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Summer of Mailbag V: Passing the Buck

It's all MVP all the time in Week 5 of the Sports Guy's letter-answering binge. (And yes, DiMaggio's record is officially in danger.)

When my friends Wildes and Jacoby came over for the 2011 NBA draft, we ordered Indian food and I mistakenly called the wrong place — instead of a restaurant five minutes from my house, I dialed its sister restaurant 40 minutes away. We waited and waited. About 45 minutes later, the poor driver called for directions and we realized what had happened. I quickly blamed the lady who took my order for not saying, “You know, you should really call our other restaurant, it’s much closer.”

“You’re a buck-passer!” Jacoby yelped. “This was your fault!”

Ever since, he delights in pointing out any and all buck passing. So I can only imagine his reaction to what I’m about to type: I couldn’t pull off Mailbag V this week, not because I didn’t care, but because I didn’t feel right about the quality of the questions this week. Maybe people were slacking because of Labor Day weekend coming up, maybe it was fantasy football overload, maybe they were fatigued after four straight mailbags … or maybe I’m just passing the buck. Whatever the case, we’re answering only one question this week. It’s a question asked five different ways by five different readers, but still, it’s only one question.

Q: If Pedro Martinez didn’t win the MVP in 1999 or 2000, (during the height of the steroid era in 2000, he had a .74 WHIP and a 291(!) ERA+, and all Sox fans know the 23-4, 2.07 and 313 line of 1999) then how does Justin Verlander have a shot in 2011?
— Stephen S., Boston College

Q: When can we look past all of these bullshit saber metrics and admit that traditional stats are pretty damn useful? Just because Verlander’s WAR is a bit worse than Halladay’s, Halladay is not immediately the more dominant pitcher. There’s something to be said for 20 wins by late August regardless of what a computer and some dude at Caltech say. In 20 years Brad Pitt will star in a movie called Poorball about a revolutionary GM who went back to basics.
— Jake, Eldersburg

Q: Not buying your all too convenient embrace of advanced metrics until you write something in the mailbag explaining why (Jose) Bautista is this year’s MVP. Don’t disagree by throwing team records at me, fruitcake. You can’t blame Bautista for where he plays.
— (Name withheld)

Q: How is Justin Verlander not the frontrunner for AL MVP? Compare his stats to the last starting pitcher to win MVP (Clemens in 1986). The Tigers are .500 in games Verlander doesn’t start and he’s won all 14 games he’s started after Tigers’ losses. Your thoughts?
— Adam, Detroit

Q: How is it 2011 and we still can’t figure out what “most valuable” means?”
— Jared, Rochester, NY

SG: All right, let’s settle this baby once and for all.

Fact: Jose Bautista is leading the American League in WAR (8.0), OBP (.449), slugging (.640) and OPS (1.089) by significant margins, as well as homers (39) and general swagger (he’s the runaway winner of the “I don’t want to see that guy coming up in a close-and-late game with guys on base” award).

Fact: If you were making a “Who’s having the most impressive statistical season?” list, Bautista would be first, Verlander would be second, Curtis Granderson and Jacoby Ellsbury would be 3A and 3B, and Adam Dunn would be last.

Fact: The Blue Jays will win half their games this season.

Fact: It’s 2011 and we still can’t figure out what “most valuable” means.

Fact: If you Google “Jose Bautista,” the first search suggestion is “Jose Bautista steroids.” For the record, I still believe the “Bautista is a dead pull hitter who blossomed late and got himself into sick shape” narrative. But enough people distrust his career arc that, if he doesn’t win the MVP, one of the post-award narratives will be, “He didn’t win because people think he’s cheating,” which wouldn’t be true. If Bautista loses, it will be because more voters interpreted the phrase “most valuable” in a way that didn’t benefit him.

Now here’s why I love this debate: After Moneyball legitimized an already burgeoning sabermetric wave, we spent the past 10 years figuring out cutting-edge ways to evaluate individual players. Some of these statistics have gotten so good (particularly BABIP and FIP), you can predict with shockingly decent accuracy when certain players might streak or regress; it’s like having sabermetric ESP. New-school fans discount team-affected stats (RBI, pitching wins, runs, etc.), concentrate on numbers directly controlled by players (OPS, WHIP, strikeouts, home runs), play up advanced stats that weed out as much extraneous stuff as possible (BABIP, FIP and any other acronym that might make a casual follower feel inferior) and pooh-pooh mainstream media lingo like “moxie” unless it’s backed up with hardcore evidence. They believe every act on a baseball field can be measured, and that baseball is an individual sport that masquerades as a team sport.

Which, by the way, is pretty much true. That’s why new schoolers would never penalize Bautista for playing on a forgettable team, much like we wouldn’t deny Laura Linney an Emmy for carrying a forgettable show like the The Big C. If you’re the best baseball player (or actress, or whatever), the new schoolers would argue that you’re the best and that’s that. The collective success or failure of your teammates shouldn’t ultimately matter.

And if we were discussing the Cy Young Award, or even the “Most Outstanding Player” award that doesn’t exist (and should), I would agree 100 percent. But those two words keep throwing me off. Most valuable. What does that really mean? Doesn’t “valuable” suggest pretty strongly that something positive happened? For instance, you wouldn’t say Adele was the most valuable performer at the 2011 VMAs; you would only say, “I thought Adele was really good,” because calling Adele “most valuable” would imply that the show itself had value (when, really, it sucked). If I told you, “Thank god we got that alarm system for my house, it’s been really valuable,” you would infer that my alarm system saved me from at least one burglary. So for me — and again, it’s my interpretation, which means that I am neither right nor wrong — the phrase “most valuable” means something different than “most outstanding.” In my mind it means had this player not been involved, his successful team would not have achieved the same success.

When the first baseball MVP awards were handed out in 1931, guess what? That’s how the voters interpreted it, as well. The winners were Cardinals second baseman Frankie Frisch (.311/.368/.396, a league-leading 28 SB) and A’s pitcher Lefty Grove (31-4, led league in wins/ERA/K’s/WHIP), playing for teams that won their respective leagues by 14 and 13 games respectively. Please note that Babe Ruth (.373/.495/.700, 46 HR, 163 RBIs, led AL in oWAR for the second-place Yankees), Bill Terry (.349/.397/.529, led NL in oWAR for the second-place Giants) and Philly’s Chuck Klein (.337/.398/.584, 31 HR, 121 RBIs, nearly won the Triple Crown) didn’t win the award … partly because nobody knew what the hell “advanced metrics” meant in 1931, but also because they clearly interpreted “most valuable” as “player who meant the most on a successful team.”

The following year, something goofy happened: The Cubs and Yankees made the World Series, but Klein (.348/.404/.646, 38 HR, 137 RBIs for the fourth-place Phillies) beat out Chicago’s ace Lon Warneke (22-6, 277 IP, 2.37 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, league-leading 160 ERA+) for the NL MVP, and Jimmie Foxx (.364/.469/.749, 58 HR, 169 RBIs, 10.5 oWAR for the second-place A’s) edged Ruth (.341/.489/.661, 41 HR, 137 RBIs, 120 runs, 9.3 oWAR) for the AL MVP. So much for the “player who meant the most on a successful team” era. Even if Foxx probably prevailed because Ruth and Lou Gehrig (.349/.451/.621, 34 HR, 151 RBIs, 138 runs, 8.6 WAR) split the Yankees vote, how can you explain Chuck Klein being “most valuable” when his team finished 78-76? It’s been a theoretical mess ever since.

Here’s what I believe: The best player on a noncontender shouldn’t be considered “most valuable” unless (a) his numbers demolish everyone else’s numbers, and (b) there wasn’t a kick-ass candidate from a better team.1 A good example: Kobe Bryant, my 2006 NBA MVP for averaging 35.4 points and carrying a brutally subpar Lakers team to a 7 seed. Had you replaced Kobe with an average shooting guard, the 2006 Lakers would have finished something like 17-65 instead of 45-37. Because of him — and only because of him — they ended up scaring the shit out of a really good Suns team in Round 1. That says “most valuable” to me, if only because I didn’t love the other candidates.

Back to Bautista: He’s enjoying a superior offensive season on a .500 team (a little like Chuck Klein in 1932, actually). If Bautista’s 2011 season were an IMDb credit for an actor, it would be Tom Hanks in 1989’s Turner & Hooch. Like Hanks, Bautista did everything he could. He elevated himself above the fray. He left me thinking, “I’d really like to see that guy headline a great movie someday.” But Hanks didn’t get nominated because the movie wasn’t that good, even if pulling off an entertaining comedy with a St. Bernard and Mare Winningham as his leads was harder than anything Morgan Freeman did in Driving Miss Daisy. Poor Hanks carried entire scenes with a drooling dog and pretended he was attracted to Winningham. And he pulled it off! If we had things like WAR, BABIP and OPS for movies, I’m telling you, Hanks would have finished third in the sabermetric rankings behind Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot) and Tom Cruise (Born on the Fourth of July) that year. It’s his most underrated performance other than Cast Away. But the movie didn’t matter, so nobody remembers it. Kind of like the 2011 Blue Jays.

Bautista’s saving the .500 Blue Jays from a 70-win season can’t make him “most valuable” if there’s an equally good candidate on a better team. I’d rather give him the “Most Outstanding Player” award that doesn’t exist, or throw on my Robin Williams beard and tell Bautista, “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault” 300 times. But once you start looking around, his candidacy becomes more compelling. With the Red Sox, you could make solid MVP cases for Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, halfhearted cases for Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz, and even a “there’s no more irreplaceable guy on the team” case for Jonathan Papelbon, but unless one of them absolutely crushes the month of September, you wouldn’t call any of them “most valuable” because it’s too loaded of a team. Same for the similarly stacked Yankees, who clearly had/have a “best player” (Curtis Granderson comes the closest: .275/.377/.583 , 38 HR, 24 SB, 5.6 WAR), but could have survived two-month injuries to anyone except CC Sabathia and maybe Mariano Rivera.2 The Rangers don’t have a clear-cut MVP candidate; neither do the Angels.

And then … you get to Detroit.

Currently leading the AL Central by seven games, the Tigers are ranked fifth in runs, seventh in homers, fourth in OBP, fifth in slugging and 14th in steals, so you can’t say they have an elite offense or anything. Surely, their starting pitching is carrying them … right? Check out everyone who started for the Tigers this season:

Justin Verlander (29 starts): 2.38 ERA, 215.2 IP, 147 H, 218 K’s, 0.90 WHIP
Max Scherzer (28 starts): 4.52 ERA, 165.1 IP, 178 H, 142 K’s, 1.37 WHIP
Rick Porcello (26 starts): 5.01 ERA, 149 IP, 178 H, 88 K’s, 1.44 WHIP
Brad Penny (26 starts): 5.07 ERA, 156.1 IP, 184 H, 65 K’s, 1.50 WHIP
Phil Coke (14 starts): 4.82 ERA, 74.2 IP, 81 H, 37 K’s, 1.49 WHIP
Doug Fister (6 starts): 2.97 ERA, 36.1 IP, 39 H, 23 K’s, 1.13 WHIP
Andrew Oliver (2 starts): 6.52 ERA, 9.2 IP, 11 H, 5 K’s, 1.97 WHIP
Duane Below (2 starts): 4.66 ERA, 9.2 IP, 11 H, 3 K’s, 1.45 WHIP
Jacob Turner (2 starts): 7.45 ERA, 9.2 IP, 10 H, 8 K’s, 1.34 WHIP
Charlie Furbush (2 starts): 8.61 ERA, 7.1 IP, 14 H, 7 K’s, 2.39 WHIP

Basically, the Tigers give up five runs per start unless Verlander is pitching. They’re 21-8 when he starts and 54-54 when he doesn’t. Fourteen times, he’s followed a Tigers loss by winning the next game. He’s pitched at least six innings in each of his 29 starts. He’s thrown 104 pitches or more in every start. He’s first in wins (20), WHIP, strikeouts, innings pitched; second in ERA (trailing Jered Weaver by just 0.10) and WAR (trailing only Bautista). You can only pick him apart because he’s pitched half his games in a pitcher’s park; that’s why his ERA+ is only 168 (barely ahead of Weaver’s 164). By pure numbers, Bautista’s season is a little more impressive than Verlander’s season, which is why the WAR differential (8.0 for Bautista, 7.3 for Verlander) makes sense.

Then you consider the pressure Verlander faced for five months (and counting) as the ace of a mediocre team. Every time he pitched, he HAD to go seven or more, he HAD to save their bullpen and they HAD to win. What it’s like to fall asleep every night knowing that every teammate, coach and fan is counting on you, that you’re basically holding an elaborate stack of Jenga blocks together by yourself, that you can’t escape, that you can’t have a shitty day, that you can’t check out, that you can’t do anything other than keep pitching at an extraordinarily high level or your team’s entire season is going to fall apart? Is there a bigger responsibility in sports? If Bautista had been “average” this season, Toronto’s fortunes wouldn’t have changed. If Verlander had been “average” this season, Detroit would be headed for fourth place and total obscurity. Instead, nobody in his right mind wants to see Justin Verlander in a seven-game series right now.

Which brings us to another polarizing question: “Can a starting pitcher really be more valuable than an everyday player?”

The short answer: Lefty Grove won the first American League MVP award, so yes.

The long answer: During my lifetime, my beloved Red Sox had one starting pitcher who won the MVP (Roger Clemens in 1986) and one who should have won the MVP (Pedro Martinez in 1999). Clemens led the AL in wins (24), ERA (2.48) and WHIP (0.97), finished third in WAR (7.9), second in strikeouts (238) and had the best ERA+ (169), but that only tells half the story: Nobody expected anything from that Red Sox team until April 29, when Clemens struck out 20 Mariners and effectively plugged the season into an electric socket.3 Heading into that game, the Red Sox were 9-8 and hadn’t been relevant for seven solid years. They ended up winning 27 of their next 34 and never looking back. Clemens didn’t lose a start for three solid months (he was 14-0 when Toronto finally beat him on July 2), pitched into the seventh inning 28 of 33 times, finished 21 games over .500 in his 33 starts (team record: 27-6) and gave everyone the general feeling of, “Every five days, we are fucking unstoppable.”

Even if that ’86 Clemens season holds statistically, it doesn’t capture the visceral impact of “20 K’s” and “14 and 0,” or how Clemens made Sox fans feel like you were rooting for one of those Little League World Series teams with the oversized, postpuberty pitcher who’s just bigger and better than everyone else. Does it matter 25 years later that Milwaukee’s Teddy Higuera (20-11, 2.79 ERA, 248.1 IP, 207 K’s, 1.208 WHIP) finished higher in WAR than Clemens did that season? Of course not. People only remember Clemens’ winning the Cy Young and MVP awards, or how he seemed to own that season in general. And he did.

Thirteen years later, the magnificent Pedro Martinez submitted Year 1 of a historic two-year pitching Picasso, getting robbed of the 1999 Cy Young/MVP combo because two assho— er, voters left him off their ballots entirely. Pedro pitched 31 times, won 23 and crushed every other AL pitcher statistically to the point that — when you throw in the Steroids Era (in its full backzit-ian glory), advanced metrics (which most fans didn’t understand in 1999), Boston’s season (94 wins and the wild card), the talent on hand (the rest of Boston’s starting pitching was even worse than Detroit’s starting pitching this year)4 and the designated hitter — it’s one of the greatest pitching seasons that ever happened.

Pedro led the American League with 23 wins (nobody else had 18), ERA (the next highest guy was David Cone at 3.44), WHIP (0.923 for Pedro, 1.23 for the second-place guy), strikeouts (313, with Chuck Finley’s 200 K’s in second place), WAR (8.3, ahead of Manny Ramirez’s 8.0) and adjusted ERA+ (243, the ninth-highest ever). And it went beyond numbers — he owned the first six months of that season, selling out Fenway, striking out the first five batters in the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway (including Sosa and McGwire during their steroids apex), submitting what my father later called “the greatest pitching performance I’ve ever seen” (his 17-K one-hitter in Yankee Stadium over a team in the middle of a four-title binge), and forcing you to watch the first few innings of every start until Pedro gave up his first hit. The other Boston starters were so dreadful that season that, outside Fenway before games, scalpers charged twice as much for Pedro as for anyone else. It was like a Broadway play with Daniel Day-Lewis acting on Wednesdays and Alec Baldwin’s brothers splitting the other six days.

It should have been commemorated with the rarest of pitching accomplishments — an MVP and a Cy Young, something that’s happened only five times since 1970 (twice by closers)5 — and yet,
Pudge Rodriguez (.332/.356/.558, 35 HR, 25 SB, 6.0 WAR) squeezed out the 1999 MVP in a vote that managed to be controversial in the moment and a retroactive sabermetric disaster.6 I was living in Boston when it happened — everyone wanted to strangle LaVelle Neal and George King for omitting Pedro from their ballots. Then the moment faded away like these things always do. That’s how it will probably play out for Verlander in a couple of months. Most voters favor everyday players over pitchers on MVP ballots. They just do.

Last thought: When I was researching my NBA book, I found myself relying on arbitrary things like MVP votes and All-NBA teams to help me determine who mattered (and didn’t matter) much more than I expected. At some point, the years pass and eyewitnesses start fading away, and eventually all you have are basketball-reference pages, highlight films, yellowed books, the SI Vault, cable reruns, testimonials and MVP votes. That stuff only stretches so far. For instance, I watched two Jordan playoff games on NBA TV last night — his 45-point evisceration of the ’90 Sixers (Game 4), and the night he rammed a stake into the hearts of the Bad Boy Pistons (Game 3 of the eventual 1991 sweep) — and came away wondering if Jordan was actually underrated. A strange takeaway from someone who already believed Jordan was the greatest basketball player ever, and that we’d never see anyone like him again. But that’s how I felt. When will I see the league’s best athlete, hardest worker, smartest player and most ruthless competitor in the same body again? Last night’s doubleheader renewed my anger about the ridiculous 1993 and 1997 MVP votes, or that anyone dared to compare the likes of Kobe and LeBron to him. My generation didn’t do a good enough job of protecting what we witnessed. Just know that we will never see that again. We will NEVER see that again.

So yeah, this shit matters. Sixty years from now, someone will check out Jordan’s page (or whatever its 2071 equivalent will be) and stare at MJ’s numbers the same way I stared at Chuck Klein’s résumé yesterday. He will notice Jordan won five MVP Awards (really, it should have been eight), and hopefully, he’ll say to himself, “Wasn’t that during the era when they couldn’t figure out what ‘most valuable’ meant?”

Who knows what he’ll see on Justin Verlander’s page. I can only tell you that Verlander was the best baseball player I watched from April through August. I flicked over from Red Sox games just to watch him make hitters look silly. Of anyone making the playoffs, or hoping to make the playoffs, he’s been the most indispensable performer. Of anyone in either league, he’s the one guy I don’t want my Red Sox facing in the playoffs. He passes the eye test, the smell test and the saber test. And I guarantee Tigers fans feel the same way about Verlander that I felt about Pedro in ’99 and Clemens in ’86. That feels “most valuable” to me.

(And yes, it’s an interpretation.)

Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter and check out his new home on Facebook.

Previously from Bill Simmons:
Summer of Mailbag IV: Dawn of the Mailbag
Summer of Mailbag III: Attack of the Mailbag!
The Glorious Return of the Mailbag
Summer of Mailbag: The Revenge
Red Sox Report Card
‘Good Lord! That’s His Music!’

To submit questions for next week’s mailbag, click here; to comment on this story through Facebook, click here.

Filed Under: Bill Simmons, Justin Verlander, People, Simmons

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

Archive @ BillSimmons