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Justin Verlander and the Power of Narratives

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Mood Music - War by Edwin Starr

I don't have much of a capacity to get worked up about the major awards anymore, and I won't waste too many keystrokes telling you what you already know.  But, by selecting Justin Verlander as the American League Most Valuable Player, the Baseball Writers Association of America has made quite a deviation from the status quo.

The last time that a pitcher won the AL MVP was Dennis Eckersley in 1992 (oy), with the last starting pitcher being Roger Clemens in 1986.  No pitcher has been the NL MVP in that time frame.  Needless to say, the committee does not pick pitchers very often, but saw fit to break the mold for Verlander.

Before I go further, I should first posit that, given anyone's interpretation of the word value, there is no reason why a pitcher could not be the player to contribute the most value any given season.  Although Verlander only appeared in 34 games, he had a much bigger impact on those games than a position player would on any of his 162.  It is unlikely, but not impossible, that a pitcher could provide more value in less games.

As for them being disqualified due to already having the Cy Young Award to win, that's a whole different story; but, as they are not explicitly considered ineligible, for the sake of this post I will consider them as equal.

For Verlander to have been chosen for this award, it would follow that he had a truly spectacular season; one of the greatest pitching performances of the past 20 years, giving the writers a reason to overcome the "pitchers can't be MVP" hurdle.  And, while Verlander's season was certainly great, for me it really wasn't that great.  Here's a comparison:

2011 Justin Verlander: 251.0 IP - 2.40 ERA - 2.99 FIP - 8.96 K/9 - 2.04 BB/9 - 7.0 fWAR
2010 Felix Hernandez: 249.2 IP - 2.27 ERA - 3.04 FIP - 8.36 K/9 - 2.58 BB/9 - 6.2 fWAR
2009 Zack Greinke: 229.1 IP - 2.16 ERA - 2.33 FIP - 9.50 K/9 - 2.00 BB/9 - 9.3 fWAR
2008 Cliff Lee: 223.1 IP - 2.54 ERA - 2.83 FIP - 6.85 K/9 - 1.37 BB/9 - 7.2 fWAR

Not even counting historic seasons like Pedro Martinez's 1999 (that did not get him the MVP), there are seasons of comparable brilliance to Verlander's just about every year.  In MVP voting, Felix finished 16th, Greinke finished 17th, and Lee finished 12th.

The obvious elephant in the room is Verlander's role on the playoff bound Tigers and his 24 wins.  Everyone left of Murray Chass will concede that there are valid reasons to be skeptical of pitcher wins as a statistic.  While Verlander's 24 wins is the most in the American League since 1990, the league leader has had twenty or more in 25 out of the last 29 years.  Bob Welch won 27 games in 1990 and was 9th in MVP voting.

Even if we humor the concept that pitcher wins are a valid indication of performance, there is a rich history of pitchers putting up gaudy win totals and not sniffing this award.  As for his role on the Tigers, could you argue that he contributed more (+5.14 WPA) than Miguel Cabrera (+7.31 WPA)?*

* For those wondering, yes, Jose Bautista led in this category too with +7.86.

This was a strong MVP field, with great seasons from Bautista, Cabrera, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Curtis Granderson.  It's tough to rationalize what Verlander did for his season to be held in such high esteem.  

But, if you think about it, the answer is probably very simple:  Verlander held the power of the narrative this season.  He flirted with a no hitter seemingly every time out, throws 101 MPH in the 8th inning, and is incredibly fun to watch.  His final results may not have been historic, but they were presented that way through both exciting pitching and an adoring media.

I wish that didn't matter as much as it did, but it does.  Sportswriters voted for the story, and that's the way it goes.