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Sunday, September 11, 2011

For Your Consideration: Justin Verlander

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m starting to come around on Justin Verlander and his case for American League Most Valuable Player. Not too long ago I sneered in the face of popular opinion and proclaimed that Curtis Granderson was going to win the MVP over WAR darling Jose Bautista. Since then I have come to the realization that I need to re-evaluate my initial stance and give credit where credit is due.

My epiphany is that Justin Verlander has to be the American League MVP. He is on pace for a 25-6 record, 2.44 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, and 263 strikeouts in 259 innings; not to mention a no hitter, and a couple of other games where he took a no-no into the late innings. He leads the league in pitching wins, ERA, and strikeouts, making him on pace to win the pitcher’s version of the Triple-Crown. His season is reminiscent of the amazingly dominant year Pedro Martinez had in 1999 that should have garnered an MVP, but was left off some ballots because he was a pitcher. It is time to make sure that the same mistake doesn’t happen again.

The playoff bound Tigers are 23-8 (including 21-4 in the last 25) in games that Verlander has started, and 61-54 in all other contests. The next best starter for Detroit has been Max Scherzer, who has not exactly blown hitters away this year with his 4.27 ERA. It is reasonable to speculate that without Verlander, the Tigers would go from their current 10.5 game lead in the American League Central to possibly being out of the playoff picture altogether. 

People who debate the MVP awards typically fall into specific camps. There are those who believe that the award should go to the best player, regardless if their team has a winning record. Then there are some who rely primarily on advanced stats like WAR to tell them who has been the most valuable. And finally there are others who are willing to consider any candidate for MVP as long as their position is not pitcher. This last camp often say that pitchers have the Cy Young Award, and since they only play in a portion of all the team’s games, they should not be eligible for the MVP. I have participated in the thinking of all the aforementioned groups in the past, but I declare today that I was wrong.

With all the hyperbole surrounding the award in each league every year, the fact that there are no hard and fast rules about eligibility seem to be forgotten. The award is designed to go to the most outstanding player regardless of position or level of WAR. There is no metric that needs to be adhered to when determining a winner. Simply, those who vote are supposed to choose who they believe was the best in the respective leagues. 

Jose Bautista has had a wonderful season, and so have the other primary candidates, like Jacoby Ellsbury and Curtis Granderson. However, the Blue Jays aren’t even close to sniffing the playoffs, and it is likely that the Red Sox and Yankees would still be in contention without the services of their candidates. That leaves Verlander. His combination of dominance with the high probability that the Tigers would have done well to finish at .500 without him, make him my definition of MVP.

I hate changing my mind once I have gone on the record, but I am also not too proud to do so if the situation demands it. I kept Verlander at bay when making my initial MVP picks because I assumed that he would make some sort of late season swoon like some pitchers are apt to do. After all, the Tigers have ridden him like a show pony all season, piling up the innings and the pitch counts. I also told myself that Verlander playing in just 1/5 of his team’s games made him ineligible.

Verlander turned my assumptions on their head by actually getting better as the season has gone along. He has won ten consecutive starts, and has pitched at least six innings in every start he has made this year; a major assist to a team that relies heavily on its bullpen in just about every other game. 

The MVP award should be determined by voters who use their heart, their head, and their eyes. Verlander has not only been the most consistently excellent, but he is also in all likelihood the one player most integral to his team’s playoff plans. Despite the rest of Detroit’s roster not being as accomplished as other playoff teams, they have more than a puncher’s chance to make some noise in the postseason because of the man who should be the American League MVP.


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