Josh Hamilton and the (Slow) Demise of the “Stretch Drive”?

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At first blush, it seems there’s nothing particularly notable about Josh Hamilton’s winning the American League MVP last week. He’s a popular ballplayer with a compelling personal narrative, and he had a fine season for a winning team. That’s a prototype that appeals to your garden-variety BBWAA voter. Insofar as the numbers are concerned, there wasn’t much to separate one serious AL MVP candidate from another, but Hamilton is a perfectly defensible choice and perhaps, depending upon your criteria, the best choice. None of this, however, is what struck me about his selection.

What I found interesting is that Hamilton barely played in September. Received wisdom tells us that September is the most clarifying, mettle-testing month of all — the intoxicating power of “the stretch drive” and all that. Hamilton, though, appeared in just five regular season games in September and October, the majority of which occurred after his Rangers had already clinched the belt and the title. In fact, no MVP in the era of the modern schedule (i.e., since 1961, when the regular-season schedule expanded to 162 games) has logged fewer September/October plate appearances than Hamilton did this season (obviously, pitchers who won the MVP and both MVPs of the strike-truncated 1994 season are exempted). The numbers …

Rank MVP Sept./Oct. PAs
1 Josh Hamilton, 2010 (AL) 18
2 Reggie Jackson, 1973 (AL) 63
3 Kirk Gibson, 1988 (NL) 80
4 Elston Howard, 1963 (AL) 82
5 Joe Morgan, 1975 (NL) 84
T-6 Mickey Mantle, 1962 (AL) 88
T-6 Larry Walker, 1997 (NL) 88
8 George Brett, 1980 (AL) 89
9 Frank Robinson, 1961 (NL) 90
T-10 Orlando Cepeda, 1967 (NL) 92
T-10 Barry Larkin, 1995 (NL) 92

It’s one thing to give the MVP to someone who, like Reggie in ’73 and Gibson in ’88, missed some time because of injury, but it’s another thing to give it someone like Hamilton, who logged just 18 plate appearances.

MVP standards will always shift like the dunes. One year, contention matters. The next year, pitchers aren’t allowed to win. The next year, it’s an RBI contest. The year after that, it’s a premium defender over the “left side of the spectrum” slugger. And so on and on. Likewise, some years the September numbers are given primacy (witness the arguments marshaled in favor of Ryan Howard in 2006), and other years they aren’t. But never have they been so thoroughly ignored as this. Part of it is that the Rangers had a robust lead in the West at the time of Hamilton’s injury, and as such their September wasn’t so critical. Still, though, 18 plate appearances?

In the past, some players who played regularly but struggled in September — even in the throes of a tight race — have been awarded the MVP. But this can be owing to, say, defensive contributions, misplaced notions of value based on stats like RBI and batting average, or the elevation of things like presence, leadership, and other variants of je ne sais quoi. In other words, mainstream voters can explain away a candidate who posts a bad WAR for the stretch drive. They haven’t, until now, dismissed almost total absence.

Lest it seem otherwise, I should say I think this is a good thing. Hindsight tells us that, for a team missing the postseason by a single game, the 11-4 loss on April 11 was no less damaging than the 2-1 defeat on September 30. It doesn’t seem that way at the time, certainly, but “heat of the moment” perceptions are often too clever by half.

None of this is to suggest that Hamilton’s triumph implies a shift as tectonic as what’s happened to the Cy Young balloting in recent seasons. But maybe it’s the start of something.

We hoped you liked reading Josh Hamilton and the (Slow) Demise of the “Stretch Drive”? by Dayn Perry!

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The Hit Dog
The Hit Dog

Good stuff. Looking forward to more.