The AL MVP race is beginning to look very interesting, not just because several players are enjoying excellent seasons, but because these players also represent different ways of viewing the award. There are three distinctive types of candidates among the players who are probably the four strongest candidates. Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista is a possible MVP due to having the best overall numbers in the league despite playing for a team that has not been close to the playoff hunt all season long. Justin Verlander may be the league’s best player this year, without whom the Tigers would not be heading towards the playoffs, but is a starting pitcher and very few starting pitchers win MVP awards. Adrian Gonzalez and Curtis Granderson are both the best players on playoff bound teams, but have numbers that are less impressive than Bautista’s. Thus, voting this year means not only voting for the best player, but making a decision about what the award means.
Bautista has put up some extremely good numbers, .305/.445/.629 for the second year in a row, but this has again failed to land his Blue Jays in the playoffs. Some voters may hesitate to support Bautista because of this. On the surface, this seems a little unfair because limiting the MVP vote to playoff bound teams means that most players in any given year would be ineligible. There is, however, some validity to the notion that players on playoff bound teams find themselves playing in more meaningful games, particularly as the season winds down. With two players with comparable numbers, it makes some sense to give the edge to the player on a playoff bound team, if that is the situation, but as an iron clad rule, discriminating against players not going to the playoffs seems unfair.
Gonzalez and Granderson are both the best players on very good teams. Gonzalez, 343/.407/.557, has slightly better offensive numbers, but Granderson, .269/..374/.574, plays a more demanding defensive position. Both of these players would be decent choices as MVP, but they clearly represent a definitive MVP type. If either of these players was on the Blue Jays and Bautista were on the playoff bound Yankees or Red Sox, it is unlikely that too many people would be suggesting that they are having better seasons than Bautista. Gonzalez and Granderson’s MVP candidacies, to a large extent, remain dependent upon the teams on which they play. Although they have both clearly played major roles on very good teams, the other side of this equation is that they both play on teams that would have been very good, although not as good, without them. In fact, they are both surrounded by players, like Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz who are legitimate second tier MVP candidates themselves, making it harder to argue that the success of the Yankees and Red Sox is heavily dependent on Granderson and Gonzalez respectively.
Verlander is the most intriguing of the MVP candidates because his value is measured differently than the other major candidates. The argument against choosing a pitcher as MVP is that pitchers play in far fewer games and therefore can have less of an impact on their teams. The first part of this sentence is obviously true of Verlander who has, thus far, only played in 31 of 143 Tiger games this year. However, a good pitcher like Verlander has a far greater impact of each of those games than most other players have in almost all of the games they play.
Moreover, while Verlander’s numbers, with probably four starts remaining for the Tiger ace, are extremely impressive 231 strikeouts against only 51 walks in 229 innings pitched with an ERA+ of 166, good for a record of 22-5, it is possible to analyze Verlander’s season in other ways as well. Both he and Bautista have been good enough for WARs in the 7.7-8.2, range with Bautista slightly ahead, but Verlander’s value can be more directly seen by looking at how his pitching changed his team’s chance of winning in those 31 games.
In eight of those games, the Tigers lost. Regardless of how well or poorly Verlander pitched, he could not help his team win those games. The Tigers, however, won the other 23 games, playing .741 ball during games started by Verlander while only playing at a .513 clip when somebody else was the starting pitcher. In five of those Tiger victories, the team scored more than eight runs, so regardless of how well Verlander pitched in those games, his role was not indispensable. Most teams win a big majority of the games in which they score eight or more runs regardless of who is pitching. In nine games, the Tigers scored between 5-7 runs. These are games where Verlander’s pitching played a significant role, as many teams lose many games when they score in this range. Nonetheless, 5-7 runs does not require great pitching outing from the starting pitcher in order to win. In nine games, or more than a quarter of Verlander’s starts, the Tigers scored fewer than four runs and still managed to win. They would have won very few of these games without sterling starting pitching, but Verlander was able to pitch well enough to win with poor offensive support nine times. Interestingly, this is only about one game more than the amount of WAR credited to Verlander thus far in 2011.
Whether or not this makes Verlander the best choice for MVP in 2011 is debatable. Tim Lincecum, for example, also has won nine games this year when his team has scored four or fewer runs. Other top pitchers, particularly those on poor offensive teams, may have similar numbers. To get a better sense of the relevance of these numbers to the MVP race, one would need a more thorough comparative analysis. These numbers, however, make Verlander’s value to the Tigers, despite playing in only slightly more than 20% of their games, unmistakable. Jose Bautista would also be a deserving MVP candidate who also has undoubtedly played a big role with his bat in many Blue Jay victories, but voting against Verlander because he has not made a big enough impact on his team is less defensible. It is also a lot easier to imagine Yankee and Red Sox teams without Granderson or Gonzalez stumbling into the playoffs than it would be to imagine Detroit without Verlander winning the AL central.