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Can a Starting Pitcher Win an MVP?

by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
November 21, 2007

Last year, the AL MVP race lacked a clear favorite.  So instead of critiquing a selection that was pretty much a toss-up, I lamented the fact that Carlos Guillen received barely as many as 10% of the votes that fellow poor defensive shortstop Derek Jeter received.

I maintain that this was a valid point, and certainly more justified than the popular outrage over Justin Morneau having won the award.  Nevertheless, I now lament not addressing the more pertinent issue: the player who finished 7th in the MVP voting last year deserved the award as much as anyone else did.  That player was Johan Santana, the unanimous AL CY Young Award winner of 2006.

I bring this oversight up now because history has repeated itself.  Jake Peavy, the unanimous Cy Young Award winner this year, finished 7th in the 2007 NL MVP voting when he deserved the award as much as winner Jimmy Rollins did.

No one debates that Peavy had an incredible season.  He won the Cy Young Award unanimously due to his Triple Crown season.  He also finished first in the league in WHIP, K/9, and ERA+.  But even though he was clearly the most dominant pitcher in the league and there was no unanimous best hitter in the league, Peavy gained very little MVP support. 

If you want to say that only players who make the postseason are eligible for the MVP Award each year, I can accept that, even if I do not agree with it.  But this does not explain why Prince Fielder, David Wright, and Chipper Jones each finished with more votes than Peavy did in 2007.   

Basically, most voters did not give Peavy serious consideration because he is a starting pitcher.  The old adage goes, "how can someone who only plays every fifth day be valued as highly as someone who plays every day?"  The question in itself does not offend, but the fact that it is asked by the same pundits who blindly recite that pitching is far more important than hitting makes me want to throw away my brother's 1989 Donruss MVP collection.

Okay, not really, but it does piss me off something fierce.  

Let's assume for the moment that offense is as valuable as defense, and that Rollins bat and glove were equally dominant as Jake Peavy's contributions on the mound were.  Rollins played for a great offense in a great hitter's park while Peavy pitched for a great defense in a great pitcher's park.  The choice would be easy, right?  Rollins plays every day, and is therefore more valuable.

Not necessarily.  Rollins does play every day.  In fact, his 778 plate appearances in 2007 were the most ever in a single season.  The Philadelphia Phillies sent a batter to the plate 6,537 times last year, meaning that Rollins accounted for roughly 12% of his team's total plate appearances.  We can say with some certainty that this is one of the largest percentages of all time.

Jake Peavy only plays every five days.  He finished fourth in the NL with 223.1 innings, a total that would not rank among the top 1,000 all time.  The San Diego Padres totaled 1484.2 defensive innings, meaning that Peavy pitched about 15% of his team's total innings.

So everything else being equal, Jake Peavy should have an edge in MVP consideration.  But most experts will tell you that pitching is more important than hitting, which gives another advantage to Peavy.  Then consider that while Peavy swept the pitcher Triple Crown categories, Rollins did not finish in the top 10 of any of them.

We begin to see that it is actually pretty egregious that Rollins would finish so far ahead of Peavy in the voting unless you give him some unheard of credit for his defensive contributions.   And while Rollins did coax a Gold Glove Award out of managers and coaches around the league, his numbers weren't good, and how valuable could his defense have been to let Philadelphia pitchers allow 821 runs?  The same pitching staff that our own Asher Chancey repeatedly described as "solid" before the season began, and the same one that most observers claimed had "too much starting pitching" in March.

With all this in mind, if the all time single season leader in plate appearances couldn't out-value a five-man rotation starting pitcher, how bad were some of the MVP picks in the era of four man rotations?  Actually not that bad.  Ron Guidry should have won the 1978 MVP Award over Jim Rice, but at least Louisiana Lightning finished second.  Truth is, before the 1970's, starting pitchers got their fair share of the awards:

1930's - 5
1940's - 4
1950's - 2
1960's - 3
1970's - 1
1980's - 1
1990's - 0
2000's - 0

Compendium of MVP Seasons

It is as if baseball writers gradually decided that they simply weren't going to consider starting pitchers once teams gradually moved to five-man rotations.  The logic is sound that we should see fewer SP MVPs as this occurs, but to shut them out entirely is wrong.  Also, since most players in the league can now crank out 20 homers, hitting 30 homers is a bit less special, while 13 homers allowed in 223.1 innings incredible.

As usual, when people try to make baseball into an all-or-nothing sport, they fail miserably.  You shouldn't always bring in your closer with a 3-run lead in the 9th.  You shouldn't always dismiss bunting with one out.  And you shouldn't always dismiss a starting pitcher winning an MVP Award, even in the five-man rotation era.

Author's note: We always take more time to analyze poor award choices than good ones.  It's worth mentioning that C.C. Sabathia proved an excellent choice for American League Cy Young in a year when it would have been very easy to select baseball's only 20-game winner in the past two years, Josh Beckett.   



Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith resides in Chicago, Illinois and can be reached at keith@baseballevolution.com.

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