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Most Valuable Pitching Players

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Today the A's face Justin Verlander who is without any question one of the best pitchers in all of baseball over the past few years. Today there was an interesting tweet by Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports. He tweeted,

"The Red Sox are in a freefall. Before today, Granderson has been bad in September. More and more, looking like Verlander's MVP race to lose."

When limited to 140 characters, context can be limited and I very well may be misreading what he wrote and what he intended, but if I am wrong with what Passan meant in some instances, it still relates to my overall point. First off the Red Sox are in a freefall, I assume this means just that, but let's say it pertains to the MVP discussion, this relates to that age old question of can a team that is out of the race have an MVP. Some say yes, some say no. The A's make it easy on everyone by not adding to this debate. Next he comments that Granderson has been bad in September, which I think alludes to the fact that MVP races can be won or lost in the stretch run, first off its our most recent memory, second of all when the games "matter more" (of course mathematically they all matter the same but let's be honest we don't treat them that way though we should) so this makes sense whether or not it is fair. But the most interesting part is of course what he says about the Athletics' foe this Sunday that this MVP race is Verlander's to lose. 

Pitchers don't win MVPs often. Since the A's moved to Oakland, only seven pitchers have won the MVP Award, they are: Denny McLain (68), Bob Gibson (68), Vida Blue (71), Rollie Fingers (81), Willie Hernandez (84), Roger Clemens (86), and Dennis Eckersley (92). Only two franchises in that time period with more than one winner, Detroit and Oakland with two (nice how that worked out for me). 

The debate about MVP pitchers has long been overdone, we all know both sides opinions, we both know whatever side I agree with is correct (right?). So instead let's look at the two Athletics who have won the award and see if they deserved it or not. 

Vida Blue, 1971. Long before advanced statistics were even a glimmer in someone's eye, Vida Blue had a season to remember in 1971. Only 22 years old he posted a 1.82 ERA on his way to a 24-8 record en route to a Cy Young Award and the MVP. He struck out 301 hitters in 312 innings for 8.7 K/9 (the best strikeout pitching Oakland has ever seen) while walking only 88. He led the American League in two categories by 1971 standards: ERA (1.82) and shutouts (8) and another three by today's: WHIP (0.952), H/9 (6.0) and K/9 (8.7). He had a great year and his rWAR was 8.3. That 8.3 wasn't the best in the American League, heck it wasn't even the best for a pitcher in the American League which belonged to Wilbur Wood of the White Sox at 10.0. Wood would finish 9th in MVP voting, and 3rd in Cy Young voting with a 22-13 record and 1.91 ERA managing "only" 210 strikeouts in his 334 (1) innings of work. The White Sox? 79-83. The A's? Division champs at 101-61. But here it doesn't seem that Wood was felled by a "your team is irrelevant" argument, here it was a lack of appreciation for modern day stats, but even then the eye-popping strikeout totals might move some voters Blue's way (all told Wood only led in two categories: the 10.0 rWAR and his 189 ERA+) . Normally I'd say you go with the stats, and the WAR says Wood is best, but with Blue playing a lead role on a team chasing a title and putting up some incredible strikeout totals with other numbers not far away from Wood (Blue managed a 8.3 rWAR and 185 ERA+) I'm fine with Blue getting the MVP. Best hitter that year was Roy White who at 7.4 rWAR doesn't even merit discussion.

Dennis Eckersley, 1992. Eckersley was the last pitching MVP. Enough people argue about the value of closers and relievers even winning the Cy Young let alone the MVP. A writer whom I respect greatly, Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated called that award "the worst MVP choice of the last 20 years". Of the pick he said,

"The guy threw 80 innings all year. In 38 of his admittedly impressive-looking 51 saves, the Athletics won by at least two runs. There was an argument to be made that Eckersley wasn’t even the most valuable right-handed relief pitcher in his own division in 1992 — Jeff Montgomery was probably every bit as good. By Fangraphs WAR, there were more than 100 players in the American League who were more productive than Dennis Eckersley in 1992. I don’t know if it’s quite that stark, but, yeah, it’s pretty stark. That was a big miss."

It is hard to disagree with Joe's argument. With fWAR available for 1992, Eckersley wasn't even the most valuable player on his team. While he led all A's pitchers at 3.0 fWAR, he was eclipsed by Mark McGwire (6.8), Rickey Henderson (6.0), Terry Steinbach (4.4), Mike Bordick (4.2) and (shockingly) Lance Blankenship at (3.7). For the record, Lance Blankenship did not earn one solitary MVP vote in 1992 - nor did Terry Steinbach or inexplicably Rickey Henderson. McGwire finished 3rd, and Mike Bordick even managed a ninth place vote. It is pretty clear, Eck didn't deserve it, while he was "valuable" to the A's and no one would disagree with that, he wasn't the reason they were successful. The loss of McGwire, Henderson or heck Lance Blankenship would have dealt a more severe blow.

Justin Verlander is presently the fourth best pitcher in baseball by fWAR - those better are Roy Halladay, C.C. Sabathia and Clayton Kershaw. Verlanders' 6.7 fWAR are beaten by six position players (Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Bautista, Dustin Pedroia, Joey Votto, Matt Kemp and Ryan Braun). Still, given the way voters vote he just might win the Cy Young, if not the MVP. I certainly don't agree with Passan's contention that it is his to lose, but one thing is clear: there'll be no Athletics in the discussion of MVP - and if there is, we need to reform this system.