Commentary

A pitcher for MVP?

That's right! Why Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander deserves to win the AL award

Updated: September 21, 2011, 3:48 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Justin VerlanderGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesJustin Verlander (24-5, 2.29) is 16-3 after a Tigers loss this season.

He's been on the field for fewer games this year than Alfredo Amezaga. He hasn't driven in a run or scored one or shown off his home run trot -- not even once.

So if your idea of what an MVP is supposed to look like is Albert Pujols or Joe DiMaggio or George Kenneth Griffey Jr., then Justin Verlander doesn't exactly fit the part.

But if your definition of the "valuable" portion of the Most Valuable Player award doesn't include criteria such as "must dig into the old batter's box at least 500 frigging times a year," how can Justin Verlander not be the MVP of the American League?

Who has changed the face of his team's championship season more than this guy? Who has manhandled the rest of the sport, at any position, more than he has?

And if you ask yourself the defining MVP question -- "Could this team (in this case, those rampaging Detroit Tigers) possibly have made the playoffs and had the season it had without this player?" -- who fits that definition better than Justin Verlander?

"Obviously, you never know what would have happened," said Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski. "But my guess is, we wouldn't be sitting here with the lead we have if we didn't have Justin. … We wouldn't even be having this conversation if it weren't for him."

OK, it's true the Tigers have another MVP candidate, a fellow named Miguel Cabrera. True, it's Cabrera who has played every game but one, who is hitting .331 with a .439 on-base percentage, who is second in the league in OPS, who has reached base more times (288) than any other player in the league. But … "Miguel has been tremendous, too," Dombrowski said. "But if you took Justin off our club and put somebody else in the rotation, we would be a whole different ballclub."

Carpenter" As a pitcher, yeah of course I think he should win. I don't see why not. I think the MVP is for the best player. And pitchers are players.

-- Cardinals P Chris Carpenter

So howwwwww different would the Tigers be? Here's a look at just some of Verlander's MVP credentials:

• He has stopped 16 losing streaks. Yeah, 16. He's 16-3 after a Tigers loss, and that's just about unheard of on a team this good. Who is the last pitcher to stop 16 losing streaks on a first-place team? The Elias Sports Bureau reports that it's Sandy Koufax, who went 16-4 after a loss for the 1966 Dodgers.

• Since the end of April, Justin Verlander has gone 22-2. Yeah, 22-2 (with a 2.00 ERA). And one of the losses came in a 1-0 game. He's 13-1 against the rest of his division in that span (14-1 overall). And, in his past 26 starts, since May 2, his team has gone 23-3 when he started. The Tigers were five games under .500 when that stretch began. They're 24 over now. So it has been those 4½ months that essentially have been their season. And when you're running a pitcher this unbeatable out there, it's like starting that season 20 games over .500. Think it's some fluky coincidence that their longest losing streak since Memorial Day is two games?

We could quit right there and rest our case that this man has had a massive ripple effect on everyone around him. But consider everything he has done to take the heat off his bullpen:

• Verlander has thrown more pitches (3,821) than any other pitcher in the major leagues. And only Jered Weaver (3,629) is even within 250 of him.

• This guy has made 19 starts in which he got at least one out in the eighth inning (or beyond). No one in either league has made more -- and only James Shields has matched him.

• And despite that marathon-man workload, Verlander has held opposing hitters to a ridiculous .190/.240/.308 stat line -- while facing 938 hitters. Know how many pitchers in the division-play era have beaten that stat line in a season when they had to deal with that many hitters? Exactly one -- Don Sutton in 1972.

Rollins … the MVP for a pitcher is the Cy Young Award. That's why they came up with it. That's their award. But the MVP -- that's for the most valuable player.

-- Phillies SS Jimmy Rollins

We could keep going here, but you get the picture. Then again, so do we. We understand that to make the argument that this man is qualified to win the MVP award, we don't just have to prove he's been a dominator. Heck, that's the easy part.

But we also have to reprogram the brain waves of the trillions of people who are philosophically opposed to the idea that ANY pitcher should be allowed to win an MVP award. And that's the hard part. Harder than we ever thought, actually.

We've had numerous conversations with people around the game over the last couple of weeks in which we tried to make this case, or at least started to. And they literally wouldn't even let us continue to speak.

"Don't even go there," they'd say.

"Surely you don't actually think a pitcher should win that award," they'd say.

"When exactly did you lose your mind, anyway?" they'd ask.

About the only group within the sport that seemed to embrace this concept was, shockingly, other pitchers.

"As a pitcher, yeah of course I think he should win," the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter said with a laugh. "I don't see why not. I think the MVP is for the best player. And pitchers are players."

We appreciate that he passed along that breaking news -- that pitchers are players. But we wish him luck trying to convince the position players around him of that. We know we sure didn't have any luck arguing that concept with one former MVP.

When we asked Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins whether there were any circumstances in which he could see a pitcher winning an MVP award, he looked at us as if we had just asked whether there were any circumstances under which he could see a giraffe hitting cleanup.

"None," he replied, pithily. "Now maybe back in the day, when the voting process was different. But now, the MVP for a pitcher is the Cy Young Award. That's why they came up with it. That's their award. But the MVP -- that's for the most valuable player. And is he one of the most valuable players in that league? Yes -- for 35 games."

But what about those other 127 games? That's the technicality Rollins thinks disqualifies poor Justin Verlander -- and every other starting pitcher, for that matter.

"His teammate, Miguel Cabrera, goes out there every single day," Rollins said. "But the pitchers -- and I see this -- they come in, they get ready, they work hard [before games] and then, for 3½ days, their feet are up in the dugout, chilling."

Now hold on, we said. Isn't that a gross underestimation of what pitchers do?

"Oh, I see they work hard," he conceded (barely). "But during the game, what do they do? I mean, workout time is workout time. We all get here, get on the treadmill and work out -- and they're doing the same thing. They throw their bullpens -- and we're taking BP. But there are going to be 130-something games where we're out there, and the one guy [being talked up] for the MVP isn't out there. His feet are up in the dugout, chilling."

At that point, we realized it wasn't much use trying to reprogram a hitter's brain waves. But in truth, we don't have to. All that matters is how the writers who vote on this award think. But it's clear they don't think much differently from the hitters.

Back in 1999, you'll recall, Pedro Martinez would have won the MVP award if two writers hadn't left him off their ballots completely simply because they didn't believe any pitcher should be the MVP. After that mess, the voting instructions were changed -- to say, specifically, that pitchers should be considered.

Quite an impact that has had. You know how many of the 660 first-place MVP votes have gone to a starting pitcher since then? How about one -- to Johan Santana in 2006. He still finished seventh overall.

And you know how many starting pitchers have finished in the top five in any MVP election since? Also one. That was Pedro. He finished fifth -- 11 years ago.

But this line of thinking goes back way before Pedro-gate. It's been 25 years since Roger Clemens became the last starting pitcher to win an MVP award. In that entire quarter century, the only starting pitchers to get a first-place vote are Santana, Pedro (who got eight in 1999) and Clemens (three, in 1990).

So it's obvious how the writers tend to look at this issue. But that isn't how they always looked at it.

Between 1968 and 1985, there were 14 starting pitchers who collected a first-place MVP vote. Three of those 14 -- Vida Blue in 1971, Bob Gibson in 1968 and Denny McLain in '68 -- won the award, and 12 other starters finished in the top five in the voting. In fact, that once happened seven years in a row ('68-74).

So if the creation of the Cy Young Award in 1956 was supposed to keep pitchers out of these MVP conversations, how come it took another three decades for that to happen? Because that was never the intent. That's why.

In other words, the voters are supposed to be considering starting pitchers -- all pitchers, in fact -- for this award. They just choose not to. But if they decide to consider this particular starting pitcher, you know what they'll find?

They'll find his credentials are remarkably similar to Clemens' MVP credentials in 1986. That's what.

That year, Clemens went 24-4, and led the league in ERA and WHIP. He went 14-1 in starts following a loss. And much like Verlander, Clemens went on a tear of three-month invincibility. His team won his first 15 starts, and went 18-2 in his first 20. When anyone else pitched in that stretch, they were only six games over .500 (31-25).

And, just like this year, there were position players worthy of election. Don Mattingly had a ferocious .352/.394/.573 season. He finished second. Jesse Barfield hit 40 homers. Joe Carter hit .302 and led the league in RBIs.

And Clemens had one teammate (Jim Rice) whose .324/.384/.490 stat line earned him a third-place finish and another (Wade Boggs) who batted .357, rolled up a .453 on-base percentage and led the league in wins above replacement.

So why shouldn't the Verlander debate this year be a virtually identical debate to the Clemens debate that year? Is there any good reason? Any? Correct answer: Nooooo.

Now don't get us wrong. We recognize and salute the fantastic seasons of Jose Bautista, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia and Cabrera. We're just not sure we can convince ourselves they've been more "valuable" than Verlander. Not this year.

"If we're talking who's the most valuable member of a club and the difference he makes, I think I'd have a hard time saying anybody was more valuable to their team," Dombrowski said. "I can't imagine that."

Well, he shouldn't have to imagine it -- because this year, there hasn't been anyone more valuable than his guy.

Ready to Rumble

• The World Series is scheduled to start four weeks from today. And the buzz on the labor front is that the two sides hope to announce the details of a new labor deal at some point before the end of that World Series. All they have to do now is … come to some sort of meeting of the minds on the Big Stuff.

That's all.

There have been indications recently that the sides have been "working around the edges" of those major issues, according to one source, and finishing off the smaller issues on which they've found common ground. But the Big Stuff remains unresolved. And that's a potential worry because they would like to have everything in place before this offseason begins.

The most serious hang-up could still turn out to center on the draft, amateur spending and compensation picks for teams losing free agents. We continue to hear that the union is dug in on its opposition to a hard slotting system for drafted players. But if management doesn't come out of these talks with some controls on that spending, Bud Selig "is going to have a problem," said an official of one club. "He's really put himself on the line on those things. If he doesn't get them, it will be really interesting."

• Another huge issue that appears to be unresolved is what happens to the luxury tax and revenue sharing. As always, it's unclear what changes could be in store for teams at the top of the payroll charts like the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies. But we're hearing the sides also have talked about imposing a reverse tax on teams that consistently spend well under the average payroll.

The Padres, for instance, have maintained a payroll under $50 million for three straight seasons. The new deal, if this provision is enacted, would allow them to continue to do that. But they would be charged a fee, similar to the luxury tax, if they stayed under a yet-to-be-agreed-upon minimum threshold. About time. How many years overdue is this idea?

• All around the sport this month, we've seen teams shutting down their best young pitchers because they slammed into their innings limit -- or seen clubs run out of guys to pitch because their pitchers have gotten hurt or hit the wall.

Tampa Bay Rays

But one team that hasn't had any issues on that front, you'll notice, is the Rays. And what makes that especially amazing is that this is a team that hasn't used a single pitcher in his 30s to start a game since 2007 (755 games ago).

Well, that's not an accident. Execs on other clubs are increasingly taking notice of the way the Rays resist rushing young pitchers to the big leagues so they can take the time to build them up to make it through a full season.

One of the driving forces of that philosophy, former Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker, downplays the genius of his team's approach, saying, "It's not rocket science" and making it clear the Rays aren't "suggesting our way is better than anybody else."

But if you check out the history of a pitcher such as Matt Moore, you find that, in his three full minor league seasons, he went from 123 innings in 2009 to 144 2/3 last year to 155 this year before his promotion to work in relief in September. So next year, he would be groomed to make it through the whole season as a starter. And that's exactly the way this team has prepared David Price, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson and this entire cast. What a concept.

• For Moore to be on the Rays' opening day roster next year, though, they seemingly would have to trade a starter this winter. But clubs that have kicked those tires think rumors of the Rays dealing James Shields just don't add up for a team that clearly is poised to contend.

"If you're a team that's trying to win next year, why would you trade James Shields?" asked an exec of one club. "That doesn't make any sense."

• One scout's review of Moore, after watching him pitch against the Red Sox this weekend: "Electric stuff. Every fastball he threw was over 95, and he didn't get cute."

Goldschmidt
Goldschmidt

• Another young player who is opening eyes is Diamondbacks masher Paul Goldschmidt. In Goldschmidt's first 11 games in the big leagues, he hit .216/.275/.378, with 17 strikeouts, only eight hits, two homers and no doubles. In 31 games since then, he has hit .267/.348/.525, with 29 strikeouts, 27 hits, six homers and eight doubles. "He's like Mike Stanton," one scout said. "He's a threat to hit a ball a mile at any time. I love watching him hit."

Astros

• All sorts of rumors were circulating this week suggesting that Jim Crane's deal to buy the Astros is about to collapse. But sources we've surveyed report that nothing substantial has changed, that Crane's bid is still "stuck in neutral" and that he still could wind up being approved under the right conditions -- with an agreement to allow his team to move to the American League ranking near or at the top of that list.

• He spent most of this season as an afterthought. But all of a sudden, the Phillies find themselves a week from the finish line, and the reliever who leads their team in ERA is -- whaddayaknow -- Brad Lidge. In 21 appearances since exiting the disabled list, he has a 1.13 ERA, with 20 strikeouts in 12 innings. So is there going to be a market out there this winter for Lidge as a closer?

Brad Lidge
Lidge

His agent, Rex Gary, told Rumblings that Lidge is thinking more about what lies ahead of him in October than what lies ahead in the offseason. But Gary also said that although Lidge still thinks of himself as a closer, he "understands that that is not going to be his role right now. And he is certainly fine with that."

"Knowing Brad," Gary said, "I don't think he's going to say next winter, 'I only want to hear from you if I'm a closer.' He'll be open to whatever clubs have to say. But my guess is, he'd like for someone to say either 'You'll be our closer' or 'You'll be in the mix.'"

The Phillies hold a $12.5 million option on Lidge for next year that they're exceedingly unlikely to pick up. And the two sides, from all indications, have had no conversations about Lidge returning. But Gary said Lidge isn't ruling out a return, in any role, saying: "He'd certainly like to hear what the Phillies think, at some point."

If that doesn't happen, one team to keep an eye on is the Rockies, who play seven miles from Lidge's home in Colorado and will be looking to add to their back-of-the-bullpen options this winter.

Rockies

• But before the Rockies go about collecting any free agents this winter, they might have to cut payroll. They were at just shy of $88 million this season. And other clubs are hearing they'll try to get down to $83-84 million next season. So how will they do that with the salaries of Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez jumping by nearly $7 million combined? Teams looking for catching are hearing the Rockies almost certainly will look to deal Chris Iannetta and replace him with good-looking rookie Wilin Rosario.

• Finally, we conducted a little unofficial, unscientific poll of several executives this week, asking where they thought the marquee free-agent hitters on this market will wind up. The envelopes, please:

Albert Pujols -- stays in St. Louis.

Prince Fielder -- Nationals.

Jose Reyes -- Giants.

Those predictions, by the way, come with no money-back guarantees. So hold those emails.

Five Astounding Facts (Wednesday edition)

1) Even if the Phillies lose every game for the rest of the regular season, loyal reader Eric Seidman reports that they already have done something no team had ever done: They've finished first for five straight seasons and increased their win total every year, from 85 to 89 to 92 to 93 to 97 and now 98 wins. Before this, only four other teams since 1871 had increased their win total in even four straight years while finishing at .500 or better -- the 1936-40 Indians and three teams that were launched on their streaks by the 1994 strike, the 1994-98 Yankees, Astros and Braves. Incredible.

Volstad
Volstad

2) Marlins pitcher Chris Volstad might not have outdueled Stephen Strasburg on the mound this past Sunday, but Volstad did do something no other pitcher had ever done -- hit a double against him. Before that, opposing pitchers were 1-for-22 with 14 strikeouts against Strasburg. The only previous hit: a single by an American League pitcher, Gavin Floyd, of all people.

3) Before this past weekend, the Tigers hadn't finished in first place since 1987. Pretty amazing, given that (A) they have played in a World Series since then (2006) and (B) 25 of the other 29 teams won their division at least once in all those years. Of the other four teams, two of them (Rockies and Marlins) didn't even exist back in 1987, and a third (Brewers) is about to end its own 29-year drought. So which squad is going to be the only remaining team that hasn't finished first in any of the past 24 seasons? That would be your Royals, who last won their division in 1985.

Red Sox

4) When the Red Sox launched an inside-the-park homer (Jacoby Ellsbury) and a grand slam (Conor Jackson) in the same inning Monday, we must have gotten a hundred tweets from people wondering the last time that had happened. After extensive research, here's the answer from our friends at the Elias Sports Bureau: The New York Giants pulled that off on Aug. 16, 1950, in the seventh inning, via a Don Mueller slam and a Hank Thompson inside-the-parker.

5) Justin Verlander leads the big leagues in most starts this year in which he has allowed three or fewer hits (with nine). Tim Lincecum leads the National League (with eight). But which two starters are tied for second in the NL? No, not Cliff Lee or Clayton Kershaw. It's Braves rookie Brandon Beachy and Padres rookie Cory Luebke (with seven). Who else?

Tweet of the Week

Here at Rumblings, we had a great time watching "Moneyball." But naturally, the snarky tweets are flying, just like this one from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jeff Schultz (@JeffSchultzAJC):

"'Moneyball' is coming out just as the visionary Billy Bean and the Oakland A's are missing the playoffs for the fifth straight year. Oops."

Headliner of the Week

Finally, this just in from the scroll atop the always-madcap Sportspickle.com:

MONEYBALL HOPING TO CAPITALIZE ON LARGE SABERMATRICIAN DEMOGRAPHIC

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter:

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com