The Verlander MVP Plot Thickens

Justin Verlander notched win No. 20 this past weekend. With the victory, he became the season’s first to reach the milestone, and perhaps most impressively, the first AL pitcher to hit the 20-win mark through August since Roger Clemens did it in 1997 with Toronto.

Combine factoids like this with his tremendous numbers so far, and it’s easy to see why many are boarding the Verlander-for-Cy Young Award bandwagon. And that might just be the start: Verlander now has emerged as a legitimate candidate for the American League’s Most Valuable Player award. But should be considered for the honor? In fact, should any pitcher win an MVP? Heck, is Verlander even a lock for the Cy Young?

All things considered, he’s having a phenomenal year. But it isn’t totally clear that Verlander is having the best season among all AL pitchers. Yes, he leads his league in pitcher WAR and innings pitched, has the second highest K/BB ratio, the third highest strikeout rate and — at 2.78 — the lowest SIERA. Yet the separation in wins above replacement — between he, CC Sabathia and Jered Weaver — is minute given the error bars surrounding the metric.

Has Verlander clearly been better than both Sabathia and Weaver? Even if the answer is yes, is it resounding enough to suggest that he’s not only the best pitcher in the league, but the most impactful player to his team? Verlander isn’t having a Clemens-circa-1986 season, and he won’t come close to matching Pedro Martinez‘s greatest hits either. He isn’t even likely to match Zack Greinke’s 2009 performance — or, for that matter, his own 2009 numbers.

His statistics that year mean little with respect to the current season, but they aptly illustrate the main point here: Verlander is pitching beautifully, but he isn’t having one of those can’t-miss years that we’ll remember a decade from now. Given the existence of an award specifically designed to honor pitchers, he just doesn’t seem to be having a season transcendent enough to take that and the MVP.

The driving forces in his candidacy are largely ancillary to his actual performance: Throwing a no-hitter and having a few just-misses only add to his aura. The Tigers lead in the AL Central despite an otherwise mediocre rotation, an average bullpen and a .500ish run differential, also scores him points.

Toss in the whole 20-wins-before-September — and the thought that he might “win” 25 games — and it’s easy to see why traditional voters would think he is having one of those transcendent seasons. Nobody’s going to argue that Verlander isn’t having an excellent season, but his MVP candidacy hinges on far too many factors that are less important than they’re perceived to be.

For what it’s worth, even Verlander’s manager is scatterbrained on the topic. Jim Leyland has said that he doesn’t believe a pitcher should ever win the MVP award — but he would support Verlander, given the current workings of the system. His thought process was similar to that of virtually everyone who’s against pitchers winning the award: It isn’t feasible that someone who appears in 30 to 35 games has more of an impact than an everyday player who appears in 150-plus games.

Is that true, though? Consider this: Verlander has already faced 830 batters, while a league-leading hitter might step to the plate 750 times. The disconnect deals with the cross-section of time, perception and impact.

Though Verlander will essentially have more plate appearances than a single batter, the high concentration of his batters faced in a smaller number of games detracts from the perceived impact. A batter stepping to the plate four times per game, in 160 games, is thought to be capable of impacting more games, while a starting pitcher can only impact a game in which he starts. Not to say this is the wrong way to think, but it’s rarely brought up when discussing a pitcher’s MVP candidacy.

So is Verlander the best pitcher in the American League — or are all the other events around him clouding his candidacy and overrating his season? Certainly, winning 20 games is impressive, but the number has more to do with run support than it does the exploits of an individual pitcher. A team that wins its division generally does it with a well-rounded roster. And while throwing a no-hitter is a rare feat, it shouldn’t be a differentiating factor when determining the best pitcher during any given season.

Which leads us here: Everyone needs to take a step back from the Verlander-for-MVP talk. First, let’s wait until it’s clear that he has been the best pitcher in his own league.

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

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Didn’t Curt Schilling hit 20 wins in 2002 with the D’backs??


In August, that is.