Verlander most deserving of MVP award

BY foxsports • November 21, 2011

In early September, I wrote of the American League MVP race: “A position player should win the award if all things are equal.”

One month later, after agonizing over my ballot during contemplative rain delays, I concluded that this was an unequal year.

I voted for Justin Verlander ahead of Jacoby Ellsbury.

I did so after parsing the criteria set forth by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, particularly the sentence that asks us to determine the most valuable player to his team.

Could the Yankees have finished six games ahead of the Rays without the contributions of Curtis Granderson?

Yes, they could have.

Could the Red Sox have finished seven games behind the Yankees without the contributions of Ellsbury?

Yes, they could have.

Could the Blue Jays have finished 16 games behind the Yankees without the contributions of Jose Bautista?

Yes, they could have.

But could the Tigers have finished 15 games ahead of the Indians without the contributions of Verlander?

Absolutely not. Apparently, enough of my colleagues agreed with me. On Monday, Verlander was named AL MVP.

Verlander won the AL pitching Triple Crown, leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts. He threw the most innings. He had the lowest WHIP. Those numbers made him the unanimous choice as AL Cy Young Award winner last week.

But a different statistic explains why Verlander is the rightful MVP: He went 16-3 in starts after Detroit had lost the previous game. The Elias Sports Bureau says that is the most victories for a pitcher after team defeats in nearly 40 years (Steve Carlton, 1972 Phillies).

In that way, Verlander wasn’t merely the best pitcher in baseball. He had one of the most significant seasons of any pitcher in two generations.

Roger Clemens was the last starting pitcher to win the MVP in either league. He did it with Boston in 1986. That year, he went 14-1 after Red Sox losses.

Pedro Martinez should have won the AL MVP with the Red Sox in 1999. That year, he went 8-2 when starting after Boston defeats.

Verlander’s 2011 season belongs in the same class.

On the morning of July 21, the Tigers and Indians were tied for first in the AL Central. That night, Verlander began a 12-game winning streak. He went two solid months without a loss or no-decision. The run didn’t end until Verlander’s final start of the regular season. At that point, it hardly mattered: Detroit had already clinched the division title.

I understand that some statistically minded readers will consider me a baseball Neanderthal, given the weight I am affixing to such arcane metrics as “winning” and “losing.” I would welcome that criticism if this were a debate about the Cy Young Award, given to the best pitcher in the league. Felix Hernandez, for example, deserved to win the AL Cy Young Award in 2010, despite his team’s last-place finish.

The MVP is different. It recognizes a player’s contribution to his team’s achievement. Context matters. And Verlander, based on his share of the Tigers’ success, was the most indispensable player in the American League this year.

While “number of games played” is one criterion on the MVP ballot, sabermetrics have afforded us new ways of measuring that. Ellsbury played 158 games; Verlander made 34 starts. But look closer: Ellsbury totaled 729 plate appearances this season, with 394 total chances on defense, for a total of 1,123 occasions to impact the game. Verlander faced 969 batters and threw a major league-leading 3,941 pitches.

It’s hard (if not impossible) to make a one-to-one comparison here. The point is that Ellsbury’s “games” and Verlander’s “games” aren’t created equal, particularly in light of the Three-of-Five Theory: Verlander didn’t merely affect the game he pitched. He had an impact the day before (when manager Jim Leyland could empty the bullpen) and the day after (when the Tigers’ bullpen was, much more often than not, better rested than the opposition).

Ellsbury, like Verlander, was at his best when the division title was at stake for his team: Ellsbury amassed a 1.067 OPS in September, a beacon of productivity amid the broader Boston gagging. Ellsbury was the most impressive position player in the AL, leading the league in total bases and extra base hits while playing Gold Glove defense in center field. He was a 30/30 player. He drove in 100 runs. He did it all. His candidacy shouldn’t be diminished because Jonathan Papelbon blew a save in Game 162.

And I would have given Ellsbury my vote, if Verlander hadn’t won those 12 straight starts when a playoff berth hung in the balance, hadn’t gone 16-3 when his team lost the game before and hadn’t been the most dominant figure in the American League this year.

Position players are supposed to win the MVP. But for one season, Justin Verlander bent the rules like his 12-to-6 curveball.

Here’s how the rest of my ballot looked:

3. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
If his past two seasons are any indication, he will win an MVP in the not-too-distant future. It’s hard to be much better than Bautista was this year, leading the majors in home runs, OPS and walks while unselfishly spending time at third base for the Blue Jays. (He’s a plus defender in right field.)

4. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
He won the major league batting title (.344) without sacrificing the power for which he’s known. Cabrera finished second to Bautista among all big-league hitters in OPS.

5. Curtis Granderson, Yankees
Granderson led the league in RBI and runs scored while finishing a close second to Bautista in home runs. On a stacked ballot, I considered putting him as high as third.

6. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox
At one point in the season, it looked like Gonzalez might win the award. But his production tapered down the stretch, as Cabrera leapfrogged him in the batting race and the Rays passed his team.

7. Alex Avila, Tigers
When the season began, no one forecasted Avila as a starting catcher in the All-Star Game. But he led the league in games caught and runners caught stealing, while finishing among the top 10 in OPS. A two-way catcher is one of the game’s most valuable commodities.

8. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox
Pedroia played hurt but missed only two games while establishing career highs in home runs (21) and RBI (91). He stole 26 bases and won the Gold Glove at an up-the-middle position.

9. Michael Young, Rangers
If he had played more games in the field, Young would rank higher on this list. Without him, there’s an excellent chance the Rangers would have finished second to the Angels in the AL West. Young was one of only three players in the majors to finish with 200 hits and 100 RBI.

10. Evan Longoria, Rays
Longoria is proof an MVP ballot can hinge on the season’s final week — or, in his case, the season’s final swing. Longoria’s .244 batting average wasn’t pretty, but he homered 17 times in the final two months to vault Tampa Bay into the postseason. If it hadn’t been for him, the Red Sox would have made the playoffs — and Terry Francona might have kept his job.

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