you find Brown’s season interesting in that context. The guy actually had a borderline Hall of Fame career.

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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.