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Cy Young? How About Zack Greinke For MVP Too?

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The year was 2006. A man named George W. Bush was president. Bread cost a nickel, but only if that nickel was taped to three other dollars. And Johan Santana was the best pitcher in baseball. Three years ago today, I was convinced that he should've been the MVP, something that instead went to Justin Morneau.

It's now 2009, and the American League MVP front-runner is Morneau's teammate Joe Mauer. As a catcher he's tremendous, and as a hitter he might be even better. Cases for Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Miguel Cabrera, Kevin Youkilis, and Kendry Morales are also being made. Mauer stands out over the 36 first base candidates because catching is harder than playing first, and Derek Jeter doesn't play shortstop by squatting down for every pitch. (Nor does he lead the league in hitting.)

Have we already decided, as a nation, that MVPs do not go to pitchers? Because I lost that memo or failed to submit my change of address form. It's not like they can't; they are perfectly eligible, unlike Elvis Presley's quadrennial grassroots campaign for president.

It would take an amazing season for a pitcher to be considered. Simply being the best pitcher may not warrant enough buzz. But Zack Greinke is, indeed, having such a year. His Adjusted ERA+ is 202. Here are the best ERA+ seasons in the last 60 years:

1. Pedro Martinez, 2000: 291
2. Greg Maddux, 1994: 271
3. Greg Maddux, 1995: 262
4. Bob Gibson, 1968: 258
5. Pedro Martinez, 1999: 243
6. Dwight Gooden, 1985: 228

7. Roger Clemens, 2005: 226
8. Roger Clemens, 1997: 221
9. Pedro Martinez, 1997: 219
10. Kevin Brown, 1996: 216
11. Roger Clemens, 1990: 213
12. Pedro Martinez, 2003: 210
13. Zack Greinke, 2009: 204

Owning an ERA of 2.14 in the American League, and doing it with a rather bad team, is something you see maybe once every 10 years. Roger Clemens — the last starting pitcher to win the MVP — led the league in ERA for a few seasons with some terrible Blue Jays and Red Sox teams back in the 90s.

Having said all that, I don't know if I can make the case for Greinke over Mauer, but I can stand behind a case for Greinke over everybody but Mauer. (Known in simpler terms as "runner-up.") What's more valuable to a team: a first baseman who hits 40 homers, or an ace pitcher whose strikeout total is equal to the number of hits and walks allowed (224)?

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About Suss

  • This piece, I’m afraid, fails to address several key considerations in the MVP race, namely: whether Zack Greinke is captain of his team, “plays the game the right way” and makes the players around him better. Also you failed to note his RBI count and whether he has “carried his team in September.” Your application for BBWAA membership is hereby denied.

    Baseball Prospectus, by the way, gives Greinke the edge in WARP, 11.3 to Mauer’s 10.4.

  • Ah yes, Greinke has the third best intangibles/game since 1988. Sorry about the omission.

    Can you compare WARPs between positions? I’m a SABRvirgin in many regards.

  • I think Texiera of the Yankees should be MVP. 🙂

  • Tony

    First of all a basic argument against this (although I know pitchers have won the mvp) is that the Cy Young is the pitchers’ MVP award. A hitter can’t win the Cy Young because he doesn’t pitch hence a pitcher should not win the MVL (especially in the AL), because he doesn’t hit or really play the field.

    That being said Mauer is a catch that is hitting .372 with a 1.051 OPS both leading the AL. And 28 home runs. That’s easily an MVP year. Greinke deserves the Cy Young but why the MVP also?

    I also have no idea how playing for a bad team has much effect (if any) on your era or era +. Obviously a bad team would commit more errors but those are unearned runs so beyond there possibly being more pressure due to lack of run support, only the win-loss record is effected by the quality of the team. The quality of the opponent is consistent regardless.

    And in 2006 Jeter deserved the MVP. He hit .343/14/97 with 34 steals.

    I know there are other offensive awards but it seems logical that the two most prominent awards remain exclusive.

  • Tony

    I even have less of a problem with a closer being named MVP than a starter as they play more frequently than every 4th or 5th day. A player that is responsible for, at best, 20-25 wins (including some close game no decisions) of an on average 90 win season required to make the playoffs may “control the game like anyone else” but they do it far less often.

  • Mistakes in the field and below-average fielding are not always errors. (Not turning double plays, not reaching baseballs greater fielders could catch, and so on.)

    Also, how about the soul-crushing reality of just playing for a terrible, terrible team?

    And a freakin closer as MVP? Number of games played really is a factor then. Closers pitch about 70 innings a year, or eight complete games.

    Consider the simplest unit of baseball, the plate appearance. Derek Jeter has 607 of those. By comparison, CC Sabathia has pitched in 892 of batters’ plate appearances, therefore his pitching affects more units of baseball than the average superstar hitter. So the question is, does playing every day and fielding more account for 200-300 plate appearances a season?

  • Responding to your question in #2, Matt, yes – in principle WARP functions as a way to convert the value of all performances into a common currency (“wins”) and thus to compare across all positions, including pitcher. It’s a pretty aggressive use of sabermetrics, but in theory it works.

  • Tony

    I don’t like closers as mvps but I said I can see it more than a starter because regardless of whether a starter faces 25 batters in a single game and a closer faces three, the game still one translates to 1 in the win column. My point was closer have a more consistent chance to add to the win totals, but I concede their job is easier obviously.

  • I wish the voters weren’t as narrow-minded as they are because there is certainly cases in which a pitcher should definitely be considered for an MVP award. Relievers, however, I’m not sold on.

    If there were ever a time for a starting pitcher to be on the ballots, this has certainly got to be one of those years. But like usual, I wouldn’t look for Greinke to come even moderately close to winning-During Maddux’s even better early ’90s run, he never finished better than third in MVP voting.

  • Shiraldi’s Eyes

    Here’s a cool infographic that should settle any debate over the AL Cy Young Award, which shows why Greinke’s win was (and should have been) a landslide.