Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Should Pitchers be eligible for the MVP award?


Virginia native Justin Verlander is your unanimous AL Cy Young Winner for 2011; is he also an MVP candidate? Photo unknown via

In honor of the AL MVP vote, set to be announced today 11/21/11 ….

Justin Verlander had one of the better starting pitcher seasons in the past few years.  He compiled a 24-5 record with a 2.40 era, a sub 1.00 whip and a 9.0 k/9 rate.  Pitchers getting to 25 wins in the modern 5-man rotations is exceedingly rare and, no matter what you think of the “win” category is still indicative of a stellar season.

Verlander was your unanimous 2011 AL Cy Young Award winner.   He led the AL in a slew of traditional and non-traditional statistical pitching categories, including your “pitching triple crown” categories of Wins, ERA and Strikeouts.  He also lead the AL in bWar and Whip, and is in the top 5 in a number of other categories (k/9, k/bb, fWar, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA).  He wasn’t nearly as “far ahead” of some of his AL competition (in most other seasons any one of Sabathia, Weaver, Shields, and maybe even Beckett before he got hurt would be serious Cy Young candidates), but it’s no surprise that he was the unanimous Cy Young winner.

So, is he also your AL MVP?

In a year where most of the candidates for the AL MVP seem to have “warts” of some sort, is Verlander in line to be the first pitcher since Dennis Eckersley in 1992 to win both the Cy Young and the MVP?

Lets talk about reasons having a starting pitcher win your league’s MVP does not make any sense:

  • A SP only plays in 34-35 games a year, about 20% of a team’s total starts.  How can the “most valuable player” only play in 20% of a team’s games?
  • Even if your SP wins 25 games (as Verlander nearly did), or the team goes 27-8 in your pitcher’s starts (as Detroit did for Verlander this year) … that’s still only at best representing 25-30% of your team’s victories.

On the other hand:

  • If you have an ace starter and switch places with a replacement-level player, how much of an effect would that have on your team’s success?  If you assume the Tigers replaced Verlander’s 27-8 record in games he started with a .500 pitcher, suddenly the Tigers are looking at potentially 10 fewer victories and missing the playoffs.  But then again, this probably overstates the capabilities of any one pitcher winning games all by himself.
  • Tom Boswell once argued that pitchers may only pitch every 5th day, but they face nearly 1000 batters in a season (Verlander faced 969 batters this year).  That’s nearly 300 more batters faced than positional players get plate appearances.  The converse is that if you’re looking at impact strictly on a plate appearance basis, you have to then factor in every single play in the field that a positional player takes part in.  Using an MVP competitor as comparison:  Jacoby Ellsbury (an outfielder) had 388 putouts in center field while playing 1358 innings.  He also had 729 plate appearances.  So those two figures add up to eclipse direct involvement on a per-at bat level.  Depending on where you play in the infield, your involvement on a per-at bat level is about equivalent to an outfielders (for 3rd basement), significantly higher (for middle infielders) to exceptionally high (for 1st basemen and catchers).  The difficulty of a center fielder catching a fly ball for a putout isn’t nearly as much as a pitcher recording a strikeout with the bases loaded … but then again, when you’re already expecting roughly 75% of hitters to make outs without you (as a pitcher) even really being considered anything much above replacement … the law of averages, averages out a bit.

To me, pitchers are not a large enough part of a team’s success on a day in/day out basis to be the “most valuable player,” in the accepted working definition of the title.  I believe pitchers have an award for accomplishment (the Cy Young) and the MVP, while perhaps poorly named or poorly defined, really should be for positional players.  Perhaps this argument comes back to the pure definition of an MVP, and on this point I’ll have disagreements as well, since I basically consider the MVP to be realistically defined as “the most important positional player on a playoff team.”  I generally don’t believe that the best player on a 4th place team really can be the MVP.

Of course, all this being said, I did predict that Verlander would win the AL MVP.  Why?  Because every one of his primary competitors seems to have some narrative that will prevent them from winning.  Ellsbury‘s team folded in September.  Bautista‘s team didn’t play a meaningful game for months.  Cabrera was only the 2nd best player on his own team.  Granderson had a 40-homer season but he hit .260 and wasn’t even in the league top-10 in bWAR.

What do you guys think?

6 Responses to 'Should Pitchers be eligible for the MVP award?'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Should Pitchers be eligible for the MVP award?'.

  1. You say it all right here: Even if your SP wins 25 games (as Verlander nearly did), or the team goes 27-8 in your pitcher’s starts (as Detroit did for Verlander this year) … that’s still only at best representing 25-30% of your team’s victories.

    Tell me what batter has a direct, substantive, and game deciding impact on 25% of all games he plays?

    Pitchers may only pitch every 4th or 5th game, but their effect on a game is substantially greater than any single batter. Batters only get a chance to hit in 11% of their team’s offensive chances. Going 3 for 3 with 3 HR (a ‘perfect’ game for a batter, if you will) probably won’t single-handedly win the game for you, if the rest of the team goes hitless. But a ‘perfect game’ for a pitcher (9 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 0 R) will almost every time guarantee your team a win.

    And until they rename the award MVB (most valuable batter), then this debate will continue to have no merit.

    With that said, Verlander was very good this season, but a better MVP case can be made for about 10 other players.


    21 Nov 11 at 9:25 am

  2. Here’s some counter arguments…

    I think batters/fielders can easily show they’re involved in more than 25% of games they play in.
    – they’re in the field for every pitch of every game, for 162 games.
    – as shown in the post, they’re directly involved in at least as many put outs or assists as a pitcher is involved in plate appearances (and in the case of a middle infielder, substantially more).
    – Direct run production: Take Ellsbury this year; scored 119 runs, drove in another 105. Take away the 32 homers as overlapping runs/rbis and you get 119+105-32=192 runs for the Red Sox that he was directly responsible for. the Red Sox scored 875 runs this year as a team; that’s 21.9% of the entire team’s offense that Ellsbury was directly responsible for, taking out all the rest of his impact by being on base, stealing bases, moving runners along with grounders to the right side or sac flies, etc.
    – If a pitcher throws a 6-inning shut out, he’s still just throwing the ball to the hitter. He depends on 8 other guys to actually get those guys out. Unless he’s pitching a perfect game with 27 strikeouts, he’s still heavily dependent on his fielders to get those outs.

    Todd Boss

    21 Nov 11 at 9:35 am

  3. I think it worked this year the way it’s supposed to. Pitchers only win a MVP when they have an overwhelmingly great year, like Verlander did this year.
    Good for him, a season for the ages.

    Mark L

    22 Nov 11 at 9:07 am

  4. Well Mark, I think I disagree actually. I thought Verlander would win, not because his season was THAT amazingly great, but because the rest of the candidates would all lose votes by virtue of their situations. I mean, if Pedro Martinez finishes 5th in 2000, a year when by ERA+ he put in the 2nd best starting pitcher season in the history of the game … then the voters just aren’t interpreting things correctly.

    I think most of the writers who vote interpret the MVP as “the most important player to one of the 4 playoff teams.” So they start with the four playoff teams and figure out who was the most indispensable player on each team. But if you can’t immediately pick out a name, then clearly they’re not a candidate. So for this year doing this logic you’d do this: Yankees: Granderson. Texas: … I dunno. Beltre? Young? Tampa: same confusion … Longoria? Then with Detroit it was clearly Verlander. So its immediately between Granderson and Verlander … but Granderson didn’t exactly have an MVP season (not even in the top ten in league WAR). And you can’t easily say that he was the sole reason the yankees made the playoffs, not with their $250M payroll and Cano being nearly as good. So the winner is Verlander in a cakewalk. And you recognize those stellar performers from non-playoff teams in due time (specifically Ellsbury and Bautista). Voila; there’s your MVP top 4.

    Now, imagine if Boston makes the playoffs, and you do the same logic above. Ellsbury is your MVP hands down. He was the absolute leader of that team, the sole reason they kept in the playoff hunt, and he hit big-time homers down the stretch. It wouldn’t have been close.

    I’m not saying I agree with this logic, just recognize that this is the way it happens right now. Eventually, as more younger BBWAA writers come into play who depend on advanced stats and clearly saw how good of a season Bautista in particular had, the votes shift and become more of a “best all around player” versus the above twisted logic.

    Todd Boss

    22 Nov 11 at 9:55 am

  5. I agree totally about Pedro & 2000, some pretty stupid voting.
    That’s the all-time travesty, 2nd for me would be Rafael Palmeiro winning the Gold Glove when he played bad defense for a 1/3 of the year & Dh’ed the rest of the season. The difference is we know who voted for who with the MVP, the GG voting was secret.

    We’ll have to disagree because I stand behind my original statement, amended for occasional bozo years. 🙂

    Mark L

    22 Nov 11 at 8:52 pm

  6. […] MVP: Verlander as predicted.  Not because I think he’s the MVP (see my rant about Pitchers winning the MVP here), but because he won the voting.  I think this kind of winner will gradually fade as more […]

Leave a Reply