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Bob Gibson Had Nowhere to Go but Down—But Only Because MLB Lowered the Mound

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Bob Gibson Had Nowhere to Go but Down—But Only Because MLB Lowered the Mound
Associated Press
Bob Gibson had a long way to come down from the heights of his 1968 season—but he didn't fall nearly as far as voters figured.

Fifth in an 11-part series examining the vagaries of awards voting.

Returning to the 1969 NL MVP race (see my Rusty Staub article for more), we see a shining example of voter fickleness. Bob Gibson was coming off one of the epochal pitching campaigns in baseball annals: a 22-9 season, with an ERA of 1.12—by far the lowest in the live-ball era—13 shutouts and 268 strikeouts, all league bests.

For six weeks during the summer, The Pitcher in the Year of the Pitcher proved literally unbeatable, spearheading the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals to another pennant despite a dearth of hitting.

For this, Gibson copped a unanimous Cy Young Award and easily outpaced Pete Rose for the National League MVP.

But 1968 was the five-year culmination of the Second Dead Ball Era, in which pitching had become too dominant. After the season, the Lords of Baseball tightened the strike zone and lowered the mound. Hitting rebounded significantly, ending the days of herculean pitching feats, such as Gibson’s season-long dominance, Don Drysdale’s 58 consecutive scoreless innings and Denny McLain’s 31 victories.

Yet even with the restoration of offense in 1969, Gibson’s Cardinals managed to outscore only the expansion clubs in Montreal and San Diego. Not even the acquisition of Joe Torre, who drove in 101 runs, could propel an attack that was without a .300 hitter and swatted the fewest home runs in the NL.

Despite the worst run support this side of expansion, Bob Gibson crafted another terrific season. Leading the majors with 28 complete games, he racked up a 20-13 record on a 2.18 ERA, coming within a few whiskers of topping the NL in both ERA and strikeouts.

Yet at MVP time, Gibson inexplicably tied for 30th, with a mere two voting points. (Juan Marichal, who arguably enjoyed an even better season than Gibson, hardly finished higher.) Despite St. Louis boasting the lowest team ERA, the Cards—thanks to a pop-gun offense—had limped to a disappointing fourth-place finish, with only 87 wins. (Although St. Louis got as close as a distant second in mid-August, the Cardinals essentially dogfought the Pittsburgh Pirates for third place most of the season.)  

Voters clearly were put off by two things: St. Louis’ failure to contend for the NL East crown—of 36 players to receive an MVP vote, Gibson and Torre were the only Cardinals—and, more crucially, Gibson’s “drop-off” in dominance.

In a season in which the average run total per team increased by 100 from the previous year, Gibson’s performance, in context, is not far removed from his 1968 masterpiece. Given the radical changes to the mound and strike zone, there was no way to replicate what he’d accomplished the season before.

However, considering that Gibson was left entirely off the ballot of either 22 or 23 of the 24 voters (depending on whether his vote total was gained from a single ninth-place vote or a pair of 10th-place votes—that information is not available), there can be no doubt that voters regarded Gibson’s 1969 season—with its “ballooning” of ERA to a fat 2.18 (still a robust 64 percent better than league average) and decline of 13 shutouts to only four—as a disappointment.

Certainly, with the outstanding performances of Willie McCovey, Tom Seaver, Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Ron Santo and several others, Gibson did not warrant placing in the upper reaches of the MVP vote. But for all intents and purposes, to be utterly ignored while, for example, Maury Wills finished 11th (his Los Angeles Dodgers—for whom he had played only 104 games—had, like St. Louis, finished in fourth place) well illustrates the more-than-occasional narrowness of baseball writers’ thinking.

Of course, WAR did not exist in 1969, but to illustrate how dismissive voters were of Bob Gibson, his whopping 11.3 WAR far outdistanced the rest of the league (and, indeed, topped both leagues). In fact, Gibson’s 1969 WAR nearly equaled that of the season before, when he won the MVP handily.

In contrast, gallant Ernie Banks, whose Chicago Cubs had held first place from Opening Day until faltering in mid-September and who, himself, ran out of gas over the season’s final month, placed 12th in the 1969 MVP vote despite a WAR of −0.7 and an on-base percentage of just .309.    

The following season, Gibson rightfully placed high in the MVP vote (fourth) despite St. Louis again finishing in fourth place, once again 13 games out. True, Gibson led the NL in wins, with 23, and took home a near-unanimous Cy Young Award. However, his ERA, relative to the league, wasn’t nearly as strong as the season before.

And when one considers that, in that 1970 season, Bob Gibson and the rest of the St. Louis pitching staff benefited from far better run support than in 1969—the Cardinals scoring 13 runs above league average rather than 63 runs below it, thanks in large part to Dick Allen and José Cardenal on board and Joe Torre approaching his zenith—Gibson’s virtual absence from the 1969 MVP vote becomes all the more ludicrous. 

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