Justin Verlander: Should He Be the American League MVP?

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Justin Verlander: Should He Be the American League MVP?
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Is the Tigers' ace the league's Most Valuable Player?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the MVP vote as of late, particularly in the AL. And that’s good; there are a ton of worthy candidates. Jacoby Ellsbury is having a breakout year; Jose Bautista is continuing his breakout success from last year; Curtis Granderson has been leading a Yankees team that has the best record in the league; Adrian Gonzalez and Miguel Cabrera have been raking at first base; there are at least four playoff contenders with second basemen in the discussion (Ian Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia, Robinson Cano and Ben Zobrist all stand out); and so on. 

One candidate has really seen his case pick up steam, though: Tigers' ace Justin Verlander. Should he be the league’s Most Valuable Player though?

Well, he's definitely the league’s Cy Young. With all due respect to CC Sabathia, Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, et al., who have all had good years, Verlander is the run away favorite. He’s currently in line to win the AL pitching triple crown, he’s thrown a no-hitter and he’s been overall dominant this year. 

But should it win him the MVP? As I’ve said recently, I’m hesitant to give pitchers the MVP unless they’re clearly better than all of the position players. Essentially, giving a pitcher the MVP leaves position players without a major award (and no, the Hank Aaron Award is not equivalent to the MVP; that article I just linked to has all the reasons why).

 

 

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Really, I don’t think the playing time is all that much of an issue. Hitters play more games, but pitcher do have more batters faced than hitters have plate appearances. However, the pitchers also aren’t 100 percent responsible for each batter; they do have eight guys backing them up on each out. So really, it does equal out. They only problem is, it’s really difficult to definitively say that a pitcher (even Verlander) has been better than any hitter in the league.

 

Well, Verlander has been dominating, right? He is leading in the pitching triple crown, and that has to mean something. Well, it is definitely impressive, but it isn’t quite the same as the standard triple crown (or even the newer, more impressive Slash Stat Triple Crown, but we’ll leave that one out of the discussion for now).

There have been 16 batting Triple Crowns in history. By comparison, there have been 36 pitching Triple Crowns. Similarly, Carl Yastrzemski won the last hitting Triple Crown with his famed 1967 season. The last pitching Triple Crown winner? Jake Peavy in 2007.

 

While I’m on the subject, let’s look back at the last few pitching Triple Crown winners. Surely, they dominated their league in a way similar to Verlander, right? How have they fared in MVP voting? Well, Peavy finished seventh the year he won the PTC. The year before him, Johan Santana placed seventh in MVP voting also while winning the PTC as a Twin. In 2002, Randy Johnson finished... seventh in NL MVP voting (I’m noticing a pattern here). Pedro finished second in voting after his famed 1999 season. Roger Clemens won the Triple Crown in back-to-back seasons (1997 and 1998), but finished 10th and 11th in those years in MVP voting, respectively. 

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Every one of them won their league’s Cy Young, but despite dominating their league as Verlander has done, the writers seemed to overcorrect and place them too low (for example, Randy Myers placed higher than Clemens in the 1997 vote, and Jermaine Dye and and Frank Thomas near the end of his days both placed ahead of 2006 Johan). Really, this seems like a rather strong precedent.

 

On top of that, is Verlander’s 2011 better than those seasons? Let’s look at it a few ways.

 

ERA: 2.05, Clemens 1997

2.65, Clemens 1998

2.07, Martinez 1999

2.32, Johnson 2002

2.77, Santana 2006

2.54, Peavy 2007

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

2.29, Verlander 2011

 

 

ERA+: 222, Clemens 1997

174, Clemens 1998

243, Martinez 1999

197, Johnson 2002

162, Santana 2006

158, Peavy 2007

179, Verlander 2011

 

Strikeouts: 292, Clemens 1997

271, Clemens 1998

313, Martinez 1999

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

334, Johnson 2002

245, Santana 2006

240, Peavy 2007

244, Verlander 2011

 

 

Strikeout to Walk Ratio: 4.29, Clemens 1997

3.08, Clemens 1998

8.46, Martinez 1999

4.70, Johnson 2002

5.21, Santana 2006

3.53, Peavy 2007

4.36, Verlander 2011

 

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

IP: 264.0, Clemens 1997

234.2, Clemens 1998

213.1, Martinez 1999

260.0, Johnson 2002

233.2, Santana 2006

223.1, Peavy 2007

244.0, Verlander 2011

 

bWAR: 10.3, Clemens 1997

7.5, Clemens 1998

8.4, Martinez 1999

8.8, Johnson 2002

7.0, Santana 2006

6.2, Peavy 2007

Where does Verlander's Triple Crown year rank among the recent ones?

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8.7, Verlander 2011

 

fWAR: 11.1, Clemens 1997

8.8, Clemens 1998

12.1, Martinez 1999

8.7, Johnson 2002

7.3, Santana 2006

6.1, Peavy 2007

7.0, Verlander 2011

 

Really, Verlander compares reasonably well, but he’s closer to the middle of the group in most categories. It’s difficult to argue that he stands out; if the others didn’t win, Verlander doesn’t seem to be having the type of season that will break the trend.

 

Other factors do make his season seem less spectacular (at least, as unspectacular as a PTC season can be). The AL Central isn’t the strongest of divisions; there’s a good chance that the Tigers will be the only team to finish above .500.

Should a pitcher be MVP?

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Of Verlander’s 33 starts, 19 have come against teams with a losing record. Compare that, for example, to CC Sabathia (11 of 33), James Shields (14 of 32), Josh Beckett (10 of 29), Jered Weaver (16 of 33) or Dan Haren (16 of 34). That isn’t to say that Verlander has been worse than any of them, but I think if you’re arguing that he’s been far and away the best player in the AL this year (and, therefore, the MVP), you have to take that into consideration. That’s roughly 22 more innings he’s gotten against losing teams than most of the other pitchers in the league.*

 

*As a side note, all of these stats are probably slightly dated already. I started writing this the afternoon of September 24. Verlander is pitching against the Orioles right now (start 20 versus a sub-.500 team), and that isn’t factored into the numbers; that probably helps him, though, as he’s currently given up five runs to the Orioles in three innings. According to MLB.com, that bumps his ERA up to 2.41, .02 behind Jered Weaver. He’ll probably still beat Weaver for the ERA crown though.

 

 

Really, all of this is to say that, even though he’s having an incredible season, it’s hard to argue that he’s far and away the most valuable player in the league. He’s easily the best pitcher, but there are too many other position players with legitimate claims to the title to totally ignore them in awards voting.

Who's the 2011 AL MVP?

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Jose Bautista is having an insane offensive season, as he leads the league in on-base percentage (.447), slugging (.611), home runs (43) and OPS+ (183). Fangraphs’ WAR has Bautista leading Verlander, 8.2 to 7.0, while Baseball-Reference’s WAR has them in a virtual tie, 8.4 to 8.6*.

Jacoby Ellsbury is having a fine year, with a .319 batting average, a .913 OPS, 28 homers and a 143 OPS+, all while playing center field well. Fangraphs’ WAR has him first in the majors with 8.7, while the similarly-named Baseball-Reference stat pegs him as third in the AL, with 7.1.

Curtis Granderson, Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia, have all had varying degrees of strong years. I would slot Verlander somewhere in with that group, in the 3-8 slots in voting (possibly seventh? if only to continue the recent theme...). And really, there’s no shame in that. He’s had an incredible season. He just hasn’t been good enough to take the Cy Young AND the MVP.

 

*It was in favor of Verlander when I wrote this paragraph; taking into account their weekends, though, the two have swapped places. Bautista is now the 8.6.

 

This article is also featured at Hot Corner Harbor

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