These Things Drive Me Crazy

My opinion on a pitcher’s place in the MVP debate is that they don’t belong. That’s not because of the foolish reasons provided by those claiming that “valuable” can’t be an adjective to describe a player who performs only once every five games. Typically, a starting pitcher has far more responsibility for the outcome of every fifth game than a single position player has for the outcome of five games in a row.

One need only look at the number of opportunities a starting pitcher gets to influence a game, and compare it to a typical position player. For instance, C.C. Sabathia has faced 925 batters this season. That’s more than any other pitcher in baseball. Dustin Pedrioa has had 664 plate appearances this year. That’s more than any other position player in baseball. A staggering difference lays between the two.

It can be argued that one would also have to include the 281 total defensive plays that Pedroia has had this season as the second baseman for the Boston Red Sox. While there’s some merit to this way of thinking, it’s difficult for me to put the same weight on a routine ground ball in Pedroia’s direction as any batter that Sabathia faced all season. I wouldn’t completely dismiss the number of defensive plays that a position player makes (and Pedroia is in the top twenty in plays), but there’s far less responsibility in fielding a position and a far greater chance of damage being inflicted in facing a batter from the pitcher’s mound.

Therefore, I don’t believe that a pitcher should be included in the MVP vote because, no matter what your personal definition of valuable is, a starting pitcher’s contribution is so great over the course of a season that if they were to be considered, they should be the only position ever considered.

The Toronto Star’s Richard Griffin disagrees with me on both counts stating in a recent column that:

I have never been a fan of a pitcher as MVP, but upon close examination of the field, I find myself in full support of Verlander.

That’s fine. Like I wrote, there is totally room for discussion on the value that a position player offers versus the value that a pitcher offers. I think a pitcher’s contribution far outweighs a position player, but not everyone sees it that way.

What irks me to no end is that Griffin, in a strategy not completely unfamiliar to the anti-stats crowd, knocks numbers analysis throughout his piece by suggesting tamely at the beginning that he’s more of a “baseball traditionalist” than “a VORP, WAR, WHIP, OPS guy,” before moving on to playfully mocking that “a computer can pick” the best player statistically, and finishing by completely ridiculing the culmination of advanced baseball metrics.

As for my view on the new generation of baseball statistics, I will just quote from the legendary R&B and soul icon Edwin Starr and his hit song for the Temptations: “War, huh, good God. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Listen to me.”

Okay, I’m listening. Please, Mr. Griffin, let me know why WAR is good for absolutely nothing. I’m incredibly curious to learn your explanation. That is what’s being suggested after all, but unfortunately there’s nothing more on the topic than that.

Instead, (and here it is, the thing that really drives me crazy) after openly mocking data driven analysis, Griffin goes on to give his reasons for Justin Verlander’s MVP candidacy by using statistics! Stats. Numbers. Figures. Data. Information. The very things that he spends the majority of the article mocking and laughing off, he uses for his reasoning.

It’s just that instead of using numbers for real analysis, he tries to pass off a different set of numbers for the purposes of mistaking correlation for causation:

1. Verlander started the year 2-3 in his first seven starts. The team was 2-5 in those starts. At that point, Detroit was three games under .500 and seven games out of first place. On May 7, Verlander no-hit the Jays. Since that win, Verlander has been 20-2, while the Tigers have been 68-44, taking a stranglehold on the AL Central. Verlander has provided the impetus.

You know what else happened on May 7th, 2011? A Bieber Parade took place in Copenhagen.

Who’s to say that this wasn’t the impetus for the Tigers’ run?

2. The Tigers, since his no-hitter, have been 21-3 in Verlander starts but only 47-41 when someone else toes the rubber. When the Tigers score three or more runs in a game, Verlander is 21-0. When they score two or fewer runs, he is 1-5.

Teammate and fellow candidate Cabrera had MVP numbers through May 6, the day before Verlander began his run: he was batting .330 with seven homers, 23 RBIs and a 1.043 OPS. But that was with his team mired in third place, three games under.

Wow. Comparing Cabrera’s numbers to the team’s record, it’s almost as though ONE SINGLE PLAYER’S PERFORMANCE DOESN’T OVERWHELMINGLY INFLUENCE A TEAM’S OVERALL WIN/LOSS RECORD. But instead of coming to that obvious, reasonable and logical conclusion, Griffin uses the numbers as a means of suggesting that Verlander is more valuable than Cabrera. While his conclusion is right, he comes to it through all the wrong reasons.

Of course he’s more valuable, but it has nothing to do with how the rest of the team performs when he starts, and it’s insulting to Verlander’s talent to suggest so. The Tigers win games that Verlander pitches in because he’s a really good pitcher that allows fewer runs than most opposing pitchers.

However, using pitching wins as a means of showing Verlander’s value is once again mistaking the contribution of others for Verlander’s. Justin Verlander is good enough without having to imagine some sort of causation that doesn’t truly exist.

Baseball is split up first between offense and defense. The offense is responsible for half an inning and then the defense is responsible for the other half. Already, there’s 50% of a game that Justin Verlander, even during a no-hitter, has nothing to do with.

We take defense, and under this category falls pitching and fielding. Fielders are obviously responsible for fielding, further lessening Verlander’s responsibility, leaving us with just pitching. And even within that one element we must also must account for the times that Verlander didn’t throw a complete game and had to depend on relievers to close out a game, minimizing the amount for which he’s responsible for even further. And even within that percentile, there’s an entire element of luck (pitchers can’t control where balls are hit and no hitter is good enough to put balls precisely into play) for which we’re not accounting.

While pitchers may be accountable for a whole lot more than any one position player, it’s still not enough to give them credit for entire wins from a team.

3. After Tuesday’s win over the White Sox, Verlander is 23-5 with a 2.36 ERA and 238 strikeouts in 236 innings. There have been only two starting pitchers to win the MVP since the mound was lowered following the ’68 season to add more offence and bring back fans. In ’68, both MVPs were pitchers: Denny McClain in the AL and Bob Gibson in the NL.

The last starting pitcher to win the MVP was Roger Clemens of the Red Sox in 1986. The Rocket was 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA and 238 strikeouts. The Sox went to the World Series. The only other starting pitcher MVP in the past 43 years was Vida Blue of the A’s in 1971, who went 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA.

I never thought I would say it, but Verlander should be the third.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll ignore the several problems with comparing a pitcher from 2011 with one from 1986, and seeing as though precedence has been brought up, ask, on Mr. Griffin’s own terms, who he voted or would have voted for the AL MVP award in 1999 and 2000, when Pedro Martinez had back to back seasons with W-L records of 23-4 and 18-6 with ERAs of 1.74 and 2.39, respectively.

While the MVP debate is certainly a matter of opinion, I don’t believe the numbers and statistics that you want to use to back that opinion can be as subjective. There are numbers available that best reflect an individual’s contribution to his team, and while there may be a difference of opinion over how the term “valuable” is defined, there’s no disputing that the MVP is given to an individual.

That’s why talking about wins, ERA or RBIs in terms of a most valuable player award isn’t just the difference between “baseball traditionalists” and “seamheads.” It’s the difference between false and true data, wrong and right evidence, the illogical and reasonable.