Here's something we know for certain about the American League MVP voting results, due out tomorrow: Even if Mike Trout does not win the award, he is still going to log one of the best voting finishes ever for a rookie.
As you know, only two rookies have ever won a league MVP award: Fred Lynn in 1975 and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. Beyond them, though, very few rookies have been given serious up-ballot MVP consideration. In fact, the complete list of freshmen receiving even a single first-place vote since 1947 (the year the Rookie of the Year Award was created) is a short one:
22 votes: Lynn, 1975
11: Ichiro, 2001
8: Joe Black, 1952
Tied with 1: Jackie Robinson, 1947; Larry Jansen, 1947; Al Dark, 1948; Minnie Minoso, 1951; Ron Hansen, 1960; Tom Tresh, 1962; Mark Fidrych, 1976; Fernando Valenzuela, 1981
That's 11 men over the course of 65 years receiving just 49 out of a possible 2,600 first-place MVP votes cast. As far as placement, high finishes by rookies have been rare. Again, starting in 1947, let's look at the best rookie finishes in MVP voting:
First Place: Fred Lynn, 1975; Ichiro Suzuki, 2001
Lynn received all but two of the first-place votes and they went to A's reliever Rollie Fingers. (The love for Fingers is perplexing in that he wasn't even the best reliever in the league, never mind best player. Rich Gossage beat him in even the most basic of stats; leading the league in saves and posting an ERA over a run lower.) Lynn, and to a lesser extent his teammate Jim Rice, was the story in the American League that year and the MVP talk was already underway by the time Lynn missed having a four-homer game by about a foot on June 18. After his three home runs and triple against the Tigers that night raised his line to .352/.417/.662, it seemed like a good idea to give the first MVP to a rookie.
The 2001 Mariners won 26 more games than they did the year before. When things like that happen, credit often goes to a newcomer who is seen as a catalyst for the upswing. There were two new position players on the Mariners who could be cast in this role by voters in 2001: Ichiro and second baseman Bret Boone. After slathering awards on RBI-heavy players like Juan Gonzalez in the previous decade, the voters ignored Boone's gaudy league-leading 141 RBI and gave the award instead to Ichiro, who led the league in hits, batting average and stolen bases. He was a decent choice made even better by his unique backstory.
Third Place: Al Dark, 1948; Joe Black, 1952; Jim Rice, 1975
Dark finished ahead of teammate Bob Elliott in the '48 MVP balloting in spite of the fact that Elliott had won the MVP the season before with a fairly similar outing. His batting average dropped by 34 points, but he added 44 walks and actually ended up with a better OBP. The Boston Braves won the pennant in '48, though, so Dark, a scrappy shortstop, was seen as the catalyst for that, having not been there the year before.
Black (Dodgers) and Hoyt Wilhelm (Giants) placed third and fourth in the NL voting in 1952 and one-two in the Rookie of the Year voting. They were relievers, both old rookies at 28 and 29 respectively and they posted similar records: 15-4/2.15 ERA for Black and 15-3/2.43. This would prove to be the best MVP finish for a pair of rookies until teammates Lynn and Rice finished one-three in 1975. Rice's high finish in the MVP voting that season seems inexplicable in hindsight as there were a host of players who had better seasons than he did who did not get similar support. The Rice-Lynn thing was something of a phenomenon, though, and both got credit for taking the Red Sox to the playoffs for the first time in eight years. The rookie tandem aspect had a lot of novelty value to it and the voters got swept up in it - which isn't to say Lynn wasn't a good choice for MVP, but Rice definitely benefitted from the infatuation with Triple Crown stats that long prevailed in MVP voting. This is a problem that has, thankfully, been eliminated by today's more analytic-minded voters.
Fourth Place: Minnie Minoso, 1951; Hoyt Wilhelm, 1952; Tony Oliva, 1964; Carlton Fisk, 1972; Albert Pujols, 2001
Minoso was the first non-Rookie of the Year to finish higher in the MVP voting than did the Rookie of the Year himself, who was, in this case, Gil McDougald of the Yankees. He came in ninth. This is not to say that McDougald was the wrong choice for the ROY award. He and Minoso had seasons that were very close in quality and the closeness of the ROY voting reflected that with McDougald getting 13 votes and Minoso 11 (there were no down-ballot votes for that award in those days).
What makes Minoso's MVP showing even more interesting is that he split his season between two teams, the Indians sent him to the White Sox after 17 plate appearances as part of a complicated three-way trade that also involved the A's. This deal doesn't make the lists of worst all-time trades, but maybe it should. The Indians came away from it with Lou Brissie who would win seven games over the next three seasons. Meanwhile, Minoso became one of the best hitters in the league. Playing what-if for a moment, consider the 1954 Indians with Minoso in their outfield instead of Dave Philley (who was, coincidentally, also part of that three-way trade in 1951). Philley had a WAR of -0.5 in 1954 while Minoso rang up an 8.0 for Chicago. How many more games than their incredible 111 would Cleveland have won if they Minoso instead of Philley? Wouldn't 117-37 look pretty cool in the record books?
In an effort to determine who had the best rookie season of all time, Dayn Perry has compiled a list of the finest rookie performances ever. Tony Oliva's 1964 effort makes it as does Dick Allen's concurrent outing over in the National League. Oliva's fourth-place finish in the MVP vote seems about right, but Allen should have finished higher than seventh. He might have actually won the award if the Phillies hadn't collapsed in the stretch that year, giving Cardinals third baseman Ken Boyer the inside track. Of course, as was usually the case in that period, Willie Mays was the real MVP.
Carlton Fisk's 1972 season is probably the best ever for a rookie catcher. His WAR of 7.0 is better than all inaugural seasons of the other Hall of Fame backstops. He even led the league in triples. Pujols was the unanimous choice for ROY in 2001. Not all unanimous-choice ROY have fared as well as he did in the MVP voting, however. Frank Robinson finished seventh in 1956. Orlando Cepeda finished ninth in 1958. Willie McCovey finished 22nd, but, of course, he only played in 52 games, so it's a testament to what he did that he even got down-ballot MVP support.
Fifth Place: Jackie Robinson, 1947; Ron Hansen, 1960; Fernando Valenzuela, 1981
In 1947, there was only one Rookie of the Year award for both leagues and Robinson beat out Larry Jansen of the Giants 129 vote points to 105 to claim it. As we saw above, both got a first-place vote for MVP. At 21-5, Jansen led the league in winning percentage, which was a big draw for voters. Robinson did well to finish that high in that he had a few teammates that had better seasons than he did. One of them was not Dodger catcher Bruce Edwards, though, and yet Edwards finished fourth in the MVP voting that year. Not having been there, we have to assume the MVP voters thought Edwards was adding leadership or special guidance to the pitching staff or something. In any case, he certainly wasn't doing what Robinson was doing in the grander scheme of things.
Hansen burst on the scene in 1960 as a slick-fielding shortstop with some pop as he cracked 22 home runs to help the Orioles improve by 15 games over 1959. It's hard to believe there was a voter that thought he was a more valuable player than top vote getters Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, but it's certainly not the strangest MVP vote ever placed. Unfortunately for Hansen, he only hit his rookie heights a couple more times and is remembered today mostly as the author of one of baseball's few unassisted triples plays.
Valenzuela's high finish coincided with his becoming the only rookie to ever win the Cy Young award. Since then, rookie pitcher sightings on MVP vote totals have been sporadic: Dwight Gooden (15th in 1984), Tom Henke (20th in 1985), Todd Worrell (16th in 1986), Gregg Olson (12th in 1989), Roy Oswalt (22nd in 2001), Dontrelle Willis (34th in 2003), Huston Street (23rd in 2005), Justin Verlander (15th in 2006) and Craig Kimbrel (23rd in 2011).
Mike Trout's place in all this
How will Trout fare compared to previous rookies? All points well made to the contrary, it seems likely that he will become the first rookie ever to finish second in the MVP voting. He could finish second and still become the second-highest recipient of first-place votes for a rookie behind Lynn. He could get 12 or 13 first-place votes and still lose to the award to Miguel Cabrera while, at the same time, besting Ichiro's 2001 count of 11. Not that that is any consolation.