First off, congratulations to Justin Verlander on being named the AL MVP. He was one of the best players in the American League, going 24-5 with a 2.4 ERA (2.99 FIP) and accumulating 7 WAR. He was the first pitcher named MVP since 1992 since Dennis Eckersley won.
That being said, despite the argument made by my colleague Bryan Lutz, I don’t believe that Verlander was the best player in the league. In fact, I don’t even think Verlander was the best player on his own team, as the overlooked Miguel Cabrera takes that honour. So why did Verlander win the award, if he wasn’t the best player?
Verlander put up outstanding “fantasy baseball stats”. Old school stats like win/loss record, ERA, a high innings pitched total, and very high strikeout totals. All signs of a great pitcher. And make no mistake, Verlander was the best pitcher in the league. It’s that irresistible win/loss record, a 24-5, that really makes people believe that Verlander carried the Tigers to the playoffs.
Much ink has been spilled over Verlander having one of the best pitching seasons in years, and that’s why he won the MVP. Or at least part of the reason. Which would make sense…if Pedro Martinez had won the MVP a few years back. Between 1997 and 2003 Pedro Martinez had a stretch that is considered to be the greatest pitching peak of all time. That’s not an exaggeration, as over this period, the height of the steroid era, and the greatest offensive era known to baseball, Pedro went 118-36 with a 2.20 ERA over 1408 innings. So it’s tough for me to justify Verlander winning an MVP, when Pedro couldn’t even win one back in his prime.
Which leads to the third reason – the narrative. Throughout the season we heard countless stories of how Justin Verlander singlehandedly carried the Tigers to the post season. That may have been true at one point, but it’s a tough argument to sell given that the Tigers finished at 95-67, a full 15 games better than the second place Indians.
The Tigers were an outstanding team, led by their offense. Their 787 runs scored ranked them fourth in the AL. Miguel Cabrera, in my opinion the Tigers’ best player, hit 344/448/586 with 30 HR’s and 100+ ribbies. He earned 7.3 WAR, which is higher than MVP Justin Verlander’s total. Believe it or not, Cabrera hit nearly as well as my Jose Bautista, who I believe should have been the MVP. Regardless, Cabrera had some help offensively in the form of C Alex Avila (295/389/506, 5.5 WAR and arguably a top 2 catcher in the majors this season), SS Jhonny Peralta (299/345/478, 5.2 WAR) and DH Victor Martinez (330/380/470).
You combine a high scoring offense with a talented pitcher, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for an outstanding Win/Loss record. It’s not a real surprise that Verlander was able to put together so many wins, because as talented as a pitcher is, they still need an offense to put up the high win total. Want proof that win/loss records are irrelevant? Look at Roger Clemens 2005 season with the Astros. He posted a 1.87 ERA – no that’s not a typo – so you’d expect a high win/loss record, right? Better than Verlander’s? Well, Clemens went 13-8. Which goes to show how worthless win/loss records are. The team wins a game, not an individual player.
What hurt some of the other candidates is the archaic view that a player must come from a playoff team. The “If you’re not first you’re last” mentality isn’t a fair way to vote for the MVP. This is an individual award, it’s about the most valuable player. When you start to factor in things like coming from a playoff team, you’re punishing Bautista or others for playing with lesser players. Is it Bautista’s fault that the best 2 positions players after him were Yunel Escobar, and Brett Lawrie? Of which Lawrie didn’t even debut until the end of the season!
The MVP and the Cy Young need to be judged based on the individual player performances, not by how well or poorly their teammates did. As talented as any player is, no individual player can carry a team to the playoffs.
It’s tough to justify Verlander winning the award with so many quality offensive seasons. CF Jacoby Ellsbury (321/376/552) was outstanding, as was RF Jose Bautista (302/447/608) and Miguel Cabrera. Those were my top 3 picks for the MVP, with Bautista being the best of the bunch. Ellsbury did have the advantage in WAR over Bautista, but when you account for the unreliability of UZR by averaging the defensive runs saved over 3 years, his WAR drops from 9.4 to 8.1 Bautista’s actually improves to 8.5 WAR, tops in the AL.
It’s quite the accomplishment that Verlander won the MVP award, and nobody is ever going to take that away from him. But I think the voters made a mistake on this one, as Verlander wasn’t even the best player on his own team, let alone the American League.