You know, back in the Deadball Era, Ty Cobb was really, truly the best player in the American League. By far. And if the media of today existed back then, people would start to grumble about the fact that the thoroughly unlikeable Cobb would repeatedly be the clear-cut MVP (nearly) every year. But there would really be very little argument against him, especially in 1917.
The Detroit Tigers didn’t win the pennant that year, and in fact were barely above .500. Yet if we take a look at the best players from the three teams that finished above Cobb’s Tigers, only Tris Speaker (1916’s winner) comes even close to Cobb’s performance. First, let’s take a look at the categories in which Cobb lead the American League:
fWAR, wRC+, BA, OBP, SLG, Hits, Doubles, Triples and Stolen Bases. His 11.5 fWAR beat out Speaker’s second best 7.7.
Which is another way of saying that he was far and away the best player in the league. And the three teams ahead of the Tigers not only didn’t have a single player that beat Cobb in any of those categories, they also didn’t have a player that had more Runs or RBI than Cobb. (That year’s leaders in RBI and Runs were both teammates of Cobb.) So, unless someone wants to be an astounding stickler for the “MVP has to be on the best team” schtick, there is no way to deny Cobb’s MVP credentials in 1917.
1917 NL Winner: Rogers Hornsby
Even before the live-ball era saw Hornsby move to second base and become the second-best hitter in all of baseball (to Babe Ruth), he was slick-fielding shortstop with a good eye. In fact, in 1917, he was considered to be the second most valuable fielder in all of baseball. Based on Total Zone rating, only Art Fletcher of the Giants brought more value in the field than Hornsby.
And even though his days of hitting .400 and cranking 30-40 homers was yet to come, in 1917 Hornsby lead the NL in SLG%, OPS and was second in Batting Average. According to both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference, he had the highest WAR in the National League, and the second highest in all of baseball. His 9.5 fWAR was actually the best of any player in the NL for the entire decade (1910-1919). This would be somewhat akin to Troy Tulowitzki playing an entire, injury-free season.