The Straw Man of the Pitcher-for-MVP “Debate”

There has been much discussion lately regarding the people who hold the belief that pitchers are not deserving candidates for the MVP award.  What I don’t see is very many people who actually come out and say pitchers don’t deserve the MVP award.  Perhaps, in my daily consumption of hours of baseball news, analysis, and commentary across various media, I am somehow missing out on a significant sector or demographic that holds this belief, and so it is in fact more prevalent than what I observe, but in reality it appears that very few consider it to be such a black-and-white issue.

In fact, I would argue that both the sabermetric community and the less-analytically-inclined community both agree that it is a gray area, but approach it in different ways.

In Ken Rosenthal’s recent post on the topic, he points out that it is far from black-and-white; the last time we had a pitcher named MVP (Verlander in 2011), he was on 27 of 28 ballots.  So maybe there is one sportswriter in 28 or so who believes pitchers shouldn’t be MVPs.  Although, we shouldn’t even assume said writer would never vote for a pitcher; maybe he just felt it wasn’t Verlander’s year.

In fact 2011 was an interesting year (especially for those WAR-lubbers), in that (non-MVP) Roy Halladay in the NL had a WAR of 8.1, which was ahead of NL MVP Ryan Braun’s 7.2 (though not ahead of non-MVP and non-cheater Matt Kemp’s 8.4!).  Over in the AL, Ellsbury’s WAR was 9.1 compared to Verlander’s 6.9.  In fact 10 AL hitters had a WAR of 6.3 or greater.

On the flip side, take Jeff Sullivan’s recent post:

Say the best position player comes in around 8. Say the best pitcher comes in around 8. Say, for simplicity, that all of the different WARs are even in agreement. Doesn’t that function as a conversation-ender? You can always debate a given individual’s WAR, but doesn’t that rather matter-of-factly put pitchers and position players on the same scale?

Overall I’m very much in the camp that pitchers deserve the MVP.  But we do need to acknowledge that WAR is based an up-front division of the 1000 WAR given out per season, with 43% going to pitchers and 57% going to hitters.  It’s not that these numbers are arbitrary; a great deal of thought has been put into how to value the relative contributions of various positions (WAR’s positional adjustments are in a similar vein), and this is an interesting problem across all team sports.

Nevertheless, it holds true that in any given year, the top WAR leaders tend to be position players.  When people make sweeping statements like “position players play every day, starters only play every 5 days,” I don’t think (many of) those people are unwilling to acknowledge that starters’ contributions on the day they pitch are far more impactful than position players’ contributions; they’re just saying that in general, they see more cases where the best position players are the most valuable to their teams than the best starting pitchers — which is exactly what the WAR leaderboards say as well.

Regarding the valuation of different positions in team sports: often times, the nature of the game is such that certain positions are inherently more impactful; this ends up being a great example of why replacement level is an invaluable tool.  Consider the case of kickers in the NFL.  Suppose we modified the rules so that touchdowns didn’t immediately award 6 points; rather, it gave the scoring team the opportunity to kick an extra point that was worth 7 points.  Would this make kickers more valuable?  It certainly would make them more important, but I’m not convinced kickers’ salaries would change much.  The difference between the success rates of the best kicker in the league and the worst kicker in the league (or a replacement-level kicker) would be very small — they all make extra points about 99.7% of the time.  You’d still care more about having offensive players who can score those touchdowns (and defensive players who can prevent touchdowns).

Now, if the rules were different, and that “7-point-extra-point” actually had to be kicked from 58 yards deep, then there would suddenly be a huge difference between the success rates of the best kickers and the replacement-level kickers.  The kickers capable of hitting those 7-pointers at a high success rate would suddenly command enormous contracts and be kings of the league.

To me this is the essence of the Pitcher-for-MVP Debate: almost everyone agrees that as a whole, pitchers are less valuable than hitters.  We give hitters more WAR and bigger contracts.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t years where the best pitcher isn’t better than the best hitter, but almost everyone, sabermetrically-inclined or not, seems to come to the conclusions that in general, “position players have more impact.”

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The issue isn’t whether the WAR leaderboards have more position players at the top than pitchers; it’s that pitchers tend to get less MVP consideration than their WAR alone suggests. Last year 0 AL pitchers finished in the top 10 of MVP voting, even though 3 finished in the top 10 by WAR (using the 50/50 blend for pitchers). Right now Hernandez and Kluber are 2/3 on the combined leaderboards (again with the blend), but I’d be surprised if even one of them was voted into the top 5, let alone both.


You’re right that position players have more impact, BUT it’s also true that starting pitchers get a bigger chunk of the total playing time given to pitchers than starting position players do compared to all position player playing time.

A typical team throws about 1440 innings, and an ace starter (the kind of pitcher who we’re talking about given it’s an MVP discussion) usually throws about 220 to 230 of those, which is between 15.3% and 16%. Mike Trout, who has more PA than most other MVP candidates, has only 11.3% of the Angels PA, which we can round up to 11.6% by assuming a more normal number of team PA, because the Angels actually led the league in PA. Also, a typical defense makes 1800 plays, and according to the same data field, Trout made 307, or 17%.

Putting all this together, using the given division of 50% of value coming from offense, 43% from pitching and 7% from defense:

Position player: .116 * .5 + .17 * .07 = .0704
Pitcher: .16 * .43 = .0688

The ratio between the two is about 100/98, which is much smaller than 57/43.