Justin Verlander captured the AL MVP award on Monday, and it's hard to argue with the top-boss of starting pitchers in the league capturing the prize because, well, the criteria is not set up for anyone to be objectively dismissed.
It would at least be nice if Verlander represented a departure from the archaic thinking that only position players can be considered under the most extreme circumstances of absolute dominance. At first glance it seems like he would be. As absurd of a denigration as it sounds like for a season where Verlander threw 251 innings at a league-leading 2.40 ERA*, it's rather mundane when stacked alongside the last two year's Cy Young winners.
*For a season in retrospect in terms of award recipients, I'm willing to go results-only for this
Was Verlander's season better than Felix Hernandez throwing 249.2 IP at a 2.27 ERA in 2010, in what was a slightly higher run environment? Or Zack Greinke throwing 229.1 IP at a 2.17 ERA in an even more high-scoring environment in 2009? ERA+ certainly doesn't think so. Yet these men finished 17th and 16th in MVP voting respectively. Are we really to believe that attitudes about the MVP merits of the league's best pitcher have changed so dramatically in the past year or so as run-scoring has been muffled?
Quite rightly, Matthew Pouliot of Hardball Talk asserted that any change of attitudes about starting pitchers should include acknowledgement of how much more deserving Pedro Martinez was in 1999 and 2000. He unleashed seasons of 213.1 IP with a 2.07 ERA and 217 IP at 1.74 ERA, back at a time where even elite pitching teams didn't come close to averaging under a 4.00 ERA. Pedro had ERA+ ratings of 243 and 291 those years. Verlander posted a 170 this year.
It doesn't seem like justice for Pedro is what's in mind, as the only real distinguishing feature of Verlander's season from other hyper-dominant starters that have gotten snubbed from the ballot is that JV posted the highest win-total in the American League since 1990. As regularly mocked as the stat may be, it's the only item on Verlander's resume that hints at the idea of a one-of-a-kind pitching year; the type that's traditionally been required for pitchers to take the top prize. Pitcher wins are irrelevant alright, as Felix Hernandez's 2010 Cy Young can attest, but voters are still vulnerable to getting knock-kneed when they're 24 of them.
Further vestiges of puzzling subjective thinking could be found further down the ballot, with Michael Young snagging 8th place including a hometown 1st place vote, Paul Konerko at 13th, and Victor Martinez 18th, which of course, is not particularly respective of their standings on WAR leaderboards.
But this isn't about WAR, a stat that will continue to have flaws exposed as its increasing popularity brings more scrutiny, it's about understanding the factors WAR is trying to quantify. Ones that we should all already have in mind.
To some degree, these players are open to be included for their impressive narratives; Konerko was all the offense the Sox had, Young bounced back from a crappy 2010 and a tumultuous off-season while filling in all over the place for injured teammates, and Martinez was the hallmark addition for a dominant Detroit offense that stormed into the playoffs. But they're also players who took the "offense and defense" part of the MVP criteria and cut it in half, leaving behind only the part we mark down in our scorecards and print on baseball cards.
Martinez was almost exclusively a DH, Young was a DH when he wasn't playing naked-eye-visible terrible defense all across the infield in a pinch, and Konerko was a decent 1st basemen before he was drilled in the knee by Andrew Miller. After Konerko was shifted to the DH slot, the White Sox showed that acquiring decent 1st base defense may be as simple as grabbing Brent Lillibridge, a fungo bat, and finding three hours of spare time.
While the ideas of how to quantify it are controversial, the principle that it's important to have good defensive shortstops, centerfielders, catchers, 2nd basemen, 3rd basemen, etc., really isn't, so hopefully we can continue to expect non-elite professional hitters to fade from the standings as pressure to account for defense continues, and standards for competent fielding for players continue to develop with research.
It will have to include a better appreciation of power hitting as well. In addition to the love being poured out for low-walk singles hitters like Young and Martinez, a lingering distrust of power-hitters permeated over the Minnie Minoso forum on Thursday.
It wasn't a surprise to hear from the old-school baseball minds in attendance, but particularly in this situation it revealed itself to be no more than a tool to praise a player-type that was admired. Minoso's home run power was middling, so his skill for reaching on-base was lauded over that of the mythical single-minded home run hitter, who is perceived to be sacrificing a solid approach and reaching base for brute power. Seeing as Mark Trumbo embodies all of these principles and is still an above-average hitter, it's hard to imagine what kind of single-minded sluggers were skulking around in Minoso's time to make his gap-hitting ways more desirable, but I digress.
Judging baseball is always going to be biased by what we can see and appreciate, be it having more admiration for Justin Verlander after seeing him go all 9 innings for a 5-2 win than for Felix Hernandez after he labors in vain in a 2-1 loss, or perhaps finding more skill while watching Michael Young foul off 7 pitches before fisting a looper into right field than while watching Carlos Quentin pulverize a first-pitch fastball to left, or lean in front of a curve for a HBP. But while the narrative and visual thrills of these events are not just important, but much of the reason why the sport thrives, furthering the discourse of objective understanding of the results of the sport surely has proven to be an area very much in wanting, even in 2011 still.
Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune cited Jim Margalus of South Side Sox Monday morning. I guess if those borders to information-sharing are breaking down, there's room for all the optimism we can muster.