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The 2005 MVP Chase: Was Derrek Lee Robbed?

Pic: Sports Illustrated

The other day I was desperate for some baseball, so I dug out my Chicago Cubs Legends: Great Games DVD set (Remember DVD's? Those things that don't depend on your internet connection for you to watch them? They're kind of nice!) to sate my baseball jones. One of the games in the set is Derrek Lee's 5 for 5, 4 RBI game from June 1, 2005, which got me digging into DLee's stats from that season and remembering just how insane of a year he had--and then frustrated at how we don't really talk about it much.

That season, there was a three-way race for the NL MVP between Lee, Albert Pujols and Andruw Jones, and depending on how you look at the stats, any one of the three of them could have taken the trophy. In fact, that Lee finished a distant third in the voting (Pujols won with 378 points, then Jones with 351, then Lee with 263) and only got one first place vote was frankly kind of a travesty! Looking at their individual stats now, I have to wonder if advanced statistics would've changed those votes some and maybe even moved Lee to the top. Let's dig in a bit.

First, let's take a look at WAR. When you look at both bWAR and fWAR, there is a huge disparity in all three players' numbers, with Jones showing the widest gap:

As we often find when we look at bWAR vs. fWAR, Baseball Reference and FanGraphs rate defense much differently, with FanGraphs being the bigger stickler for prowess with the glove. Even though Lee won a Gold Glove in 2005 (and would win three total during his career), FanGraphs actually rated him as a negative defender in 2005 by UZR/150 and barely rated Pujols positively, with Jones continually being an elite defender throughout his career--he won the Gold Glove ten (!!!) times.

Looking at offensive statistics, that appears to be the sole reason for Jones' inflated fWAR:

None of the three MVP candidates was really head and shoulders above the others, across the board, and could be identified as the runaway winner that season. However, overall Jones was the weakest producer offensively by far according to advanced statistics:

Lee's slugging percentage was insane--that's one area where he far outpaced not only both of his competitors, but the entirety of major league baseball. Not only did he jack 46 home runs, but he also hit a butt-ton of doubles--50, to be exact. If you're looking to compare that to today's game, in 2019 we know that Big Swingin' Nick Castellanos went out of his mind and hit 58 doubles, and in 2018 Alex Bregman led the majors with 51 (perhaps aided by a trash can or some other such device). So not only was DLee hitting dingers, but he was hitting for extra bases and just, you know, hitting in general, hence that major league-leading .335 batting average. That said, Pujols was right there with him, offensively, outpacing him in runs and RBI.

So what conclusion can we really draw here? In hindsight, Pujols and Lee were much closer than the MVP vote would indicate, and probably should've finished one and two. I can't necessarily argue that Lee was robbed, but at the very least he should've probably finished a close second with Jones coming in third.

Oh, and there's that little matter of team standings. Lee likely fell victim to being on a Cubs team that finished in fourth place with a 79-83 record, while Pujols and Jones were both on division winning squads that year. If the Cubs had even made it to .500, there's a good chance DLee has an MVP trophy sitting on his mantle right now.

You can listen to Len talk about it right here, if you like!


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