Where Does the 2020 AL MVP Race Rank Among the Closest in MLB History?

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With four days left on baseball’s regular-season calendar, the voters for the American League MVP award must be waking up each night in a cold sweat.

Consider that, in SI’s AL awards check-in fewer than 10 days ago, the league’s current fWAR leader José Ramírez didn’t even get mentioned among the top 10 candidates. At the time of that story’s publication, he was hitting .263/.362/.515—perfectly respectable, but not necessarily MVP-worthy. Since then, the two-time All-Star has been scalding hot, batting .400/.462/1.000 in nine games to keep Cleveland within arm’s reach of first place in the division and thrusting himself firmly into the MVP conversation.

Sep 21, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez (11) celebrates his three-run home run in the first inning against the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field.

Sep 21, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez (11) celebrates his three-run home run in the first inning against the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field.

That conversation won’t be a short one. The list of viable contenders includes the likes Ramírez, José Abreu, Tim Anderson, DJ LeMahieu, Mike Trout and several others who deserve to be mentioned (and could conceivably win). Throw in a dominant pitching season from Shane Bieber, and this could be the most competitive MVP vote in decades.

That distinction would be hard-earned, as there is precedent for this type of crowded field. Examining past years’ voting history reveals several instances in which those with ballots could not come to a consensus. Here are a few that stand out:

2003 AL MVP

The best, most recent case of a fractured voting body is the 2003 AL MVP results. That year, Alex Rodríguez won his first of three MVP awards by receiving just six out of 28 first-place votes. Carlos Delgado and Jorge Posada each received five, finishing second and third, respectively. In all, a whopping nine different players got at least one first-place vote: Rodríguez, Delgado, Posada, Shannon Stewart (three), David Ortiz (four), and a quintet of Manny Ramírez, Nomar Garciaparra, Vernon Wells, Miguel Tejada and Jason Giambi with one apiece.

1999 AL MVP

The 2003 vote was only slightly more chaotic than the one that took place four years prior. Rangers catcher Iván Rodríguez took home the prize despite getting fewer first-place votes (seven) than the runner-up, Pedro Martínez (eight). Three other players—Manny Ramírez, Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro—all got four first-place votes, while Derek Jeter received one.

Any player can be named the MVP, of course, but a pitcher has won the award only 10 times since 1960. With Bieber a near-lock to win the Cy Young award this year, and no singular hitter likely to gain consensus, that could leave the door open for Bieber to take home both awards.

1979 NL MVP

This is among the strangest voting results in league history, and the only time there was a tie. Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell split the award, despite Stargell receiving 10 first-place votes to Hernandez’s four. Four of the 24 voters left Stargell off their ballots entirely, while Hernandez was the lone player to appear on every one. With a stacked AL field this year, we could be in for a scenario in which the player who wins is the player who gets slotted in the middle of voters’ ballots most often, rather than the one who gets the most first-place votes.

1960 AL MVP

Though the 1961 AL MVP race is more famous (Billy Crystal even made a movie about it), the 1960 version was the closer of the two. In both years, Roger Maris beat out teammate Mickey Mantle for the prize, though in 1960, Mantle actually received more first-place votes (10) than Maris (eight). Future Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson finished third and got three first-place votes.

It’s too soon to know how many eventual Hall of Famers are vying for this year’s hardware, but voters shouldn’t think too much about that hypothetical. With only a handful of games remaining, picking 10 names in the right order will be challenging enough as it is.

Quick Hits

• The Tampa Bay Rays clinched their first AL East championship since 2010 by beating the Mets, 8-5, at Citi Field. They celebrated in subdued style, with a mini-confetti toss during the post-game high-five line.

• Padres starter Mike Clevinger left Wednesday’s start against the Angels after just 12 pitches with pain in his right biceps, and underwent an MRI. The team is still waiting on results.

• Trevor Bauer made a strong case for his Cy Young award candidacy, striking out 12 batters over eight innings in a 6-1 win over Milwaukee. After strikeout No. 12, you could say he was feeling plenty confident.