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Bob Ryan

His pitchers decision: They shouldn’t win MVP award

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / September 20, 2011

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It’s a “you wanna step outside?’’ issue in Detroit. The Big Meanies out there in the Great Beyond are going to deprive Justin Verlander of his rightful American League Most Valuable Player award.

The Tigers righthander has been the best pitcher in baseball this year. Even people in Anaheim have to acknowledge that Verlander has separated himself from Jered Weaver during the last month or so. Justin Verlander will win the American League Cy Young Award. If there is any justice, the vote will be unanimous.

But many people, and not just Tigers boosters, want more. They want the whole enchilada. They want Justin Verlander to become the first starting pitcher to win an MVP since Roger Clemens a quarter-century ago.

I hate this. It’s a conversation we should not be having. Pitchers should be content with the Cy Young. And I’ll take it a step further. Relievers should not be eligible for the Cy Young. They should be competing for what I would call the Hoyt Wilhelm Award, a special prize for the best reliever of the year. This, by the way, would be a totally subjective award that would not be based simply on someone’s save total.

But let’s start with the pitcher MVP thing. I really don’t understand why anyone who loves baseball would even want to get into this discussion. If ever there was a clear apples-vs.-oranges issue, the idea of evaluating the contributions of an everyday player in comparison to the contributions of a starting pitcher, let alone a closer, is Exhibit A. Exhibit B would be the similar foolishness of attempting to make the same judgment with regard to a hockey position player and a goalie. In fact, that argument might even be more fruitless.

I will admit that pitchers were clearly viewed as viable MVP candidates when the current award was instituted by the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1931. The first American League winner was Lefty Grove, who had gone 31-4 with a 2.06 ERA and a WHIP (unknown at the time, of course) of 1.077 for the AL champion Philadelphia A’s. Between 1931 and 1945, nine pitchers divvied up 11 MVP awards, with Carl Hubbell (1933, 1936) and Hal Newhouser (1944, 1945) getting two apiece.

But over the next 11 years, only Jim Konstanty (NL, 1950) and Bobby Shantz (AL, 1952) won as pitchers. Something was in the air, and proof that people were reconsidering the process was offered in 1956 with the institution of the Cy Young Award, a clear indication that pitchers were to be regarded as a different species.

There is no doubt there has been an evolution in the thought process of the average MVP voter. In the ensuing 55 seasons, only nine pitchers have won MVPs, two the same year (Denny McLain and Bob Gibson in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher). Gibson was the last National League starting pitcher to win.

Now, it would seem to me that if ever a pitcher made an MVP candidate argument in the second half of the 20th century it was Steve Carlton in 1972. The Phillies went 59-97, finishing 37 1/2 games behind the division champion Pirates. Steve Carlton won 27 of those 59 games. Those people who insist on being literal with the word “valuable,’’ as opposed to merely “outstanding,’’ had their slam dunk case right here, did they not?

Pitching for the worst team in baseball, Steve Carlton went 27-10 with a 1.97 ERA. He pitched a whopping 346 1/3 innings. He completed 30 of his 41 starts. He fanned 310 men. His WHIP, had he known what that meant, was 0.993. All this was accomplished while playing for a terrible, terrible team.

And where did Steve Carlton finish in the MVP voting? He finished fifth, behind Johnny Bench, Billy Williams, Willie Stargell, and Joe Morgan. He received one first-place vote, which means that he couldn’t even get unanimous support in Philadelphia.

Bench had a great year for a pennant-winning team (40 homers, 125 ribbies, .920 OPS while being his usual Gold Glove self behind the plate). But no one had a better year at any position than Steve Carlton, who did, of course, win the Cy Young Award.

All I’m saying is that here was the best opportunity ever to identify a pitcher as being utterly transcendent and he finishes fifth? Those voters just couldn’t pull that trigger, and I don’t blame them. They never should have been put in that position.

The greatest example of there being no right, no wrong, and no decent resolution of the dilemma came in 1978, when Jim Rice had an offensive year for the ages even as Ron Guidry was channeling his inner Lefty Grove.

Rice had 46 homers and 139 ribbies while becoming the first man to accumulate 400 total bases since Joe Medwick in 1937. Guidry was 25-3, with a 1.74 ERA, nine shutouts, a WHIP of 0.946 and an ERA-plus of 208. A delectable apple and a juicy orange, you might say. Rice received 20 of the 28 votes, with Guidry getting the other 8. But it was a needless hassle.

When the Cy Young Award came into being 22 years earlier, the discussion should have ended. At that moment, pitchers should have been declared ineligible for the MVP.

That would have spared us the vituperation we had in 1999, when two voters left Pedro Martinez off their ballot following a season in which he had gone 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA while striking out 313 and walking 37. He had a WHIP of 0.923, one of six times he led a league in that category.

He finished second by 13 points in the balloting to Pudge Rodriguez, a fine catcher who had a fine year (35 homers, 113 ribbies, 199 hits and an OPS of .914 while winning a Gold Glove). Some people wanted the scalps of the two writers who elected not to vote for Pedro, but I felt their pain. I’m sure they weren’t happy, attempting to resolve the irresolvable.

We are now hearing about how, well, Verlander pitches to X batters a game, which is the equivalent of a batter having X number of plate appearances over the course of the season.

Hey, nice try, but just please go away. Pitchers pitch to batters; that’s what they do. It doesn’t change the fact that their essential nature is not that of an everyday player, and there remains no valid way to evaluate properly their respective contributions, so why even try?

There are many good AL MVP candidates, and the vote will be split. You can be sure Verlander, who currently has 24 wins, will get votes. He won’t win, but there will be much weeping and wailing in Detroit, to be sure. But the simple truth is we should not even be having this discussion.

If the Cy Young was good enough for Steve Carlton, then it’s surely good enough for Justin Verlander.

Bob Ryan can be reached at ryan@globe.com. Follow Bob on Boston.com at Globe 10.0.

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