In 1971, Bobby Murcer hit .331 with a .427 on-base percentage. He was the most effective offensive performer in the league, evidenced by the statistical measure that best adjusts for league and park conditions, OPS+; Murcer posted a league-high 181 in that category. He also manned one of the game’s most important defensive positions, centerfield, and presumably did so at a level close to that which would earn him a Gold Glove the following season. Despite all these accomplishments, Murcer finished seventh in the MVP voting. The player directly in front of him in sixth place in the voting, Freddie Patek, hit .267 with a .323 on-base percentage and six home runs. Patek did play one of the only positions on the field arguably more important than centerfield, but he didn’t win a Gold Glove at that position in 1971 or in any other year. So how did voters determine that he was more valuable to his team than Bobby Murcer?
Well, I wasn’t old enough to be paying attention in 1971, but I do know that when I did get old enough to know who Freddie Patek was, I associated him with one thing, his size. More specifically, as a baseball fan I absorbed and reflected the prevailing attitude of faintly patronizing awe and admiration toward Freddie Patek. Little Freddie Patek! Not even tall enough to ride the carnival rides! But still out there bravely turning double plays with the likes of Don Baylor and Reggie Jackson hurling their hulking frames at the second base bag!
I’m travelling a well-beaten path blazed by Bill James here, but the key to understanding such things as the 1971 MVP voting that ranked Freddie Patek higher than Bobby Murcer is that baseball has levels of varying visibility, and just about everything Freddie Patek did well or even competently was abundantly visible and cause for celebration by the fans. He was a good bunter. He was a good base-stealer. He was a good fielder. All three of these things can be noticed from the cheap seats and cheered for. In a sense, the fans are cheering not only for the player who executed the play but in at least some small way cheering for themselves as knowledgeable, observant baseball fans; this element is at its height in the moment after a guy grounds out to second to move a runner to third. (A walk, on the other hand, can only be clapped for politely, at best, even though it is in almost all situations more valuable than a bunt and in most situations more valuable than a steal.)
And if the guy performing well on the visible level (which also includes the even more dubious or at least impossible to measure value of, for example “being fiery” or “being a good teammate”) is 5’4″ tall (as Freddie Patek is listed as being on the back of this 1978 card), then the applause will have an added spark to it. Call it happiness. I mean, let’s face it, it’s just fun to watch a little guy mix it up out there with the hulking behemoths. I know I certainly always liked Freddie Patek.
And now, similarly, I find myself drawn to Dustin Pedroia. (In fact, earlier this year I talked about him so much that my wife accused me of being in love with him.) I was thrilled when I heard yesterday that Pedroia had been awarded the A.L. MVP. As a Red Sox fan, I followed the team closely this year, and he certainly seemed to contribute a daily spark that the often injury- and controversy-beleaguered team would have been lost and joyless without. Beyond his excellence in the “visible” realm as a fiery double-smashing, base-stealing, dirty-uniformed little guy, he also had inarguably good offensive numbers, and impressed enough observers with his fielding to win a Gold Glove at a very important position.
But was he more valuable than his teammate Kevin Youkilis? It’s an interesting question, and one Tony Massoratti does a great job of exploring in today’s Boston Globe.
But I ain’t complaining. Pedroia’s a deserving winner, and I’m just glad a Red Sox player got the trophy. I would have been just as happy, if not moreso, if Youkilis had become the first Jewish A.L. MVP since Al Rosen. But today should be about congratulating the winner, so I think I’ll just wrap things up with something of a tribute to Pedroia (and Freddie Patek): my hastily thrown-together all-time small guy team, featuring a Hall of Famer at every position…
C: Yogi Berra, 5’7½”
1B: Buck Leonard, 5’10″
2B: Joe Morgan, 5’7″
SS: Phil Rizzuto, 5’6″
3B: Ray Dandridge, 5’7″
OF: Wee Willie Keeler, 5’4½”
OF: Kirby Puckett, 5’8″
OF: Hack Wilson, 5’6″
P: Bullet Joe Rogan, 5’7″
(Love versus Hate update: Freddie Patek’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)