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Verlander's value can't be denied

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  November 21, 2011 01:36 PM

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It doesn't require a Boomer Scott-long stretch to come up with four or five players who have a real, legitimate chance of winning the American League Most Valuable Player award this afternoon. Nor is it difficult to make a case why each of the prime candidates won't win.

The Blue Jays' Jose Bautista was the league's top slugger ... but some voters will hold it against him that his team never was in contention. Jacoby Ellsbury had a borderline historic offensive season . . . and while he had a monster September individually (1.067 OPS, eight home runs), the Red Sox' hideous finish will linger in the mind of some voters. Miguel Cabrera continued his career-long homage to Hank Aaron, leading the league in batting and on-base percentage . . . and yet, he wasn't the most valuable player on his own team, the AL Central-champion Detroit Tigers.

That was Justin Verlander, the laser-armed righthander with the most dazzling repertoire in the league and the results to match. Despite the day-to-day brilliance of Ellsbury, Bautista, Cabrera and a ballot full of other players (Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, CC Sabathia, Curtis Granderson, Ian Kinsler, Evan Longoria ....) who will justifiably receive plenty of support, Verlander should win. Whether he will depends upon how many voters willfully ignore the instruction this year that pitchers should be considered for the MVP.

Save for maybe the 2006 Morneau/Jeter showdown, the last time I recall anticipating a MVP announcement so eagerly was 1999, when a peak-of-his-powers Pedro Martinez lost to Rangers catcher Pudge Rodriguez despite receiving more first-place votes when a pair of writers -- George King from New York and LaVelle Neal from Minnesota -- left him off their ballot entirely. King proved the more duplicitous of the two when it was revealed he had had the Yankees' David Wells on his ballot just the previous season. Hey, but we remember their names, right?

Ignoring Pedro then looked foolish. It's become even more ridiculous as the years have passed and the evidence mounted that the massive hitters with the massive numbers never quite found the performance enhancer to help them solve Pedro, who arguably put together the greatest multi-year stretch of dominance by any pitcher in the history of the game during the steroid era.

Verlander's 2011 season doesn't stack up to the vintage '99 Pedro -- few do. But Verlander's superb season is strikingly similar to one that kept Red Sox fans mesmerized from April through September 25 years ago, when Roger Clemens went from the daybreak of his career to the ace of a generation:

Here's Verlander, 2011:

24 wins, 5 losses, 2.40 ERA, 34 starts, 251 innings, 174 hits, 57 walks, 250 strikeouts, 170 adjusted ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 6.2 H/9, 2.0 BB/9, 9.0 K/9

And Clemens, 1986:

24 wins, 4 losses, 2.48 ERA, 33 starts, 254 innings, 179 hits, 67 walks, 238 strikeouts, 169 ERA+, 0.969 WHIP, 6.3 H/9, 2.4 BB/9, 8.3 K/9

The similarities are uncanny, practically mirror images. Verlander led the the league in wins, winning percentage, innings, starts, ERA, Ks, ERA+, WHIP, and H/9. Clemens led the league in wins, winning percentage, ERA, ERA+, WHIP, and H/9. All Verlander is missing is a 20-strikeout game. (Update: And as astute Twitter follower @CusePulp points out, Verlander threw a no-hitter this year, something Clemens never accomplished.)

higuerated1987.jpgI'm not sure whether this is an indication that the view on pitchers winning the MVP award has changed over the years, but Clemens cruised to the award in '86 despite having formidable competition among a couple of everyday players. Clemens was first on 19 of 28 ballots, with runner-up Don Mattingly (.352, .967 OPS, 31 homers, 238 hits) receiving five first-place votes and Clemens's teammate Jim Rice (.324, 20 homers, 110 RBIs, .874 OPS) earning the other four. (According to baseball-reference.com's version of Wins Above Replacement, it was another Red Sox hitter, Wade Boggs, who deserved genuine consideration. He led the AL in bWAR after hitting .357 with a .453 on-base percentage. Then again, as Over The Monster's excellent Marc Normandin pointed out, bWAR also had the Brewers' Teddy Higuera as more valuable than Clemens that year, due in part to ballpark factors. Go figure.)

By winning the award this afternoon, Verlander would be the first starting pitcher since Clemens 25 years ago to be named MVP. The last pitcher to win it was A's closer Dennis Eckersley in 1992. Should Verlander not prevail today, it opens up the question as to whether a starting pitcher will ever win it again going forward. This much is already certain: Statistical advancements and more critical thinking in recognizing player value have all but guaranteed no closer will win it again. As dominant as the Eck was in '92 -- 51 saves, 1.91 ERA, 93/11 K/BB ratio -- he threw just 80 innings. Even if you view bWAR skeptically, his 17th overall ranking -- behind teammates Mark McGwire and Mike Bordick -- isn't hard to fathom. Coincidentally, it was Clemens who led the league in bWAR that season, with Frank Thomas close behind.

Should you have any further doubt about the brilliance of Verlander's season, baseball-reference's Play Index provides some amazing perspective. The following is a list of pitchers in the past 50 years who have won 22 games or more, had an ERA+ of 169 or better, whiffed at least 230 batters, and had a WHIP of 1.05 or lower. It reads as a list of the greatest seasons I've been fortunate to see, accompanied by a few legendary ones I wish I'd seen:

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Thumbnail image for clemensroger86finn.jpgThe list of a dozen includes three MVPs (Clemens '86, Vida Blue '71, and Bob Gibson '68, the last NL pitcher to win the award), two runners-up (Pedro '99, Ron Guidry '78, Sandy Koufax '66).

Dwight Gooden, during his meteoric 24-4, 1.53 season in '85, was fourth in the voting. Steve Carlton, during his 27-win '72 season for the miserable Phillies, was fifth. Gaylord Perry '72 was sixth, Randy Johnson '02 seventh, and Marichal '65 was ninth. (Koufax, who went 26-8 with a 2.04 ERA and 385 strikeouts in '65, was second in the voting, but somehow didn't fit our criteria because of his Mark Portugal-like 160 adjusted ERA. He did beat out Marichal for the Cy Young, though, making the Giants legend the only pitcher among the dozen not to win the award in that particular season.)

All right, at the rate I'm going here, they're going to announce this thing before I finish the post. So forgive me just one more whimsical spin through WAR to try to guess who will win. Verlander and Bautista were tops in the AL in baseball-reference's version of WAR; Ellsbury was tops in Fangraph's version (9.4), while Verlander was seventh, and second among pitchers to CC Sabathia.

Recognizing that they both measures have their hiccups, here's list of the of the top eight players in the AL when their individual fWAR and bWAR are combined:

Bautista, 16.8; Ellsbury, 16.4; Verlander, 15.5; Pedroia, 14.8; Cabrera, 14.4; Sabathia, 14; Adrian Gonzalez and Alex Gordon (tie), 13.5

So that settles it, right? It's Bautista, who didn't play for a contender, by a check swing over Ellsbury, who played for a contender that famously collapsed, with Verlander, who submitted a classic season on the mound for a playoff team, a relatively close third.

OK, so that settles nothing. All we know for sure is that we'll know for sure at 2 p.m. And no matter the outcome, another great baseball argument will rage on.

(Related: Give the award to Pedro, Pudge. We're not letting this go. It's not too late. Oh, and about that 2002 Cy Young, Barry Zito ...)

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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