The American League Most Valuable Player Award is going to be announced at 2:00 pm today, and there’s a pretty good chance that Justin Verlander is going to become just the 10th player to win both the Cy Young and MVP in the same year. Unfortunately, the reasons that Verlander is probably the favorite to win the award aren’t great – the two best position players both played for teams who failed to make the playoffs, and voters are historically preferential to players who came from teams who played in October. He’s also a stronger candidate to actually win the award because of his 24 victories, and it is too bad that pitcher wins are still hanging on to some influence.
However, you don’t have to buy into the traditional criteria for MVP voting to cast a ballot in favor of Justin Verlander. Even without some tortured logic about rewarding a player for the performance of his teammates, a strong case can be made for Verlander as the most valuable player in the American League in 2011.
Let’s start off with the elephant in the room: with how we calculate WAR here on FanGraphs, Verlander’s +7.0 season is pretty far behind both Jacoby Ellsbury (+9.4) and Jose Bautista (+8.3), so an argument for Verlander seems to require a rejection of FanGraphs WAR, right? I would suggest that it does not. We think WAR is a great tool that has helped push forward the understanding of the relative value of players with very different skills, but we’ve never suggested that it’s perfect or entirely comprehensive.
There are areas of the game that no one has figured out how to quantify with great precision yet, and players who excel in that area are likely undervalued by the current inputs of WAR. For instance, catcher defense isn’t something that we have figured out, and there’s a good chance that Yadier Molina is more valuable than WAR gives him credit for. That doesn’t make WAR useless, just incomplete, and it means that when discussing the value of a player who may very well be an elite defensive catcher, you should acknowledge that context and attempt to adjust for it in the way that seems best.
Likewise, WAR is an incomplete look at a pitcher’s overall value, as no one has figured out how to definitively credit the pitcher for his role in a team’s overall run prevention while he is on the mound. Run prevention is clearly some combination of performance from a pitcher and the defenders behind him, but splitting up precisely who is responsible for what degree of run prevention is something that is just beyond our abilities at the moment.
Because of the problems associated with measuring defense and assuming that those defenders offer identical support for each of the pitchers on the team (for more, see Why Our WAR Uses FIP and the follow-up post), we’ve chosen to a use a FIP-based pitcher WAR so that we’re simply measuring things that we know we can actually measure and not preventing an adjusted metric that relies upon assumptions that we know would have to reflect things that didn’t actually happen on the field.
FIP, of course, is based solely on walks, strikeouts, and home runs, and it does not attempt to deal with the question of how to separate out value between pitcher and defender. It tells an incomplete story, and in exceptional cases where a pitcher’s BABIP differs greatly from the norm, we need to be willing to accept that WAR is an imperfect measure (no matter which “version” of WAR you’re using), just as it is with elite defensive catchers. Accepting that it has limitations isn’t the same thing as rejecting its usefulness – we can believe in the value of WAR while also acknowledging that a FIP-based WAR is almost uncertainly undervaluing Justin Verlander in 2011.
How much is he being underrated? Well, it’s nearly impossible to believe that his .236 batting average on balls in play was entirely the result of great performance from defenders like Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, or Delmon Young. The Tigers employed some pretty lousy defenders this year, and while Austin Jackson probably tracked down a couple of Verlander’s fly balls that other center fielders wouldn’t have gotten to, we can assume that Verlander’s BABIP reflects that he simply gave his defenders balls that were easier to field than an average pitcher last year. Whether he can keep doing that is another question, but even the most ardent DIPS adherent should be able to admit that Verlander’s low BABIP is at least partially a result of how he pitched last year.
So, let’s work out how many extra runs he’d get credit for preventing depending on how we distribute the credit for his low BABIP.
Using his 2.99 FIP, we’d have expected Verlander to surrender 83 earned runs over 250 innings pitched. In reality, he surrendered 67 earned runs, so his low BABIP (and the timing of when he gave up his hits) saved him an extra 17 runs, which would translate to an extra +1.8 WAR. If you give him credit for the entirety of his BABIP, his WAR jumps over that of Jose Bautista’s. If you believe that a pitcher should be given credit for all of the outcomes of batted balls, Verlander has just as strong a case for the award as anyone.
I’d say that it’s more likely that Verlander’s BABIP was at least partially influenced by his defenders, however. So, let’s assume that half of the hit prevention was Verlander, and half was the result of quality defense played behind him. Giving him credit for 50% of the 17 runs saved beyond what his FIP accounts for, Verlander would get 8.5 runs, or an additional +0.9 WAR. This wouldn’t be enough to catch Bautista, and he’d still be a bit of a ways behind Ellsbury, but it would put him close enough to those two that a vote for Verlander would still be easy enough to justify.
After all, even an RA-based WAR isn’t capturing every facet of the game. Verlander’s quantity of innings did help keep the Tigers bullpen rested, and that allowed Jim Leyland to use them more liberally on days the other four pitchers took the hill. This isn’t the easiest thing to quantify, but it’s another small point in Verlander’s favor, and when trying to split hairs between three guys who all had MVP-caliber seasons, small things are worth considering.
In reality, the votes for Verlander are probably going to come from voters who are influenced by his W-L record and a lack of classic position player candidates on playoff teams, but that doesn’t mean that a vote for Verlander can’t be defended. Ellsbury and Bautista are each great candidates in their own right, but Justin Verlander had an exceptional year as well. You can argue strongly for either of the other two, but a vote for Verlander is not an incorrect vote. He had an MVP-caliber year.