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Choose Your MVP: Re-evaluating the 1965 MVP Race

The 1965 MVP race came down to two Cuban-born Minnesota Twins players in Zoilo Versalles and Tony Oliva. Versalles ended up taking home the hardware, but did the right Minnesota Twins player win the award?
Image courtesy of © Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sportsv
At 25-years old, Zoilo Versalles became the first ever Minnesota Twins player to win the American League MVP. Versalles was a near-unanimous MVP, by claiming 19 out of 20 first place votes, ceding the only other first place vote to fellow teammate and fellow Cuban, Tony Oliva. With all of the advanced statistics and sabermetrics that we now have at the tip of our fingers, we are able to look back at the 1965 MVP race in a fresh way and see if the right decision was made, or if Oliva had a rightful claim to the award.

With a mediocre slash line of .273/.319/.462, it’s fair to question the validity of Zoilo Versalles’ MVP campaign. In fact, the .273 batting average for Versalles is the second-lowest batting average for any MVP since 1960. In addition, Versalles led the Majors in strikeouts with 122, 58 more strikeouts than his teammate Oliva.

So why exactly did Versalles win the award?

Versalles put together a career year in 1965 and led Major League Baseball in runs, doubles, triples, extra base hits, total bases and WAR. He recorded 27 steals and was the leadoff man for the best team in the American League. Aside from his bat and his legs, he was publicly viewed as a great defensive shortstop and was awarded a Gold Glove, despite the fact that he led baseball with 39 errors. Additionally, Versalles heated up at the stretch run of the season, posting a 1.004 OPS in August and a .912 OPS in September.

Oliva was no slouch in 1965 and certainly has a case to make for being the 1965 MVP. After posting a .321 average, Olivia claimed his second straight batting title in addition to posting his second straight season atop the hits leaderboard with 185 hits. Oliva bested Versalles in plate discipline with a far better K% and BB%. Although Oliva played a less important position in the field, he did so admirably with a 96% fielding percentage.

Here is a side-by-side comparison of the stats for the cuban-born Twins players:

Attached Image: Screen Shot 2020-04-02 at 9.52.41 PM.png

From a strictly offensive standpoint, Oliva posted the superior numbers in 1965, especially when we take into account the advanced statistics we use in baseball today. In addition to the stats above, Oliva bested Versalles in wRC+ by 23 points and OPS+ by 26 points. Even when you shift towards situational hitting, Oliva was the superior player, with an .837 OPS in high leverage situations compared to Versalles's .806 OPS in those high leverage situations.

Aside from the apparent MVP lobbying that went on from third base coach, Billy Martin, on behalf of Versalles, what seemed to have pushed him over Oliva in the minds of MVP voters was his defensive play, which was deemed Gold Glove-worthy. On the surface, the defensive praise for Versalles appears to be misguided as evidenced by his afore-mentioned 39 errors. Using the statistics that we have today, though, confirms that Versalles was a wizard with the glove. According to Fangraph's "total zone" statistic, Versalles saved 17 runs above average in 1965, compared to the 6 runs saved above average for Oliva. Taking positions into account, Versalles's defensive ability shines even more. Fangraphs uses a statistic called defensive runs above average, which adjusts for positional difficulty and awards a defensive value — using this metric, Versalles scored a 26.6 compared to the below average -1.6 for Oliva.

Certainly a case can be made for either of these players to have won the MVP in 1965, but which one was more deserving of the award? Do you think Olivia should have won the MVP? Or was Versalles the correct winner? Leave a comment below and start the conversation!

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19 Comments

“In addition, Versalles led the Majors in strikeouts with 308, 244 more strikeouts than his teammate Oliva.” Huh?? Also kinda silly to highlight Oliva as having more RBI than the leadoff batter (who batted behind the pitcher)... but not the leadoff batter having more runs scored. Obviously, Oliva proved to be the much better hitter and better player over time, but Versalles was the MVP in ‘65.
    • ashbury, adorduan and nclahammer like this
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Matthew Taylor
Apr 03 2020 10:33 AM

 

“In addition, Versalles led the Majors in strikeouts with 308, 244 more strikeouts than his teammate Oliva.” Huh?? Also kinda silly to highlight Oliva as having more RBI than the leadoff batter (who batted behind the pitcher)... but not the leadoff batter having more runs scored. Obviously, Oliva proved to be the much better hitter and better player over time, but Versalles was the MVP in ‘65.

 

Strikeout totals were a mis-type which has been fixed. Thank you!

Modern analytics seems to confirm the opinion of the folks who watched every day, one that mystified a kid like me at the time.

    • mikelink45 and Matthew Taylor like this
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mickeymental
Apr 03 2020 12:21 PM

yikes -- six twins among top 15 AL MVP candidates for 1965 (mudcat 6, battey 10, jimmie hall 13, harmon 15).

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Doctor Gast
Apr 03 2020 12:48 PM

If Oliva had the MVP award on his resume` that should have been more than enough to put him over the top for the HoF. But I`m prejudice, Oliva is my favorite

    • TopGunn#22, mikelink45 and Jack like this

It was a good choice - Versalles really electrified the game for those of us who were watching in 1965, but Oliva would have been a good choice too and overall was the better player, just not in 1965.

ESPN had an article on "one hit wonders" for each team.They chose Versalles for the Twins.It is a choice I disagree with, but this is what they said, "In the National League list of one-hit wonders, I wrote about Jim Konstanty, the 33-year-old relief pitcher for the Phillies who won the MVP award in 1950. Versalles is in some fashion the American League version of Konstanty, probably the least accomplished player to win an AL MVP. While he had a fairly long MLB career, including seven seasons as a regular, Versalles finished with just 12.6 career WAR, and the only season he topped 3.0 was in 1965.

While he finished with just a .319 OBP, the lowest ever for a non-pitcher MVP, Versalles did a lot of other things that season: He led the AL in runs (126), doubles (42), triples (12), extra-base hits (76) and total bases (308) while also winning a Gold Glove. He stole 27 bases in 32 attempts. The Twins won the pennant and, in a weak season for star performances, Versalles led all position players in WAR (only Cleveland pitcher Sam McDowell was higher). It's hard to picture a guy with a .319 OBP being the best player in the league, but Versalles was a worthy selection and received 19 of the 20 first-place votes.

Versalles was only 25 that season, but never came close to replicating that performance. In 1966, he battled a severe case of the flu into May and got off to a slow start, then injured his heel, which led to a painful hematoma in his back (blood leakage and tissue swelling). He would suffer recurring back pain the rest of his career, and his power numbers nosedived. It didn't help that he had always been error-prone at shortstop (he made 39 errors in 1965).

He would spend his post-baseball years in the Minneapolis area, unemployed much of the time and subsisting on disability and Social Security checks and a small baseball pension. He was forced to sell his MVP trophy and was found dead from heart disease in his home in 1995, just 55 years old."

 

It is true he did not replicate that season, but he did not fall off the map like a Bob Hazle with the Milwaukee team.We have our share of players who came up and looked great only to fade the next year.  

 

 

    • Oldgoat_MN and TopGunn#22 like this
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Matthew Taylor
Apr 03 2020 01:01 PM

 

If Oliva had the MVP award on his resume` that should have been more than enough to put him over the top for the HoF. But I`m prejudice, Oliva is my favorite

 

It's an interesting thought experiment for sure. I'm not sure that he would have gotten in even with an MVP through the BBWAA voting as at his peak he only reached 47% of the needed 75% of the votes.

 

However, he was only one vote shy of getting in through the Golden Era Committee election 2011. So maybe an MVP award could have swayed one of those voters to go the other way?

    • h2oface likes this
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stringer bell
Apr 03 2020 04:48 PM

Zoilo's defense was outstanding in '65. He demonstrated outstanding range and made plays that few, if any, shortstops could make frequently. There were a lot more errors made by infielders in those days, but Versalles made up for many of those by ranging outside of the normal zone. 

 

Oliva was a great hitter in a pitcher's era. I hope he gets added to the Hall sometime.

    • ashbury, TopGunn#22 and DocBauer like this

 

If Oliva had the MVP award on his resume` that should have been more than enough to put him over the top for the HoF. But I`m prejudice, Oliva is my favorite

We'll see. I kind of view Mauer as having roughly the same chance and he does have an MVP. In my book, 3 batting titles or two Cy Youngs should get you in.

    • TopGunn#22 likes this
Both were before my time...fortunate or unfortunately, LOL...but from the outside looking in, all the data from this one season, I can't disagree with the choice. Oliva was the better player by far. But Versalles had an amazing season.

I really don't understand why Oliva isn't in the HOF already. He reminds me so much of one of his pupils, Puckett. Like Kirby, injury robbed him of numbers and years. Puckett was elected rather easily, with fine numbers, even though his career was cut short. Have writers just forgotten who Oliva was and what he did? Will Mauer, and his incredible accomplishments, be shunned by voters because of injury?

When we discuss Oliva, and Mauer, I often think of NFL great Gayle Sayers. Knee injuries robbed Sayers of what his career might have been. Injuries that in today's world, might have been repaired and treated with much greater success and prolonged his career. With all the warranted love given to Jim Brown, Walter Payton, and others, a healthy Sayers may have been the greatest and most dynamic RB to ever play.

I hope, one of these days, the veterans committee gets it right and puts Oliva in the hall for what he did. And I hope the writers get it right for the same reason for Mauer. Careers cut short is a shame. But outstanding numbers/performance above everyone else, even in a career cut short, should count.
    • TopGunn#22 and Jack like this
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JoshDungan1
Apr 03 2020 10:09 PM

Gotta wonder how many errors Zoilo would have had in modern-day scoring. Things like that can change, especially over forty years.

 

It was a good choice - Versalles really electrified the game for those of us who were watching in 1965, but Oliva would have been a good choice too and overall was the better player, just not in 1965.

ESPN had an article on "one hit wonders" for each team.They chose Versalles for the Twins.It is a choice I disagree with, but this is what they said, "In the National League list of one-hit wonders, I wrote about Jim Konstanty, the 33-year-old relief pitcher for the Phillies who won the MVP award in 1950. Versalles is in some fashion the American League version of Konstanty

I also had just read this article and was about to make the exact same reference!!

 

It’s not great to retroactively simply look at the stats and then make a judgement call on a league-wide award.  It’s like the Cy Young award that Bartolo Colon won in 2005;  every Twins fan brings that up as the worst vote ever, but mostly because it robbed “our guy” Santana.  Colon wasn’t a chump that year; the voters were just swayed for non-stats reasons.

 

I wasn’t around to watch it, but Versalles is probably just another example of that.  He was deemed the best player on the best AL team in ‘65.  Why was that?  If you look up and down the lineup, there were a lot of “decent” years, but nothing really stands out.  Oliva had the great BA, but didn’t have the great counting stats that should have gone with it (for the time).  Killebrew would have been the obvious choice if it had been any other year, but he only played in 110 games and didn’t have the kind of great year despite that in order to sway people (if he hits .300 with 35 HRs and 100 RBI, for instance, he might have gotten it).  Bob Allison hit .233.  I could go on.  So, I expect that the voters just went with Versalles because he had 666 AB and thus great counting stats, especially for a shortstop.

 

At least “our guy” got the award!!

    • Oldgoat_MN likes this

Tony-O is my favorite Twins player, but Zoilo was the right choice.I do think that if Tony-O had won that MVP award he would probably already be in the HOF.MVP awards carry weight.There was an interesting article about the controversial MVP Mo Vaughn won over Albert Bell.Bell's stats were not just better, they were MUCH better.Bell had an epic season but the writers didn't like him and he'd been caught corking his bat the year before.  

I'm okay with Zoilo winning MVP.It was slightly before my time but Tony-O was not.The comparison to Puckett was accurate.Tony belongs in the Hall and I am sure someday he will get in.However, what a shame if will be if it is posthumously.Somebody better pull their head out and get this done!What a better time than a surprise announcement by the Commissioner during the suspended season to bring a little love to the game.

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Nate Palmer
Apr 04 2020 02:27 PM

From the reading I have been doing lately, it seems Versalles overtakes Oliva in large part due to his ability to field SS. Right now we live in an era of several very good offensive shortstops, that was not the case in '65. There was such a need for offensively capable middle infielders it seems that any life there made you an All-Star. That value of offensive capability at short seems to be represented in that 1.9 higher WAR for Versalles. 

    • JLease likes this
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Matthew Taylor
Apr 05 2020 11:35 AM

 

From the reading I have been doing lately, it seems Versalles overtakes Oliva in large part due to his ability to field SS. Right now we live in an era of several very good offensive shortstops, that was not the case in '65. There was such a need for offensively capable middle infielders it seems that any life there made you an All-Star. That value of offensive capability at short seems to be represented in that 1.9 higher WAR for Versalles. 

 

Thanks for this info, Nate. I thought about consulting you on this piece knowing that you've been reading a ton about the '65 team. I had the feeling that it was Versalles's defense that pushed him over the edge, and certainly seems like that was the sentiment back then.

    • Nate Palmer likes this

 

From the reading I have been doing lately, it seems Versalles overtakes Oliva in large part due to his ability to field SS. Right now we live in an era of several very good offensive shortstops, that was not the case in '65. There was such a need for offensively capable middle infielders it seems that any life there made you an All-Star. That value of offensive capability at short seems to be represented in that 1.9 higher WAR for Versalles. 

Shortstops were significantly MORE important in Versalles day than they are today. What do I mean?...

 

Versalles fielded 774 chances for the Twins in 1965. That didn't lead the league. That was an average year for Versalles. In 1962, he fielded 862 chances. For context, only 4 short-stops in the majors last year had over 600 chances. Jorge Polanco was 6th in the AL with 506. Major league batters used to put balls in play.

 

This explains the need for defense at 'all cost' at the position in that era. Several of the 'great' offensive shortstops of today, wouldn't qualify to play that position in Versalles era. (Polanco, for example.)

 

Still, there's about a 99% chance that if a modern shortstop lead his league in runs, doubles, triples, and total bases...that player would be elected MVP. Versalles really wasn't a controversial choice. Then or now.

Also, Versalles wasn't as much of a "one-hit wonder" as comes across in some of our comments (or as much as he's perceived that way, in general). He got MVP votes in '62. He won a GG and was an all-star (in an era where it was DIFFICULT to make the all-star game) in '63.

 

In the five seasons culminating with his MVP ('61-'65), MLB SS leaders for fWAR...

 

Jim Fregosi - 18.9

Maury Wills - 18.0

Ron Hansen - 16.7

Dick Groat - 15.8

Zoilo Versalles - 15.1

Luis Aparicio - 14.1

 

These were Aparicio's age 27 to 31 seasons, and he was widely considered to be the best short-stops in the majors. (Soon to be overtaken by Fregosi; Wills was a bat-first guy who was already starting to dabble in a bit of 3rd-base.) Anyway, the thing that created the 'one-hit wonder' legend with Versalles was the fact that he didn't do much AFTER the MVP in '65. But, he did plenty before it.

I was a SS and Zoilo was my idol. I remember saving my money to buy the same high end model Rawlings glove Versalles used. There was a sporting goods store in downtown Mpls, I think called A&B Sports, where I went to purchase the glove. I remember the salesman told me when Versalles made an error he would throw the glove away. He said Versalles was only given 2 gloves a year from Rawlings, so he came in often to buy new ones. He said he spent a lot of money there.

Apparently his superstition got the better of his common sense.