Thursday, January 26, 2012

Lest We Forget: Justin Verlander Won the AL MVP Last Year

I'm going to try my best to get away from football and Super Bowl coverage for the next two weeks. I'll just post my thoughts here after this colon: the Patriots are the better team, but they beat only 1 team with a winning record this year (if you don't count the Broncos' playoff win as making them 9-8 when they played New England), and that game, as we all know, was a ridiculously close game for the Patriots.

But let's move on to something that makes me really mad. The Most Valuable Player Award this year in the American League went to Justin Verlander. If you recall, Justin Verlander pulled out gutsy performance after "gutsy performance" to work his way to 24 wins this year. He led the American League in wins, winning percentage, ERA, starts, innings pitched, strikeouts, ERA+, WHIP, and Hits/9 innings. He was a no-brainer for the Cy Young Award. If you're a reasonable person, you can see that he was the best pitcher in the American League. And indeed, he did receive every first place vote for the Cy Young Award.

And then a funny thing happened on the way to the MVP voting. The media picked up the "Verlander as MVP" argument at just the right time, right as the season was ending, and happened. In a crowded field of truly worthy position players, Justin Verlander won the American League MVP. It wasn't even really that close. He got 13 out of the 28 first place votes for MVP, and the next-highest number of first place votes received was five (Jose Bautista). The actual points were pretty close (Verlander only beat Jacoby Ellsbury by 38 points in the voting, which is a relatively small number; for instance, Joe Mauer beat Mark Teixeira by 152 points in 2009), but the first-place voting tells it all. Almost half of the voting baseball writers believed that Justin Verlander had the most valuable year of anyone in the entire American League.

Let's look at the people who finished behind Verlander. Jacoby Ellsbury led off for the Red Sox, and had a stellar year. He hit .321, OBP at .376, slugged .552. He led the league in total bases and his OPS+ was 146. Add to that 39 steals, and you see that when Ellsbury got on base, he was always a threat to advance, and often did. He hit 32 home runs, 46 doubles, 105 RBI and 119 runs scored. This is all from the leadoff spot, and playing an above average center field. Crazy good year.

Jose Bautista (my pick for MVP, but I went back and forth between him and Ellsbury about 9000 times), came in third in the MVP voting. These are the categories in which he led the majors (not just the AL): home runs, walks, slugging, OPS, OPS+. He also just casually hit .302 and had an OBP of .447. That's an incredibly valuable stat line. He also can play outfield and third base, which was truly valuable to the Blue Jays this year. Jose Bautista was an absolute beast, and he deserved some serious recognition besides a damn Silver Slugger.

In a very interesting breakthrough in MVP voting, Curtis Granderson came in 4th and received 3 first place votes. This is a breakthrough because, despite Granderson's relatively low batting average (.262), he had a tremendous year, with a 138 OPS+, a majors-leading 136 runs scored and an AL-leading 119 RBI. Add to that 85 walks, 25 steals, and playing the very valuable center field position, and Granderson had an awesomely valuable year. This is the type of stat line that has been historically under-appreciated by MVP voters, so it was nice to see Granderson get some recognition.

Miguel Cabrera, who is on Verlander's own team, had an outstanding year as well. He came in 5th in the MVP voting. He led the majors with a .344 batting average and a .448 OBP. He and Bautista each had a whopping 181 OPS+. He played 161 games this year for the Tigers. There's gotta be value in a guy that plays every single day, right?

All of these players were more valuable than Justin Verlander. Justin Verlander started 34 games, and he pitched extremely well. Kudos to him. But a starting pitcher needs to be pretty damn awesome to be considered more valuable than a position player. A starting pitcher can affect the outcome of one out of every five games. Granted, a starting pitcher's effect is more pronounced when he is in the game: he throws every pitch for the time he is in there, whereas a hitter only sees pitches when he bats or when a ball hit in play concerns him as a fielder. But a position player can affect the outcome of every single game in which he plays, which, for these guys, was just about every game in the 162-game schedule. They always play the field, and they go up to the plate 4-5 times per game. The good that an effective hitter can do vastly outweighs the good that an effective starting pitcher can do for a team's overall success. For a pitcher to win the MVP, he needs to have been out-of-this-world good, and there need to be no hitters that really jump out as MVP candidates (this year, to my mind, there were at least 3, maybe 4 such hitters).

Here are the reasons why Justin Verlander won the AL MVP, and the reasons why those reasons are wrong:

1. He had 24 wins. That's a lot of wins. No doubt. But what does a win really measure? A starting pitcher receives a win if a) he pitches at least 5 innings and b) his team is leading when he leaves the game (or takes the lead before another pitcher enters the game), and then goes on to never relinquish that lead and win the game. What does that really measure? Most starters go at least 5 innings in their starts, so that's not a particularly difficult criteria to attain. What does that next criteria measure? It really doesn't measure much. In a somewhat nebulous way, one could argue that it measures a pitcher's ability to hold a lead when his team attains it. It also vaguely measures how much a pitcher "put his team in a position to win." Those are not the measures that I would look to in determining the effectiveness of a given pitcher.

Wins are so circumstantial that I put essentially no weight in them when evaluating a pitcher's performance in a given year, especially not compared to other, more telling statistics. Wins are, at best, an indicator of a pitcher's performance over a long period of time. A single season (30-34 starts) is such a small sample size that it is difficult to garner much information about a pitcher's performance from a hazy indicator like wins. Wins has, however, been a historically overvalued statistic when evaluating pitchers' performance, and it was certainly overvalued in this case. Baseball writers are starting to put less weight into wins (Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award in 2010 because he was clearly the best pitcher even though he had a 13-12 record), but apparently they haven't turned the corner completely.

2. There was no clear frontrunner for the MVP. I mentioned the 4 players who came in 2nd through 5th place in the MVP voting. With the possible exception of Granderson, all of those players had very strong cases for being the MVP, and they were all very close at the top of the MVP list. Because of this, they largely split the voting and Verlander ended up being able to sneak in and take the award. This is, of course, bullshit. If the baseball writers who vote on MVP actually knew anything about baseball (which they largely don't), their thought process would have to have gone something like this:

Gee, I can't decide between Ellsbury and Bautista. Both were so valuable. Well, since I can't decide between the two hitters, I'll just choose the pitcher. ESPN says it's okay to do that. That way, I won't have to make this difficult decision, though both of those players definitely deserve the MVP more than Verlander. Great, that's done. Now I'll just go cast my ballot to keep Tim Raines out of the Hall of Fame again and continue my crusade to get Jack Morris in.Goddammit. Just because many position players deserved the MVP doesn't mean Verlander was better than they were. That obviously doesn't make any goddamn sense. But that's exactly what the baseball writers implied by giving Verlander almost half of the first place votes. They're idiots.

3. The teams of the top 2 contenders for the award didn't make the playoffs. This is another old MVP voting habit that's absolute bullshit. For a player to be voted the Most Valuable, he needs to have led his team to the playoffs. The last time a player won the MVP on a non-playoff team was in 2004 when Barry Bonds won it (his OPS+ was 263 and his OBP was .609 that year...I think he might have been the most valuable). Though position players are more important than starting pitchers, position players still cannot will their team to the playoffs. An MVP can be the tipping point between a good team and a really good team, or an 89-win team that misses the playoffs and a 94-win team that does make the playoffs. But one player cannot just carry a team to the playoffs. That's crazy talk. The Blue Jays missing the playoffs does not mean that Jose Bautista is less valuable than, say, Evan Longoria (the best player on a playoff team). Maybe in other sports this should matter. In basketball, one player can make a gigantic difference. But if you put Justin Verlander on the Twins this year, they're still a piss-poor team. Maybe they'll win some more games, but there's no way they make the playoffs because of Verlander's "value." It's the MVP award, not the "right place at the right time" award.

4. Media hype. ESPN got on the Verlander train at exactly the right time. This is why Dustin Pedroia won the MVP in 2008, this is why the Cowboys are a sexy pick to win the NFC East every single year, and this is why some people honestly think that Kobe Bryant is better than LeBron James. I don't need to explain why this does not make Justin Verlander a more valuable player.

When Justin Verlander won the MVP award, I know one of my first reactions was this: Well, if Verlander won the MVP this year, then Pedro should have won it in 1999. Pedro had a much better year that year. And indeed, I am absolutely correct in saying that Pedro had a much better year in 1999. I may even be right in saying that Pedro deserved the MVP that year (Manny Ramirez, who came in 4th, would have gotten my vote. Pedro definitely deserved it more than Pudge Rodriguez, who did end up receiving the award). But that got me thinking: is Justin Verlander's year this year historically good? Is it better than other pitchers' Cy Young years? Is Justin Verlander's 2011 an exemplary year, the way that Pedro Martinez's 1999 and 2000 are? Upon just a little bit of research, the answer is a resounding NO. Verlander had a Cy Young-caliber year, but other pitchers in the very recent past have had comparable, if not better, years.

If I had to choose one statistic to evaluate a pitcher's performance in a given year, I would choose ERA+. ERA+ is calculated by taking the league ERA, dividing it by a pitcher's ERA, adjusting that ERA for ballpark effects, and multiplying that number by 100. An average pitcher will, by definition, have an ERA+ of 100. It is a statistic that takes a lot of relevant factors into account, and takes a very good statistical indicator (ERA) and makes it even more accurate.

Justin Verlander had an ERA+ in 2011 of 170. That led the majors. That is a stellar ERA+. Felix Hernandez, as mentioned before, won the Cy Young award in 2010. His ERA+ was 174. He came in 16th in the MVP voting. He also came in 2nd in the Cy Young voting in 2009 with an ERA+ of 172. Zach Greinke, that year's winner, had an ERA+ of 205. Greinke was 17th in MVP voting. For those of you keeping track, that's 2 AL pitchers in 2009 with an ERA+ better than Verlander's in 2011. For good measure, 2 NL pitchers had better ERA+s in 2009 (Tim Lincecum 173 and Chris Carpenter 182). You have to go back to 2008 to find the last time Verlander's 2011 ERA+ would've led the majors (among starters). That year, Cliff Lee's ERA+ was 168 and Tim Lincecum's was 169.

I could go on and on with these examples. Justin Verlander's year was out of this world, but it was not historically good. And, for me, in a year where there are plenty of worthy MVP candidates, a pitcher would have had to be historically good to garner an MVP award. Justin Verlander simply was not historically good. Just for shits and giggles, Pedro Martinez had an ERA+ better than 170 six times in his career.

I know this may seem like I'm cherry-picking one statistic, but I think it is the best indicator there is in evaluating a pitcher's performance in a single year. Sure, Verlander had more wins than any of these guys, and he had more strikeouts than most of them (not Lincecum), but to me, those are not really effective indicators of overall success. If Pedro Martinez came in fifth in the MVP voting in 2000 (ERA+ of 291 goddamn), then Justin Verlander certainly did not deserve to come in first in 2011.

Can't wait for baseball.

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