Verlander or Bautista? Braun or Kemp? Predicting the MVPs
Tigers' Justin Verlander could become the first pitcher to win an MVP since 1992
Ryan Braun will likely get credit for leading the Brewers to the postseason
Jose Bautista and Matt Kemp deserve to win the awards but voters may not agree
A week ago, I correctly predicted the winners of all six of the Baseball Writers Association of America awards that have been announced so far, and in my two years of writing the Awards Watch column here at SI.com, I have correctly predicted all 10 announced player awards, three of the four managers of the year, and the top three finishers, in order, for every player award except the American League Rookie of the Year.
Despite all that, I will be surprised by the Most Valuable Player award results, which will be announced Monday (American League) and Tuesday (National League), no matter who winds up taking home the awards. Here's why.
NOTE: League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics.
To Be Announced: Monday, November 21
Expected Winner: Justin Verlander, SP, Tigers (24-4, 250 Ks, 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 4.39 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO)
Deserving Winner: Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays (.302/.447/.608, 43 HRs, 103 RBIs, 105 R)
There are five serious candidates for AL MVP: Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander and first baseman Miguel Cabrera, Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista, Red Sox centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and Yankees centerfielder Curtis Granderson. What makes this race impossible to call is that each has a significant strike against him, at least in the eyes of some large percentage of the voters. Verlander is a pitcher, a position that hasn't had an MVP winner since 1992. Cabrera was overshadowed all year by his teammate and is a liability outside the batter's box. Bautista played for a team that was never in the playoff hunt this season. Jacoby Ellsbury played for a team that suffered one of the worst collapses in major league history. Granderson hit just .262. One of those five players will win this award, but it will be almost by default.
Let's take those players in reverse order, starting with Granderson (.262/.364/.552, 136 R, 41 HR, 119 RBIs, 25 SBs). Despite his tremendous counting stats, he may have been undone by a poor September, which dragged down his rate stats. His .262 average would be the lowest ever by a league MVP and just the third ever below .270, the other two being Roger Maris' .269 in 1961, when he broke the single-season home run record for the AL pennant-winners, and Cardinals shortstop Marty Marion's .267 in 1944, when he won the NL award primarily for his contributions in the field. Furthermore, no MVP has had a batting average below .280 since Johnny Bench in 1970, or below .290 since Andre Dawson in 1987. It doesn't help that advanced stats didn't like Granderson's defense in 2011, dropping him out of the top 10 in the league in total-value stats such as Wins Above Replacement, thus making his value somewhat suspect to both old-school and progressive voters.
Ellsbury (.321/.376/.552, 32 HR, 105 RBIs, 119 R, 39 SBs) looked like the favorite for the award before the Red Sox went into the tank in September. That his team's collapse should have had a negative impact on his showing in the vote is absurd, particularly given the fact that he hit .358/.400/.667 with eight home runs, 21 RBIs, and 22 runs scored in September and went 9-for-25 with four homers in the season's final five games. Unfortunately, I suspect a large number of voters likely refused to give any Red Sox player a first place vote in the wake of that collapse.
Bautista is my preference for the award based on his remarkable production at the plate and all-around every-day excellence, exemplified not only by the league leads in bWAR, Baseball Prospectus's Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), and the blunter OPS+, but by the fact that he switched from rightfield to third base for five weeks mid-season and played strong defense at both positions. However, many voters will disqualify him out of hand for the fact that his Blue Jays were never in the pennant race.
Given the various biases among the electorate, Cabrera (.344/.448/.586, 30 HRs, 105 RBIs) may actually have broadest appeal, but he received the least MVP buzz during the season, in large part because of how much attention Verlander received. Another reason was that it was his monstrous September (.429/.532/.758) that delivered him the batting title and major league lead in on-base percentage, passing Bautista by a single point on the season's final day. I wouldn't be surprised to see Cabrera finish in the top five on nearly every ballot but not receive more than one or two first-place votes.
Verlander overtook Ellsbury as the favorite in the season's final weeks, but is going up against a history of writers treating pitchers as ineligible for the award despite the fact that the instructions explicitly state that they should be considered. The last pitcher to win the MVP in either league was A's reliever Dennis Eckersley in the AL in 1992, and the last starting pitcher to win was Red Sox ace Roger Clemens, who did so in 1986, a full quarter century ago.
In total, since the creation in 1956 of the Cy Young award, which is the primary reason given for excluding pitchers from the MVP ballot ("they have their own award," is the refrain), there have been 113 players that have won the MVP, and just nine of them have been pitchers. Over that same stretch, 27 pitchers have led or tied for their league's lead in Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement (bWAR), but the only one of those 27 to win the MVP was Bob Gibson in 1968, when he turned in arguably the greatest pitching season in of the liveball era, famously posting a 1.12 ERA for the NL pennant-winning Cardinals.
Verlander became the 28th pitcher in the Cy Young era to lead his league in bWAR this season, tying Bautista at 8.5 wins above replacement (which I'm using here as an shortcut for identifying the league's best players, not the final word). History, though, shows that is unlikely to translate into an MVP award.
So who will win? Bautista has a very good chance because he's likely to draw a handful of first-place votes from progressive voters and finish second or third on most of the other ballots, which could allow him to win on points without actually receiving a significant percentage of the first-place votes in this fractured field. That's how Alex Rodriguez won the 2003 AL MVP for a last-place Rangers team despite finishing first on just six of 28 ballots. An even better comparison would be the 1999 AL vote, when Pedro Martinez lead the AL in bWAR and first-place votes (8), but was left off two ballots entirely because he was a pitcher, allowing Ivan Rodriguez to win the award with just seven first-place votes. The same thing happened to Tom Seaver in 1969, when he and Willie McCovey both received 11 first-place votes but Seaver was left off two ballots and thus finished second. In 1966, Sandy Koufax led the NL with nine first-place votes, but still finished second in total points to Roberto Clemente, who had eight.
I could envision Verlander suffering a similar fate with Bautista as the beneficiary, but as the season drew to a close, all signs pointed to Verlander, who won the pitching triple crown and led the Tigers to their first division title in 24 years. The unanimous AL Cy Young winner looks like the favorite to win the MVP.
To Be Announced: Tuesday, November 22
Expected Winner: Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (.332/.397/.597/, 33 HRs, 111 RBIs, 109 R, 33 SBs)
Deserving Winner: Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers (.324/.399/.586, 39 HRs, 126 RBIs, 115 R, 40 SBs)
The NL MVP race is much simpler, but no easier to call. Either Braun or Kemp will win it, but it's a coin flip as to which one it will be. By any objective measure, Kemp clearly had the better season, a fact compounded by the fact that he played centerfield in a pitchers' park, while Braun played leftfield in a hitter-friendly stadium. However, Kemp's Dodgers were never really contenders, finishing 11½ games out in the NL West with a record just barely over .500 (82-79), while Braun's Brewers won their first division title since 1982.
That brings us back to the old debate about how to interpret the word "valuable" in "Most Valuable Player." I come down firmly on the side that says a player's value is absolute and that the performance of the rest of the roster should have no impact on an individual award. There are those who believe that the instructions on the writers' ballots are vague on this issue, but I beg to differ.
Specifically, the instructions state: "The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier." That is the only reference to team performance in the instructions, which then list as the first criteria voters are instructed to consider, "strength of offense and defense." That last is couched in a larger phrase that obscures the point, but it is actually used to define value within that phrase: "Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense."
That text has remained the same since the original BBWAA ballot in 1931. The language about division winners and playoff qualifiers has been added since, obviously since there were no divisions or playoffs prior to 1969, and it's in that added language that the ballot states "there is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means," but the way I see it, the definition is right there: "strength of offense and defense," period, not qualified by context.
Still, there will be voters that will push Kemp and Bautista lower on their ballots because their teams weren't good enough to translate their MVP-quality seasons into contending seasons. Bautista may win anyway because of the various biases against his rivals, but Braun's season may have been too strong and unassailable for Kemp to overcome the combination of Braun's production and that old-school thinking. I hold out hope for Kemp, but expect Braun to win an extremely close vote.