Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Justin Verlander, Most Valuable Pitcher

Justin Verlander: Not merely a unanimous Cy Young
winner, but the Most Valuable Player to boot.
Justin Verlander was named American League Most Valuable Player on Monday. He is the first starting pitcher to win an MVP since Roger Clemens in 1986, a year that seems recent to me but is a quarter century ago and thus a lifetime ago to at least some of you.

That Verlander is even eligible for the honor, much less the winner, is rather controversial in some circles. Pitchers, the argument goes, have the Cy Young Award; MVP should be limited to position players.

The rules, however, specifically say that pitchers are eligible.

Eligible, but -- at least since 1969, when the mound was lowered and the strike zone redefined -- seldom victorious. No National League pitcher, starter or reliever, has been voted MVP since Bob Gibson in 1968.

Ignore the three relief pitchers who've won the AL award -- all of which were mistakes by an electorate that hadn't begun to come to grips with the meaning of the save statistic -- and only two AL starters (Clemens and Vida Blue in 1971) have taken the honor since Denny McLain in 1968.

Verlander was helped some by the flaws in the other candidates' arguments. Jacoby Ellsbury's team faded badly in September. Jose Batista -- seen by the sabermetric community as the best player in the league -- fell off in the second half, and his team was never in the race. Curtis Granderson led the league in runs and RBIs and bopped 41 homers, but his rate stats weren't great. Miguel Cabrera, Verlander's teammate, probably crippled his chances with his DWI arrest before spring training.

So Verlander emerged from a divided field.

There is a legitimate reason to be skeptical of a modern pitcher's MVP candidacy, and it has nothing to do with the Cy Young Award. It has to do with workload.

Blue worked 312 innings in his MVP season. McLain had 336, Gibson 304. Sandy Koufax had 311 in his MVP season (1963). On the other hand, Clemens had 254 in his MVP year, Verlander 251.

Two-hundred fifty innings is a lot in today's pitch count era. But the difference between 300 innings and 250 is significant. That's Alex Burnett's entire workload in 2011. Koufax worked 300-plus innings in three seasons, and in each he faced 300-plus more batters than Verlander did this season.

Were I a voter, I'd have an easier time voting for a pitcher with a 1960s-type workload than a 2000s workload. I'm not complaining that Verlander won, but I wouldn't have complained if Ellsbury, Batista, Granderson or Cabrera had either.

1 comment:

  1. You lived through the Ron Davis era and still think relievers do not deserve a vote for MVP? Maybe if it only based on stats, but otherwise they are about as important as they get in today's baseball. The Twins make the playoffs in 1984 with a real closer, much like Willie Hernandez that year for the Tigers. Sure, he may not have deserved that award that year due to the fact that the Tigers were so dominant, but much of the time they are the difference between a .500 team (like the 1984 Twins) and a team that wins the World Series (like the 1987 Twins with an okay after the first month Reardon). I would have voted Rivera over Jeter or any other Yankee during their run many times over as he was really the difference and their true MVP.