Felix Hernandez and the AL MVP

A week ago, I wrote an InstaGraphs post noting that the current favorites for MVP in both leagues were playing in the Los Angeles market. The point of the post was to highlight Clayton Kershaw‘s candidacy, but in running through the other candidates for AL MVP, I wrote this:

Robinson Cano only has eight home runs and will probably split any votes he might get with Felix Hernandez, who would be a serious threat to Trout if the BBWAA gave pitchers the same credit as hitters in the voting. They don’t, though, so Felix probably finishes outside of the top five.

Since that post was published, Robinson Cano has hit .381/.536/.810, good for a 253 wRC+, including a couple more home runs. And Felix Hernandez has thrown 15 innings, allowed just seven hits, given up two runs, walked one, and struck out 16. In retrospect, I undersold the MVP case for both of Seattle’s stars, and particularly, the growing case for Felix as the top candidate.

If you want to just do the short-hand version for why the BBWAA should give Hernandez serious consideration for the award, there’s this.

AL WAR Leaders:

1. Felix Hernandez, +6.2
2. Mike Trout, +5.9

WAR isn’t perfect or the last one word on who should win the postseason awards — and a +0.3 WAR gap is effectively a tie, given the model’s limitations — but by at least that model, Hernandez has been the best player in baseball this year. And this isn’t just a FIP-based WAR thing; by RA9-WAR, Hernandez is at +6.6, so if you prefer to evaluate a pitcher by everything that happens while he’s on the mound, our version of WAR undersells his performance a little bit.

But voters shouldn’t (and won’t) just look at league WAR totals and list their ballot accordingly, so let’s take a deeper look at Felix’s candidacy.

First, let’s deal with the historical levels needed for a pitcher to win the MVP. Daniel Brim just worked through a similar exercise to evaluate Kershaw’s chances yesterday, so I’m just going to borrow a table from him, showing the last 10 pitchers to win the MVP award.

Player Year IP ERA- FIP- RA9-WAR fWAR
Justin Verlander 2011 251.0 58 73 9.2 6.9
Dennis Eckersley 1992 80.0 52 47 3.1 3.0
Roger Clemens 1986 254.0 57 65 9.5 7.8
Willie Hernandez 1984 140.1 49 65 5.2 3.0
Rollie Fingers 1981 78.0 30 58 4.7 2.5
Vida Blue 1971 312.0 56 65 11.3 8.7
Bob Gibson 1968 304.2 38 65 13.8 9.5
Denny McLain 1968 336.0 64 78 10.2 6.8
Sandy Koufax 1963 311.0 62 62 11.8 9.8
Don Newcombe 1956 268.0 78 86 6.9 4.9

Putting aside the BBWAA’s weird love of relievers-as-MVP, we find seven instances where a starting pitcher has won the MVP, with six of them occurring more than 40 years ago. To put into context how old some of these examples are, the median innings total for these seven pitchers in their MVP years: 305 IP. That’s not the max; that’s the median. The average — pulled down by the single modern candidate, Justin Verlander — is 290 innings.

Back when starters used to start 40 times per year and throw complete games more than half the time they took the hill, they were considered legitimate MVP candidates. Now, starters make 33 or 34 starts and the ones who work the most average seven innings per start. The game is different, but these changes have also led to position players dominating the MVP award for the last four decades. While Felix certainly should be a strong candidate this year, the BBWAA has had no problem overlooking similar or even better seasons from a starting pitcher when picking an MVP.

For example, we might look at Verlander’s 2011 season and conclude that perhaps a +9 RA9-WAR season should be enough to get a starting pitcher some real consideration, and Felix is actually on pace to have a better year than Verlander had three years ago. But from 1984 to 2013, there were 20 seasons more valuable than Verlander’s 2011 season by RA9-WAR, or an average of one per season. Here’s a list of 20 guys who pitched at that level (or better), and where they finished in the MVP voting that year.

Season Name Team IP ERA- FIP- WAR RA9-WAR MVP Place
1985 Dwight Gooden Mets 276.2 44 59 8.7 12.8 4
1985 John Tudor Cardinals 275.0 55 75 6.3 10.0 8
1986 Roger Clemens Red Sox 254.0 57 65 7.8 9.5 1
1986 Mike Scott Astros 275.1 63 60 8.6 9.4 10
1987 Roger Clemens Red Sox 281.2 65 64 9.0 9.5 19
1989 Bret Saberhagen Royals 262.1 56 65 8.1 9.3 8
1992 Greg Maddux Cubs 268.0 61 71 6.9 9.4 11
1993 Jose Rijo Reds 257.1 61 71 6.9 9.3 21
1994 Greg Maddux Braves 202.0 37 55 7.2 9.8 5
1995 Greg Maddux Braves 209.2 39 53 7.9 11.0 3
1996 Kevin Brown Marlins 233.0 46 68 6.6 9.7 22
1997 Roger Clemens Blue Jays 264.0 45 50 10.8 12.4 10
1997 Greg Maddux Braves 232.2 53 57 8.0 9.9 12
1997 Pedro Martinez Expos 241.1 45 56 8.6 9.8 16
1999 Randy Johnson Diamondbacks 271.2 53 58 9.6 10.7 15
1999 Pedro Martinez Red Sox 213.1 42 30 11.9 10.0 2
2000 Pedro Martinez Red Sox 217.0 35 46 9.9 12.2 5
2001 Randy Johnson Diamondbacks 249.2 55 46 10.4 9.8 11
2002 Randy Johnson Diamondbacks 260.0 54 60 8.0 9.5 7
2009 Zack Greinke Royals 229.1 48 53 9.1 9.5 17
  Average   248.5 51 58 8.5 10.2 10
  Median   255.6 53 59 8.3 9.8 10

That is 20 great seasons from starting pitchers, averaging +8.5 WAR by FIP and +10.0 WAR by runs allowed, both marks that Felix is unlikely to reach this year. Felix is matching the group average in ERA-, but he’s probably going to come a little bit short of the innings average, and with eight unearned runs allowed, ERA overrates his performance a little bit. But, certainly, Felix is having a season that isn’t too far off what those guys accomplished, and if he keeps up this pace, his 2014 season will go down as one of the best pitching seasons of the last few decades.

But look at where those guys finished in the MVP voting. Clemens managed to win the award once, and Pedro finished second, though all it took was maybe the most dominant single season any pitcher has ever had in the history of the game. Peak Greg Maddux finished third once, and he also got a fifth place finish, as did Pedro in his second attempt at having the most dominant season ever. Oh, and Dwight Gooden finished fourth in the year he was worth nearly +13 WAR by runs allowed. But those are the only six examples of these insanely great seasons where the pitcher even finished in the top five. 11 of the 20 seasons didn’t even result in a top 10 finish.

So, yeah, the BBWAA has a very strong recent history of just not giving serious consideration to starting pitchers for the MVP Award. They’ve made a couple of exceptions, but by and large, the voting panel prefers to vote for hitters, and occasionally relievers. As shown by the move away from Win-Loss record as the primary determinator of the Cy Young voting, the voting body is getting smarter, but history is still strongly against Hernandez’s chances.

However, we know that one of the primary variables for MVP consideration is a team’s place in the standings, as we could also list some pretty great hitter seasons that didn’t result in MVP awards because the player’s team was out of contention. If we look at the six pitchers who managed a top five finish from the list above, here’s what we find in terms of their team’s overall results.

1984 Mets: 98-64, 2nd place
1986 Red Sox: 95-66, 1st place
1994 Braves: 68-46, 2nd place
1995 Braves: 90-54, 1st place
1999 Red Sox: 94-68, 2nd place
2000 Red Sox: 85-77, 2nd place

And of course, Verlander’s 2011 MVP came in a season where the Tigers went 95-67 and won their division. There’s a clear connection between team finish and MVP placement, and this shouldn’t be a huge surprise, since voters clearly articulate a preference for the MVP to come from a winning team. But even with a great season on a winning team, we still find weird things like 2001-2002 Randy Johnson.

The Diamondbacks won their division in both seasons, winning 92 games in ’01 and 98 games in ’02. Not only was he roughly a +10 WAR pitcher by runs allowed in both seasons, but he played on first place teams that had a small margin of divisional victory, so voters couldn’t even play the “they’d have won without him” card. And yet he finished 11th in 2001 and 7th in 2002.

Trying to find a common thread of logic and reason in how the BBWAA has treated starting pitchers in the MVP voting is basically futile. Some great seasons on winning teams have been rewarded with a top five finish, and a couple have even resulted in a victory, but there’s no obvious rhyme or reason as to why those seasons were selected. Verlander’s season was terrific, but not as terrific as many others, and Jacoby Ellsbury was a fantastic candidate on a team whose season ended in Game 163. Why did Verlander win that year, when guys like Johnson couldn’t even finish in the top 10 in better seasons in years where their team won the division?

For Hernandez, it seems like his best hope is to continue his ridiculous current streak of starts with seven or more innings and two or fewer runs allowed. He’s at 16 and counting, setting a new Major League record in the process, and this is the kind of run that draws attention. If he runs out a few more of these and pushes his total near 20 straight “Super Quality Stars” or whatever nickname they end up getting, the voters will take notice.

But to call this an uphill battle would be a drastic understatement. While Felix is having a great season, Mike Trout is also having a great season, and Trout’s team is more likely to win one of the two Wild Card spots, and might even still steal the division title. Trout’s individual resume might not be quite as impressive as it was the last few years, but he’s hitting better than ever, and voters are unlikely to care too much about the decline in his defensive and baserunning value. Trout is the best player in baseball, he’s playing at a high level, and he’s on a team with very strong postseason odds. He’s still the favorite to win, even if Felix keeps pitching at this level.

But it will be interesting twist to the MVP race if Felix does actually keep this up. While Trout has been the endorsed candidate of the nerd crowd for the last few years, I’m guessing most of us are probably more interested in rewarding starting pitchers as MVPs than the BBWAA has historically been, and if the gap between Felix and Trout grows, we could be the ones arguing against Trout as MVP this year, with the voters giving him a trophy in a year where he’s maybe not the most deserving candidate.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.