Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Verlander and the MVP

Justin Verlander has been exceptional this year. He’s probably the AL Cy Young, and while I’ve expressed earlier why I do not think he’s the MVP this year, he’s (rightly) in the conversation, and that’s something, considering that pitchers don’t get into the conversation much.[1] In any case, most of the people who have dismissed other cases dismiss WAR as not being able to account for all the intricacies of the game (which it, of course, does not), and say that those intricacies are why Verlander (or Granderson, or someone else not names Jose Bautista) should win. I’ve also previously mocked said intricacies, but I think it might be worth some time to point out—in light of the little things—why Verlander might not be the MVP this year.

1. The Detroit Tigers play in the weakest division in baseball and will be the weakest team to make the playoffs in the AL.[2]

As of Monday’s results, here are the top ten teams in the game, organized by win percentage:

Win %
RD / Game
Schedule Strength
Runs Above Average

Detroit scores about .2 runs per game more than their opponents, in large part to a recent winning streak. That’s not terrible, though it is the worst among playoff-bound teams. But what is much more interesting is their schedule strength. Based on the run-differential of their opponents, an average team in the place of Detroit would have a run differential of approximately +13. Detroit has a run differential of 29.[3] So, by that calculation, they have been about 16 runs better than an average team this year would have been with the same schedule.

The problem is, of course, that every other team in the playoffs has been at least twice that good. Arizona, with the easiest schedule among those in the playoff hunt, is the closest with 31 wins above an average team with the same schedule. The other AL teams are all over a hundred runs above average. The Rays and Angels—neither of whom has the benefit of playing in the Central—have both been better than Detroit this year. Most shockingly, Toronto, which sports a schedule strength score by this method of 20.6, has also been better than Detroit this year, clocking in at about 31 runs above average.

Ok, you say, the math is all fine, but Detroit has a better winning percentage than any of those teams, so they deserve to go into the playoffs. I think that’s another argument—one I’ve come down on the other side of before—but here’s the point. Toronto has played 24 more games against New York, Boston, Tampa Bay, and Texas than Detroit has. They’re nine games back of Detroit in the standings. By all likelihood the Jays—or the Rays, or the Angels—would be winning the central with a better winning percentage than the Tigers have now if they played there with the same schedule. Those teams are better teams. So saying that Verlander—or Miguel Cabrera, or Alex Avila, or whoever else on the Tigers—deserves MVP votes because they are helping their team to the postseason while players like Bautista, James Shields, and Jered Weaver are not is to ignore that the only reason that the Tigers will make the postseason this year is the incredible advantage they gain by playing in their division and not in the AL East or West.[4]

That brings us to argument number two, the inevitable follow-up:

2. The Tigers wouldn’t be making the postseason at all if not for Justin Verlander. He has “carried” them.

This is, I think, unquestionably true. The tigers are currently nowhere close to good enough that they would make the postseason had they not had Verlander for the entire year. Whether his replacement was a “replacement-level” pitcher or a good one, the difference between Verlander and any random good pitcher—let alone whoever Detroit would have thrown in there—is enough that it is highly likely that they would have been lost without him. You can’t say that about any player on another playoff-bound team in the AL; even if you give, say, CC Sabathia credit for the psychological blow it would have dealt the Yankees, they probably would have squeaked by the Rays without him, and the same is true for Granderson, Teixeira, Pedroia, Ellsbury, and Gonzalez. The Jays won’t make the playoffs with Bautista and wouldn’t without him.

I do think that this is the best argument for Verlander. The problem is that it is true, but:

a.       it’s only true because the players above play for much better teams (or, in Bautista’s case, a much unluckier team);
b.      it’s only true because the Tigers play in a bad division and had a very easy schedule;
c.       it’s also true for, by my count, three other players on the Tigers this year.

Starting with point c: without Alex Avila, Miguel Cabrera, or Jhonny Peralta, the Tigers probably don’t make the postseason. Now, in fairness, Verlander has been the best of those four players, so if you had to vote for one of them, it should be him. Still, the point is that they’re sneaking in, and while you can single out one player for being the best one on the team, the others were all still necessary to make the playoffs (we’ll come back to this point later, when I go on an extended diatribe about what “most valuable means), and so saying that Verlander is carrying them really isn’t accurate. He could have pitched like Pedro in ’99, but it wouldn’t have mattered if Cabrera hadn’t come back from that DUI and they hadn’t found anyone to replace him.

As for points a and b, both basically point to the reality that voting for Verlander for this reason is voting for him because his team was just the right level of good enough. They weren’t great, so they needed him, but they weren’t terrible, so his contribution mattered. I’m not totally against the “best player on the best team” formula in situations where there isn’t a better option, but Verlander isn’t that; he’s the best player on the team that most needed a one little boost to reach October. If your definition of MVP isn’t “best” but “most valuable to their team in the specific situation that the team was in,” then that’s what you’re looking for—the most important little boost guy.

I can recount all the various reasons why that’s not good logic, starting with, as pointed out above, that you replace Detroit with Toronto or Anaheim or Tampa Bay in the AL Central and suddenly that player is different even if everybody puts up exactly the same numbers all year. The same works on a player by player basis: if you trade Verlander straight up for Ellsbury, Bautista, Granderson, or Pedroia this year, Detroit would still make the playoffs in the dreadful AL Central because what they lost in pitching they would have made up for in offense and fielding.

You’ll respond by saying first, that Verlander’s pitching is irreplaceable, which is, again, true. He’s been better than just about the rest of their pitching staff combined. But then again, so have Bautista and Ellsbury, if you’re going by WAR. In fact, Bautista, by WAR, has been almost as good as the next three best players on his team (Escobar, Morrow, Lawrie), 7.9 to 9.5; for comparison’s sake, Verlander, when compared to Peralta, Cabrera, and Avila isn’t anywhere near as close, 6.4 to 15. That’s not a reason not to vote for him—the fact that he has good players on his team—but it shows that Bautista’s production has been at least as “irreplaceable” for his team as Verlander’s. Verlander has 26% of his team’s wins, and you’ll see dozens of mentions of how they do when he pitches and how they do when he doesn’t. Bautista leads his team in every offensive counting stat except stolen bases. The point is that they’re both irreplaceable players on decent teams, but the only reason that they’re irreplaceable is that they’re on decent teams and not great ones. Just because you wouldn’t say that Bautista is a better pick because Yunel Escobar is worse than Miguel Cabrera, you shouldn’t pick Verlander because Ellsbury happens to have Pedroia, Gonzalez, Youkilis, and Ortiz hitting behind him.[5]

Which brings us to the next point:

3. Verlander is the MVP because he provides all sorts of intangibles, because he’s the ace, because he goes out and wins every five games, etc.

Let’s just say that I think Verlander is probably a great leader. But I would guess that most of the other players at the level we’re talking are as well, and trying to make points based on these impressions leads to poorly-reasoned arguments rhetoric like this:

Every time he pitched, he HAD to go seven or more, he HAD to save their bullpen and they HAD to win. What it's like to fall asleep every night knowing that every teammate, coach and fan is counting on you, that you're basically holding an elaborate stack of Jenga blocks together by yourself, that you can't escape, that you can't have a shitty day, that you can't check out, that you can't do anything other than keep pitching at an extraordinarily high level or your team's entire season is going to fall apart? Is there a bigger responsibility in sports?

Cue me some violins for the guy who just spent a year lambasting LeBron for deciding to move away from Cleveland.[6] To just put it this way, in games in which Bautista has scored a run this year, the Jays are 53-19; in games in which he doesn’t score, they are 17-52.[7] Let’s look at that paragraph again:

Every time he pitched he was in the lineup, he HAD to go seven or more get multiple hits, he HAD to save their bullpen drive guys in and come home and they HAD to win. What it's like to fall asleep every night knowing that every teammate, coach and fan is counting on you, that you're basically holding an elaborate stack of Jenga blocks Canadian baseball together by yourself, that you can't escape, that you can't have a shitty day or take any days off in between starts, that you can't check out, that you can't do anything other than keep pitching hitting at an extraordinarily high level or your team's entire season is going to fall apart going to move to Washington? Is there a bigger responsibility in sports?

I’m exaggerating slightly. But here’s the thing: so is Simmons, and he knows it. Players don’t live the game like fans want them to. They don’t hate their opponents simply because they’re from the wrong city or die every time they lose. I’m sure Verlander feels pressure—but I’m guessing it doesn’t keep him up till the early hours of the morning. I’m also sure that Bautista feels the same amount of pressure, as Joe Posnanski has elucidated, and I’m sure that Ellsbury and Gonzalez feel the same. New York is known to be a crazy-high pressure zone; maybe Granderson feels the most.

The same goes for teammate impact: I’m sure Verlander makes his teammates want to play better, especially every fifth day. (Do they give up the other four? It’s worth asking.) But I’m also sure that having Bautista in your lineup does the same—especially if you hit in front of him. Is there a difference? Maybe, but how can you tell? By interviewing every player on either team? By going through the season and seeing where a run of wins started? By looking at how the other players play when their leader is on compared to when he’s off?

You think I’m joking, but I’m not. You’re trying to measure intangibles here, and there aren’t good ways to do that. But there are ways of getting somewhere that don’t involve statements like “Verlander was the best baseball player I watched from April through August” and a complete lack of research, which—on a hunch—will be the reason that most writers who vote for Verlander this year will vote for him. I can say the same thing about Madison Bumgarner: I watched six of his starts this year, and while I had the TV on he never gave up more than one run. But I can look at the numbers and see that he doesn’t really match up—whether in innings or in runs allowed or in control—to Roy Halladay (no one does, really), and change my stance because I didn’t watch every game from every angle just to make sure that I was getting an unbiased picture. Which is, incidentally, what we’re looking for regardless of how we take the final argument…

4. It’s all about how you define “most valuable.”

A statement which is both true and an excuse.

It’s true because MVP has mean a lot of different things over the years. It has meant “best” and “good on a good team” and “memorable” and “best player not on team x”[8] and “deserving guy with a good career” and “best white player” and a whole lot of other things. Except for the last one, there isn’t necessarily something wrong with any of those interpretations; ideally, your MVP would be all of the above (same caveat).

But it’s an excuse because there’s a whole lot of difference between saying that MVP can mean a whole lot of things and saying that it should mean any one of those things in exclusion of the others.

If Simmons got one thing right in his *ahem* misguided “mailbag” on Friday, it’s that these things matter. Maybe not every one of them means the same thing that Robinson’s 1949 MVP (ok, none of them have any meaning in comparison), and maybe the fact that we stole three or so from a young Barry Bonds didn’t make any difference in how the steroid era played out.[9] But they do matter for perception’s sake: Bert Blyleven almost didn’t make the Hall of Fame because he never won a Cy Young; Jim Rice is in the Hall in a large part thanks to that fairly-deserved MVP in 1978.

So, to turn to the MVP debate this way, Verlander has had a nice little story of a season. I think he should probably win the Cy Young, and I hope we remember him for that. But let’s be honest: in twenty years, this won’t be Verlander’s season; it won’t be Ellsbury’s, or Granderson’s, or Pedroia’s, unless the follow it with a half-dozen more spectacular ones and enter an echelon we don’t currently expect from them. This has been—fairly or not—Bautista’s year.

You want evidence? How about the fact that he has been, since day one, the guy to unseat on top of the MVP vote, with Verlander and Granderson only being the latest challengers. He’s hit forty home runs so far while pitchers pitch to him like he’s Babe Ruth and laugh at his teammates. He’s been so good that not only does everyone suspect he’s doping—despite a complete lack of evidence of head growth or bulging muscles—but that ESPN published an unsubstantiated rumor about his team stealing signs. In a down offensive year, he’s having a great offensive season. Other than Derek Jeter going for 3000 hits, Bautista has been the biggest—at times the only—story all year long. That’s not to say that he should necessarily be the MVP. It is to say that whatever you think valuable means—memorable, amazing, “best,” good on a good team—Bautista has been that to a greater extent than Verlander has. He’s simply had the bad luck to play in a division where his team has had to play the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays a combined 45 times so far this year.

I suppose you can tell who I would vote for, given the choice. In reality, I would have to take a good, hard look at Ellsbury and, as much as I hate to say it, another one at Granderson—see how the defensive metrics match up with what people say about them, watch them play, feel out their various “team impacts” as much as possible. That’s what I would do. The two of them have, surprisingly, made ground on Bautista. At one point, it seemed the award was his to lose. My point, is, I suppose, that Verlander isn’t the MVP. Or shouldn’t be, based on anything other than his numbers—not because the non-numbers reasons don’t necessarily matter, but because the non-number reasons aren’t good enough for him. I don’t think his numbers stack up, right now. By the end of the month, who knows, they might.

[1] Incidentally, what isn’t right about that is that no one is talking about Roy Halladay, except to say that no one is talking about him, even though his case is been stronger in almost every way.
[2] The NL Central, excluding Milwaukee, has a worse run differential than the AL Central. But they also have one more team, and the difference is marginal at best.
[3] Calculated by their opponents run differentials / game and the number of times playing each opponent, or Σ(Opponent’s RDPG*GP against opponent).  Detroit does, of course, have a fairly substantial effect on the outcome of their opponents, and you expect that most playoff-bound team would have a negative score because they would be the best team in their division, and so would be beating the other teams they play routinely, forcing opponents run differentials down.
[4] Also, for those who want to expand the playoffs because there are currently no division races, imagine if we got rid of the divisions; suddenly, the AL would have an exciting four-way scramble for the third and fourth slots instead of the Angels desperately hoping to catch a better Rangers team.
[5] Every time I see that lineup card it makes me so happy. Then I remember how much they’re paying John Lackey.
[6] I love Bill Simmons. I really do. I worship the Big Book of Basketball. But he’s wrong here, just like he was wrong about the NBA MVP this year (hint: it wasn’t Rose) for just about the same reason. Because he’s human, humans don’t watch every game or get “objective” pictures of the league.
[7] Given how dependent pitching is on defense, using runs is, I think, not unfair. A pitcher isn’t going to go seven every game with a bad defense behind him, he isn’t going to prevent runs with a bad defense behind him, and he isn’t going to win games with a bad defense behind him.
[8] I would insert a reference to this year’s NBA MVP vote, but really, Rose was maybe the third best player not on the Heat. So it must have meant something else.
[9] 1991, 1996, 1998, and probably 1995. The third has been overshadowed by, well, steroids, but should go down as one of the worst MVP votes ever: the best player (Bonds) finished eighth, and Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, John Olerund, and Kevin Brown (who were all better than Sosa that year by a not-insignificant margin) all finished behind Bonds. Sosa didn’t even lead the league in home runs, yet he finished with thirty first-place votes despite having an OPS 200 points lower than Mark McGwire. Awful.

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