Will Matt Kemp be the seventh MVP winner in the divisional era from a non-playoff team?
The National League Most Valuable Player award will be awarded at 11 a.m. PST on Tuesday, and Matt Kemp has a tall order against Ryan Braun of the playoff-bound Milwaukee Brewers. Thanks to a late-season push, the 2011 Dodgers don't carry the moniker of "losing team," but it is unclear if their 82-79 record was enough to boost Kemp's candidacy.
Since the divisional era began in 1995 (it was really 1994, but the World Series was canceled that year so let us never speak of this again), there have been 33 MVPs awarded, including Justin Verlander taking home the American League honors on Monday. Of those 33 MVP winners, 27 came from playoff teams, and all but one came from a winning team.
The teams of the 33 MVP winners since 1995 have a cumulative winning percentage of .573, a 93-win pace over a full season. Here is a look at the six MVP winners in the last 16 years to come from a team that watched the playoffs in October.
Larry Walker, 1997 Colorado Rockies (83-79)
For the second straight season, Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza lost his MVP to a divisional foe, but unlike Ken Caminiti in 1996 Walker didn't see the playoffs. Piazza had likely the greatest offensive season ever by a catcher, hitting .362 with 40 home runs but only managed three first place votes as Walker hit .366/.452/.720 on the moon and got 22 first place votes.
The Dodgers were 88-74 in 1997, finishing two games behind the San Francisco Giants. The highest MVP finishers from a playoff team were Jeff Bagwell (third, including three first place votes) and Craig Biggio (fourth) for the 84-78, NL Central-winning Houston Astros.
Barry Bonds, 2001 San Francisco Giants (90-72)
San Francisco was no slouch 10 years ago with 90 wins, finishing two games behind the division-winning Arizona Diamondbacks. But this was an easy choice, as Bonds set major league records with 73 home runs and an .863 slugging percentage, and his then-record 177 walks helped fuel his .515 on-base percentage. Bonds got 30 of 32 first-place votes, with Sammy Sosa and his 64 home runs for the 88-win Chicago Cubs getting the other two first-place votes.
The highest NL MVP finisher on a playoff team in 2001 was Luis Gonzalez, who had the quietest 57-home runs season in history yet had the last laugh with his season-ending bloop single in Game 7 of the World Series.
Alex Rodriguez, 2003 Texas Rangers (71-91)
After falling short despite having a legitimate claim to as many as four MVP awards, A-Rod finally broke through in what would be his final season in Texas. Rodriguez hit .298/.396/.600 with a league-leading 47 home runs in what was the worst of his three years with the Rangers.
The voting in 2003 was as splintered as you will ever see, with 10 different players receiving a first place vote. Rodriguez had the most first-place votes with six of a possible 28, and beat Carlos Delgado of the Toronto Blue Jays. The highest MVP finisher from a playoff team was third-place Jorge Posada of the New York Yankees, who hit .281/.405/.518 with 30 home runs.
Barry Bonds, 2004 San Francisco Giants (91-71)
Bonds and the Giants fell short of the playoffs thanks to the 93-win Dodgers, but it was hard to deny the .362/.609/.812 line from Bonds, which included a record 232 walks. If the on-base percentage and OPS records weren't enough for Bonds, there were also the 120 intentional walks.
Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Bonds overshadowed perhaps the finest season by a position player in Los Angeles Dodgers history. Adrian Beltre hit .334/.388/.629 and led the league with 48 home runs in his final season as a Dodger. Beltre (10.1) and Kemp (10.0) are the only two Los Angeles Dodger position players to eclipse double digits in Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement. Beltre got six first-place votes and finished second to Bonds, who got 24 first-place tallies.
Ryan Howard, 2006 Philadelphia Phillies (85-77)
In his first full season, Howard burst onto the scene with the gaudy numbers of 58 home runs and 149 RBI, both leading the National League, while hitting .313/.425/.659. The Phillies finished 12 games behind the New York Mets. Howard got 20 of 32 first-place votes, beating Albert Pujols, who hit .331/.431/.671 with 49 home runs and 137 RBI for the 83-win yet soon-to-be World Series-winning St. Louis Cardinals.
Albert Pujols, 2008 St. Louis Cardinals (86-76)
The shoe was on the other foot this season, as Pujols and his .357/.462/.653 campaign got 18 first-place votes compared to 12 for Howard, who hit .251/.339/.543 for the division-winning Philadelphia Phillies. Howard had the traditional advantage with 48 home runs and 146 RBI, compared to 37 home runs and 116 RBI for Pujols.
Looking back at these awards from non-playoff teams, in most cases it appears either a track record or a historically notable season was needed to win the MVP. Whether Matt Kemp's 2011 season was seen as special enough to overcome the Dodgers' lack of postseason play, we will find out later today.
Kemp's best shot might be for Prince Fielder to steal some votes from Braun, though by the end of the regular season the narrative seemed to be more tilted toward Kemp vs. Braun in a two-man race for MVP.