there were three questions the baseball writers association of america (bbwaa) needed to answer as it relates to the american league mvp race.
1) should pitchers be eligible for the mvp award?
2) what is the value of pitchers relative to position players?
3) what is the value of players who are on non-playoff teams v. playoff teams?
the news today that justin verlander has captured the al mvp award shouldn't come as a big surprise. but in a close race this year, the news does offer some insight into the thought process of the bbwaa.
1) with respect to the first question, only 1 of the 28 voting members left verlander off their ballot completely. this writer stands alone in the belief that pitchers should not be eligible for the award. i'm glad he stands alone because the guidelines for the voting process do not state that pitchers are ineligible for the mvp award. just because you disagree with the eligibility requirements doesn't mean you should disregard them. it's both unprofessional and lazy in my opinion.
2) with respect to the second question, the question is: how much impact does a pitcher have on a baseball season and on their baseball team when they pitch in, at most, 35 games out of 162 compared to many position players who play in almost every game? the caveat being that when a pitcher does play, they are unequivocally the most important player on their team that day.
statisticians or sabermetricians, have worked tirelessly to figure out the answer to the 2nd question, coming up with formulas and continuously revising them in order to better understand the value of baseball players. the most accepted quantification of value, at this time, is "wins above replacement" or "war" for short. it basically quantifies the number of "wins" a player adds to a team over an average or replacement-level player at the same position. supporters claim that this is the best single statistic to judge a player's value and point to the fact that if you add up every players war on a given team you will come out with the team's total numbers of wins (approximately). detractors say that a player's value can not be judged by a single number and don't take into consideration intangibles (see derek jeter).
still, assuming the answer to question #1 is yes, we then need to be able to conceptualize the value of a pitcher relative to position players and war, at least, attempts to objectively address that concern. a small issue with war, which we don't have time to delve into, is that there are two different measurements of war (fangraphs and baseball-reference). the differences, though important, will only serve to detract from our goals here so we will not go into them. suffice it to say that there is not universal agreement on how to rate the value of pitchers or defense.
using fangraphs war, verlander is tied for 7th in overall war, and is not even the #1 pitcher (that honor goes to yankees' cc sabathia). the ranking goes like this:
1) jacoby elsbury (9.3 war)
2) jose bautista (8.3)
3) dustin pedroia (8.0)
4) ian kinsler (7.7)
5) miguel cabrera (7.3)
6) cc sabathia (7.1)
t-7) verlander (7.0)
t-7) curtis granderson (7.0)
using baseball-reference, verlander is tied for 1st in overall war. the ranking goes like this:
t-1) verlander (8.5)
t-1) bautista (8.5)
3) elbsury (7.2)
4) cabrera (7.1)
5) adrian gonzalez (6.9)
t-6) sabathia (6.8)
t-6) pedroia (6.8)
if we were to combine the two rankings (which is not necessarily the best idea, but we'll do it as a short cut), we get the following rankings:
1) bautista (16.8)
2) elsbury (16.5)
3) verlander (15.5)
again, war is not a perfect metric (no metric is perfect), but it does help and allows us to incorporate some level of objectivity into our naturally biased opinions. additionally, it should be noted that a difference of 1.3 war (or really 0.65 war because we are combining two ratings and therefore need to average out the difference) between bautista and verlander is not substantial over the course of a 162-game season.
3) moving on to the final question, let's refer back to the top 3 war leaders in the american league. what is the difference between verlander and the other two? well, the answer is that verlander's team made the playoffs while bautista's (toronto blue jays) and elsbury's (boston red sox) did not.
going back to when the mlb playoffs expanded to 4 teams in each league (1995), there has only been one american league mvp that has come from a non-playoff team and that was alex rodriguez when he played for the last place texas rangers. his combined war that year (using fangraphs and baseball-reference) was 17.5 (the next closest player was johan santana at 13.9 who was second in both rankings; a difference of 3.6/1.8 is pretty big in case you were wondering).
i am in no way endorsing verlander as the al mvp. my personal choice would have been jose bautista because i believe the value of a player exists whether or not their team fails to make the playoffs. moreover, jacoby elsbury receives a great bump due to his defensive value which continues to be a work in progress so i am more prone to accepting bautista's offensive value ratings more than elsbury's defensive value ratings and therefore am a bigger believer in the validity of bautista's war rating than elsbury's.
fangraphs has three good articles making the case for jacoby elsbury, jose bautista and justin verlander. check them out if you are interesting in reading more.