Two years ago Rockies teammate Dante Bichette came within 28 batting average points of the Triple Crown but, because of his trouble hitting on the road (all but nine of his 40 homers came at home), was derided as a Coors Field Frankenstein. In the MVP voting he finished second to Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, who was named as low as 10th on one ballot, received only 11 first-place votes and drove in only 66 runs. Walker is no Bichette, however. Walker led the league this year with 29 road homers and actually had a better slugging percentage outside of Denver than in it.
The Rockies' failure to contend for the division title is unquestionably the worst thing you can say about Walker's candidacy. ("What, they finish fourth rather than third without him?" his critics say.) But wildcard baseball can skew the perception of a division championship. At the time of their elimination, on Sept. 24, Walker's Rockies had a better record than Bagwell's Astros. Colorado finished with only one victory fewer than Houston.
Moreover, 32% of MVP winners did not play for a first-place team, including 14 in the past 20 years. Ideally the award honors the player most responsible for getting his team to the postseason, but often the voters recognize a season so terrific that they are not bound by that ideal.
The Baltimore Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr. received such validation in 1991, even though his numbers (.323, 34, 114) for a team that finished 24 games out were only marginally better than those of Joe Carter of the first-place Toronto Blue Jays (.273, 33, 108). Carter finished fifth in the balloting. Similar waivers were made for Andre Dawson, whose '87 Chicago Cubs finished 18½ games out, Ernie Banks of the '58 Cubs (20 games back), Triple Crown winner Joe Medwick of the '37 Cardinals (15 games back) and many others.
The MVP race that perhaps most closely parallels this year's may be the 1986 National League vote, when division winners Houston and the New York Mets each offered solid candidates: respectively, Glenn Davis (.265, 31, 101) and Gary Carter (.255, 24, 105). But Mike Schmidt (.290, 37, 119) won the award while playing for a Philadelphia Phillies team that finished 21½ games out.
Though often quoted, the Triple Crown categories are only a start to finding distinctions among candidates. Walker's ability to get to first base and beyond—his on-base and slugging percentages both led the league (chart, page 38)—are powerful arguments.
Bagwell (.286, 43, 135) is commonly thought to have achieved his numbers with little protection. After all, the cleanup men behind him in the Houston lineup contributed only 11 home runs all year. But examine Bagwell's total of runs and RBIs as a percentage of his team's scoring (chart, below) and it is not that much better than what Walker did for the power-packed Rockies, the most prolific home run hitting team the National League has ever seen. And when the Astros made the 20-5 midsummer run that essentially won the division for them, Bagwell batted only .247 in that stretch, though he did contribute 22 RBIs.
Piazza, meanwhile, seems to have inherited from Davis Love III the mantle of Best Player Never to Have Won a Major. Beginning with his rookie season, 1993, Piazza is the only player to finish in the Top 10 in the National League MVP voting every season without winning the award or even leading the league in any offensive category. He can find comfort in this unofficial title: the best-hitting catcher ever at this stage of a career. Piazza's .362 average this season was the best by a catcher in 67 years and improved his career mark to .334. He drove in a career-high 124 runs and smashed 40 home runs, a franchise record in Los Angeles and the stuff of which MVPs are made. Except....
Piazza came up 90 feet short.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]