10 Stunning MLB MVP Seasons Nobody Could Have Predicted

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistMay 9, 2020

10 Stunning MLB MVP Seasons Nobody Could Have Predicted

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    Sometimes, a player wins an MVP award and we all say, "Yep, sounds about right." We're looking at you, Mike Trout.

    Other times, the prize goes to a player few, if any, assumed would be in the conversation.

    Let's examine 10 of the most unexpected MVPs in MLB history, keeping in mind previous stats and track record (or lack thereof) and how much of a known (or unknown) commodity each guy was before he won arguably baseball's ultimate individual honor.

    Some of the players on this list ended up having excellent or even Hall of Fame-worthy careers; others were flashes in the pan. But before they hoisted their hardware, none were close to surefire MVP contenders.

LHP Bobby Shantz, Philadelphia Athletics, 1952

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    Listed at 5'6" and 139 pounds, Bobby Shantz rose well above his stature in 1952.

    With a varied pitching arsenal that included a knuckleball, Shantz posted a 2.48 ERA and AL-leading 1.048 WHIP in 279.2 innings for the Philadelphia Athletics.

    Despite suffering a broken wrist in September, the diminutive left-hander beat out the likes of New York Yankees center fielder Mickey Mantle to win the MVP.

    Shantz enjoyed a solid career through 1964 and won eight Gold Gloves, but he never again eclipsed 200 innings or came close to another MVP award.

SS Zoilo Versalles, Minnesota Twins, 1965

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    Minnesota Twins shortstop Zoilo Versalles was an All-Star and Gold Glove winner in 1963, but after slashing .259/.311/.431 in '64, he was no one's idea of an MVP candidate.

    Yet as his Twins surged from a sub-.500 record the previous year to 102 wins in '65, Versalles led baseball with 126 runs and 45 doubles, paced the AL with 12 triples and 308 total bases, won another Gold Glove and took home the MVP.

    Versalles would never hit higher than .249 after that, and by age 31 in 1971, injuries and underperformance ended his career.

    For that one year, however, he was a near-unanimous MVP.

LHP Vida Blue, Oakland Athletics, 1971

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    When the 1971 season began, left-hander Vida Blue had already thrown a no-hitter. He was also a 21-year-old with just 80.2 big league innings under his belt.

    Yet Blue was masterful in '71, posting an American League-leading 1.82 ERA in 312 innings for the Oakland Athletics.

    He paced baseball with eight shutouts that year, struck out 301 and won an AL Cy Young Award to go along with his Junior Circuit MVP.

    Blue finished his career as a six-time All-Star with the A's and San Francisco Giants (he also had a stint with the Kansas City Royals). But he would never quite live up to the incredible promise of that transcendent age-21 season.

LHP Willie Hernandez, Detroit Tigers, 1984

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    From 1977 to 1983, Willie Hernandez was a decent left-handed relief pitcher for the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. Shortly before the 1984 season, the Phillies traded him to the Detroit Tigers.

    That's when his career took a hugely unexpected turn.

    Hernandez threw a career-high 140.1 innings out of the bullpen for Detroit, posting a 1.92 ERA with 32 saves and 112 strikeouts and winning Cy Young and MVP honors. The Tigers would go on to win the World Series.

    By today's standards, a reliever with Hernandez's numbers probably wouldn't warrant serious MVP consideration. But no other player had slam-dunk MVP stats in '84. And Hernandez was one of three bullpen arms—along with Rollie Fingers in 1981 and Dennis Eckersley in 1992—to win AL MVP in a 12-season span.

LF Kevin Mitchell, San Francisco Giants, 1989

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    Entering the 1989 season, Kevin Mitchell was a journeyman outfielder with some pop. When the '89 campaign came to a close, he was the NL MVP.

    Hitting in the middle of the San Francisco Giants lineup along with All-Star first baseman Will Clark, Mitchell led baseball in home runs (47), RBI (125) and slugging percentage (.635) and helped the Giants win the National League pennant.

    Prior to that year, Mitchell had never hit more than 22 home runs or posted a slugging percentage above .474. He was an All-Star with San Francisco the following season and would hit 30 or more home runs two more times in his career.

    But his '89 numbers proved to be as unique and memorable for Mitchell as his famous barehanded catch.

3B Terry Pendleton, Atlanta Braves, 1991

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    When Terry Pendleton signed with the Atlanta Braves ahead of the 1991 season, he was coming off an injury-marred year with the St. Louis Cardinals in which he hit .230 with a .601 OPS.

    In his age-30 season, Pendleton led the NL with 187 hits, won a batting title with a .319 average and earned MVP honors with the Braves, who went from a last-place finish in 1990 to a division title and a trip to the World Series.

    You can argue Barry Bonds, then of the Pittsburgh Pirates, had a better season in '91. The MVP voting was close between the two.

    But the prize went to Pendleton in a surprise turnaround that encapsulated that year's worst-to-first Atlanta team.

3B Ken Caminiti, San Diego Padres, 1996

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    Ken Caminiti was an All-Star in 1994 and won a Gold Glove in 1995. Then, in 1996, he went on an offensive rampage.

    The San Diego Padres third baseman hit .326 with 40 home runs, 130 RBI and a 1.028 OPS, all easily career bests, and was a unanimous pick for NL MVP.

    Caminiti never hit more than 29 home runs in a season before or after '96. In 2002, he admitted to Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his MVP season.

    "I'm at the point in my career where I've done just about every bad thing you can do. I try to walk with my head up," Caminiti told Verducci. "I don't have to hold my tongue."

    In 2004, Caminiti died of an accidental drug overdose at age 41, adding a tragic final chapter to his troubled story.

RF Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners, 2001

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    When Ichiro Suzuki debuted with the Seattle Mariners in 2001, no Japanese position player had made a major impact in MLB.

    Even with Ichiro's impressive stats in Japan, there was no way to know for sure how his skills would translate stateside.

    He quickly answered that question with a brilliant rookie season at age 27. Ichiro won a batting title with a .350 average and led the game with 242 hits and 56 stolen bases. He was an obvious choice for AL Rookie of the Year, won the first of 10 consecutive Gold Gloves and earned his only career big league MVP trophy.

    It's easy now to look back on Ichiro's surefire Hall of Fame career and assume he was going to take MLB by storm. At the time, though, he was a true trailblazer.

1B Ryan Howard, Philadelphia Phillies, 2006

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    Ryan Howard won National League Rookie of the Year honors in 2005 with the Philadelphia Phillies, clubbing 22 homers with a .924 OPS in 88 games.

    But few expected the 2001 fifth-round pick to explode the way he did in 2006.

    In his first full season, Howard led baseball with 58 home runs, 149 RBI and 383 total bases while hitting .313 with a 1.084 OPS.

    Albert Pujols, the '05 NL MVP, hit 49 home runs with an MLB-leading 1.102 OPS that year, but Howard beat him out for the trophy.

    Howard finished in the top five in NL MVP voting three more times. But all of those numbers from his otherwordly '06 campaign would prove to be career highs when he retired after the 2016 season.

1B Justin Morneau, Minnesota Twins, 2006

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    In 2005, his first full MLB season, Justin Morneau posted a .239/.304/.437 slash line in 141 games for the Minnesota Twins.

    The following year, he raised that line to .321/.375/.559, swatted 34 homers with 130 RBI and was named AL MVP.

    The award came with controversy. Morneau narrowly edged New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter for the prize. Jeter hit .343 that year and won a Gold Glove and was, of course, a much more high-profile player. Fourteen years later, this one still sparks debate from the Bronx to Minneapolis.

    Morneau was an All-Star every season from 2007 to 2010 and won an NL batting title with the Colorado Rockies in 2014, but he never quite replicated that '06 effort.


    All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.