It is a notion that dates back as far as Don Newcombe's 1956 season with the Brooklyn Dodgers: if a pitcher is the Most Valuable Player in his league, then he must be the best pitcher as well.
Logically, this is a very straightforward proposition: pitcher is subset of player; a pitcher who is the most valuable player must also be the most valuable pitcher.
And over the course of baseball history, or at least since Newcombe won the first Cy Young Award and the National League MVP in 1956, any pitcher who has won his league's Most Valuable Player Award has also won his league's Cy Young Award. From Newcombe to Koufax to Gibson and McLain to Blue to Fingers to Willie Hernandez to Clemens to Eckersley, winning one has meant winning both.
But must it?
Our conceptions of the Cy Young Award and the Most Valuable Player Award, and the differences between those conceptions, might tell us otherwise.
The Cy Young Award, which was established in 1956 by Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick to honor Cy Young, who had died the year before, is given annually to the best pitcher in each league. There is really no subjective element to the Cy Young Award–no team success requirement, no "what did he mean to his team" element–and hence good pitchers on bad teams win the award regularly.
Indeed, it has been five years since the NL Cy Young went to a pitcher from a playoff team, and last year the AL Cy Young went to Zack Grienke, who played for the 65-win Kansas City Royals. Essentially, in order to win the Cy Young Award, a pitcher has to be the best pitcher in his league, and nothing else is asked of him.
Such is not the case with the Most Valuable Player Award.
The first ever MVP awards in baseball were given out in 1911 by the Chalmers Automobile company and voted upon by a committee of baseball writers. That award lasted until 1914. In the 1920's the AL and NL each had their own version of an MVP award which had silly and inconsistent rules; for example, player-managers and former winners were ineligible for the AL award.
The MVP awards as we know them came into existence in 1931, when the Baseball Writers Association of America established the awards and the rules for voting— one writer in each city (later three and now two) votes for the top ten players, and the award goes to the winner according to a calculation based on first place votes, second place votes, etc.
The definition of the Most Valuable Player award has never really been fleshed out in a satisfactory way (at least to my knowledge), but one thing is clear: the Most Valuable Player Award is not given out to the best player in the league. Otherwise, Stan Musial would have won every year in the 1940's, Mickey Mantle would have more than three, Willie Mays would have more than two, and in 1941 Ted Williams would have won instead of Joe DiMaggio.
Whatever the proper conception of the MVP award is, there is doubtlessly a "winning team" requirement that usually dictates the winner. From DiMaggio in 1941 to Ichiro Suzuki in 2001, the MVP voters generally want their guy to have contributed to his team's successful season.
At the same time, it is equally clear that the award will not simply go to the best player on the best team. Otherwise, Derek Jeter would have at least one MVP by now, and Albert Belle would have won the 1995 AL MVP over Mo Vaughn (but do not get me started).
MVP voters generally seem to want their guy to be a player without whom his team would have been screwed. Hence, Vlad Guerrero, who joined the 77-win Angels in 2004 and made them a competitive team, and then went on fire for the last month of the season and led them to the AL West crown by one game over the Oakland A's.
Of course, every now and then you get a guy like Andre Dawson, 1987. Dawson couldn't find a team to sign him in the off-season before 1987, but he really wanted to play in Chicago, so he signed a blank contract and let the team fill in the numbers.
All he did that year was hit 49 home runs, drive in 137 RBI, win a Gold Glove, and become a folk legend in Wrigley Field. Dawson had a great feel-good story and the voters gave him the award even though he played for the last place Cubs.
Needless to say, a lot goes into the Most Valuable Player award.
Which brings us back to Ubaldo.
Has Ubaldo been the best pitcher in the National League in 2010? Though he was clearly the best NL pitcher over the first month or two, it is beginning to look like the best pitcher in the NL this season is Josh Joshnon. Take a look at their stats side-by-side:
With the exception of win-loss record, for the most part Johnson is clearly having the better overall pitching season, and if the 2010 season were to end today, I think Johnson would get my vote for the 2010 NL Cy Young Award.
At the same time, though, which player has been more valuable to their team?
In games in which Josh Johnson starts for the Florida Marlins, the Marlins are 11-7. Compare that with their overall record of 42-46, and the fish have an eight game turnaround with Johnson on the mound.
The Marlins are in fourth place in the NL East, 10.5 games back of the Braves and five games back of the third place Philadelphia Phillies. After Johnson, Florida has a rotation in shambles, a very good bullpen, and three very good hitters to go with an average lineup and a bad defense.
If not for Johnson, the Marlins would have no shot at the playoffs, but even with him they aren't in it.
And don't forget that these are the Rockies we're talking about; Ubaldo has a 2.20 ERA while no one else in the rotation is under 4.00 and two of their starters are over 5.00.
On the other side of the ball, somehow the Rockies have produced a league-average offense in 2010, with only Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitski (when healthy) and Miguel Olivo really getting it done at the plate.
And yet, there they sit in second place in the NL West, two games out of first place in a tightly packed four-team race that looks, right now, as though it is going to come down to the the final week of the season. More importantly, if the season ended today, the Rockies would be the NL Wild Card.
Without Ubaldo, the Rockies would be screwed and their season would probably be over. With him, they're a playoff team.
At the end of this season, when the hot summer air has given way to cool autumn breezes and the leaves have turned brown and fallen from their trees, we may look up and find that Josh Johnson has been the best pitcher in the National League during the 2010 season.
But if the Colorado Rockies, as currently constructed, end up making the playoffs and are still playing come October, there may well be no escaping the conclusion Ubaldo Jimenez has been the National League's Most Valuable Player in 2010.
Don Newcombe would be so proud.
Asher B. Chancey lives in Philadelphia and is a co-founder of BasebalEvolution.com .
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