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November 28, 2011

The Lineup Card

10 Pitcher MVPs and Their Worthiness

by Baseball Prospectus

In the Cy Young era, just ten pitchers have won the MVP award, including Justin Verlander in 2011.  Today's Lineup Card will focus on either 1) one of these pitchers and the position-player alternative who would have had the most compelling case to win the award instead, or 2) a pitcher who didn't win the MVP award but should have.

1) Dennis Eckersley, 1992
To find a more deserving candidate than Dennis Eckersley in 1992, you don’t have to go any further than his own Oakland A’s. The A’s of that year were a strong offensive team, driven by some key offensive performances from Rickey Henderson and Mark McGwire. Rickey missed 45 games (still far fewer than the 93 games Eckersley “missed” by being a short reliever) but made up for it with a superb .334 TAv and 48 stolen bases. McGwire, of course, was not so productive on the basepaths, but he was one of the top hitters in the league with a .349 TAv.

One hitter in the AL edges out McGwire, however—Frank Thomas didn’t slug quite as well as McGwire (though he still had the third-highest SLG in the AL), but he more than lapped McGwire in on-base percentage, leading the next best hitter (who just so happened to be Henderson) by over 10 points.

Still, the difference between Thomas and either McGwire or Henderson is not so great that you could be outraged with either winning, if you had to give the MVP to an Oakland A that year. Eckersley was, at least, the most valuable member of a thoroughly uninspiring pitching staff. But to suggest that he was the most valuable player on the A’s that year, much less in the AL, is an incredible notion, in the very literal sense that it is difficult to believe. —Colin Wyers

2) Don Newcombe, 1956
The Dodgers owned the ballot. Newcombe wooed 66 percent of voters behind a 27-7 record, 3.06 ERA, sub-1.00 WHIP, and a 3.02 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Meanwhile, Duke Snider, who owned a .292/.399/.598 line while playing good defense in center field, finished 10th overall and fifth amongst Dodgers receiving votes. No disrespect intended towards Newcombe, Sam Magile, Jim Gilliam, or Pee Wee Reese—each who contributed to a very good Dodgers team—but Snider deserved more attention. He led the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, adjusted-OPS, home runs, walks, and intentional walks (thus, proof that he possessed “The Fear”). The real shame is that Snyder, who had finished top-five in the previous three votes, would never win the award, despite having a strong claim to it in 1956. —R.J. Anderson

3) Rogers Clemens, 1986
A Red Sox player won the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 1986. It was just the wrong one. The Baseball Writers' Association of America voted right-hander Roger Clemens as the MVP, and he certainly had an outstanding year, going 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA in helping the Red Sox win the AL pennant. Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs, however, had an even better year as he lead the AL with 72.6 VORP and finished second in WAR with 8.5—just one-tenth of a point behind Blue Jays slugger Jesse Barfield (8.6) —while posting a .357/.453/.486 triple-slash line. Clemens had just 4.6 WAR, making him nearly four wins less valuable than Boggs. So why didn't Boggs win the MVP? He hit just eight home runs in 693 plate appearances, and low homer totals tend to turn voters off. —John Perrotto

4) Antonio Alfonseca, 2000
In the year 2000, Antonio “El Pulpo” Alfonseca finished 22nd in the National League MVP voting. The results brought a tear to my normally dry eye, as the injustice that filled the air with its foul stench triggered an emotional reaction that lasts to this day. As a lifelong fan of Dominican relievers born with polydactlylism, I will now use my anatomically banal 10 digits to make a case for why Antonio Alfonseca should have been recognized as the National League’s Most Valuable Player following his remarkable 2000 campaign.

With a cursory glance at El Pulpo’s on-the-field production in 2000, one might conclude that he (Pulpo) had no business receiving any votes for Most Valuable Player in the first place. Some might suggest that his league leading 45 saves for the Florida Marlins improperly influenced those who have a tendency to become aroused by the save statistic and thus fall victim to its tempting affect. Some might suggest that if you remove the sexy save total you will find a hollow pitcher, one that allowed more hits than innings pitched and allowed 33 earned runs in only 70 innings of work while managing to send only 47 hitters down on strikes. Some would suggest that a hittable pitcher that doesn’t miss many bats and doesn’t limit damage doesn’t possess the necessary value provided by other candidates considered for the award. Some might suggest that his WAR for the season was 0.5, the same as reliever Manny Aybar, a man who was traded the following spring for reliever Oswaldo Mairena. Some might be missing the bigger picture.

The case for Alfonseca: What Alfonseca lacks in statistical sex appeal he makes up for in fingers, and that alone is worthy of Most Valuable Player consideration. Born with six digits on each hand and each foot, El Pulpo deserves our admiration for this anatomical anomaly. Manny Aybar has five fingers on each hand and is boring. The man gifted with the Most Valuable Player award in 2000, Jeff Kent, has five fingers on each hand, a State Trooper mustache, and is boring. Antonio Alfonseca gripped the ball with six fingers, which not only shows #want but originality, and the excitement that is bred from that combination should have propelled him to the top of baseball’s elite. The writers got this one wrong and I haven’t been the same since. I think the same is true for the game itself. Jesus, what a mess. —Jason Parks

5) Justin Verlander, 2011
Rod Allen, for better or worse, has coined a “signature” call—“Do something spectacular or in the clutch” —and the Detroit Tigers television broadcaster runs off an “I see you (Insert Name Here)”.  Just imagine for a moment that Justin Verlander is on the mound, the 0-2 fastball hurtles towards the plate, the smack of that bat sends a sharp grounder up the middle, and you hear “I don’t see you Justin” as Verlander sidesteps the ball because he has no glove. He has no glove because in the minds of many, the pitcher is not a “position player”; and if you don’t play a position, you don’t need to wear a fielding glove.

The fact is, the pitcher does in fact play a defensive position; he is therefore a position player, and he plays the position of pitcher. The pitcher impacts every play of the game while his team is in the field, which is far more than any other player; no other player is guaranteed to have the ball in his possession on any given play.

The summer of 2011 belonged to Justin Verlander; he won the American League Pitching Triple Crown and the Cy Young Award, leading the league in wins (24), ERA (2.40), strikeouts (250), innings, winning percentage and opponents' average against. His 24 wins accounted for more than a quarter of his team’s overall wins, playing a large part in the teams run to the playoffs and their victory over the New York Yankees in the Division Series. Verlander started winning streaks for the AL Central Champions and stopped others from even starting with a 16-3 record following a Tigers loss. In my opinion, this truly is the greatest illustration of value in a player. Twenty four times this year Verlander took the mound on the fifth day and led the Tigers to victory, including throwing his second career no-hitter, and only five times that fifth day appearance led to a loss. The ability to which Justin Verlander impacted his team’s fortune was un-matched by any of the other candidates.

It's my contention that Verlander himself is a position player, and with 13 first place votes and little final ballot opposition, Justin Verlander is and should be the 2011 American League Most Valuable Player. —Adam Tower

6) Dwight Gooden, 1985
Gooden’s dominant 1985 season was one of the best-ever single-season performances by a starting pitcher. He won the Triple Crown, posted a 2.06 FIP, and struck out 268 in 276 2/3 innings. For his effort, he was a unanimous Cy Young award winner, but ranked fourth in the National League MVP vote.

The slight in the voting still gnaws at Gooden, if his tweet recognizing Justin Verlander’s MVP award is any indication. And although he apparently does not realize he did rank in the top five in the voting, on his larger point, Doc’s not wrong. He was the National League’s best player in 1985. His 9.0 WARP easily topped his competitors for the award—Willie McGee (6.9 WARP), Pedro Guerrero (8.3) and Dave Parker (4.1) —as well as other starters who put together historically great seasons, including Steve Carlton (7.7 in 1972) and Bob Gibson (7.8 in 1968). —Jeff Euston

7) Steve Carlton, 1972
In 1972, Johnny Bench won the NL MVP with an all-time great season for a catcher. He notched 40 home runs, walked 100 times, and had a 166 OPS+ en route to winning his second MVP. Bench was a more than deserving MVP, but Steve Carlton’s 1972 season was perhaps even more historic given the context of the team around him. Carlton led the NL with a 1.97 ERA and 30 complete games, throwing a league leading 346.1 innings for a team that finished in last place, 37.5 games out of first in the NL East. Three years since lowering the mound, Carlton also led the league in strikeouts (310) and K/BB ratio (3.56), which contributed to his 0.993 WHIP. What makes all of these numbers even more impressive is that none of Carlton’s starts came against the inept offense of his teammates on the last place Phillies. Pitcher wins might not be a very important stat, but the fact that Carlton was still able to “win” 27 games for a team which only won 59 as a whole is impressive. Like Verlander in 2011, Carlton unanimously won the Cy Young Award in 1972. Unlike Verlander, there was no groundswell of support for Carlton’s MVP candidacy, and voters were even more unlikely to vote for a candidate on a last-place team than they are today. Carlton’s season deserved more recognition given the team on which he played and an era where offense was starting to pick up, as opposed to Verlander who took advantage of an era where it appears that offense is now on the decline in putting together his dominant season. Carlton’s 1972 is one of the greatest of any era, and he was absolutely worthy of being deemed the Most Valuable Player in the NL that season. —Sam Tydings

8) Pedro Martinez, 1999
The 1999 season was the heart of a tremendous run for Pedro Martinez, as he won a Cy Young award in 1997, 1999, and 2000 and finished second in 1998 and 2002 (and then 3rd in 2003 and 4th in 2004). It's hard to pick out his best year, perhaps, but 1999 is the year he had the most compelling case for MVP. Martinez led the league with 23 wins (to only four losses), a 2.07 ERA, an 0.92 WHIP, and 313 strikeouts. It will not surprise you, since he also had the best H/9, HR/9, and K/9 amongst qualifiers, that he led the league in many advanced stats as well.

Curiously, the AL MVP award was won by Ivan Rodriguez, then of the Rangers, who had a strong but not exceptional year behind the dish and was in the midst of his prime. Martinez had more first place votes and the same number of second place votes, but Rodriguez won by 13 points. Controversy surrounding the award balloting arose due to two writers leaving Martinez off their ballot entirely. Notably, both writers justified the omission of Martinez because he was a pitcher, despite one of them, George King, having voted for two pitchers just the year before. Plenty of ink was spilled over the voting and the aftermath, so I won't dwell on it here, and I'll leave the rest as an exercise to the reader. —Ben Murphy

9) Sandy Koufax, 1963
Sandy Koufax's raw 1963 numbers are outstanding—25-5 with a 1.88 ERA and 306 strikeouts in 311 innings—and he earned just about every honor imaginable, from the NL MVP to the combined Cy Young, the Pitching Triple Crown, the World Series MVP, and a host of year-end awards. As with the rest of his 1962-1966 run, he owed some of his dominance to pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium, where he posted a 1.38 ERA in 17 starts, thanks in large part to a .218 batting average on balls in play and just five homers allowed in 537 plate appearances.

Once you adjust for his league (the 1963 NL scored just 3.81 runs per game), his ballpark (Dodger Stadium saw just 3.36 runs per game), his defensive support, his bullpen support, and his sequencing, Koufax's Fair Run Average of 2.77, while still the league's best, blunts some of that impact. In that pitcher-friendly environment, the hitting feats of Willie Mays (9.9 WARP) and Hank Aaron (7.3 WARP) outdistance his 5.9 WARP. Mays hit .314/.380/.582 with 38 homers (good for a league-best .358 True Average), and above-average defense in center field (+4 FRAA) only added to his value. The fact that the Giants finished third (11 games behind the Dodgers) didn't help his cause in the MVP voting, but he would have been a better choice. Meanwhile, the man who came in second to Koufax, shortstop Dick Groat from the second-place Cardinals, hit a robust .319/.377/.450, but Busch Stadium played host to a 4.56 run per game environment, and even with plus defense (9.8 FRAA), he finished with just 5.3 WARP. —Jay Jaffe


10) Willie Hernandez, 1984
Relief pitchers have been confounding award voters for years and, as Jose Valverde's Cy Young votes this year showed us, will likely continue to do so for years to come. Nothing illustrates this confusion more than Willie Hernandez's AL MVP award in 1984. Hernandez did not have a bad year, as far as relief pitchers go. He pitched 140 innings in his 80 appearances (and 68 finishes), saving 32 of 33 chances with a 1.92 ERA. He struck out only 112 while walking 36, but the season was good enough for a 3.4 WARP—first among all AL pitchers. However, there's just no way anyone can say Hernandez's season was better than every position player that year. Second in MVP balloting was Kent Hrbek, who batted .311 with 27 home runs and a .906 OPS. Baltimore first baseman Eddie Murray also had a great year, batting .306 with a .509 slugging, 29 home runs, and 110 RBIs. Rickey Henderson, who had the league's second-best WARP that year at 7.4, didn't even earn a single vote in the balloting. The most egregious mistake, however, was with Murray's teammate, Cal Ripken. Ripken nearly matched Murray in every category (.304 average, .510 slugging, 27 home runs) except one—Ripken drove in only 84 runners compared to Murray's 110. The season was good enough for an AL-best 8.4 WARP from Ripken, but only good enough for one single tenth-place vote in the MVP balloting. Mike Boddiker and Juan Beniquez finished higher than the league's best player that year. —Larry Granillo

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