Ellsbury the better choice for AL MVP

BY Ken Rosenthal • November 20, 2011

To vote for a starting pitcher for MVP, I need to be convinced of two things:

      I wasn’t convinced of either.

      As one of 28 voters for this year’s American League award, I placed Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury first on my ballot and Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander second.

      I don’t have a problem with Verlander winning the award. But I believe my fellow voters got caught up in the narrative of a heroic pitcher lifting the Tigers almost single-handedly to the AL Central title.

      It wasn’t true, not even close.

      The Tigers won 95 games, the third-highest total in the AL. I actually voted for two other Tigers among my top 10, placing first baseman Miguel Cabrera fifth on my ballot and catcher Alex Avila ninth.

      Verlander was the Cy Young Award winner, no question.

      But MVP, that’s something else.

      No starting pitcher had won the award since Roger Clemens in 1986, and he won it for a reason. While the rules explicitly state that starting pitchers are eligible, rarely do they offer more actual value than everyday players.

      Don’t tell me that Verlander faced 969 batters while Ellsbury had a mere 732 plate appearances. Position players aren’t simply involved in batter-pitcher confrontations; they also contribute with their defense and baserunning.

      For a starting pitcher to win MVP, he should deliver near-historic performance.

      Verlander did not.

      ERA-plus — ERA adjusted to league and ballpark — enables us to compare pitchers from different eras by how they performed relative to their peers in a given season. The average is 100. Pedro Martinez in 2000 set the all-time record: 291.

      Greg Maddux holds the third- and fourth-highest all-time marks. Roger Clemens has three of the top 23, Martinez four of the top 31, Randy Johnson three of the top 46.

      Verlander in 2011 ranked 136th.

      His ERA-plus of 170 was the approximate equivalent of Al Leiter’s 1998 performance.

      Don’t get me wrong: I had Verlander second for a reason. He led the league in wins, innings, ERA and opponent OPS, and he was strongest in the first half, when the Tigers needed him most.

      But was he more valuable than Ellsbury? I couldn’t make that case.

      Don’t talk to me about the Red Sox’s collapse; it sure wasn’t Ellsbury’s fault. He was sixth in the league in OPS after Sept. 1.

      Only three players in history — Jose Canseco in 1988, Barry Bonds in ’96 and Alex Rodriguez in ’98 — have matched or exceeded Ellsbury’s totals of 32 homers, 39 stolen bases, 105 RBI and 119 runs in a single season.

      Ellsbury played in 158 of 162 games, gave his team elite defense at an up-the-middle position, ranked fourth in the league in slugging after the All-Star break while hitting leadoff.

      And, as I’ve written previously, he wasn’t simply a Fenway creation; he finished fifth in the AL in OPS-plus, a statistic that is the hitter’s version of ERA-plus, adjusted for league and ballpark.

      Seriously, what more one can ask?

      I’m not saying Ellsbury over Verlander was an easy choice; far from it. Determining the rest of my top 10 also was difficult. The AL candidates this season were that good.

      The rest of my ballot:

      3. Jose Bautista
      Generally, I prefer my MVP to come from a contender; the Jays were not. Bautista also hit 31 of his league-leading 43 home runs before the All-Star break. Still, he unselfishly moved between right field and third base according to his team’s needs, and led the league in OPS even after his second-half drop-off.

      4. Curtis Granderson
      Those closest to the Yankees say that second baseman Robinson Cano is more valuable, but how can anyone deny Granderson’s performance? He was second to Bautista with 41 home runs and led the league with 119 RBI. He also had the same slugging percentage as Ellsbury, and his OBP was only 12 points lower. The difference: Ellsbury is the better defender.

      5. Miguel Cabrera
      Talk all you want about Verlander; where would the Tigers have been without this guy? Cabrera, playing in a less hitter-friendly park than Bautista, won the batting title and tied the Jays’ slugger for the league lead in OPS-plus. Fielding and baserunning are not Cabrera's hallmarks, however.

      6. Adrian Gonzalez
      Can’t blame him for the Red Sox’s collapse, either. Gonzalez had a .455 OBP and .978 OPS in September. For the season, he finished third in the league in OPS while also playing elite defense at first.

      7. Robinson Cano
      His .302 batting average was 40 points higher than Granderson’s, but his .349 OBP was 15 points lower. Still, the Yankees’ high opinion of Cano was apparent in manager Joe Girardi’s postseason lineups: Cano was the team’s No. 3 hitter. He is a strong defender, as well.

      8. Evan Longoria
      He missed the first month with a strained left oblique but led the majors after June 20 with 80 RBI in 89 games — including his 12th-inning walk-off in the regular-season finale to clinch the wild card for the Rays.

      9. Alex Avila: The Tigers’ unsung hero. Avila appeared in 133 games, more than any catcher in the AL, yet finished eighth in the league in OPS.

      10. Michael Young: Good thing the Rangers didn’t trade him. Young, in his first season without a set position, played in all but three games and finished third in the league in hitting.

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