Today at 1 p.m., I’ll have a live baseball chat about whatever it is that people might want to talk about. But I suspect a large part of it will be some MVP talk. I’ve got to make my American League MVP choices today, and even though I have my list of 10 pretty well done, I’m going to take until the deadline before sending it in. This is the toughest vote I can remember for reasons I’ll give you in a minute.
There were two MVP thoughts that I came across this week that have had some impact on my thoughts. One, I have hesitated to mention because it might come across wrong. But I will mention it. My colleague and friend Tom Verducci offered up his MVP picks this week, and perhaps his most controversial decision was to choose Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury as a provisional. That is to say, he picked Ellsbury if, and only if, the Red Sox make the playoffs. I don’t see the MVP that way at all, as I’ve written, but Tom is certainly not the only writer who sees the MVP Award more as a power of narrative award than as an individual award
No, it was something else that Tom wrote that really interested me. Look:
This (Ellsbury) vote is not final. If Boston does not make the postseason, there is no sense in handing the MVP to a someone on the team that just staged the greatest September choke in the history of the sport. It would be like handing out Best Actor or Actress awards to anyone in Gigli.
The last sentence really struck me. Thing is, I took exactly the opposite take of it as Tom. People win Oscars for so-so and even bad movies ALL THE TIME. People involved in the the incredibly crappy “Pearl Harbor” won an Oscar (sound editing), so did people from the absurd “Independence Day” (best visual effects), the ridiculous “The Wolfman” (best makeup), and the utterly unwatchable “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (makeup) which should have resulted in indictments not awards.
It is true for acting too. Ray wasn’t that great a movie — Jamie Foxx was great in it, but the movie itself I thought dragged a whole lot. So did Capote — again, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, great, movie, not so much. Erin Brockovich was like a made-for-TV movie, but Julia Roberts was really good in it. Reversal of Fortune, Boys Don’t Cry, Walk The Line, Harry and Tonto, Norma Rae, I could go on and on, none of these movies were any better than the Red Sox are this year, but all of them had transcendent performances, and those people won Oscars. Probably the best example I can give is Training Day. I think Training Day was absolutely the Boston Red Sox of movies. It had great promise. It had magnificent moments, especially early in the movie. It ended horribly — the last 15 or 20 minutes of that movie were, to me, awful. And Denzel Washington won the Oscar.
The point should be obvious — one person in a movie can only do so much. Gigli isn’t a good example because the performances were terrible — in fact the performances were one of the reasons the movie was legendarily bad. But great performances in bad movies should still get Oscar consideration, I think most people would agree with that, best we can judge it. It’s not the ACTOR’S fault if the script stunk. And if we’re giving out individual awards like the MVP, it seems to me that we should judge baseball players on their own merit.*
*One other point: Tom said that even if Bautista hits 10 more home runs, Ellsbury still leads in total bases. This is true — Ellsbury has 363 total bases, Bautista 312. However, it might be worth pointing out that walks, for reasons that make little-to-no sense, don’t count toward total bases. And if you count walks (and hits by pitches too), then Ellsbury could hit eight more triples and still not catch Bautista. This is not a knock on the point as much as it is a knock on “total bases” as a statistic.
How do we separate a player’s own merit from his team’s? Well, that leads to the second point I ran across, and it comes from Friend of Blog Tom Tango, who by the way has started the Fans Scouting Report again and I would certainly ask you to go over there and fill out a few scouting reports. It’s a blast and a great exercise that I think offers some great insight into the game.
Anyway, Tom has a little different take on the MVP. His feeling is that if you put everyone from 2011 into a draft, the No. 1 player selected should be the MVP. Now, we’re talking about a real draft here — not a fantasy league draft. I suspect many readers here have played Strat-o-Matic or APBA baseball or something like that. So imagine every season from 2011 was available in card form. But include all you want — leadership, hustle, whatever qualities you want. You can’t game the system — can’t start Justin Verlander more times than he started, can’t put just Jose Bautista in center field, can’t do any of that stuff. You only have their 2011 season. Who would you take first in the draft? Who would you build your team around.
This doesn’t necessarily make the choice any easier, but it does give the choice a lot more context. For instance, Curtis Granderson leads the American League in runs scored and RBIs. He’s having a fabulous year. BUT … if you took him first in the draft, could you count on him to lead the league in runs and RBIs for YOUR team with YOUR lineup around him? His on-base percentage is eighty points behind Bautista. His slugging percentage is almost 50 points behind. Would you take Granderson ahead of Bautista? I’m not saying that’s the wrong answer. Maybe because of defense you would. Maybe you think Granderson would hold up under pressure better. Maybe you think Bautista’s on-base percentage would drop since he has been intentionally walked a league-leading 24 times and that wouldn’t happen with your team.
Like I say, this doesn’t make the choice any easier, but I think it does remove some of the excess noise and give the choice clarity. I think this is the toughest vote I can remember because of Verlander. He has had a marvelous season, but there are two issues of excess noise:
1. How do you compare a starting pitcher to an every day player with value?
2. How good a season is Verlander really having?
The first question is a very tough one, especially in today’s age where starters so rarely finish games. Lots of people have been talking about it. But it’s the second question that is really trying on the soul. It’s so popular to say that Verlander’s season is quantifiably different from starting pitchers the last 25 years (none off them won an MVP award). And I am certainly not trying to downplay the greatness of Verlander’s season. I’m a huge fan. But is this year really all that much better than a good Cy Young Award season? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that in many ways we are all falling in exactly the same trap that we supposedly dismantled last year when Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young with only 13 wins. It seems to me that much of the Verlander hype comes from his shiny-looking 24-5 record.
And I’m not diving into deep-sea pitching statistics to make that point. Verlander’s other basic stats — his 2.40 ERA, his 250 strikeouts, even his sparkling .920 WHIP — are not out of line with what the best pitcher in each league tends to do. The average ERA+ for Cy Young winners in the American League the last five years is 170. Verlander’s ERA+ this year: 170.
Johan Santana in 2004 won 20, led the league in strikeouts and ERA and had a .921 WHIP — and that was in a much higher scoring run context. He didn’t get a single first-place MVP vote. Randy Johnson, that same year, had a better ERA+ than Verlander, more strikeouts, a lower WHIP (.900) and he didn’t even win the Cy Young, much less the MVP (yep, there was that 16-14 record). Pedro in 2002 had almost the exact same year that Verlander is having, though admittedly with 50 fewer innings, and he didn’t win the Cy Young. Pedro in 2000 had a year for the ages, a year that even trumps Verlander’s (1.74 ERA, 5.3 hits per nine, .737 WHIP) and he did not get a single MVP vote.
Fangraphs has Verlander well behind Roy Halliday in WAR and tied with C.C. Sabathia for the lead in WAR among American League pitchers. This generally leads people to say that Fangraphs doesn’t know what the heck it’s talking about. But they build this statistic around the fact that Verlander’s Batting Average on Balls In Play is stupefyingly low (.236) and that is at least in part due to luck and Tigers’ defense.
Whether you buy into that or not, ask yourself this question: Would Verlander be a leading MVP candidate if his record was 19-5? Would he be a leading MVP candidate if you adjust his record just slightly, so it was 23-7?* I don’t know. I really don’t know.
*I don’t bring up these records loosely. The Tigers’ record when Verlander starts is 25-9, which is superb. But it’s not unprecedented, not even close. In 2009, Felix Hernandez went 19-5 for the Mariners, but the Mariners actually went 25-9 when he pitched. He got one 10th place MVP vote. In 2002, Curt Schilling went 23-7 for the Diamondbacks. But the Diamondbacks went 27-9 for Curt Schilling. See what I mean? Barry Zito’s A’s in 2002 went 28-7 when he started. In 2001 the Cubs went 24-10 when Jon Lieber pitched. And so on.
This does not mean that Verlander is not high on my list — he actually is VERY high on my list, one of several serious candidates I have for my MVP vote. I think this year is just so close, four or five players are having true MVP seasons. But I also think that Tom Tango has a very good way of looking at it. If you had the first pick in the draft, which season would you take? Bautista? Verlander? Cabrera? Ellsbury? Gonzalez? Granderson? Cano? Young?
Come around at 1 p.m. and we can talk a bit more about it.