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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What Makes an MVP? Verlander is a Compelling Case

Some years there are no-doubt favorites for baseball's MVP awards. In 2009, for instance, Joe Mauer was expected to, and almost did, sweep the first place voting. He led the league in batting average, hit for power, got on base at an amazing clip, and did it all while catching, which is undoubtedly the most physically demanding position in baseball. Furthermore, Joe led the Twins' resurgence down the stretch in the AL Central, helping them tie, then pass, the Detroit Tigers and win the division. Where would the Twins have been without Joe Mauer in 2009? If there's an image in the baseball dictionary next to the entry for "AL MVP," I expect it to be of Joe Mauer, circa 2009 (contrast this with the image of "Joe Mauer, 2011," which I believe would depict Joe Mauer, a kitten, Tylenol Cold & Flu, and angry teammates).

2011 is shaping up to be an interesting year, at least in terms of AL MVP voting. Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and CC Sabathia of the Yankees, and Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox, are all likely to receive votes this year. The player I want to discuss today, however, is Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers.

Verlander simply has had a dominant year, having secured his 20th victory before the calendar turned to September. Verlander has only 5 losses on the year, and his ERA currently sits a 2.34. As the Twins have seen, he has become a power pitcher. He routinely throws in the mid-90s, but when necessary, is capable of elevating his fastball to another level, topping out just shy of 100 miles per hour. Best of all, he can control those power pitches. When the situation dictates, Verlander has another gear entirely. Few pitchers have that ability. Verlander has averaged 7.5 innings pitched per start this year. That's where I believe a large part of his value comes into play. Otherwise stated, in an average Verlander start, he leaves the bullpen responsible for getting approximately 4 or 5 outs. And we know based on his other stats that, on an average Verlander night, he is pitching very well in those 7.5 innings.

Where would the Tigers be without Justin Verlander in 2011? The answer is likely not in first place. Aside from Verlander, the Tigers are a good -- but not great -- team. Don't be fooled by the Twins' failures against the Tigers this year. Sure, they mean something, but to me it's much more a reflection on the Twins' pathetic season than it is the Tigers' dominance. I'm suggesting that, in terms of importance and value, what Mauer was to the Twins in 2009, Verlander is to the Tigers in 2011.

I completely understand, and to an extent agree with, the arguments against voting for a pitcher as baseball MVP: they only play in 20 percent of the games; in the AL they do not contribute at all offensively; and there is the Cy Young award precisely for that reason. Accordingly, many argue, how "valuable" can a pitcher be, compared, for example, with Mauer, who when healthy is involved in almost every single pitch of every game, or a shortstop like Dustin Pedroia, who captains an infield for almost every inning of a 162 game season?

I get that argument, but in terms of value, Verlander has been so valuable in his 30 starts this season that, in my mind, it almost vitiates the fact that he is not an every-day player. He has won 70 percent of his starts, and has thrown 4 complete games. Verlander has an effect on the bullpen, as well as his other starting pitchers: Jim Leyland has the luxury of being able to overwork the bullpen (if necessary, of course) the night before a Verlander start, because the numbers dictate that there's a very good chance Verlander is going to leave little work for others. Furthermore, following a Verlander start, in theory, many members of the bullpen should be pitching on good rest. This trickles down to the starter for the next day, as well, who often pitches knowing that when they leave the game, it will be in the hands of a healthy and rested bullpen. How many times this season have Twins fans seen the domino effects of short starts and overworked bullpens? It feels like dozens.

I'm not suggesting that Verlander is necessarily going to get my BBA MVP vote this year. I am of the opinion that he is equally, if not more, valuable this season than Bautista, Ellsbury, Gonzalez, Sabathia, Cano or Granderson. Though he is not an every day player, it is naive to suggest that the effects of his pitching dominance -- and long-lasting starts -- extend no further than the 20 percent of games in which he appears. The Yankees, without Cano, could still be competing in a tough AL East, as could the Red Sox without Ellsbury. It would indeed be more difficult, but it would be possible. Verlander, with his 7.8 WAR rating (by comparison, Granderson: 5.1; Cano: 4.3; Bautista: 8.1; Gonzalez: 6.0; Ellsbury: 6.1; Sabathia: 5.8) represents such an important piece of a Tigers team that is good, but not great, that his value this year cannot be overstated.

It will be interesting to see how the last month of the regular season plays out. If Bautista keeps slugging, if Ellsbury continues his great season, and if Granderson continues to hit the ball all over Yankee Stadium, anyone could win this award. If Verlander, however, continues to dominate in his starts, and if the Tigers win the AL Central, Verlander deserves serious trophy consideration, and not just for the Cy Young award.

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