Thursday, September 1, 2011
Why a Pitcher Should Never Win the MVP
Justin Verlander has ignited the great baseball debate of whether pitchers should win the Most Valuable Player award. Major League Baseball's refusal to define MVP with statistics like the Triple Crown helps fuel the debate. Players, fans, and the media are left to ponder what MVP means and whether pitchers should be considered in the conversation.
Pitchers should absolutely be considered in the conversation as they are "players" and the award has the word "player" in it and not hitter/everyday player. The question of what "valuable"' means is where the debate begins and where the topic goes down the rabbit hole. Pitchers are valuable and on some teams they are the best player, but a single pitcher is rarely the most valuable player in an entire league.
There are many arguments for Verlander and pitchers to win the MVP and indeed pitchers have won the MVP in the past, here are some of the most common arguments, their counterpoints, and issues to ponder.
Verlander has been involved in more plate appearances than a hitter.
It is argued that Verlander has been involved in 800+ plate appearances and no batter has more than 600+ plate appearances. The two numbers are not comparable. Although the words "plate appearances" are used, pitching a plate appearance and hitting during a plate appearance are two completely different situations. They are polar opposites of a transaction and each person involved is trying for a completely different outcome. One is on defense and the other is on offense.
There is no debate that Verlander is involved in the plate appearance, but so are the other players on the field. So if Miguel Cabrera is on the field when Verlander pitches, does he get credit for the opposing hitter's plate appearance? Cabrera could be involved in the play and was on the defensive side of the plate appearance like Verlander was.
If a hitter is given credit for his 600 plate appearances and the 800+ plate appearances he appears on defense, then would he would have a total of 1,400+ plate appearances? Defense is, after all, a part of the game, isn't it? Granted, the ball is in the pitcher's hands at the start of every play, but once it leaves the pitcher, then the hitter and fielders (which includes the pitcher) have control of the rest of the play. The argument of plate appearances is essentially nonsense. Pitchers are a part of a defensive team when a hitter makes a plate appearance. The defensive team is present during a hitter's plate appearance. Either they all get credit or none of them should get credit for a plate appearance.
Everyday players play offense and defense and are judged by both.
The best everyday players are five tool players. Pitchers rarely get judged on their fielding and almost never on their hitting. There are great fielding pitchers, but rarely is fielding a measure of a pitcher's greatness.
How many runs are saved and wins delivered to a pitcher by an excellent defense? Defense is quickly becoming to the game what steroids were to the game in the 1990's — a must if players and teams are to succeed. Everyday players are being held to a higher standard in terms of their defense. Defense doesn't exactly hurt a pitcher's cause. A perfect 27-strikeout game is the best way for a pitcher to prove he had total control of the game and did not need any other player on the field.
An everyday player is also dependent on the other players, but it is the pitcher who is generally seen as performing alone. Each player on the team is dependent on one another and a pitcher's performance can be greatly enhanced by not only the runs produced by his teammates, but by his team's fielding abilities.
Additionally, the issue of how well a pitcher hits can't be broached because of the designated hitter rule in the American League. Surely, MVP candidates should be judged on multiple areas of their game and not just one area.
Who is worth more wins to a team?
Pitchers have the win as a statistic and the best that everyday players can do is the statistic of win over replacement or for a stat geek to concoct a player's value to a team during a win. It may be a more simple exercise to ask the question: If you could take one player over the course of a season to add to your team, would you take Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, or Mickey Mantle in their primes or would you take Walter Johnson, Cy Young, or Bob Gibson in their primes? The question isn't who would rather have in the game if it was one game to save your life, but whom would you want for 162 games in 2011?
Would you want the greatest position player or the greatest pitcher? Would your team get more wins with Willie Mays playing defense and hitting the ball over 162 games or Walter Johnson pitching every fifth day and on a 100-pitch count? Walter Johnson would most likely get 20-25 wins easily, but Mays is an everyday threat that would make a lineup and defense better. If rotations were shorter and there were no pitch counts, Johnson today could be worth more than Mays.
When the greatest players are reviewed in baseball history, at the top of the lists are generally more everyday players than pitchers.
Pitch counts and five-man rotations further dilute a pitcher's value.
Starting pitchers are in roughly 35 games; everyday players are in up to 155 games. Today's pitchers generally do not go over 100 pitches. Verlander often goes past 115, and up to 8 innings, but he is still not playing entire games due to pitch counts. Also, he is one of the few pitchers who goes nearly 8 innings. Many pitchers today go 6 and let the bullpen finish the game.
Hitters are told to go out and play the field and hit the ball for 9 innings. What if there was a limit to how many defensive plays a shortstop could play? After all, he has to put a lot of torque on his arm to throw to first and what about an outfielder that has too many throws to home or the cut-off man? Pitchers' arms are saved, but hitters are told to go out and hit and field. What if hitters were only allowed so many swings in a game or allowed to only see so many pitches? Don't their arms get tired, too? Hitters are swinging and fielding for 9 innings. Pitch counts 20 years ago also sounded crazy, but today it is accepted that pitchers can't go more than 100 pitches and not unless they have five days rest.
When a batter is hit, they are told to take one for the team, dust it off, and take first. A starting pitcher is told after 100 pitches no matter how good they feel that it may be time to take a shower.
Number of plays should make a difference.
The argument of whether a pitcher should win the award for many comes down to a combination of the above arguments wrapped up in the question: how much is a baseball player on the field? It may be better to ask, how many plays is a player involved in over the course of a season?
Pitchers are in roughly 35 games and everyday players can get 155 games in over a season. It is argued with fewer plays the pitcher must perform at an even higher level. Less plays puts more pressure on a pitcher during his plays, and leaves more room for error for an everyday player due to the sheer number of plays. An everyday player can hide several bad plays over the course of a season, whereas a pitcher does not have as much room for error.
Perhaps a minimum number of plays should be discussed with regards to the MVP award. There is a minimum number of plate appearances for hitting awards and minimum number of starts for the Cy Young award. If there were an established minimum number of plays for the MVP award it would help the discussion. A play would be designated as a pitch, plate appearance, or action in the field (a catcher's throw to second on a steal attempt or center fielder throwing to the infield or man stealing a base are examples). If a player is on the field of play when a defined play happens, then the player gets credit for the play.
When the actual number of plays is added up for each player, it would be clear that an everyday player is "playing" significantly more than a pitcher. After all, each play a pitcher is in the everyday player is generally on the field with the pitcher (except for the DH). After adding up the number of plays, a percentage should be established as to a minimum of the number of plays a player must be on the field to qualify for the MVP.
Like a hitter who hits .400 in April, May, and June, but then was injured and doesn't play in July, August, and September isn't eligible for the batting crown, pitchers would probably not be eligible for the MVP. Pitchers are most likely not involved in half of the plays everyday players participate in over the course of a season, just as the .400 hitter doesn't play half of the season.
Pitchers are incredibly valuable to baseball teams. The question as to whether they are the most valuable in their leagues will continue to be debated. A simple answer might be to look at just how much players are on the field in terms of sheer number of plays.