Monday, November 21, 2011
Updated: November 22, 9:19 AM ET
Justin Verlander deservedly the AL MVP
By Jerry Crasnick
A quick qualifier: I didn't have an American League Most Valuable Player vote this year. My ballot was for National League Manager of the Year, and I didn't have to stay up many nights anguishing before casting my ballot for Kirk Gibson ahead of Ron Roenicke, Charlie Manuel and Don Mattingly.
When ESPN.com recently asked for our hypothetical AL MVP votes, I picked Detroit's Justin Verlander despite my long-term bias toward position players over pitchers. Judging from Monday's BBWAA vote, I wasn't the only one to get religion in five-day increments.
As a brief aside, this voting process isn't easy, folks. In recent years, baseball writers who are trained to place stock in what they see between the lines and hear in clubhouses and around the batting cage have more numbers and qualifiers thrown at them from smart people who see no shades of gray and little room to compromise. Wins above replacement is a nice, handy tool to define each player's contribution over a full season, but when you're factoring in different roles and judgments based on defense and baserunning, is it really possible to compare Jacoby Ellsbury's 9.4 WAR with Jose Bautista's 8.3 and Verlander's 7.0 and say you're comparing apples to apples?
Mainstream writers truly have made an effort to embrace sabermetrics of late, without simply throwing up their hands, crunching the numbers and spewing out judgments like robots. When the BBWAA named Seattle's Felix Hernandez the 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner despite his 13-12 record, it was an acknowledgement that some factors -- like run support or the effectiveness of a bullpen -- are beyond a starting pitcher's control. It was a step away from rigidity toward open-mindedness and enlightenment.
This year's AL Most Valuable Player race made for an even more complicated dynamic. You had the pitcher versus position player conversation, complemented by the classic "Most Valuable'' debate that factors playoff teams and also-rans into the equation. Throw in the intrigue generated by potential ballot splitting in Boston, Detroit and New York, and it made for one lively and vigorous discussion.
To review, MVP voters are free to interpret the award as they wish. "There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means,'' the instructions state. "It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.''
That said, every voter is free to establish his own personal standards, and there's nothing to say he or she can't or shouldn't consider where a player's team finishes in the standings.
I understand the argument that Bautista did everything he could and more in Toronto. It's not his fault that the Blue Jays ranked 11th in the league with a 4.32 ERA or that Aaron Hill and Travis Snider both hit .225. But it would be easier to sell the notion that the MVP is about the best position player in each league if MLB hadn't handed out the Hank Aaron Award every year since 1999. Bautista just won his second Aaron award, and if the Dodgers' Matt Kemp loses out to Ryan Braun in the NL MVP balloting Tuesday, voters will be making a statement that winning still counts for something.
The other candidates in this year's AL field all had their pluses and minuses. Curtis Granderson's wondrous overall contribution was tempered by a .262 batting average, 169 strikeouts and (if you believe the metrics) so-so defense in center field. And a lot of people around the league still regarded Robinson Cano as the Yankees' best player and the linchpin to Joe Girardi's lineup.
Ellsbury would have been a fine choice as well, but his candidacy was ultimately doomed by Boston's dispiriting collapse in September. Through no fault of his own, his MVP hopes drowned in a vat of chicken-and-biscuit gravy.
Personally, I'm comfortable with Verlander for all the obvious reasons. He won the AL's pitching Triple Crown with 24 wins, a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts, and threw his second career no-hitter while defining the term "workhorse.'' Verlander went at least six innings in each of his 34 starts. He pitched seven or more innings 25 times, and eight or more innings on 14 occasions. All told, Verlander threw 3,941 pitches this season -- or 167 more than the Angels' Jered Weaver, the No. 2 pitcher in the majors in that category.
|Justin Verlander led the American League in wins (24), ERA (2.40) and strikeouts (250).|
Imagine what it means to go six months without a single clunker. Or if you did have an off night, you still managed to stick around long enough to give your team a chance to win. How good did Detroit manager Jim Leyland feel every fifth day, secure in the knowledge that he could tell select members of the bullpen they were free to take the night off before the game even began?
The Tigers knew they could rely on Verlander when Rick Porcello was struggling, Brad Penny was giving up extra-base hits in abundance and Max Scherzer was good one start and not-so-hot the next. It wasn't until Detroit acquired Doug Fister from Seattle in a July deadline deal that Verlander had a lights-out wing man, but he never faltered. He held opponents to a .192 batting average, and posted a 16-3 record after Detroit losses. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that was the most victories by a pitcher following a loss since Steve Carlton churned out 19 for those laugh-a-minute 1972 Phillies.
As my colleague Jayson Stark has frequently pointed out, it's a relatively recent phenomenon for voters to discount pitchers in MVP balloting. In 1956, the first year for the Cy Young Award, pitchers Don Newcombe, Sal Maglie and Warren Spahn finished first, second and fourth in the National League MVP race. So there's something vaguely throwback-y about Verlander winning the award this year.
Keep in mind that MVP voters don't just wake up at the end of September and say, "Wow, this guy was really good.'' With each dominant start from May through September, Verlander built a momentum that added to the storyline and burnished the narrative. It was something you could see and feel every fifth day -- that he was about to do something special each time he took the mound.
And now he's joined Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Roger Clemens and some very select company in pocketing a Cy Young Award and an MVP in the same season. It's hard to say that Verlander was a 100 percent, slam-dunk, "right'' choice for the award. But he's a sound and perfectly defensible choice. Against a backdrop this chaotic, that's the best you can ask.
|Jose Bautista finished third in the AL MVP balloting after leading the majors with 43 home runs.|
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.
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