Justin Verlander won his 20th game this past weekend. The 28-year-old right-hander now sports a 20-5 record and it's only Aug. 29. The conventional wisdom is that Verlander is going to win the Cy Young award, and there are also a fair amount of people who think that he should be the MVP. Those that feel that way almost always say the same thing: "He should be the MVP, but he won't win."
The naysayers may very well end up being right. After all, no American League Pitcher has won the MVP award since 1992 when Dennis Eckersley won it and no starter has won since 1986 when Roger Clemens took home the hardware.
It's been 19 years since a pitcher won the MVP and it's been 21 years since a pitcher hit the 25-win mark. In 1990 Bob Welch went 27-6 and won the AL Cy Young award. Verlaner would need to have a great September to get to 25 wins, but at this point Verlander has provided very little reason to think he can't have a great month.
The 2011 American League MVP race is going to be very close. All the hitters in contention have compelling stats that provide their backers with enough ammo to justify a first-place MVP vote. Adrian Gonzalez of the Red Sox may end up leading the league in batting average as well as hits, and he is going to come very close to winning the RBI crown as well.
Yankee Curtis Granderson is going to lead the league in runs and he may also end up winning one or both of the key home run and RBI categories. Throw in the potential for 30 stolen bases and perhaps even a divisional crown and Granderson would have to be considered the favorite in the American League right now.
Then there's Jose Bautista. The Toronto slugger who was last year's biggest surprise has dispelled any notion that his 54 home runs in 2010 were some sort of fluke. Bautista is also the guy who has the numbers that will make the more modern baseball stat guys swoon. He leads all of baseball in both on-base and slugging percentage and is second in home runs with 37.
Those three men represent the top of the crowded MVP field. However, all have their weaknesses. Granderson is batting nearly 50 points lower than Gonzalez and is under .300. Gonzalez is well behind in home runs and will potentially lose some votes to teammates Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury. Bautista will encounter the age-old issue of his team's record. While both the Yankees and Red Sox have their sights set on the postseason, the Blue Jays are already a team prepping for 2012.
Is there room for a pitcher in the MVP race? In 1986 the American League offensive categories were split amongst a handful of elite players. All had a case to be MVP. Don Mattingly finished second in the MVP voting and was also second in a tight batting race to winner Wade Boggs. He hit .352, played Gold Glove-caliber first base and led the league with 238 hits. The Yankees missed the playoffs, though, while the Red Sox advanced to October.
Jim Rice, who finished third in the voting, led in no major offensive categories but was the key offensive player on the Red Sox and seemed to excel in all aspects of offensive production with a .324 average, 200 hits, 20 home runs and 110 RBI.
Blue Jays George Bell and Jesse Barfield finished fourth and fifth in the voting. Bell had a season similar to the one Rice had playing fine all-around baseball and producing but the Blue Jays' fourth-place finish in the American League East likely hurt Bell, as well as teammate and home run king Barfield (40 homers) in the final voting.
In 2011 the American League once again finds itself with a fragmented yet talented group of offensive leaders. Bautista, Gonzalez and Granderson are all having impressive seasons, but Verlander is in the midst of a truly dominant one. In addition to potentially cracking the 25-win mark Verlander is near the top of the AL in ERA and leads in WHIP ratio with an impressive 0.90. Verlander also leads the AL in strikeouts and in innings pitched.
Those stats are all very impressive and should be more than enough barring some sort of September swoon to get Verlander the AL Cy Young.
It's the rest of the Tigers' pitching staff that may inadvertently end up netting Verlander an MVP award. One of the numerous metrics used when determining the votes for this award is to ask the question: "What would be the impact on the given player's team if he were removed from the equation?" It's a question that seeks to directly answer the issue of which player is "most valuable."
Remove Adrian Gonzalez from the Red Sox and they would clearly be an inferior team. With that being said, teammates Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury are both having fantastic years. Add in the performance of David Ortiz and it's safe to say the Red Sox would still be scoring plenty of runs without Adrian Gonzalez.
In New York Curtis Granderson is also surrounded by plenty of offensive talent. Mark Texiera has 35 home runs and 99 RBI and Robinson Cano is hitting .303 with 23 home runs and 95 RBI.
Removing Jose Bautista could only make the Jays so much worse. They're already a below-.500 team that is 16 games out of first place.
Take Justin Verlander off the Tigers and it's a different story. The Tigers quite simply are not a playoff team without Verlander. Detroit is 10th in the American League in team ERA, 10th in batting average against and eighth in walks allowed. Those numbers are actually with Verlander's numbers factored in.
What's that mean? It means that the Tigers might just have the worst pitching in the American League and yet they are 73-60 with a six-game lead in first place in the American League Central.
When you're only 13 games above .500 with among the worst pitching in the league and are sitting in first place with a starting pitcher who sports a 20-5 record, there's no question who the most important player on the team is.
The historical precedent set back in 1986. The potential for Verlander winning 25 games. Then there's the simple fact that Verlander really does appear to be the most valuable player in the American League.
There really are plenty of reasons for Verlander to win the MVP award—it's not impossible, it's not unprecedented and it's probably deserved.
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