Monday, November 21, 2011

Unsurprisingly, Voters Screw Up AL MVP

Earlier today it was announced that Justin Verlander, the American League Cy Young Award winner, also was voted the American League MVP. There's no arguing Verlander had a fantastic season, and he was a major reason the Detroit Tigers were able to make the playoffs this past season.

Unfortunately, Verlander winning the MVP award is a mistake. He went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA, posted a 0.92 WHIP, and struck out one batter per inning. He was fantastic, and certainly deserving of winning the American League Cy Young award unanimously, which he did.

I have a real issue with people saying that the MVP award needs to go to someone who was at least in the playoff hunt down the stretch. It absolutely makes for a great story when the star player on a contending team carries his team in September and helps take them into the playoffs. And because the people who vote on the MVP award write about these kinds of things for the entire month leading up to when they vote, they are undoubtedly and likely unknowingly oftentimes voting for that player.

Baseball is a team sport. One player can help a team, but he can't turn a team around on his own like they can in basketball. Putting a great player on a good team will definitely take that team to the next level, but if you put Albert Pujols on the Houston Astros last year, they still would have finished under .500. Had you switched Justin Verlander with J.A. Happ in the Astros rotation, the Astros would have won about 7 more games. Happ was the Astros worst starter last season, so that's the best improvement the team could've made with Verlander. Verlander posted a WAR of 7.0, while Happ's was 0.3. Verlander was clearly leaps and bounds better, but it's incredibly difficult for someone who only plays about 1/5 of the team's games to be more valuable than an offensive player who plays basically every day.

Giving Verlander the award because "Detroit wouldn't have made the playoffs without him" is also flawed logic. It's ridiculous to judge a player based on his teammates when those players have virtually no say in who they get to play with. Sure, free agency allows players to technically choose their team, but it's a business first and these players need to take the contract that makes the most sense for them and their families, not what team will give them the best chance to win. As a fan you may not agree with that line of thinking, but when it comes to their livelihood it's unfair to criticize a player for playing with a bad team. Even if you don't agree with me that players should take the best offer in free agency, the Tigers ABSOLUTELY would have made the playoffs without Verlander.

Detroit finished 95-67, 15 games ahead of second place Cleveland. Justin Verlander's WAR was 7.0. Unless the Tigers replaced Verlander with someone who's WAR was -8.0 (impossible) they would have made the playoffs. If you don't like WAR or other advanced statistics, here's an even simpler, albeit not entirely correct, explanation:

If the Tigers had switched Justin Verlander's 24 wins with ANY pitcher who won 10 games in 34 starts, they still would have won the division. Verlander was fantastic, but he was not the most valuable player in the American League. Getting the MVP vote wrong has become kind of a tradition among the baseball writers, so it's not surprising they did it again.

Personally, I think Jose Bautista deserved the award. Yes, I understand he played for an 81-81 Blue Jays team. But he hit a ridiculous .302/.447/.608 with 43 home runs in 149 games. The average American League player hit .258/.323/.408 in 2011. Bautista's on base percentage was higher than the average American League player's slugging percentage. He was leaps and bounds better than pretty much every American League hitter other than Miguel Cabrera. His WAR of 8.3 is very good, but it's worth noting that Jacoby Ellsbury's WAR was 9.4. Ellsbury's offensive numbers weren't nearly as impressive, but he played great defensively in center field and still had a great offensive year, so his value is perceived to be higher than Bautista's according to FanGraphs.

Baseball Reference, which also has their own WAR statistic, rated Bautista as 8.5 wins above replacement, while Ellsbury's WAR was 7.2. Baseball Reference did have Verlander's value as 8.6 wins above replacement, which is slightly better than Bautista. However, because both WAR stats are important and slightly different, it makes more sense to average the two out and see who has the highest. Bautista would be 8.4 wins above replacement, Ellsbury would be 8.3 and Verlander would be 7.8. So yes, according to WAR, it was close enough that voting for Verlander isn't a huge mistake or even a big deal.

However, it's frustrating because when you compare Verlander's season to Clayton Kershaw's, Verlander wasn't so much better that he deserves to win the AL MVP while Kershaw likely won't even get a vote. Verlander had a better season, both with advanced statistics and more conventional, old-school statistics. However, Kershaw's 21-5 record with a 2.28 ERA is impressive. I've seen it mentioned a few places that Kershaw would have won 25 games had he played for Verlander's Tigers, but that's just not true. Verlander got an average of 5.56 runs from his offense when he started, and Kershaw was basically exactly the same, posting a run support average of 5.52. Verlander was better, and had they been in the same league Verlander would have been more deserving of the Cy Young than Kershaw.

But Kershaw was still great, and had the Dodgers been in contention down the stretch there's a chance the writers would have felt Kershaw was a legitimate MVP candidate. It's ridiculous that the voters have no problem giving Verlander the MVP award when the Tigers STILL WOULD HAVE made the playoffs if they replaced him with a replacement level player, yet they likely won't even consider Kershaw* because his team finished 81-81 instead of winning their division.

*The NL MVP award will come out tomorrow (Tuesday), so I guess there's a chance the voters will prove me wrong, but I'd be shocked if Kershaw finishes higher than 10th, if he gets on the ballot at all. Also, the writers who vote for the AL MVP aren't the same writers who will vote for the NL MVP, so it's unfair to categorize them altogether, but I'm doing it anyways.


Since 2006, the AL MVP award has been wrongly chosen three out of six years. Justin Morneau won the award in 2006 despite both Derek Jeter and Joe Mauer being more valuable. A-Rod deservingly won it in 2007. In 2008, Dustin Pedroia won it despite his teammate Kevin Youkilis being more valuable. In 2009, Joe Mauer rightfully won the MVP award, when he had arguably the greatest all-around season by a catcher in baseball history. Last season, in 2010, Josh Hamilton was deserving of the award, and he won it. With Verlander's selection this season I would say they've now been wrong over 50% of the time over the last seven years, which is frustrating. Not to mention that when Pedro Martinez didn't win the MVP award in 1999, it should have become an unwritten rule that no pitcher would win it unless he was equally as dominant. Pedro got screwed by writers refusing to put a pitcher on the ballot, despite the rules clearly stating that pitchers NEED to be considered by the voters. It was a shame at the time, and it's a shame today because as good as Verlander's 2011 season was, it still wasn't all that close to the dominant 1999 Pedro season (which was in the middle of the greatest offensive boom in baseball history) yet Verlander will take home the AL MVP award that Pedro deserved over a decade ago.

Wait a minute, though, you might say. Just because the writers screwed up Pedro's MVP voting in 1999 doesn't mean every pitcher should get screwed because of it. I agree. Had Verlander been leaps and bounds more valuable than any offensive player, like Pedro was in 1999, I would have had no problem with him winning the award. Unfortunately, Verlander's 2011 season is more comparable statistically to Johan Santana's 2006 season than Pedro's 1999 season, and Santana finished 7th in the AL MVP voting. In case you were wondering, the AL MVP that year, Justin Morneau, hit .321/.375/.559 as a first baseman. The average offensive AL player in 2006 hit .275/.339/.447. That means Morneau had a worse season in 2006 than Jose Bautista did this year, and the average offensive AL player hit better in 2006 than in 2011. Bautista was leaps and bounds better than Morneau, while Santana and Verlander's seasons were comparable. Morneau won the award because the Twins made the playoffs; Bautista wasn't even considered because he didn't have the benefit of playing with Johan Santana and Joe Mauer.

Maybe one day I'll get a vote, and then someone can criticize who I voted for. But until then, I'll gladly be the guy that complains about an MVP award voting process a lot of people just don't care about.