For the first time in more than twenty-five years, the Baseball Writers Association of American has awarded the Most Valuable Player Award to a starting pitcher. On Monday, after receiving 13 of the ballot’s 28 first place votes, Detroit Tigers’ ace Justin Verlander won the 2011 AL MVP award. [Click Here for AP Video]
Verlander took the award by a narrow margin. He beat out Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury with 280 points and 13 first place votes to Ellsbury’s 242 points and four first place votes. Blue Jays slugger and ’11 AL homerun leader Jose Bautista placed third at 231 points and five first-place votes. Curtis Granderson (Yankees) and Miguel Cabrera (Tigers) placed fourth and fifth with 215 and 193 points respectively.
Winning the MVP award caps-off Verlander’s incredible ’11 campaign appropriately. Throwing the second no hitter of his career last May, the twenty-eight-year-old righthander put together one of the best pitching performances in recent history and even captured the AL Triple Crown. His 24-5 won-loss record, 2.40 ERA, 251 innings pitched, 250 strikeouts, 6.2 H/9 and 0.92 WHIP all topped the league and his phenomenal stat-line garnered him a unanimous victory in AL Cy Young Award voting last week. Since young Red Sox ace Roger Clemens won both the Cy Young and MVP in 1986, only A’s closer Dennis Eckersley (1992) and Verlander have taken home both awards in the same season.
Though Red Sox centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury was considered to be the top player in the league by many analysts and fans, after leading American League non-pitchers in extra-base hits (83), total bases (364) and finishing among league leaders in homeruns (32), doubles (46), stolen bases (39), runs scored (119), RBI (105) and batting average (.321), it’s difficult to argue against Verlander’s case. Only the fourth pitcher in the past four decades to lead the league with a WAR of 8.6 or higher, his 24 wins represent the most by any AL pitcher since Bob Welch’s 1990 season (27 wins). He also led the Major Leagues in innings pitched, WHIP and batting average against (.191), and he won 19 of the last 22 games he pitched (22 of his final 24 decisions).
To his team, Verlander was the most valuable player in the game. After the Tigers’s record sat at a 12-17 mark following a 3-5 loss (May 2nd) to open a four-game series against the Yankees, Verlander inspired his teammates with his incredible performance on May 7th. On that day, he no-hit the Toronto Blue Jays, leading Detroit to a 9-0 victory over Toronto. The incredible feat ignited a fire under both Verlander and the Tigers, and he would win all seven of his starts between May 7th and July 5th. Even more impressive, he won twenty-two games after that point and took just two losses.
Like the last two American League pitchers awarded both a Cy Young and MVP in the same season, Verlander looks to be well on his way to the Hall of Fame. Just twenty-eight years old, Verlander has already put together a star-studded career. Since winning the 2006 American League Rookie of the Year Award, the flamethrowing righthander has pitched in the All-Star game in four out of five seasons and he’s now finished among the top eleven pitchers in Cy Young Award voting five times; finishing in the top five on three occasions.
In the Tommy John surgery era, Verlander is remarkably durable and consistent. Leading the league in wins, strikeouts and innings pitched twice, he’s also won at least 17 games and made at least thirty-two starts in five out of the last six seasons. Since skipper Jim Leyland handed him Detroit’s number-one starter job five years ago, only Roy Halladay (35.2 fWAR) and C.C. Sabathia (33.5 fWAR) have outperformed Verlander’s 29.2 WAR, and his 1,084 strikeouts during that period is tied with Sabathia for tops among current AL starters.
I remember seeing [Roger Clemens] win an MVP and thinking that may not happen ever again, and how impressive that was. It means a lot to me to be the successor to that, to be the next starting pitcher to win an MVP…Not even in my wildest dreams had I thought of this. This wasn’t even on my radar until the talk started…The one thing I have going for me is I’m so different from everybody else because I’m a (starting) pitcher… If we have a bad day, 95 percent of the time we’ll lose. If we have a good day, eighty-five to ninety percent of the time we’re gonna to win.”
The primary argument against Verlander’s (along with other pitchers’) case for MVP is their lack of playing time relative to everyday players. However, the 969 batters Verlander faced last year compares favorably to MVP runner-up Ellsbury’s 729 plate appearances and Bautista’s 655 PA. With his 24 wins as a starting pitcher, Verlander’s can also take credit for more than %25 of the Tiger’s 95 victories last season– certainly a larger share than the offensive/defensive output from any single position player. Detroit won 73.5% of the games Verlander started and 54.6% of the game’s he didn’t. Furthermore, by posting a quality start in 82% of the games he pitched, he greatly reduced the pressure/workload on the club’s bullpen and rotation– allowing his fellow arms to perform at a higher level on his off-days.
Verlander also won both The Sporting News‘ 2011 Major League Player of the Year and AL Pitcher of the Year. By winning both of TSN‘s awards, Verlander joins an exclusive group of five pitchers. Outside of the Tiger’s fireballing ace, only Denny McLain (1968), Roger Clemens (1986), Ron Guidry (1978) and Hall of Famers Hal Newshouser (1945) and Early Wynn (1959) hold the honor since the award’s inception back in 1936.