Verlander remarkable but not worthy of MVP
Position players have built stronger cases for AL top honor
A pitcher capturing both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards -- it's like the Sixth Man of the Year also winning the NBA's MVP trophy, the Best New Artist taking home the Grammy for Album of the Year, or your high school's scholar-athlete being named its valedictorian.
Sometimes, both are warranted; just like sometimes, pitching performances are transcendent enough to garner Major League Baseball's two biggest individual awards. But more often than not, the MVP and Cy Young should be looked upon as separate entities, simply because an everyday player is set up to have a much bigger impact on a season than any pitcher of this era can even dream.
And that brings us to Justin Verlander, who's having a remarkable, Cy Young-worthy year but -- contrary to the sentiments of colleague Anthony Castrovince -- shouldn't receive any real consideration for the American League's MVP Award.
Verlander, as you all know, has been flat-out filthy en route to being the fifth pitcher in the past 20 years to win 20 games before September. He leads the Majors in victories, innings, WHIP and strikeouts. He ranks second in the AL with a 2.38 ERA. He threw one no-hitter and has come close on several other occasions. And, most important, he is the only sure thing in the first-place Tigers' otherwise shaky rotation.
There was a time when starters regularly won MVPs. But that was a different time; a time when "quality start" didn't mean six innings, managers didn't worry about triple-digit pitch counts and three days of rest was plenty.
Starting pitching is still the most crucial component of winning baseball. But it's hard to ignore the fact that while position players still play in the same number of games they always have, the number of innings a starting pitcher throws -- and, thus, the impact he has on his team's overall regular-season success -- has greatly diminished.
Consider: If you scan the list of most innings pitched in a single season since 1960, you'd have to go all the way to No. 129 (Charlie Hough in 1987) to find one that took place after 1985.
And consider: Since the Cy Young Award began in 1956 -- and for the first 11 years, there was only one for both leagues -- nine pitchers have won the MVP, but none have since Dennis Eckersley in 1992, and no starter has since Roger Clemens in 1986. In fact, Clemens is the only starter to win an MVP since Vida Blue did so 40 years ago. On the other hand, three closers have won the award in that span.
Chalk it up to coincidence or statistical anomaly if you want, but this trend mostly displays the obvious: The less a pitcher throws in a given season, the less valuable he is.
Wins Above Replacement, perhaps baseball's best sabermetric stat, sends a similar message.
From 1966-80, a pitcher led his respective league in WAR on 11 separate occasions. Since 2000, though, only one pitcher has led the league in WAR (Zack Greinke, with 9.0 in 2009). And among the single-season leaders in WAR since 1970, only four pitching performances rank in the top 75.
This year, Verlander is tied for fifth in the AL with a 6.2 WAR, according to FanGraphs.com. He ranks second behind Roy Halladay (6.9) for tops in the Majors at his position, and his lead over AL counterparts CC Sabathia (6.1) and Jered Weaver (5.3) suggests he may not even be the clear-cut choice for the Cy Young.
In the 18 seasons that have been completed since a pitcher was deemed more valuable than any other player in his league, many have put up seasons that are at the very least comparable to the one Verlander is on -- and barely sniffed the MVP trophy.
During a run of four straight Cy Young Awards from 1992-95, Greg Maddux won 75 games and posted a 1.98 ERA, yet only finished in the top three in MVP voting once.
Randy Johnson went on a similar roll from 1999-2002, posting 81 wins and a 2.48 ERA, but never finished in the top five for MVP.
Clemens went 21-7 with a 2.05 ERA in 1997 and finished 10th in MVP voting.
And over the past 10 years, not a single starter has finished in the top 10 in MVP voting, and only one (Johan Santana in 2006) got so much as one first-place vote.
Granted, none of that should have any effect on the voting for this particular season. But it just shows how epic a pitcher's season has to be to claim both awards these days.
So, I ask: Why Verlander now? In a year in which Adrian Gonzalez is batting .345 with more than 100 RBIs for the team with the AL's best record, Curtis Granderson is tied for the lead in homers while pacing the Majors in RBIs and Jose Bautista is putting up yet another astronomical stat line, why should one pitcher notch both of baseball's top awards?
It used to happen a lot, and there should still be times -- in extreme situations -- when it happens again.
But not this year.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.