First a little award history: The Baseball Writers started to give out the Cy Young Award for best pitcher in 1956. For the first 11 years of the award, only one Cy Young Award was given out, covering both the American and National League. Over those 11 years, two pitchers — Don Newcombe in that first year, and Sandy Koufax in 1963 — swept both the Cy Young and MVP award.
Then in 1967*, for the first time, the writers handed out a Cy Young Award in each the AL and NL. That year, Mike McCormick and Jim Lonborg both won 22 games and won the awards. Jim Bunning probably should have won it in the National League, and maybe Dean Chance or Joe Horlen in the American League, but you know how much people love those wins.
*Speaking of awards and 1967, you probably know off the top of your head, Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown that year. In addition to that, he had one of the great final months in baseball history and led the Impossible Dream Red Sox to the World Series. I’d say that no matter how you look at baseball — stat oriented, gut oriented, clutch oriented, believer in the heart, whatever — you had to vote Yaz as MVP. When you take into account the countless ways people look at baseball, I would say that Yaz in 1967 was the the all-time MVP slam dunk. Right?
No. Yaz received 19 of 20 votes. The other vote? Minneapolis’ Max Nichols voted for Cesar Tovar. You know what Cesar Tovar hit in 1967? .267/.325/.365. Obviously, Wins Above Replacement was not a thing in 1967, but Tovar still finished ninth ON THE TWINS. I think we can retire the trophy. That’s the worst individual vote in Baseball Writers history. Max Nichols went on to have a long and admirable career in journalism, by the way. That was, however, the last year he covered baseball.
Anyway: When they decided to give a Cy Young to the best pitcher in each league, the writers certainly could have made pitchers ineligible for the MVP award. That would have made as much sense as anything else. But they didn’t. In fact, they made it very clear to the voters that pitchers were eligible for both awards. And in 1968, for the only time, pitchers swept the Cy Young and MVP in both leagues. That, of course, was the year of the pitcher. Bob Gibson had his legendary 1.12 ERA. Denny McLain won his legendary 31 games. And it seemed likely that even with the Cy Young Award, pitchers would continue to be major factors in the MVP voting.
But, in general, pitchers have not been factors at all, especially in recent years. Yes, Tom Seaver almost won the award in 1969 — he got the same number of first place votes as winner Willie McCovey but finished 22 points behind — and Vida Blue did win the MVP in 1971 in another year dominated by pitching. And yes, for a while there the MVP voters in the American League had a bizarre little love affair with closers — Rollie Fingers won the thing in 1981, Willie Hernandez in 1984, Dennis Eckersley in 1992 and other closers like Sparky Lyle, Goose Gossage, Dan Quisenberry, Jose Mesa, Randy Myers all finished in the Top 5. You would hope that voters have lost that particular fascination.
But since Blue, the only STARTER to win the MVP award was Roger Clemens in 1986. And the only other starters over the last 40 years who were serious threats to win the award were Ron Guidry in 1978 (2nd to Jim Rice), Greg Maddux in 1995 (3rd to Barry Larkin and Dante Bichette) and, most famously, Pedro Martinez in 1999 (2nd to Pudge 2.0 Rodriguez).
There have been two pretty stark schools of thought on the subject. Some think pitchers are getting jobbed. Over the last 10 years, not a single starting pitcher has finished in the Top 5 in the MVP voting and only one, Johan Santana in 2006, received any first-place votes. He received one.
Some, on the other hand, feel pitchers shouldn’t even get the few votes they do get. As Brilliant Reader Tom writes in: “They don’t allow you to win both the main actor and the supporting actor for the same performance at the Oscars.”
As a baseball observer, I’m actually kind of neutral on the subject. I do have some respect for the argument that pitchers already have the Cy Young Award. And I do believe that pitchers and everyday players have strikingly different roles and responsibilities, meaning it isn’t easy to compare the value of the two.
Then again, nobody said it was supposed to be easy. And as an MVP voter, I’m bound by the letter of the law which pointedly say: “Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.” Yep: Thems the rules. And, deep down, I suspect that I lean that way anyway. It seems to me that if a pitcher is the best player in baseball, then he should win the MVP award.
But here’s the thing: I’m not entirely sure that can happen anymore. And the reason is this: Pitchers roles have so dramatically changed over the years. Look back: Between 1931 and 1952, 11 pitchers won the MVP award. Four of those won during World War II, when offense was way down. Now, look at how many innings those pitchers pitched:
Lefty Grove (1931): 288 innings
Carl Hubbell (1933): 308 innings
Dizzy Dean (1934): 311 innings
Carl Hubbell (1936): 304 innings
Bucky Walters (1939): 319 innings
Mort Cooper (1942): 278 innings
Spud Chandler (1943): 253 innings
Hal Newhouser (1944): 312 innings
Hal Newhouser (1945): 313 innings
Jim Konstanty (1950): 152 innings — closer
Bobby Shantz (1952): 279 innings
There are exceptions, but six of those pitchers threw 300 innings. That’s also what Koufax threw when he won the MVP, what Gibson threw, what McLain threw, Vida Blue threw too. Well, since 2000, the most innings anyone has pitched was Roy Halladay’s 266 innings in 2003. Justin Verlander, who has had an amazing year where he has thrown at least 100 pitches and six innings every single time out*, will still probably fall short of that that 266 innings.
*In today’s world, this Verlander streak of six-inning games is amazing. If Verlander can keep that up through the end of the year, he might be only the second pitcher over the last 30 years to have 35 games of six or more innings in a season. The other? I wouldn’t have guessed it either: Curt Schilling in 2002.
The game has changed. I realize people don’t like admitting this. I know many still want to credit starting pitchers with wins and losses, like they did in Old Hoss Radbourn’s day when pitchers finished what they started. I know they may want to believe — as my friend, CBS Sportsline’s Danny Knobler keeps insisting on saying — that’s it’s a “pitcher’s job to win games.” But I don’t think that’s right. Pitchers never won and lost games on their own, but it becomes less and less true every year. Justin Verlander is having this incredible season, and he has completed four of his 29 starts. Four. That last Tigers starter to win the MVP, Denny McLain, made six more starts than Verlander is likely to make, completed 20 more games than Verlander is likely to complete, threw 75 more innings than Verlander is likely to throw.
Let’s go back to Baseball Reference’s WAR for a second. The Top nine WAR seasons ever are all 1880s pitchers, led indeed by Old Hoss with a staggering 20.3 WAR in 1884 when he went 59-12 and threw 678 innings. But you don’t have to go back that far to see the effect of innings pitches. From 1968 to 1986, when the best most rugged of pitchers often threw 275 innings, pitchers led their league in WAR 16 times.
The Top WAR seasons over that time:
1. Steve Carlton, 1972 (12.2)
2. Joe Morgan, 1975 (12.0)
3. Bob Gibson, 1968 (11.9)
4. Dwight Gooden, 1985 (11.7)
5. Robin Yount, 1982 (11.5)
6. Bob Gibson, 1969 (11.0)
7. Rod Carew, 1977 (10.9)
8. Wilbur Wood, 1971 (10.7)
9. Gaylord Perry, 1972 (10.5)
(tie). Mike Schmidt, 1975 (10.5)
Six of the 10 are pitchers. So, you can see, the best pitchers and hitters, at least by WAR, were providing about the same value. But since 2000, only one pitcher has led the league in WAR, and it’s probably not one you were thinking: It was Zack Greinke in 2009.
The Top 10 WARs since 2000 (and to make it fair, I’ll only count Barry Bonds once):
1. Barry Bonds, four times, (10.3 to 12.5)
2. Sammy Sosa, 2001 (11.4)
3. Alex Rodriguez, 2000 (11.0)
4. Albert Pujols, 2003 (10.9)
5. Jason Giambi, 2001 (10.3)
6. Adrian Beltre, 2001 (10.1)
(tie) Pedro Martinez, 2000 (10.0)
8. Alex Rodriguez, 2007 (9.9)
9. Albert Pujols, 2008 (9.6)
10. Albert Pujols, 2004 (9.4)
So, one pitcher is in the Top 10 — and that was Pedro way back in 2000. And you still have a few more to go — Bret Boone, Scott Rolen, Pujols again — before you get to another pitcher. Obviously, this is only one measurement, but it’s a constant measurement and it seems to show what should be obvious: That with the five man rotation, with pitch counts, with bullpens getting larger, with starters completing fewer and fewer games and throwing fewer and fewer innings, the starting pitchers value has been diminishing. That’s not to say that a pitcher can’t still be the league’s most valuable player. But the new order should be considered. Hitters are still playing 150 or more games, still getting 700 plate appearances, still contributing the way they were in the 1950s and 60s and 70s and 80s. Starting pitchers, largely, are not.
That is not to say, by the way, that Justin Verlander in particular, or perhaps one of those Phillies pitchers should not be considered for MVP. Attention should be paid to the spectacular year — Guidry in 1978, Gooden in 1984, Maddux in 1995, Pedro in 1999. No, it’s only to say that the voters, without making a public announcement about it, have more or less stopped considering pitchers to be MVP candidates. And there could be something to that.