The American League East hasn’t been home of many MVP’s in recent years. In fact, Josh Donaldson in 2015 was the first man from the Atlantic coast to secure the award since Dustin Pedroia in 2008.
There was a time, however, when this division dominated the award. One particular stretch saw an AL East player win the award seven years out of eight in the 1960s.
The man who broke up their dominance? Zoilo Versalles. In an era of Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Brooks Robinson and Carl Yastrzemski, it was little known Twins shortstop Versalles who scooped the 1965 award.
He led the league in runs, doubles, triples, extra-base hits and total bases, bopping 19 home runs, stealing 27 bases and guided the Twins to the AL pennant and a heart-breaking game seven loss to the Koufax-led Dodgers.
He also led the league in strikeouts and errors, so would almost certainly have been exciting to watch and with a name like Zoilo Versalles I think he’d have been a podcast favourite.
Zoilo was just 25 when he put together that career-defining season, but it would be his last season of success in the Majors, as he struggled for the rest of the decade and was out of the league by 1969.
The Michael Phelps of his generation, Zoilo was unperturbed, launching a comeback attempt in 1971, but his -1.4 WAR in 210 plate appearances was the baseball equivalent of Phelps jumping in the pool, belly flopping and drowning.
No matter what, however, he’ll always have that magical 1965 season and that season will serve as a reminder that MVP’s aren’t always household names.
And with that, let’s see if we can find ourselves an AL East Zoilo for 2017.
Tampa Bay Rays – Evan Longoria
Ever since he put up 5.6 WAR as a rookie in 2008, Longoria has been pegged as a future MVP winner but it has never really materialised for him.
In fact, he looked stuck in an irreversible decline until last season, when he bounced back big time with a career-best 36 home runs and a fourth straight season of over 160 games on the field.
His 0.68 groundball-to-flyball rate was fifth lowest in the Majors, so the home runs are legitimate given his pull power but the worrying decline of his plate discipline held him back from a monster season.
If he can keep the power adjustments whilst adapting his approach to draw a few more walks, he has the ability to challenge for MVP awards. The Rays will be relying on such a season if they want to be in the post-season picture.
Baltimore Orioles – Manny Machado
Machado has been so consistently good for so long that it’s almost unbelievable to think he’s still just 24 years old.
An incredible defender at the hot corner, with serious contact and power skills, he is your prototypical MVP candidate who will probably be a trendy selection for the award.
As if he needed another boost to his value however, he continues to increase his time at shortstop as the Orioles reduce J.J. Hardy’s involvement.
After notching 43 games at the position in 2016, he could be set for 60+ this season and assuming the defensive skills translate he would have a transcendent bat for an up-the-middle position and a real shot at that MVP award.
New York Yankees – Gary Sanchez
Only three catchers have won the MVP award in either league since 1976 so this is a rather tough ask of the 24 year old backstop.
And given he struck out in one quarter of plate appearances, sported a potentially unsustainable 40% HR/FB rate whilst hitting more pop ups than Evan Gattis or Mark Trumbo on a rate basis, you could be forgiven for expecting a modicum of regression.
But let’s not forget that what Sanchez did last season was incredible. 20 home runs in 53 games, a league-leading .657 slugging percentage and over one-fifth of his fly balls left the bat at over 100mph. One-fifth!
The offensive threshold of excellence at backstop is not particularly high and Sanchez blew the absolute lid off it last year. If he’s even half that player again, he might be in the MVP conversation.
Toronto Blue Jays – Josh Donaldson
I’ve already written in depth about how bloody good this guy is, and the MVP sitting on his mantle at home is testament to his ability to compete for this award.
An easy career best 15.6% walk rate in 2016 showed his increasing maturity at the plate, and that number might rise without the protection of Edwin Encarnacion.
His power is unquestionable, with at least 74 extra-base hits the past two years and his 27.5 WAR over the last four seasons is second only to some young upstart in Los Angeles.
He’s one of the most feared hitters on the planet and rightfully so, one of the likeliest names to scoop the award on our list.
Boston Red Sox – Mookie Betts
Mookie Betts was terrific in 2015 and then other-worldly in 2016 and if it weren’t for Mikey T he would be defending an MVP title in 2017.
He was the only player in baseball to hit 30 home runs and steal 20 bags, his 11% K rate 11th lowest among all qualifiers and his defense in right field utterly incredible.
At the age of 24, Betts has already broken out, with more power than ever expected of him thanks to a surprising ability to get the ball in the air (almost 1:1 GB:FB rate) and a great ability to make the most of the big green thing in left field – his floor is unfathomably high.
Alongside Mike Trout he is one of two legitimate 30-30 candidates and another post-season run from the Red Sox will ensure he’s right in the MVP mix come season end.