By Cliff Corcoran

Willie Mays turned 86 on Saturday. Mays is arguably the greatest living baseball player, and, in the minds of some, the greatest player who ever lived. However, as his career continues to recede into the past, I have a growing sense that the enormity of his greatness is underappreciated. I believe there are several reasons for this. His contributions in the field and on the bases are difficult to properly quantify; the ballparks and era in which he played suppressed his hitting and baserunning statistics; after his age-23 season, his Giants teams made it to only one World Series, which they lost; and the era's MVP voters repeatedly undervalued his performances, that last point likely due in part to the previous two.

Over a 13-season span from 1954-66, Mays hit .315/.390/.601 (166 OPS+) while averaging 40 home runs, 109 RBI, 117 runs scored, 21 steals, nine triples and 9.5 wins above replacement (Baseball-Reference version, or bWAR) per season. That's an MVP-level performance, which Mays sustained over 13 seasons (by way of comparison, last year's National League MVP Award winner, Kris Bryant, posted a 150 OPS+ and 7.7 bWAR). How is it possible that Mays won the award only twice over that span? How many times in those 13 seasons did a deserving Mays season go unrewarded? To find the answer, let's take a quick look at each season.

Bold indicates league leader, and bold and italics indicates Major League leader. Weighted runs created plus (wRC+) is comparable to OPS+ in that both are park-adjusted total-offense statistics set against a league average of 100, however wRC+ gives appropriate weight to on-base percentage relative to slugging.


Mays: .345/.411/.667 (173 wRC+), 41 HR, 110 RBIs, 119 R, 13 3B, 10.6 bWAR

MVP: Mays

After spending most of 1952 and all of 1953 in the Army, Mays returned to the Giants for his age-23 season and led New York to 97 wins and the pennant and, after the votes were submitted, a four-game sweep of the 111-win Indians in a World Series best remembered for his catch of Vic Wertz's 440-foot fly ball in the Polo Grounds.

Who should have won: Mays


Mays: .319/.400/.659 (172 wRC+), 51 HR, 127 RBIs, 123 R, 13 3B, 24 SB (86%), 9.0 bWAR

MVP: Roy Campanella, C, Dodgers -- .318/.395/.583 (150 wRC+), 32 HR, 107 RBIs, 81 R, 5.2 bWAR

Also: Duke Snider, CF, Dodgers -- .309/.418/.628 (164 wRC+), 42 HR, 136 RBIs, 126 R, 8.6 bWAR

Campanella won his third and final NL MVP Award for a Dodgers team that won the NL pennant by 13 1/2 games. Mays' Giants finished third at 80-74, 18 1/2 games back. However, per bWAR, Campanella was the third-most-valuable Dodger that year, behind Snider and ace righty Don Newcombe (who hit .357/.395/.632 to boost his overall bWAR to 5.3). Snider and Campy both got eight first-place votes, but Campanella won the award with 226 overall points to Snider's 221. Campy clearly got extra credit for his catching, which is not inappropriate, as bWAR doesn't capture the impact of framing. Still, even if you credit him two extra wins for framing, which is typically a lead-leaguing figure, he falls well short of Mays and Snider, both of whom were excellent fielders in their own right. Snider comes closer, but Mays, who finished fourth in the voting without a single first-place tally, was again the league's best and most valuable player.

Who should have won: Mays


Mays: .296/.369/.557 (143 wRC+), 36 HR, 84 RBIs, 101 R, 40 SB (80%), 7.6 bWAR

MVP: Don Newcombe, LHP, Dodgers -- 27-7, 3.06 ERA (131 ERA+), 0.99 WHIP, 3.02 K/BB, 268 IP (5.4 bWAR)

Also: Duke Snider, CF, Dodgers -- .292/.399/.598 (156 wRC+), 43 HR, 101 RBIs, 91 R, 7.6 bWAR

The Dodgers won the pennant again, the Giants sank to sixth place with an 67-87 record and Newcombe, who didn't contribute nearly as much with his bat this season, won both the MVP and the first ever Cy Young Award, primarily because of that outstanding 27-7 record. Snider finished 10th with just one first-place vote. Mays finished 17th with none. Both should have fared better, but it was the Duke who was robbed this time.

Who should have won: Snider


Mays: .333/.407/.626 (170 wRC+), 35 HR, 97 RBIs, 112 R, 20 3B, 38 SB (67%), 8.3 bWAR

MVP: Hank Aaron, RF/CF, Braves -- .322/.378/.600 (164 wRC+), 44 HR, 132 RBIs, 118 R, 8.0 bWAR

With the Giants still languishing in sixth place, the Braves won their first pennant in nine years with the 23-year-old Aaron putting up outstanding triple-crown numbers and making 69 starts in center. Meanwhile, Mays' Major League-leading stolen base total was undermined by 19 times caught stealing. Still, Mays was both the better fielder and -- per on-base percentage, slugging and the park-adjusted wRC+ -- the better hitter. By virtue of appearing second on most Mays ballots, Aaron might still win this one if it were held today, but Mays, who finished fourth with just one first-place votes, was the more valuable player.

Who should have won: Mays


Mays: .347/.419/.583 (162 wRC+), 29 HR, 96 RBI, 121 R, 31 SB (84%), 10.2 bWAR

MVP: Ernie Banks, SS, Cubs -- .313/.366/.614 (151 wRC+), 47 HR, 129 RBIs, 119 R, 11 3B, 9.4 bWAR

The Giants won eight more games than the Cubs in 1958, but MVP voters were more concerned about triple-crown stats than on-base percentage and park factors. The latter of those take on increasing significance in this study with the Giants' move to San Francisco, though they wouldn't move into Candlestick Park until 1960, playing their first two west-coast season in the Pacific Coast League's Seals Stadium. In this case, Mays' 53-point advantage in OBP, park-adjusted slugging, and the improvement in his stolen base efficiency rendered him even more valuable than a slick-fielding shortstop who clubbed 47 home runs. However, just three voters agreed in 1958, and Mays finished second in the balloting.

Who should have won: Mays


Mays: .313/.381/.555 (152 wRC+), 34 HR, 104 RBIs, 125 R, 27 SB (87%), 7.8 bWAR

MVP: Ernie Banks, SS, Cubs -- .304/.374/.596 (147 wRC+), 45 HR, 143 RBIs, 97 R, 10.2 bWAR

Also: Hank Aaron, RF, Braves -- .355/.401/.636 (175 wRC+), 39 HR, 123 RBIs, 116 R, 223 H, 8.6 bWAR

The Braves and Giants finished second and third, respectively, while Aaron was the best hitter in the Majors. Banks, however, drove in more runs than any National Leaguer in 22 years, setting a still-extant record for most RBI by an NL shortstop. Ironically, while that would make him appear to be an old-school choice, Total Zone rates him as having been 3.5 wins above replacement in the field, a suspiciously high evaluation given the limited accuracy of defensive stats, particularly when applied retroactively. Great as Banks was, I favor Aaron (who also stole eight bases in eight attempts and finished third in the voting) this year. No matter which one of those two you prefer, the important point for our purposes here is that this was one year Mays, who finished sixth, was not robbed of the MVP.

Who should have won: Aaron


Mays: .319/.381/.555 (155 wRC+), 29 HR, 103 RBIs, 107 R, 12 3B, 25 SB (71%), 9.5 bWAR

MVP: Dick Groat, SS, Pirates -- .325/.371/.394 (116 wRC+), 2 HR, 50 RBIs, 85 R, 6.2 bWAR

Also: Hank Aaron, RF, Braves -- .292/.352/.566 (150 wRC+), 40 HR, 126 RBIs, 102 R, 11 3B, 16 SB (70%), 8.0 bWAR

Groat was a slick-fielding shortstop who won the batting title for pennant winner, but he wasn't the same class of player as Mays (who led the league in hits and trailed Groat by just six points of batting average) or Aaron, in this season or any other. The Braves finished second, seven games behind Groat's Pirates. The Giants were back in fifth place at 79-75. As in 1957, I could understand Aaron winning this one, but Mays, by virtue of his edge in on-base percentage, as well as on the bases and in the field, was still the better and, thus, more valuable player. Amazingly, neither Aaron nor Mays received a single first-place vote. Mays finished third in the voting, Aaron an inexplicable 11th.

Who should have won: Mays


Mays: .308/.393/.584 (156 wRC+), 40 HR, 123 RBIs, 129 R, 18 SB (67%), 8.7 bWAR

MVP: Frank Robinson, RF/LF, Reds -- .323/.404/.611 (156 wRC+), 37 HR, 124 RBIs, 117 R, 22 SB (88%), 7.7 bWAR

Also: Hank Aaron, CF/RF, Braves -- .327/.381/.594 (153 wRC+), 34 HR, 120 RBIs, 115 R, 10 3B, 21 SB (70%), 9.4 bWAR

Mays, Aaron and Robinson were of roughly identical value at the plate in 1961, while Robinson was the one that played for the pennant winner (the Giants finished third, the Braves fourth) and, surprisingly, was the most efficient and prolific base stealer. However, he was also the least impactful fielder. Aaron started 80 games in center and turned in his best defensive season per Total Zone Rating, but, unlike the previous three seasons, he did not win a Gold Glove, which Mays did. I'm not sure there's a wrong answer among these three, which makes it difficult to argue that Mays was robbed, but all else effectively being equal, Mays being a full-time center fielder, and an elite defensive one at that, breaks the tie for me. Amazingly, again, neither Mays nor Aaron received a first-place vote, finishing sixth and eight, respectively.

Who should have won: Mays


Mays: .304/.384/.615 (163 wRC+), 49 HR, 141 RBIs, 130 R, 18 SB (90%), 10.5 bWAR

MVP: Maury Wills, SS, Dodgers -- .299/.347/.373 (103 wRC+), 6 HR, 48 RBIs, 130 R, 10 3B, 104 SB (76%), 6.0 bWAR

Also: Frank Robinson, RF, Reds -- .342/.421/.624 (171 wRC+), 39 HR, 136 RBIs, 134 R, 51 2B, 18 SB (67%), 8.7 bWAR

The Dodgers and Giants had to play a three-game playoff to decide the pennant, with San Francisco emerging victorious in the third and final game. The MVP vote was nearly as close, with Wills, who set the single-season stolen base record, getting eight first-place votes to Mays' seven and winning 209 points to 202. Transformative as Wills' season was, Mays was clearly far more valuable. Robinson, who was as valuable as Mays at the plate but simply didn't measure up in the field, finished fourth with two first-place votes.

Who should have won: Mays


Mays: .314/.380/.582 (174 wRC+), 38 HR, 103 RBIs, 115 R, 10.6 bWAR

MVP: Sandy Koufax, LHP, Dodgers -- 25-5, 306 K, 1.88 ERA (159 ERA+), 0.88 WHIP, 5.28 K/BB, 11 SHO, 311 IP, 9.9 bWAR

Hank Aaron (178 wRC+) had a better season at the plate and on the bases (31-for-36 in steals) than Mays (8-for-11). Meanwhile, Cubs lefty Dick Ellsworth led the league in ERA+ (167), having posted a 2.11 ERA while pitching his home games in the far-less-pitcher-friendly confines of Wrigley Field, effectively tying Koufax with a 10.0 bWAR. However, Ellsworth was far more reliant on his defense. Koufax's dominance was justly rewarded not only with the MVP (via 14 of the 20 first-place votes) but as the unanimous Cy Young Award winner at a time when there was still just one award for both leagues. Aaron finished third in the MVP voting with one first place vote; Mays finished fifth with none. Ellsworth finished tied for 19th.

Who should have won: Koufax


Mays: .296/.383/.607 (173 wRC+), 47 HR, 111 RBIs, 121 R, 19 SB (79%), 11.0 bWAR

MVP: Ken Boyer, 3B, Cardinals -- .295/.365/.489 (130 wRC+), 24 HR, 119 RBIs, 100 R, 10 3B, 6.1 bWAR

Boyer was a respected, slick-fielding veteran who led the Majors in RBIs for a pennant winner, and he did lead the Cardinals in bWAR, though one could argue the late-arriving Lou Brock was St. Louis's most valuable player in 1964. However, in that wild year in which the top five teams in the league finished within five games on one another, the final standings should have been more irrelevant than ever. Mays' Giants finished just three games behind the Cardinals, and Mays was far and away the league's best player that year. What's more, with the Giants three games out with four left to play, Mays went 8-for-16 with three homers, two doubles and just one strikeout to finish the year. Nonetheless, he didn't receive a single first-place vote. Of all of the times Mays was robbed of the MVP, this was the most egregious.

Who should have won: Mays


Mays: .317/.398/.645 (186 wRC+), 52 HR, 112 RBIs, 118 R, 11.2 bWAR

MVP: Mays

The Giants finished two games behind the pennant-winning Dodgers thanks in part to the best statistical season of Mays' career. Despite being 34 years old, Mays set career highs in bWAR, wRC+ and home runs; won his ninth of 12 straight Gold Gloves; and edged out Koufax to finally win his second and final NL MVP Award.

Who should have won: Mays


Mays: .288/.368/.556 (151 wRC+), 37 HR 103 RBIs, 99 R, 9.0 bWAR

MVP: Roberto Clemente, RF, Pirates -- .317/.360/.536 (143 wRC+), 29 HR, 119 RBIs, 105 R, 11 3B, 8.2 bWAR

Also: Sandy Koufax, LHP, Dodgers -- 27-9, 317 K, 1.73 ERA (190 ERA+), 0.99 WHIP, 4.12 K/BB, 27 CG, 5 SHO, 323 IP, 9.8 bWAR

The Dodgers, Giants and Pirates finished in that order atop the NL, with the Giants just one game out of first place in the loss column. Again, Mays didn't receive a single first-place vote, though he did finish third in the voting behind Clemente, who had the higher batting average and more RBIs, and Koufax, who actually led in first-place votes with nine to Clemente's eight. However, Clemente won the overall vote 218 to 208. Koufax retired that November.

Who should have won: Koufax

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Beyond the number of times Mays was stiffed, it's alarming to note that the NL MVP voters gave the award to the right player just three times in these 13 seasons, two of those being the two awards Mays did win. Beyond those two awards in 1954 and 1965, however, Mays should also have won in 1955, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1961, 1962 and 1964. That's seven MVPs he should have won but didn't, which would have taken his career total to an unprecedented nine MVP trophies, two more than godson Barry Bonds' current record. It's also nine league MVPs in a 12-year span at a time when other all-time greats such as Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were also enjoying their peak seasons in his league.

As highly regarded as Mays is, I'm not sure many of today's fans appreciate just how great or how consistent Mays was or the fact that he had an uninterrupted 13-year peak. To put that in context, Mike Trout would have to sustain his established level of greatness for the remainder of this season plus seven more to equal what Mays did in the heart of his career, and those are only the best 13 of Mays' 22 Major League seasons.

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Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on the MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.