Justin Verlander notched his 20th pitching victory and struck out his 218th batter of the season on Saturday, decent full-season totals that the Detroit Tigers ace reached more than a week before anyone will fire up a grill for a Labor Day cookout. He has almost single-handedly put the Tigers atop the AL Central, and he might be the most valuable player in the American League.
He won't receive much consideration for the Most Valuable Player award, though, and the reasoning for that is confounding.
To be clear, Verlander is not the AL MVP so far. He's a strong No. 4 behind Jose Bautista (the should-be favorite), Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, who have greater value as everyday players.
In that case, why advocate for Verlander? Because those other three guys will get their shares of votes, as will Curtis Granderson and Adrian Gonzalez, one of whom will lead the league in runs batted in. Verlander may be lucky to garner even a handful of votes from a voting pool that is largely opposed to the idea of a pitcher winning the MVP award.
A pitcher has not won the AL MVP award since 1992, when Dennis Eckersley won it with the A's. The stated belief among some members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America is that the Cy Young Award is for pitchers and the MVP is reserved for position players, although the voting rules say nothing to that effect.
Verlander's own manager, Jim Leyland, evoked that non-existent stipulation when he said a pitcher should not win MVP. Leyland backtracked, saying a pitcher shouldn't be allowed to win the award, but if any pitcher should win it, it's Verlander. Follow that logic?
Verlander has been the best pitcher in the AL this season and he's a virtual lock for Cy Young. There's a little something for everybody in his numbers. He has a 0.90 WHIP (walks-plus-hits per inning pitched) and a league-high 6.2 WAR (wins above replacement) among pitchers, for the advanced statistics crowd. For the traditionalists, Verlander is the first pitcher to reach 20 victories before the end of August since Curt Schilling in 2002.
The Tigers don't have another starting pitcher with an earned run average below 4.20 or a WHIP below 1.331. Verlander's 20 wins account for more than 27 percent of the Tigers' victories. He is MVP material, but he's a pitcher, so he won't win.
The funny thing is, this "tradition" of leaving the MVP award for the position players is a relatively new phenomenon. Not so long ago, pitchers won the MVP with regularity. Six years before Eckersley won MVP, Roger Clemens won the award in 1986. Two years before that, it went to Willie Hernandez. Four years before that, Rollie Fingers nabbed it. Between both leagues from 1956 to 1971, four pitchers were named MVP.
For Red Sox fans, the ultimate indignity came in 1999, when an utterly dominant Pedro Martinez went 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts. Martinez lost out to Ivan Rodriguez. The following year, Martinez was even better, dropping his ERA to 1.74 and toting an otherworldly 0.737 WHIP, and he finished fifth in MVP voting. Fifth.
The Most Valuable Player should go to the most valuable player, however one defines it, regardless of whether he primarily earns his income by batting or throwing. As haters of the designated hitter love to remind us, pitchers are ballplayers, and they should have to hit. When we fill out our scorecard, the pitcher is one of the nine players. In fact, he's position No. 1. Yet when it comes to handing out awards, voters treat pitchers like something other than normal ballplayers.
The competition for MVP in both leagues will be intriguing. The three Red Sox candidates may split the ballot. Bautista may suffer from the Blue Jays' poor record, although that's another flawed argument entirely. New York has been gradually ramping up its "Granderson For MVP" campaign.
Somewhere in there, Verlander's name belongs. He probably shouldn't win, but if he doesn't it should be because there were more deserving players, not because he's a pitcher.
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