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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Monday, January 30, 2023
Jack Baer

Column: Pitchers like this year's Felix Hernandez can be MVP's

Statement 1: Félix Hernández is the most valuable player in the American League. Statement 2: Félix Hernández is a pitcher. It has become a prevailing wisdom in the baseball fandom and media that Statement 2 makes Statement 1 somewhere between unlikely and virtually impossible. This wisdom was widely discussed when Justin Verlander was humiliating batters in 2011 and some saw fit to lower him on their MVP ballots or drop him altogether. Verlander almost certainly would have lost the award if his team hadn’t made the playoffs.

For some reason, people decided it was impossible for a pitcher to be his league’s most valuable player. The implication behind that is pitchers aren’t true baseball players. I’ll never forget the day my dad sat me down and explained that because I pitched on my Little League team, I wasn’t a baseball player. Oh wait, that never happened. Because that would be ludicrous. Yet, the only way for a pitcher to win MVP in the last couple decades is for him to have a historically dominant, top-50 all-time season and, more importantly (as Pedro Martinez learned in 2000), not have any clear position player competitors. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that only Verlander has won in the last 20 years. Unfortunately for Hernández, he has a very clear and almost as deserving competitor: Mike Trout.

I could just point to the fact that Hernández is in a virtual dead heat with Mike Trout in both FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) and Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) and be done with it. Wins Above Replacement is designed to be able to compare players across positions, leagues and eras, and if it says Hernandez has been as or more valuable than Trout, that’s a big blow to the believed pitcher inferiority. However, that is A) not very fun and B) a slight misuse of WAR, which can be flawed for a single-season sample and is better suited for more macro analysis, like comparing draft classes or arguing Hall of Fame cases.

Let’s get into the details. The top argument against a pitcher winning MVP is that starters only pitch every fifth day, and therefore can’t have the influence of an everyday player. Of course the flip side to that is top starters influence every plate appearance of their opponents for around seven innings per start.

I’m going to give you two players:

Player A: 518 plate appearances, .299 batting average, .388 on-base percentage, .580 slugging percentage, good baserunning, known for his center-field defense but the fielding metrics haven't been kind to him this year.

Player B: 686 plate appearances, .191 batting average, .231 on-base percentage, .274 slugging percentage, league-average baserunning and defense.

Ask yourself, would you add Player A’s production if it meant you also had to add player B’s? It should at least give you a few moments of doubt. Player A is obviously Mike Trout. Player B is Félix Hernández’s opponents.

The average triple slash line in the American League is .255/.319/.394. Mike Trout has played in 113 games and Félix Hernández has made 25 starts. Therefore, over his average course of five games, Trout has provided an average of 22.3 plate appearances with an OPS that is 135.8 percent of league average. In an average start, Felix Hernandez provides an average of 27.4 opponent plate appearances with an OPS that is 71.0 percent of league average. Ultimately, it’s simple. Today’s top pitchers influence more at-bats than top hitters and can influence them as much.

The second argument you hear in favor of keeping pitchers out of the MVP race is the existence of the Cy Young award. The belief is that since pitchers already have their own award, the MVP should just cover the position players. Of course, this begs the question of why we don’t introduce a hitting award in the vein of the Cy Young instead of improperly modifying the most prestigious award in the league. We could create the Barry Bonds Babe Ruth award for best hitter in the league and have the BBWAA vote on it (the Hank Aaron Award is given annually to the top hitter in each league, but that's voted on by fans and broadcasters, not the writers). How long would it take for an award like that to catch on and become something players consider an honor—four, five years?

There are a couple other factors in favor for Trout that don’t relate to the argument over pitcher MVP’s, but let’s still look at them. The first factor is whether or not the candidate’s team made the playoffs, which saved Verlander in 2011 and has screwed Trout in the last two years. The idea is ridiculous given baseball’s individualistic nature. The Angels have a wealth of quality players (Erick Aybar, Kole Calhoun, Albert Pujols, Chris Iannetta, and Howie Kendrick have all each been worth at least two wins in fWAR) and Trout hasn’t made them all better through osmosis. But still, a minor stipulation of the MVP is that the winner’s team should probably have made the playoffs—think, work equals force times distance, so if your team doesn’t go the distance, your work is discounted.

The same could happen this year, with the Angels being the second-best team in baseball and the Mariners currently one game out of the wild card game. It’s not even like team record is a factor, when you consider Miguel Cabrera’s playoff-bound Tigers had a worse record in a worse division than Trout’s playoff-missing Angels in 2012. Cabrera still got the credit for taking his team to the playoffs.

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Speaking of Cabrera, there’s also the second factor: voter inertia. A major reason Cabrera beat Trout in 2012 and 2013 is that he was the more established player and the belief that Trout’s time would come. Now that Trout is the established best player in baseball, it is theoretically his time to win the MVP award. This is wrong because 2012 and 2013 shouldn’t have an influence on who is the MVP in 2014—they are individual seasons. Similar to that is voters potentially wanting Trout to win because he has been robbed twice, an idea that I can sympathize with but ultimately have to look past for the sake of objectivity.

I believe Félix Hernández has helped his team more than any other player in baseball regardless of position. He leads the American League in ERA, FIP and xFIP by a wide margin. He leads in WHIP and wins if you’re into that (you shouldn’t be). He’s a close second in strikeouts and innings pitched. He’s third in strikeout rate, second in groundball rate, and sixth-lowest in walk rate. He’s everything you could reasonably want a pitcher to be. The lack of knowledge over the bridge between hitter and pitcher values is not reason enough to take the MVP away from this kind of season because WAR indicates that bridge should very likely not charge a toll for the trip from pitching to hitting value.

We really need to stop saying that only a truly dominant year like the ‘68 Gibson or ‘86 Clemens seasons can win the MVP because it really does feel that in 30 years, we are going to look back on this prevailing wisdom in the same light as statements like “Drawing walks is the mark a of a selfish/lazy player,” or “Jack Morris pitched to the score.” Pitchers are taking over this league. It’s time to recognize their individual value.

Is Félix Hernández the best player in the American League? How do you feel about pitchers winning the MVP award? Email jack.baer@dailycardinal.com to share your thoughts.

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