MLB Notebook: Historic Yanks/Sox MVP battles

MLB Notebook: Historic Yanks/Sox MVP battles

MLB Notebook: Historic Yanks/Sox MVP battles
On the morning of Sept. 1, 2011, the Red Sox and Yankees held the two best records in the American League, with Boston leading New York by 1 1/2 games. On this same morning, the respective center fielders for these two clubs -- Jacoby Ellsbury and Curtis Granderson -- were maintaining a bold presence on the ever-sharpening list of potential Most Valuable Player candidates.

Granderson was leading the league in runs, triples and RBIs, was second in home runs and stood third in slugging percentage. Ellsbury was second in runs and third in steals and total bases, was batting .313 with a .371 on-base and .526 slugging percentage, and had 63 extra-base hits. With a month left in the regular season, the landscape looked ripe for yet another Red Sox-Yankees fight to the finish, and Ellsbury and Granderson were placing the newest stamps on a long history of individual challenges for positional supremacy within this storied rivalry.

While the divisional race fizzled, and while neither center fielder ultimately captured the AL MVP, the twin seasons compiled by Ellsbury and Granderson do stand out, for it had been rare that a Red Sox center fielder and a Yankees center fielder both constructed such outstanding offensive years in the same season.

On the other hand, some of the other positions across the diamond have enjoyed a rich lineage of individual players at the same position in the same year vying for bragging rights. Here is a survey of some of these instances: a season in which a Red Sox player and a member of the Yankees, each sharing the same primary position, put up valuable and memorable lines of numbers and added to the shared heritage of these two clashing franchises.

First Base: Jimmie Foxx vs. Lou Gehrig, 1936
In a season overbrimming with exceptional years by first basemen, two of the greatest chiseled out magnificent campaigns. Boston's Foxx collected 369 total bases, hit 41 homers, drove in 143 runs and had a 1.071 OPS. Foxx was an All-Star at first base (no mean feat that year) and finished 11th in MVP voting. The Red Sox finished in sixth place, 28 1/2 games behind the pennant-winning Yankees. New York, which scored 1,065 runs and won the World Series, was led by first baseman Gehrig, who paced the AL in runs (167) home runs (49), walks (130), on-base percentage (.478) and slugging (.696) while driving in 152 runs and collecting 403 total bases. Gehrig started at first for the AL All-Star team and won his second MVP.

Second Base: Bobby Doerr vs. Snuffy Stirnweiss, 1944
While outfield icons Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams participated in the war effort in 1944, a pair of infielders waged their own battle for superiority. For the Red Sox, future Hall of Famer Doerr led the AL with a .528 slugging percentage, batted a career high .325 and compiled a career best 165 OPS+. Doerr made his fourth straight All-Star team, finished seventh in MVP voting, and helped lead his Red Sox club to a fourth place finish at 77-77. Meanwhile, in New York, Stirnweiss led the league in runs (125), hits (205), triples (16) and steals (55), batted .319, and finished fourth in MVP voting. New York finished in third, six games ahead of the Red Sox.

Shortstop: Nomar Garciaparra vs. Derek Jeter, 1999
1999 hovers as a mountainous year for the two shortstops and probably the apex of the individual rivalry between two ballplayers who looked like they were ready for a decade-long battle. That season, both Nomar and Jeter were in their age-25 season, both were named to the All-Star team (with Garciaparra starting), each finished in the Top 10 in MVP voting (Jeter sixth, Garciaparra seventh) and they met one another in the LCS. Garciaparra won his first batting title with a .357 mark and had the third-highest raw OPS (1.022) for a shortstop in the modern era. Jeter led the league with 219 hits (at the time, the most for a shortstop in the modern era), scored 134 runs, batted .349 and knocked out 24 homers. Each posted a 153 OPS+ -- still tied for the 24th best in the modern era for a shortstop.

Third Base: Mike Lowell vs. Alex Rodriguez, 2007
In his second year with the Red Sox, Lowell helped Boston break New York's nine-year run of AL East titles, and then captured the World Series MVP as the Sox won their second title in four years. During the regular season, Lowell batted .324, slugged .501, drove in 120, and finished fifth in MVP voting while making the All-Star team. The second-place finish by the Yankees was no fault of AL MVP Alex Rodriguez, who assembled one of the greatest offensive seasons for a third baseman. Setting new high marks at the position for homers (54) and RBIs (156), Rodriguez scored 143 runs and put up a 176 OPS+ -- tied for the sixth highest for a third baseman since 1901.

Left Field: Ted Williams vs. Charlie Keller, 1942
In 1942, the two most productive offensive players (by OPS+) in the AL resided in left field. Keller was the runner-up that season, and was also second in the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS and walks. He was also third in homers, RBIs and total bases; despite this many-faceted presence on the leaderboards, Keller finished 14th in MVP voting. But then again, the voting for AL MVP in 1942 still causes a fair amount of consternation. In all of those categories where Keller finished either second or third, Williams led. Williams led the league in 10 offensive categories and won the Triple Crown (the first for an American Leaguer since Gehrig in 1934), somehow managing to not disappoint the year after batting .406. Despite all of this, Williams finished second to Keller's teammate Joe Gordon in MVP voting.

Center Field: Ellsbury vs. Granderson, 2011
Ellsbury led the AL in total bases (364) and extra-base hits (83), and became the third AL center fielder ever with a 30-30 season. While compiling the most extra-base hits by a Red Sox center fielder, Ellsbury made his first All-Star team, won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger award, and finished second in MVP voting. Granderson, who was named as an All-Star starter and also collected a Silver Slugger award, became just the third AL center fielder over the past 56 seasons to lead the league in runs and RBIs (joining Mickey Mantle in 1956 and Ken Griffey, Jr. in 1997). He also finished in the top five in the AL in slugging, triples, homers and extra-base hits. With Ellsbury collecting 83 extra-base hits and Granderson totaling 77, 2011 marked the third time in AL history a pair of center fielder each had at least 77 in the same season.

Right Field: Dwight Evans vs. Dave Winfield, 1984
Evans had debuted for the Red Sox as a 20-year old in 1972; one year later, Winfield made his Major League debut as a 21-year-old. More than a decade later, these two veterans each assembled outstanding seasons in the AL East. Still with Boston, Evans led the league in with a .920 OPS and 121 runs scored, belted out 32 homers, drew 96 walks, and finished 11th in MVP voting while capturing his seventh Gold Glove. Boston finished in fourth place. Winfield, in the fourth year of his enormous free-agent deal with the Yankees, finished second in the league in batting at .340, drove in 100 runs for the third straight year, was an All-Star, Silver Slugger and Gold Glover, and finished eighth in MVP voting. Winfield's Yankees finished one game better than Boston. Winfield and Evans finished third and fourth, respectively, in OPS+ in the AL.

Catcher: Carlton Fisk vs. Thurman Munson, 1977
More than three decades after the fact, these two still seem perfectly emblematic of the rivalry, its inherent animosity, and how seemingly, everything within this rivalry was contested and subject to gamesmanship. In '77, Fisk emerged on top with one of the very best seasons of his Hall of Fame career. Playing in more than 150 games (which included 149 starts at catcher), Fisk hit 26 home runs, drove in more than 100, had a .922 OPS and a 138 OPS+ (at the time, the third best for an AL catcher with at least 140 games behind the plate). A year removed from his MVP season, Munson didn't quite have the pop or patience displayed by Fisk, but he started 136 games behind the dish, batted .308, drove in 100, and had his third straight season with an OPS+ of at least 120. Munson finished seventh in MVP voting while the Yankees captured their second straight pennant. Fisk finished one spot behind Munson in balloting for the MVP, and his Red Sox finished 2 1/2 games behind New York.

Historic Red Sox-Yankees Positional Battles
Jimmie Foxx, 1936 .338 .440 .631 1.071 155 5.5 41 143 369
Lou Gehrig, 1936 .354 .478 .696 1.174 190 9.8 49 152 403
Bobby Doerr, 1944 .325 .399 .528 .927 165 6.4 15 81 247
Stuffy Stirnweiss, 1944 .319 .389 .460 .849 138 7.6 8 43 296
Nomar Garciaparra, 1999 .357 .418 .603 1.022 153 6.5 27 104 321
Derek Jeter, 1999 .349 .438 .552 .989 153 8 24 102 346
Mike Lowell, 2007 .324 .378 .501 .879 124 5.1 21 120 295
Alex Rodriguez, 2007 .314 .422 .645 1.067 176 9.9 54 156 376
Ted Williams, 1942 .356 .499 .648 1.147 216 11 36 137 338
Charlie Keller, 1942 .292 .417 .513 .930 163 7.2 26 108 279
Jacoby Ellsbury, 2011 .321 .376 .552 .928 146 7.2 32 105 364
Curtis Granderson, 2011 .262 .364 .552 .916 138 5.2 41 119 322
Dwight Evans, 1984 .295 .388 .532 .920 147 5 32 104 335
Dave Winfield, 1984 .340 .393 .515 .908 154 5.7 19 100 292
Carlton Fisk, 1977 .315 .402 .521 .922 138 6.8 26 102 279
Thurman Munson, 1977 .308 .351 .462 .813 121 4.4 18 100 275
Bold = led league

Roger Schlueter is senior researcher for MLB Productions. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.