660 home runs, 12 Gold Gloves and … eight MVPs?! How modern analytics would have added to Willie Mays’ legacy

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Maybe the greatest baseball player of all time is Babe Ruth. Perhaps it’s Henry Aaron or Barry Bonds or Josh Gibson or Oscar Charleston. Proponents of a more antiquated version of the sport might argue for Ty Cobb or Honus Wagner. For a time, before injuries wrecked their careers and their potential stamps on ultimate greatness, it could have been Ken Griffey Jr. or Mike Trout or Mickey Mantle, for that matter. Maybe if Ted Williams doesn’t miss five seasons while serving in wars, he towers over the sport as the greatest hitter who ever lived.

You can, however, punch holes in the cases for any of those guys. Small holes — maybe they didn’t play center field, maybe they couldn’t throw, maybe their peak lasted only a few seasons — but still holes. You can’t find any holes for Willie Mays.

“There have been only two authentic geniuses in the world,” actress Tallulah Bankhead once said. “Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.”

Williams himself once said, “They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays.”

Mays appeared in 24 of them.

Writer Joe Posnanski once came up with an idea called “The Willie Mays Hall of Fame,” because fans would complain that the standards for selection to Cooperstown were too low. It was a joke, of course. As Joe wrote, if Mays were the standard for the Hall of Fame, it would have only one member.

Mays could run.

How great was Mays on the basepaths? In 1971, he tied for the National League lead in a category called baserunning runs. He was 40 years old.

Mays could field.

Maybe his famous catch in the 1954 World Series wasn’t the greatest catch of all time. Mays himself said he made better plays. But it’s the catch everyone still talks about as the greatest ever — 70 years later it remains unsurpassed, a mythological play with video proof that he was worthy of each of his 12 Gold Gloves.

Mays could throw.

“[Mays] scooped the ball up at the base of the 406-foot sign, whirled and fired. It came in on one bounce, directly in front of the plate, and into the glove of catcher Tom Haller, who put it on the astonished Willie Stargell. It was described by old-timers as the greatest throw ever made in ancient Forbes Field,” Bob Stevens wrote of a 1965 game.

Mays could hit.

A lifetime average of .301, with many of his prime years coming in the pitching-dominant 1960s, when mounds were as high as Mount Everest and pitchers like Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson would buzz you with a fastball if they didn’t like the way you looked at them. Ten seasons with a .300 average and nearly 3,300 career hits. “As a batter, his only weakness is a wild pitch,” Bill Rigney, one of his managers, once quipped.

Mays could hit for a power.

He wasn’t a big man, listed at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, but he was all sinewy muscle with huge hands that gripped the bat like a toothpick. He finished with 660 home runs — and, if not for missing nearly two full seasons while serving in the Army, might have broken Ruth’s home run record before Aaron did. He led his league four times in home runs.

Two years ago, ESPN ranked Mays the second-greatest player of all time behind Ruth. Bill James had him third (behind Ruth and Wagner). Posnanski ranked him first. And here’s the thing: As great as Mays was, as brilliant as his all-around play, as highly ranked as he appears on these lists, Mays might be even greater than we believe.

Mays won just two MVP awards in his career, in 1954 and 1965. If we consider modern analytics and how voting philosophy has evolved over the past couple of decades, Mays might have won … well, let’s consider how many MVP awards he might have won under modern criteria.

In Mays’ era, the MVP award usually went to a player on the pennant-winning team. Other subjective qualities like leadership factored into the thought process, and writers were loath to give it to the same guy every season. Today, the focus is much more on statistical value — the best player as opposed to just the key player on a first-place team.

So, let’s go year by year and dig into Mays’ career — remember, he’s competing with inner-circle Hall of Famers such as Aaron, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson for MVP honors. We’ll skip his rookie season of 1951 and then his two seasons in the Army and start with 1954.


1954

Actual winner: Willie Mays

Mays hit .345/.411/.667 with 41 home runs in leading the Giants to the pennant. He led the NL in WAR at 10.4. While he won easily, he somehow received only 16 of the 24 first-place votes. He would almost certainly be the unanimous winner today.

Hypothetical MVP tally: 1


1955

Actual winner: Roy Campanella

Mays’ finish: Fourth

The Dodgers won the pennant, and Campanella, their catcher, had a fine season with 32 home runs and a .318 average. Mays hit .319 with a league-leading 51 home runs and 1.059 OPS, easily topping Campanella in WAR (9.2 to 5.2). Today, it’s likely a two-man race between Mays and Dodgers center fielder Duke Snider (8.6 WAR), who had 42 home runs and 1.046 OPS. The Dodgers winning the pennant helps Snider, but Mays’ home runs and defense give him the slightest of edges. He takes home his second trophy.

Hypothetical MVP tally: 2


1956

Actual winner: Don Newcombe

Mays’ finish: 17th

Mays tied Snider for the lead league in WAR at 7.6, with Aaron at 7.2. Newcombe won 27 games. Today, it’s a three-man race among the outfielders. The Dodgers won the pennant, but it’s another coin flip. We’ll give this one to Snider and keep Mays at two.

Hypothetical MVP tally: 2


1957

Actual winner: Henry Aaron

Mays’ finish: Fourth

Mays did lead Aaron in WAR (8.3 to 8.0), but Aaron led the NL in home runs and RBIs and his Milwaukee Braves won the pennant. This one goes to Aaron.

Hypothetical MVP tally: 2


1958

Actual winner: Ernie Banks

Mays’ finish: Second

Tough one. Mays again leads in WAR (10.2), but Banks wasn’t far behind (9.3) Banks did outhomer Mays (47 to 29) and out-RBI him (129 to 96), but Mays hit .347 to Banks’ .313 and had the higher OPS while playing in a tougher hitters’ park. Modern voters would know that Banks hit .340 at Wrigley with 30 home runs and a more pedestrian .287 with 17 home runs on the road. No. 3 for Mays.

Hypothetical MVP tally: 3


1959

Actual winner: Ernie Banks

Mays’ finish: Sixth

Banks, with 10.2 WAR, was the deserving winner (Mays was at 7.8, a “down” year for him).

Hypothetical MVP tally: 3


1960

Actual winner: Dick Groat

Mays’ finish: Third

Groat was the shortstop for the Pirates, the surprise pennant winner, and had a fine season, hitting .325 with good defense, but he also had just two home runs and 50 RBIs. Writers at the time valued his leadership and gritty toughness. Teammate Don Hoak was second in the voting. But Mays towered over both in WAR (9.5 to 6.1 and 5.4) and would win today. That’s No. 4.

Hypothetical MVP tally: 4


1961

Actual winner: Frank Robinson

Mays’ finish: Sixth

Mays was second in WAR to Aaron with Robinson, on the first-place Reds, fourth. Robinson led the league in OPS and might still win today, although in a much tighter vote (he received 15 of the 16 first-place votes back then).

Hypothetical MVP tally: 4


1962

Actual winner: Maury Wills

Mays’ finish: Second

In my book, one of the worst MVP votes ever. The voters were infatuated with Wills breaking the single-season stolen base record with 104, but Mays was the much more valuable player — 10.5 WAR to 6.0 — and he got denied in a close vote even though the Giants beat Wills’ Dodgers in a tiebreaker to win the pennant. Give Mays his fifth MVP.

Hypothetical MVP tally: 5


1963

Actual winner: Sandy Koufax

Mays’ finish: Fifth

This debate would make heads explode in 2024. Koufax (9.9 WAR) went 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA and 306 strikeouts. Mays led the league with 10.6 WAR, hitting .314 with 38 home runs and his usual Gold Glove defense. Aaron (9.1 WAR) led with 44 home runs and 130 RBIs. The Dodgers won the pennant, which is how Koufax easily won. In 2024? Pitchers don’t usually factor into the voting (well, they also don’t pitch 311 innings). I’m giving Mays No. 6.

Hypothetical MVP tally: 6


1964

Actual winner: Ken Boyer

Mays’ finish: Sixth

Boyer was no slouch, and he led the NL in RBIs as his Cardinals won the pennant on the season’s final day (the Giants finished fourth, three games back). No doubt, the Giants’ inability to win more pennants, despite Hall of Famers such as Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda surrounding him, hurt Mays in the MVP voting. The Giants can rightly be viewed as underachievers given their top-line talent and were certainly viewed as such back then. But Mays? Not his fault. He had an 11.0 WAR while leading the NL with 47 home runs and .990 OPS. I have to think he’d win today in a landslide with that WAR. That’s No. 7.

Hypothetical MVP tally: 7


1965

Actual winner: Willie Mays

Finally, 11 years after his first MVP win, Mays takes home another — posting a career-best 11.2 WAR after hitting .317/.398/.645 with 52 home runs. He got only nine of the 20 first-place votes, however, as Koufax (six) and Wills (five) split votes from the first-place Dodgers. Anyway, Mays would win today to give him No. 8.

Hypothetical MVP tally: 8


1966

Actual winner: Roberto Clemente

Mays’ finish: Third

Marichal and Koufax tied for the lead in WAR at 9.7, with Mays at 9.0 and Clemente at 8.2. Koufax might win today (he finished second) given 27 wins, a 1.73 ERA, 323 innings and 317 strikeouts. Our heads would explode with those numbers, but Mays would certainly place in the top three in his final great season.

Hypothetical MVP tally: 8

After that, Mays tailed off, so he finishes with eight MVP awards — one more than the seven Bonds has as the all-time leader.

Then again, maybe it doesn’t take going back in time and making Mays an eight-time MVP winner to appreciate his stature among the game’s best. He was, after all, a genius. Fifty-one years after his final game, that still seems like the appropriate description.



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