- Steve Berthiaume, ESPNEWS anchor
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Justin Verlander beat the A's in Oakland on Sunday to improve his record to 24-5, making him the first Tigers pitcher to win 24 games in a season since Mickey Lolich won 25 in 1971, and the majors' first 24-game winner since Randy Johnson in 2002. Verlander is the first pitcher in Tigers history to win 12 consecutive starts and the first in the big leagues since Johan Santana in 2004. Verlander is just the seventh American League pitcher since World War II to record 24 wins and 240 strikeouts in a season and the first since Ron Guidry in 1978. He threw a no-hitter May 7 at Toronto. He's a cinch for the AL Cy Young Award. He should also be the AL MVP.
Yes, wins is a flawed yardstick by which to measure pitching performance, I get it. A pitcher used to be credited with a win. Now it's almost as if pitchers are ACCUSED of wins if they happen to be presented with more than one or two runs of support by their offense. ("Sir ... I accuse you of WINNING games ... J'accuse!" ) The WAR (wins above replacement-level) metric exists, in part, to measure one player's contribution to the win column versus that of another, and in determining the "value" of a most valuable player that worth in the minds of many voters is a currency paid out in victories. Detroit has won 89 games to date and Verlander has led the way in 24 of them. Let's not get too hung up on the idea of simply handing the MVP trophy to the position player with the sexiest sabermetric stats and disqualify the player who is likely having the most superb season simply because he's a starting pitcher.
The last starting pitcher to win the MVP Award was Roger Clemens in 1986. Clemens also won the Cy Young that year, a double that I'm arguing Verlander should repeat. Granted, each year presents its own unique voting landscape but Clemens won his AL MVP with these numbers 25 years ago, numbers that Verlander has matched or surpassed:
Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly was runner-up to Clemens in that 1986 MVP vote. How do Mattingly's '86 numbers line up with the two players currently leading the American League in WAR? If Verlander's 2011 season appears equivalent to, or perhaps slightly better than Clemens' 1986 season and Clemens' numbers were enough to trump Mattingly, one could argue that this year's two leading position player candidates would have to surpass Mattingly's '86 season to beat out Verlander. Granted, this season isn't complete, but Mattingly's .352 average with 53 doubles and only 35 strikeouts in 677 at-bats may trump Jacoby Ellsbury's average and steals as well as Jose Bautista's home run and on-base totals.
In 1986, Clemens won the AL MVP Award easily, collecting 19 first-place votes and 339 points to Mattingly's five first-place votes and 258 points. Mattingly may have had the superior season, but Clemens won the award and it wasn't close. Things have changed since then. From 1987 through 1998, only once did a starting pitcher finish higher than sixth in an AL MVP vote; 1999 was the tipping point in a seismic shift away from starting pitchers' MVP candidacy in the voters' minds. Boston's Pedro Martinez collected the most first-place votes but fell 13 points shy of Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez. Martinez's '99 performance was perhaps the greatest pitching season of his generation but two writers left him off their ballots completely.
Rodriguez had a career season in 1999, batting .332/.356/.558 with 35 HRs and 113 RBIs. The idea, however, that Martinez's value didn't merit a single voting point on two ballots was outrageous. In November of 1999, New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden, now in the writers' wing of the Hall of Fame, wrote that he felt "compelled to express my embarrassment and dismay" over the results of that MVP vote, but the mentality has lingered. Only four times since 1999 has an American League starting pitcher finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting and never higher than fifth. Martinez's pitching was the elite performance of that 1999 season, as Verlander's has been in 2011.
We're lost in numbers nowadays. They are extremely useful tools and provide a much more thorough means of evaluating performance as well as interesting discussion and insight, but they can't serve as a de facto chart to simply calculate a formulaic winner. Roger Clemens won an MVP award when Don Mattingly should have. Ivan Rodriguez won an MVP award when Pedro Martinez should have. The shifting philosophies have made for queasy stomachs and bogged down the navigation process. Take a step back. Reset your compass. Breathe. Ellsbury, Bautista and Curtis Granderson have all had outstanding seasons. Justin Verlander has had that special season. He's the MVP.
Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter: @SBerthiaumeESPN.