|Forget qualifiers, Justin Verlander and Jose Bautista should both be in the MVP conversation. (Getty Images)|
So I'm confused, because I thought last season we cleared up all the misinformation about the value of "victories" to a pitcher in baseball. That's why Felix Hernandez was able to win the Cy Young despite having just 13 victories, in addition to 12 losses. A pitcher could and did win the American League's Cy Young with an anemic record of 13-12 because victories, you see, aren't that important.
And I got that. I had to forget the visceral sensations of the game itself -- the sights and sounds, the Cracker Jack smell of the ballpark -- and embrace the numerology of the sport, but I embraced it. Felix Hernandez won exactly one game more than he lost in 2010, but he was still the best pitcher in the American League because wins and losses are borderline irrelevant.
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So how come Justin Verlander of the Tigers is in contention for the 2011 Most Valuable Player award in the American League on the basis of his 22-5 record?
I can't make sense of it, though I can make sense of Verlander's Cy Young candidacy. In addition to his record, Verlander has all the other numbers of a dominant pitcher. He is among American League leaders in ERA (2.44), strikeouts (232) and innings pitched (229). He has made 27 quality starts, defined by throwing six more innings and allowing three or fewer runs.
Justin Verlander, Cy Young winner? That one, I get. No confusion.
But here's where my confusion comes in: Other than that pesky win-loss record, which we all agreed last year was overrated and even misleading, Felix Hernandez in 2010 had similar statistics to Justin Verlander in 2011 (2.27 ERA, 232 strikeouts, 249 2/3 innings, 30 quality starts) -- and nobody suggested Felix Hernandez was an MVP candidate in 2010. Nobody voted that way, either. In 2010 balloting for American League MVP, Hernandez finished 16th.
Now that I've blown your mind wide open -- and if that Verlander-Hernandez comparison didn't open your mind a little bit, congratulations: your lobotomy was a complete success -- here's where we get to the crux of this column:
Baseball needs a new system for selecting the MVP.
Every other award is fine, because every other award is picked with obvious criteria. Rookie of the Year goes to the most statistically impressive rookie. Cy Young goes to the most statistically impressive pitcher. The stats used vary from voter to voter -- sabermetrics, conventional, some combination of the two -- but when it's over, lots of us agree that the right player was honored.
This season, when it's over, few of us will agree that the right person was picked for the American League MVP. Why? Because baseball's system for selecting an MVP is broken.
Let me tell you, here and now, that I'm not arguing against Verlander for MVP. It probably seems that way, given the whole Felix Hernandez comparison, but that was just a device to get you into this story. And it worked, sucker, because here you are. Still reading. Nodding your head? I would think so, because it's obvious that baseball's MVP system doesn't work. Here's another couple of sentences that prove my point:
Toronto's Jose Bautista is having the best offensive season in the American League, indeed in either league, yet there are voters who don't consider him a legitimate candidate because he doesn't play for a team in postseason contention.
Verlander is having the best pitching season in the American League, indeed in either league, yet there are voters who don't consider him a legitimate candidate because he doesn't play every day.
See the problem here? It's not one of value. It's one of interpretation. The typical fallback position for an MVP voter is to scan the every-day lineup of the league's best three or four teams -- a pool of 24 to 32 players -- and give it to the most statistically impressive player on that list. Well, except for about two decades ago, when the MVP went to statistically decent but remarkable leaders like Kirk Gibson (1988, National League) and Terry Pendleton (1991, National League).
Most gallingly, this current system is held together by the bane of any baseball conversation: a small sample size.
Only 28 voters -- two BBWAA members in each AL city -- pick the American League MVP. That compounds baseball's already existing problem of interpretation. A small bloc of voters who feel the MVP can go only to an everyday player on a postseason team will skew the entire process. Assuming that bloc exists, and I'm sure it does, Bautista and Verlander will have a difficult time winning the MVP despite the fact that one has been the best offensive player in baseball, and the other has been the best pitcher.
Solution? I have one, and it's not to "make the MVP criteria more clear," because who can do that? The current president of the BBWAA? The current commissioner of baseball? A blue-ribbon panel appointed by Joe Buck's forehead? No. Then we're back to the pitfalls of sample size. And that's enough of a problem here.
Which is why the solution is to enlarge the sample size. If MVP voting is to remain a BBWAA thing, fine. Open the voting to the entire BBWAA. Make this a democracy and let the people decide -- all the people, not just a handful.
The various voting blocs -- everyday players only ... best stats, period ... best player on a playoff team -- would be canceled out by the sheer volume of votes if more than 500 BBWAA members were allowed to pick the MVP. As it is, too much power is in the hands of too few, which is compounded by the lack of direction on what an MVP actually is.
Here's a little secret about the small sample size of baseball's postseason balloting: Voting isn't always done by the most savvy voters. In 1996, my first full year on the baseball beat for The Miami Herald, I had a vote for the National League Cy Young. How come? No idea. One day I went to my mail box, and there it was: my Cy Young ballot. It was a staggering moment, one I'll never forget, to find out I was going to contribute more than 3 percent of the entire vote for such a historical award.
I hated it. Who was I to have so much power? I was nobody.
Same goes for baseball voters today. Who is the writer in Chicago or Kansas City or Toronto or Detroit to wield so much power -- especially for a vague award like MVP, where reasonable people can't even agree on the criteria? Nobody. That's who.
It's a stupid system.
And the MVP this season ought to be Justin Verlander.