On Justin Verlander as MVP

Are starting pitchers valuable?

First off, I should say that I am not against starting pitchers winning the MVP award. In fact, I think Pedro Martinez’s loss in the 1999 race is one of the award’s greatest tragedies. With that said, I would very rarely vote for a starting pitcher to win the award, and I would not have voted for Justin Verlander this season.

Nevertheless, it’s strange to me that there is such a bias against starting pitchers winning the MVP. The logic generally used against them—that starters only affect one-fifth as many games as position players—seems wrong to me. To make a point Tim has made before: Starting pitchers affect fewer games, but their impact on those games is far greater than any one position player. In other words, starting pitchers affect far more at-bats than everyday players: In 2011 Verlander faced 969 batters this season—no position player has ever had more than 778 plate appearances in a single season.

So the reason I’m usually against voting for pitchers is the opposite of the normal logic; to me, if you treated starters and everyday players equally in MVP voting, a pitcher would win the award every year. After all, if you were building a team from scratch, wouldn’t your first pick be a starting pitcher almost every time?

Since starting pitchers are, by their nature, more valuable, and since they already have an award for themselves, I’m of the opinion that a starter should only win the MVP if he’s had a historically great season, or if there are no compelling choices among everyday players. In 2011, both of those statements were demonstrably false.

Verlander was absolutely the best pitcher in the AL this season, but he was no more dominant than Felix Hernandez was last season, or Zack Greinke was in 2009. On the flip side, there were at least three position players who put up worthy MVP seasons: Jose Bautista was the best offensive player all season long; Miguel Cabrera was on fire for the final two months and nearly caught Bautista in terms of overall production; Jacoby Ellsbury combined his best offensive season with stellar defense. All three players would have been easy choices in a year like 2008 or 2006. In addition to those three, people were making (specious) arguments for Adrian Gonzalez, Curtis Granderson, Michael Young, and Robinson Cano.

So how did Verlander manage to pull off this coup, then, despite the bias against starters and the existence of so many other viable candidates? Well, for one, I think the fact that so many position players had great seasons hurt all of them. If Cabrera had put up his numbers in a year when Bautista or Ellsbury hadn’t been so productive, then I think he would have beaten Verlander handily. You could say the same about the other two as well. But the fact that all three had their seasons at the same time accentuated the flaws of each one: Bautista was great, but his team missed the playoffs. Cabrera led a playoff team, but he’s a lousy fielder. Ellsbury was a great fielder, but his team imploded down the stretch. As a result, all three look like fatally flawed candidates, even though there have been plenty of MVPs with each of those drawbacks (Alex Rodriguez won on a lousy team in 2003; Miguel Tejada overcame bad defense the year before that; George Bell won in 1987 even though the Blue Jays blew a 3.5 game lead with a week left).

The other reason for Verlander’s win, though, is the same thinking that usually leads to the anti-pitcher bias in the first place actually fueled his campaign. The pro-Verlander narrative this season essentially centered on one question: Where would the Tigers be without him? In the 34 games Verlander started, the Tigers were 25-9 (a .735 winning percentage); in the other 128 games they were 70-58 (.549). Such a stark contrast seemed to highlight his value.*

*And for much of the season, the disparity was even greater than that. Before the Tigers traded for Doug Fister, they were 41-43 in games not started by their ace; when Verlander pitched, they were 16-8.

Of course, every team fares better with an ace on the mound. The disparity was greatest with Verlander, but it was nearly as great when Jered Weaver pitched for the Angels (a .667 winning percentage vs. .496), or when Josh Beckett pitched for the Red Sox (.667 vs. .530). Neither of those pitchers received any MVP consideration.

The difference is that, in the MVP discussion, Verlander isn’t being compared to other aces; he’s being compared to position players whose impact on any one game is much harder to pin down. It’s hard to find individual games that the Tigers would have lost if not for Miguel Cabrera, but we know exactly how the Tigers did without Verlander.

To put all this more simply, the narrative around Verlander this season favored the very aspects that usually work against starting pitchers. The fact that Verlander didn’t play in 79% of his team’s games actually illustrated what a difference he made. Rather than seeming like a negative, it worked in his favor.

The 2011 AL MVP race was a really interesting one. I can’t remember a year with so many candidates so evenly matched. And while I wouldn’t have voted for Verlander, I’m not upset he won—he was a deserving candidate, just not the most deserving one. A race with so many viable candidates is exciting and interesting, like the complete opposite of the Republican primaries.

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One response to this post.

  1. […] you the one who wrote about how overrated Justin Verlander is, and how Detroit was actually pretty good last year? That’s a very reductive summary of my […]

    Reply

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