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The "V" in MVP has long been one of the more debated letters in professional sports.
What, exactly, defines Valuable? Is it pure productivity, or must there be some added layer of import? In other words, can the most productive player in a given league play for a last-place or otherwise out-of-contention club and still be considered that league's Most Valuable Player?
But this year, more than any other in recent memory, the "P" figures to engender argument, too. And we owe it all to Justin Verlander, whose value will be debated by the voters and, in the meantime, by myself and my MLB.com colleague, Alden Gonzalez, who has an opposing view
As you know, the "P" stands for Player, and the ballots handed out to members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America make it clear that "player" is an all-encompassing term that accounts for both position players and pitchers. So, in my view, there is absolutely no reason why Verlander, he of the 20 wins and 25 quality starts, shouldn't be given consideration for the American League MVP Award.
And by that I mean strong
consideration, for I don't know that there's an eligible AL player more representative of all aspects of the value equation. Verlander's statistics speak for themselves. Beyond that, though, you'd be hard-pressed to find a player who has had a more significant, tangible impact on his team's title hopes.
Alas, recent history shows that voters, either as a result of the available options, their own predispositions about the value of an everyday player vs. a pitcher or their view of the Cy Young Award as a sort of MVP trophy for pitchers, have virtually ignored the pitching component -- particularly the starting
pitching component -- when casting their MVP votes.
In the first 56 years of the MVP's existence, from 1931 through 1986, 113 men won the award in either the AL or NL (Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell shared the NL honor in 1979). Of those 113, 19 -- 16.8 percent -- were pitchers. Roger Clemens was the last starting pitcher to win it, in 1986.
In the 24 years since, just one pitcher -- A's closer Dennis Eckersley in 1992 -- has been among the 48 winners. That's 2.1 percent, so it's clear voting opinions toward pitchers have evolved.
Johan Santana is the only starting pitcher in the past decade to get so much as a single first-place vote on an MVP ballot. Pedro Martinez, who finished second in the AL voting in 1999 despite having one more first-place vote than MVP Ivan Rodriguez, was the last starting pitcher to be given serious consideration.
Here in 2011, Verlander, who became just the fifth pitcher in the past 20 years to post 20 wins before the first of September, should change that trend, no matter how the voters define "valuable."
The AL vote is going to be intriguing on many levels. If the voters pick the player who was purely the most productive this season, regardless of his team's results, Jose Bautista, who currently leads the AL in on-base and slugging percentage and is tied for the league lead in home runs, will get his share of first-place votes. But considering only six MVPs since 1995 have hailed from non-playoff clubs, the odds would appear to be stacked against him.
They're stacked against Verlander, too, but because of his position on the field, not his team's position in the standings. The voters have generally seemed content to let the Cy Young speak for itself, and the argument against a guy who only works every fifth day claiming an honor as prestigious as the MVP has become a popular one.
Heck, Verlander's own manager
offered that argument last week.
"I think there should be a Most Valuable Pitcher and Most Valuable Player," Jim Leyland told radio station WXYT in Detroit. "I don't think a pitcher should be the Most Valuable Player ... I just think when a guy goes out there 158 times or 155 times and has a big year, an MVP-type year, I don't think the guy that goes out there 35 times should be named over that guy."
Leyland later backtracked on those comments, saying he'd support Verlander's MVP candidacy "to the hilt."
Well, OK then.
While Leyland made a good point about games played, a counter to that point is that Verlander has been involved in 830 plate appearances this season. To date, no position player in the Majors has made more than 602 plate appearances. And as ESPN's Buster Olney -- the staunchest supporter of Verlander's MVP bid that I've seen -- has noted, the strategic benefit Verlander's league-leading 215 2/3 innings has had on Leyland's bullpen this season goes overlooked when using advanced metrics like Wins Above Replacement to gauge a player's impact.
To me, the stat that best boasts Verlander's candidacy is the simplest of all. The Tigers, who appear likely to lock down their first playoff berth in five years, have gone 21-8 on the days Verlander has taken the mound. They are a pedestrian 52-53 on the days he doesn't. Verlander not only leads the league in wins but also strikeouts (218) and innings pitched. With a 2.38 ERA, he's in contention to beat out the Angels' Jered Weaver (2.28) for that title, too.
With Verlander, the Tigers are a threat to not only reach October but advance beyond the Division Series. Without him, they've generally been a big bowl of blah. How's that for value?
Look, I'm not saying Verlander ought to be as clear-cut a favorite for the MVP as he is for the Cy Young. I don't have a vote, but I think Bautista, Curtis Granderson and even Asdrubal Cabrera and Michael Young are all worthy in their own ways (I'm guessing the Adrian Gonzalez-Jacoby Ellsbury-Dustin Pedroia Red Sox troika will probably cancel itself out).
Nor do I think voters ought to make a habit of handing the MVP honor to a hurler. Weaver and CC Sabathia have both had excellent seasons, but I don't think they're MVPs. Contending for the Cy Young is usually plenty of panache for a pitcher.
What I do believe is that a pitcher shouldn't be discounted from consideration simply because of his position. The ballot rules insist otherwise, and so does the history of award recipients.
In certain circumstances -- and certainly in a year such as this one, when there is a deep pool of position-player candidates but no clear or obvious favorite -- a pitcher's performance is so extraordinary that it merits a longer look for the MVP. And by posting a starting season for the ages and willing his team into contention, Verlander has at least earned that.