Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The American League MVP

So ends another awards season for Major League Baseball. And whether you were rooting for Hellickson or Hosmer, Halladay or Kershaw, Braun or Kemp, we can all agree that the award winners all had tremendous seasons, and each deserves accolades for their accomplishments.

That being said, neither Justin Verlander nor any other pitcher should ever win an MVP award.

(Yeah, it's gonna be one of those posts. Pull up a chair, get out your angry pencils, and let's do this.)

The fact that they're eligible for the award should not encourage baseball writers to cast their votes for pitchers. A change in the eligibility will never happen, because baseball prefers ambiguity (see: strike zones). But writers need to take it upon themselves to make this one of those dozens of "unwritten rules" in baseball, because plain and simple, pitchers cannot be the league's most valuable player.

I'd imagine I've got at least half of you riled up at this point, thinking that I've got a lot of nerve. And maybe I do. But I've got my reasons.

First, there is some truth to the thinking that pitchers have their award, and hitters only have the MVP award. The Cy Young Award and the Most Valuable Player Award each have long histories that we can look back at and remember some of the great seasons we saw. In 1999, baseball created the Hank Aaron Award, to be awarded to the best hitter in each league. In fact, the award was likely created specifically to allow for the possibility of a pitcher being worthy of an MVP award. You know when you started hearing about the Hank Aaron Award even existing? This year, when people wanted to justify voting for Verlander for MVP. Hank Aaron was a tremendous hitter, but the award is essentially meaningless if nobody knows who's winning them.

Additionally, the Hank Aaron Award incorporates a fan vote component, which makes the award intrinsically flawed. Fans are stupid. Unsurprisingly, the AL award has gone to AL East hitters every year since 2004. And by the way, Hank Aaron spent all of two seasons playing in the American League, hitting .232 with 22 HR and 95 RBI in 222 games. If you're going to perpetuate this farce, you should at least have another name for it in the American League. Babe Ruth, anyone?

But I think the greater argument here is that, quite simply, a pitcher can't come close to the overall impact of a position player, and that includes starting pitchers as well as relievers.

First, let's address the one stat that gets cited often to compare pitchers to hitters: wins above replacement (WAR). The theory behind the statistic is that, over the course of a season, by playing well (or poorly), a player at any position gives his team an adjusted chance at victory when compared to a potential replacement player. The statistic uses a theoretical AAA player as the replacement. The concept of trying to value hitters against pitchers is useful for GMs in salary-planning, and for those MVP votes in which a pitcher earns consideration.

Two issues, though. First, the use of a single statistic to determine value between a starting pitcher and a hitter is always going to have flaws, simply because the roles are so incredibly different. Second, it's apparent that baseball writers are not acknowledging WAR as a make-or-break statistic with regards to MVP votes. Matt Kemp posted a WAR of 10.0 in 2011, the highest since Barry Bonds in 2004. That span includes three different MVP seasons by Albert Pujols. I'm willing to cede that the actual NL MVP, Ryan Braun, has his own viable portfolio, but you'd think that, if we're referring to WAR at all, a guy who has a WAR that's 30% higher than the next closest player would be a shoo-in for the MVP.

(As a reference, Verlander posted an 8.6 WAR; Jose Bautista posted an 8.5.)

We're all quick to admit that wins are one of the most of the most team-dependent statistics on the planet. But if Verlander had, say, 20 wins, rather than his major-league best 24, would this have even been close? (If you're unsure, look at Cliff Lee's 22-3 2008 season, and the fact that he finished 12th in the MVP voting after a season with a similar lack of a front-runner. Or look over at the NL, where Clayton Kershaw posted very similar numbers to Verlander this season, yet also finished 12th in his league's MVP voting). You're wondering if Detroit was that good? They rated third in the majors in batting average, fourth in runs, fourth in on-base, fourth in slugging. They could put up runs with anybody.

So maybe Verlander gets an anecdotal bump in his resume as a result of his no-hitter in early May; it certainly put Verlander front and center. The relative difference in the impact of an everyday player versus a starting pitcher is similarly anecdotal. Obviously starting pitchers have impacts beyond their innings (saving the bullpen, etc). And obviously hitters have impacts beyond their own at-bats (base-running, "protection" for other hitters, etc.). But I think we've got one more piece of the puzzle that pushes starting pitchers out of the discussion: weather.

If there's a rainout, or even more so if a game is postponed, a starting pitcher's rhythm is off, and he likely doesn't come back in the subsequent game. We saw it in the playoffs this year; weather pushed both Verlander and CC Sabathia out of Game 1 after 1.5 IP and limited them each to one full start in a five-game series. Meanwhile, in the same series, Robinson Cano hit .318 and drove in 9 runs, and Delmon Young hit .316 with three home runs. The fact that an act of nature can almost completely negate the potential positive contributions by a starting pitcher for a game, and the fact that they only pitch in 35 games every year, is the last piece of evidence I need.

In the end, I think that a Most Valuable Player in baseball should be the epitome of a baseball player. To me, baseball is defined by the 162 game season, by far the longest in American team sports. It's a grind, and a guy who's able to get up ~150 times and compete at a tremendous level, that's the guy who's the best baseball player. A guy who has to perform 35 times a year, no matter how impressive he is during those 35 times, just doesn't capture the essence of baseball.

1 comment:

Chip said...

best baseball player does not equal most valuable player. Though I can see where, in some instances, they are one in the same.

I do agree that Kemp got overlooked and no pitcher should be considered an MVP.

Top 500 Songs - Dave Matthews Band

This was always going to be the hardest of my band lists, because I like so many of DMB's songs, and have liked them so differently over...