The BBWAA will announce the American League MVP Award at 2 p.m. eastern today. Justin Verlander is a surprise candidate for the award. Seemingly out of nowhere, he seemed to grab traction during the final two months of the season and actually gained quite a bit of hype. And this hype didn't come from Internet fans or stats heads or anyone else. It came from people who actually had a say in the matter! So can Verlander actually win the award?
So as I've done in the past, I decided to dive into the AL MVP voting archives for the past decade or two to try to make some sense out of what MVP voters are typically looking for. I am only looking at the AL voting because that's the pool that will be deciding today's award. Two writers from each AL city vote.
Typical criteria for AL MVP:
1) Position player. The last pitcher to win was reliever Dennis Eckersley in 1992. The last starting pitcher to win was Roger Clemens in 1986.
2) Come from a playoff team. The last MVP not on a playoff team was Alex Rodriguez in 2003. Before that, it was Ken Griffey in 1997 and Cal Ripken in 1991. So in the past 20 years, that's three players who weren't in the playoffs winning. In all three seasons, the winner led the league's position players in B-Ref's WAR stat. However, Griffey was edged by Clemens in WAR in '97. Another possible clue: Rodriguez and Griffey led in HR.
3) Don't be a DH. In the past five years, five different positions won the award: first baseman, third baseman, second baseman, catcher, outfielder. But if you're a DH, you're probably going to be edged out by a teammate.
Stuff that might occasionally matter:
1) Players that have "harder" defensive positions can make up for gaps in offensive stats. A recent example: Second baseman Dustin Pedroia did not even have the best offensive numbers on his team, but won the MVP in 2008. That would help explain Ichiro winning in 2001 as well and Vladimir Guerrero in 2004 as well. However, this doesn't occur on a yearly basis.
2) OPS. In three of the past four years, the OPS leader has won the AL MVP. For the decade, the OPS leader won 4 of 10 times. So that tells me that it's a stat that may not have mattered at the beginning of the year but is being looked at more in recent years.
3) WAR. I'm not saying voters look at WAR and choose their winner that way. Just that WAR generally reflects who the best players were in a given season. Voters awarded the WAR winner with an MVP only twice in the past decade. (However, if you take away pitchers that improves to three times.) So I don't think I'll put a lot of weight on this, but it could play in.
4) "Balanced" offensive stats. Looking over the past few years, you notice no single offensive stat is most important. I posited that HR or RBI might be a stat that voters liked -- and it might have mattered more a decade-plus ago. But in the past decade, you can find seasons where the runaway HR or RBI leader doesn't come close because he missed the playoffs or was edged out by a teammate. You can find years the leader in BA is beaten out by a teammate, too. In the 90s, I think HRs were "sexier," but that has faded a bit in recent years. In the end I think a balance of stats is necessary today. So if you're too low in any one category, you might be out of the running.
Stuff that seems like they matter but doesn't
1) East Coastness. At the start of the decade, you wanted to play on the West Coast, or at least in the AL West. (From 1996 to 2004, the AL West won the MVP yearly!) But we didn't decry a West Coast Bias, did we? Since 2005, the AL East has won three times and the other divisions have won three times. And by the way, in 2005 and 2007 the winner (Alex Rodriguez) was quite deserving.)
So what do I come up with this year?
If 2006 is my guide, I'd take Miguel Cabrera. That was an interesting year. Minnesota starter Johan Santana won the AL Cy Young Award. Minnesota position player Justin Morneau won the MVP. How? I have no clue. Multiple players had better offensive numbers, no matter what number you like. But I guess the voters really wanted to give it to a Twin. Still, Santana had the league's third best WAR and his team's best. Joe Mauer actually had a higher OPS and WAR, although Morneau had higher RBI and HR. So why Morneau? Who knows. But I'm going with the voters decided he was the team's best batter and gave it to him.
This year, Cabrera led the league in average, was second in OPS, but only sixth in RBI and 10th in HR. He was fourth in Baseball-Reference war (7.1), behind Jose Bautistat (8.5), Justin Verlander (8.5) and Jacoby Ellsbury (7.2).
So I'm going to say, in any typical year, I think Cabrera wins the MVP award.
But this sure doesn't feel like a typical year, does it?
There have been pitchers more deserving of an MVP award. If you're a fan of WAR, Zack Greinke in 2009 had a WAR above 10 and incredible numbers. But he didn't play on a very good team so his wins suffered and he didn't make the playoffs. In the year 2000, Pedro Martinez may have been even more impressive, though he didn't even lead the league in WAR. However, he finished fifth. (The WAR leader, Rodriguez, finished third, even though his team the playoffs)
So me, I just keep coming back to "Why Verlander? Why now?" And I don't have an answer. Yet, Verlander has been hyped. In a poll at today at ESPN, Verlander earned first place from their writers with 10 votes. By the way, Cabrera finished fourth in that poll. In a Tweet, Sports Illustrated's Jon Heyman ranked Verlander first (and Cabrera fourth). CBS Sports Danny Knobler said if he had a vote he'd have given it to Verlander. Even Fangraphs' Dave Cameron wrote a story making Verlander's case. And it seems to me the local media is backing Verlander over Cabrera, too. (Mike O'Hara is.) The Tigers fans, as well, seem to be more in Verlander's corner than Cabrera's and they have been for much of the season.
So all signs point to Verlander as being the Tigers favorite instead of Cabrera this year.
Still, some voters might just be set in their ways that the Cy Young Award goes to pitchers, and the MVP award to position players. That's the way the awards have been given out. Why would that change out of the blue this year?
I guess my big fear is that voters will not gel into any single line of thinking well enough and the Tigers will end up with a pair of top four finishers. I think some voters would just never take a pitcher as MVP. Some voters will stick to a more traditional line of thinking and choose Cabrera.
I don't think Jose Bautista will overcome the fact his team didn't make the playoffs. I know there's been some discussion of Curtis Granderson, but I don't think he's got balanced numbers. His batting average just doesn't fit the MVP mold.
Boston center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury ranks highly across the board. He hits, his slugs, he gets on base, he plays defense at a premium position. If his team made the playoffs, I think he'd have a great shot at winning. In any case, he will still be placed at or near the top of a lot of ballots.
A split of voting between Verlander and Cabrera might just give Ellsbury the MVP award.