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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

19 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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pandroid

How does Jose Bautista's 2011 performance not even win a mention in an article Justin Verlander's winning the MVP over him inspired? That's like taking about the Falklands without mentioning Argentina. Just saying.

Nov 28, 2011 05:59 AM
rating: 5
 
montanabowers

The 93 games Eckersley missed? What about the 130 games that Verlander missed? I agree that the pitcher is important, but waxing about his importance over other "position" players to justify this selection is a bit skewed considering he only plays in 32 games. Let's break it down another way: average 8 innings per start (approximately) for a total of 256 innings. That's 256 innings out of 1458 innings in a regular season or approximately 18% of the innings in a regular season. Verlander had a fantastic season and rightly won the Cy Young - the MVP for pitchers. Ellsbury's season was deserving of MVP consideration,as was Jose Bautista. What percentage of the season's innings did these gentlemen play?

Nov 28, 2011 06:30 AM
rating: 3
 
T. Kiefer

Instead of going by "innings appeared in", a more fair metric would be comparing plate appearances of the batter with batters faced by the pitcher. If you go this route, J.V. had more business involving home plate than Mr. Ellsbury or Mr. Bautista.

One might respond that does not take into account the innings the position player is defending in the field, and so he has more of an impact than a pitcher. In response, one can say that, as noted above in the J.V. posting, a) a pitcher is a defensive player too both with the glove as well as the pitches he throws; b) a starting pitcher has an effect on both the bullpen over time (use, misuse or non-use), and the starting pitchers appearing before and after him; c) has a much, much greater effect on the game with an absence/injury than almost all position players. (Red Sox lose Lester for six weeks, they're in big trouble; lose Ellsbury for six weeks, they can manage okay, e.g. 2010 season. If MVP were determined by "devastating effect on team's performance or on win-loss record by absence", J.V. and Miguel Cabrera would likely be tied; Ellsbury and Bautista would be behind Curtis Granderson or Robinson Cano.)

Nov 28, 2011 07:52 AM
rating: 6
 
jhardman

Sorry...still laughing about El Pulpo....carry on.

Nov 28, 2011 08:09 AM
rating: 2
 
cdamon

Enjoyable article.

I just want to comment on a slight in the 1984 writeup. Mike Boddicker for some reason does not even get a link, I guess fitting with the way he has generally been treated. I believe his 1984 year remains the only case where the league's only 20 game winner also led the league in ERA, but didn't win the Cy Young. He also threw 261.1 innings, only 5.2 behind the leader. Not only did he not win the CYA, he only finished fourth.

In retrospect, he probably didn't deserve the CYA either (Steib probably did -- he finished 7th), but by traditional voting definitions, he should have won. That his 2 total MVP votes gave him a 24th in MVP voting that was ahead of Ripken's 1 vote is just a show of how badly the voters screwed up on MVP that year.

Nov 28, 2011 08:28 AM
rating: 0
 
bobbygrace

Under Don Newcombe's entry, Sam Magile = Sal Maglie.

Nov 28, 2011 08:38 AM
rating: 1
 
BillJohnson

I would further note that Rogers Clemens wasn't a very good pitcher. And who's this Snyder guy? Cory? Russ? Someone else I don't know about?

Seriously, guys, some very poor proofreading and copyediting in this one. There are quite a large number of comparable goofs elsewhere in the text. Might there have been a rush to get it to e-press before it was fully scrutinized?

Nov 28, 2011 15:45 PM
rating: 0
 
Dave Holgado

I know that Boggs and Barfield beat him out in WARP, but I was surprised to see no mention of Don Mattingly in the Clemens 1986 blurb, particularly given how much emphasis was placed on Clemens vs. Mattingly at the time (indeed, the debate spawned a great article in the following year's Baseball Abstract). More importantly, Mattingly had a very strong case on the merits. He had a higher VORP than Barfield (indeed, Boggs barely edged him, 69.3 to 63.2), and his WARP, while only good for 6th best in the league (behind Boggs, Barfield, Rickey Henderson, Gary Gaetti, and Cal Ripken), was still a full two wins higher than the Rocket. Also, for whatever it's worth, any metric that rates Gaetti's 1986 higher than Donnie Baseball's (or more specifically, any defensive metric that rates Mattingly as a below average first baseman in any year before his back went out on him) might be in need of some tweaking. I'm the first Yankee fan to bemoan Derek Jeter's fielding prowess (or lack thereof), but the Hit Man... he earned those gold gloves.

Nov 28, 2011 09:27 AM
rating: 0
 
chrisekeedei

In his argument, Adam Tower doesn't even look at advanced metrics, and worse, doesn't even look at other candidates. At the very least, you have to acknowledge them and tell me why they're inadequate. Instead he just lays out a silly, irrelevant argument about pitchers being fielders. If I wanted that kind of non-analytical argument, I could get it at almost every other Web site in the world. Baseball Prospectus has a higher standard.

And can Jason Parks please stop contributing an unfunny, pointless entry in every collaborative article? We all love the humorous asides in Baseball Prospectus, but when a joke serves as the centerpiece of a piece, it comes across as self-indulgent and tiresome. You ain't "Fire Joe Morgan," guys. Leave the funny to the professionals.

The other entries are excellent examples of how Baseball Prospectus can add new insights to current and past baseball arguments.

Nov 28, 2011 10:21 AM
rating: -3
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

"And can Jason Parks please stop contributing an unfunny, pointless entry in every collaborative article? We all love the humorous asides in Baseball Prospectus, but when a joke serves as the centerpiece of a piece, it comes across as self-indulgent and tiresome."

Nope. Self-indulgent and tiresome is the goal.

Nov 28, 2011 10:41 AM
 
BP staff member atower
BP staff

"In his argument, Adam Tower doesn't even look at advanced metrics, and worse, doesn't even look at other candidates. At the very least, you have to acknowledge them and tell me why they're inadequate."

Nope, I don't need to look at others or sling mud to make a successful argument. Stats are great, and I love them as much as the next guy, but sometimes you need to let your eyes tell you the story of dominance.

Nov 28, 2011 14:43 PM
 
mrdannyg

I thought Jim Bowden was only contributing for that one series?

Nov 29, 2011 11:40 AM
rating: 2
 
CRP13

"And can Jason Parks please stop contributing an unfunny, pointless entry in every collaborative article? We all love the humorous asides in Baseball Prospectus, but when a joke serves as the centerpiece of a piece, it comes across as self-indulgent and tiresome. You ain't "Fire Joe Morgan," guys. Leave the funny to the professionals."

Are you serious? Are you also one of those guys who complains that the writing around here isn't interesting anymore?

I didn't know the dude had 12 fingers. Now I do. I learned something today.

Nov 29, 2011 09:31 AM
rating: 0
 
Rich Wilson

While the analysis is brilliant and the comments are provocative, what I'll remember from this article is Mr. Parks musing on El Pulpo. I actually googled Jeff Kent to verify that it was in fact a State Trooper stash and not a local police variety. As always, Jason nails it again!

Nov 28, 2011 11:23 AM
rating: 2
 
edwardarthur

Thoughts on Guidry vs. Rice in '78? I've always felt that one was wrong, but I may be a bit biased....

Nov 28, 2011 13:21 PM
rating: 0
 
DetroitDale

Full Disclosure Time: Justin Verlander is my favorite player on my favorite team.

T. Keifer has a point that at bats more than innings are a truer metric of value to the team.

The Pitcher while only starting 1/5 of the games, on the days he starts he's as important to the score as the other 9 guys combined. Indeed, the hitters "rotate" just like the pitchers they just do it on an at-bat instead of innings basis, so while the starter is in 25% of his team's games, the hitter is in about 11% (1/9th) of his team's at bats.

Now that's a crude summary that doesn't take into account defense and reliever's, so try another way. Montanabowers cites about 256 innings as a back of the envelope figure for a pitcher (very close to Verlander's actual numbers) Figure three outs plus 1 hit or walk (a very conservative WHIP estimate) per inning that 256 innings comes to well over 1,000 at-bats. On the hitter side 162 games times four at bats per game is 648.

Now neither takes the defensive portion of the game into account but as the author points out, the pitcher is more involved defensively, too, he's in on every pitch thrown but the other players only on balls hit to them (except cathers and first basemen). Granted they still have to be alert but it isn't enough to counter the double at bats ratio mentioned above.

In summary, the argument that the pitcher isn't deserving of the MVP because he's not an "everyday player" just doesn't hold water. Detractors who point out that pitcher's have a Cy Young Award and Hitters only have the MVP have a point, but this is better resolved by starting a Willie Mays Award to be given to the best all-around non-pitcher, leaving the MVP as the most valuable player (be he pitcher or hitter)

Nov 28, 2011 14:09 PM
rating: 2
 
Richard Bergstrom

No mention of Vida Blue? For a long time, he was the last switch-hitter to win an MVP.

Nov 28, 2011 17:27 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Er, last AL switch hitter.

Nov 28, 2011 17:27 PM
rating: 0
 
jlebeck66

I cherish my 2001 Topps card of Alfonseca giving a (post-save?) fist pump!

http://www.webstore.com/2001-Topps-204-Antonio-Alfonseca-Marlins,name,11990983,auction_id,auction_details

Nov 29, 2011 12:13 PM
rating: 0
 
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