Blogfight: Should Pitchers Win the MVP?

By Bill and The Common Man

Blogfight, a gentleman’s game. Blog fight, a test of wills.

If you follow Bill and The Common Man on Twitter, you may have noticed that they had a short disagreement a couple weeks back about whether pitchers should be eligible to win the MVP award.  Bill, ever the jackass, wrote that he wanted to cruelly expel them from the process by legal means or simple shunning, stripping them of their basic rights as a baseball player and a human being.  The Common Man benevolently believed that all who played baseball should have a chance to win the award, as befits their God-given human dignity.  Unable to come to an agreement in 140 characters or less, they agreed to pistols at dawn to settle the issue. 

When neither showed up, owing to them both being cowards not wanting to get shot, they decided to settle it via a blogfight.  Each will get an opening statement (which they wrote without reading the other’s comments) and then a chance to respond.  Feel free to continue the debate with them, or with each other, in the comments.

Bill’s Opening Statement 

I’ve long been of the opinion that pitchers get a raw deal when it comes to MVP voting. They’re players too, and the instructions sent to voters specifically say they’re eligible. The best pitcher certainly can be more valuable than the best position player. (I hate the argument — put forth by Bert Blyleven on Fox’s game of the week just Saturday, and adhered to by a whole mess of others — that position players go out there every day while pitchers do not, so position players must be more valuable. Hitters might bat 25 times in five games; starting pitchers might face 25-35 batters every five games.) So I’ve always thought they should be on more or less equal footing with the hitters in the vote.

I don’t think that anymore. No one convinced me of the error of my ways or anything like that; I just changed my mind. And I can’t remember why I ever thought that all that was a good idea in the first place.

Here’s the thing: there are really two awards that matter, to fans, media, and fellow players: the MVP and the Cy Young Award. There are a bunch of other awards, but (with the exception of the Rookie of the Year Award, which is a different beast) nobody cares about them. One of the two biggies is exclusively for pitchers, so it just makes sense that the other be exclusively for hitters. Albert Pujols can’t possibly have a year at first base that’s so great that the writers give him both the MVP and the Cy Young: why should Roy Halladay be able to?

And that’s really about it; I just can’t think of a good reason to award the MVP to a pitcher, who already has exclusivity in the sport’s other big award. Yes, Roger Clemens was great in 1986 (not his greatest, actually, but nonetheless great). But so was his teammate Wade Boggs, and there are always (or almost always) going to be position players who are very worthy of recognition, even if they’re not quite as worthy. Even if you think Clemens was more valuable than Boggs that season (and he may well have been), isn’t it better, since one of the two major awards is already specifically earmarked for Roger, to give Wade the other?

I suppose you might say “if that’s the way you want it to be, the rules/instructions should be written that way.” And I’d agree, they should (until they give the hitters their own Cy Young-type award that can be taken seriously), but I don’t think it’s strictly necessary in order for the voters to do the right thing. The voters are given a lot of discretion about who they vote for or don’t, and don’t have to explain themselves (they should have to, I think, but they don’t). I suspect that they’ll keep voting exactly the way they want to regardless of how they’re instructed, and that consequently, pitchers will continue not to fare well. And, as I’ve just decided, that’s just exactly the way it should be.

The Common Man’s Opening Statement

The notion that pitchers should not be eligible for the Most Valuable Player award is not just nonsensical, but it’s frankly a bit unfair. Pitchers are players too. Most of them even swing a bat from time to time. They field their positions. They run the bases. And it’s the pitcher, more than any other individual player, who controls the outcome of a given game. This is not to say that pitchers are inherently more valuable, over the course of a season, than hitters. In fact, the opposite is almost certainly true, especially in this day of five (or six!)-man pitching staffs and rampant reliever use. However, if a pitcher contributes the most value to their team over the course of a given season, there’s no reason to exclude them from consideration.

For one thing, hitters already have multiple awards commemorating their awesomeness. Perhaps in the past it made sense to separate out pitchers and hitters, but that was before the Hank Aaron Award (which is given to the best hitter in each league and which, by rights, should be shaped like a warhammer) debuted in 1999. While the award doesn’t get the same press-coverage as its counterpart, the Cy Young, that is hardly the fault of either the Cy Young Award or the pitchers. It’s also not the fault of Hank Aaron, who certainly deserves to have an award celebrating great hitting named after him. The Silver Slugger Award is also given each year to the best offensive player at each position, ensuring that Mark Reynolds could get his season commemorated without worrying about how many balls clang off his iron mitt or get airmailed past the first baseman.

Indeed, if you wanted to eliminate pitchers from consideration for the MVP, you would either need to eliminate the Hank Aaron Award altogether (which would be a slap in the face of one of America’s greatest treasures) or add an extra award for the “most valuable pitcher,” and deal with a whole additional set of argument about what “value” means. But in the current arrangement, where pitchers and hitters each have their own award, to not award the MVP to a pitcher who is the most valuable player in the league would be fundamentally unfair.

It’s also contrary to the rules and traditions of the BBWAA. Here are the voting criteria the BBWAA gives to voters, according to Anna McDonald of The Hardball Times (h/t to Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk):

“The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931: (1) actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense; (2) number of games played; (3) general character, disposition, loyalty and effort; (4) former winners are eligible; and (5) members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.”

A pitcher is essentially a defender. Indeed, he’s the primary defender. He sets the game in motion, and his pitch will help determine whether the ball is hit in the air or on the ground, to the right side or the left side of the field, or even if it will be hit at all. Indeed, sometimes he doesn’t even have to throw a pitch, if his pickoff move is good enough. And, of course, he also is responsible to field his position on balls hit back to him.

The trouble is not that pitchers are eligible, it’s that they win the award more often than they deserve to, even at the relatively low rate they do win. Therefore, there’s really no need to exclude pitchers. Instead it’s more important for voters to get educated about how players contribute their value, and how much that value they tend to contribute. Pitchers are already largely and rightfully are not considered more valuable than hitters. But if the right pitcher comes along, like Pedro Martinez in 1999 or Bob Gibson in 1968, it’s only fair that that player get acknowledged for the value he adds to his team. If he’s the most valuable player in baseball, give him the damn award.

Bill’s Response

That’s all fine, if what you’re into is living in your own little made-up world having nothing at all in common with the one the rest of us have to live in.

Yes, yes, pitchers can be every bit as valuable as hitters. We’ve established that already. And accordingly, of the two major, more or less equal awards, they each get one: pitchers get the Cy Young, position players the MVP.

It’s really too bad this isn’t a video debate, because I’d like to see you bring the Hank Aaron Award and Silver Sluggers into the discussion while trying to keep a straight face.

First, the Hank Aaron Award is (ostensibly) for the best hitter, not the best position player, so defense factors in even less than it typically has in the MVP race. Second, it’s a popularity contest — they keep changing how they select the winners, but they’ve traditionally relied quite a bit on fan voting. The combination of those two factors would be why, of the 24 HAAs to be given out to date, nine have gone to first basemen or DHes, seven to corner outfielders, and six of the remaining eight to either Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter.

A Hank Aaron Award Winner should be worth more.

Third, Aramis Ramirez has won one. I don’t know if the voters got him mixed up with Hanley or what, but A-Ram wasn’t one of the twelve or fifteen best hitters or position players in the National League that year (2008), any way you look at it. It’s like Andre Dawson winning the MVP, except that the Hank Aaron Award matters so little to people that Ramirez didn’t even have to hit a bunch of home runs to trick people into thinking he deserved it.

Which leads to the fourth point — no one cares. I’m in complete agreement with you that Hank deserves better, but the fact is that he’s not getting it. The award they named after him (like most things Bud gets his fingers in) is a farce. Sometimes it’s handed out to the MVP, more often it’s kind of a consolation prize to the runner-up, and sometimes (like with Ramirez) it comes completely out of nowhere…but whatever the theory they’ve used to pick the winners in a given season, one things remains constant: No. One. Cares. I’m pretty sure that if you give me a minute I can name all the MVPs and Cy Youngs since 1999 off the top of my head, but if I hadn’t looked just now for the purpose of writing this article, I could never have given you a single Hank Aaron Award winner with any certainty.

And the Silver Slugger is even worse, of course. A to-scale hierarchy of baseball awards would look about like this:

Cy Young
Rookie of the Year
Manager of the Year
Gold Gloves
(1000 more blank lines)
Roberto Clemente Award
Rolaids Relief Man Award
(34,497 more blank lines)

MLB Clutch Performer of the Year Presented by Pepsi
Hank Aaron Award
The TWIB Awards
Silver Sluggers

If you want to argue that those things should change, such that the Cy Young and Hank Aaron Awards are on equal footing as role-specific awards with the MVP floating above and going to the best overall pitcher or position player, I’m totally with you on that. That’s a great idea, for the future, and baseball should be pressured to do that. But that’s not the way it is, not even close, and no voter (and maybe not even all of them working together, at this point) has the power to change that. What the voters can do, however, under the system as it currently exists, is decline to cast a vote for a pitcher, keeping some semblance of order in the wildly imperfect universe we live in.

Under the current system, where there are exactly two major awards and one of them is reserved exclusively for pitchers, to vote to give the other one to a pitcher, on the basis that the two groups can be equally “valuable” and that hitters arguably-theoretically-but-in-no-way-realistically have their own Cy Young-parallel award, is bizarrely unbalanced and strikes me as highly unfair and hard to defend.

The contrary argument is directly parallel, really, with the kind of Hall of Fame voting/advocacy we both despise. Crotchety old guy (usually a fan, not an actual voter) sees the words “Hall of FAME” (all caps, always) and thinks best of the best, cream of the crop, Willie and Mickey and Babe, etc., and he refuses to support anybody that doesn’t meet those standards. He’s applying a ridiculously formalistic standard that bears no relation at all to what the actual, real-life Hall of Fame has ever been, but he’s got this idea that this is what the Hall should be (or an incorrect idea that it’s what it used to be), so never mind that it completely ignores reality, he’s going to keep seeing it that way, effectively substituting our reality with his own vague idealized version that’s so far from ever coming to pass that it’s just not even worth paying any attention to.

Same thing here. You see the words “Most Valuable PLAYER” and think, well, gosh, pitchers are players, and they’re valuable, and the rule says you can vote for them, so put them in! Only you’re ignoring the fact that pitchers already have a near-perfect equivalent of the MVP award for which only they are eligible, and that hitters/position players don’t have anything else that comes anywhere close to carrying with it the cachet the Cy Young brings, so if you accept that in any given year at least one hitter and one pitcher in each league will be worthy of some recognition, the only thing that makes sense is to divide the two major awards along those lines. What you’re doing, then, is just as blindly formalistic and out of touch with reality as Hall of FAME guy.

A great pitcher can be just as valuable as a great hitter…which is why the pitchers’ MVP Award, which happens to be named after Denton True Young, gets almost exactly as much attention and prestige as the hitters’ version. Until we get a third award people will actually take seriously, that’s exactly the way the voters should treat it.

The Common Man’s Response

Wait, let me get this straight: You agree with The Common Man that the Hank Aaron Award should be elevated in prominence and popularity, that the methods for choosing it should be improved and standardized, and that, to properly convey the same thing as the Cy Young, it should also encompass fielding? Why are we still arguing? That’s exactly right.

But since that’s not happening right now, you seem to think the best way to approach the situation is to either change the rules for the MVP vote to eliminate pitchers, thereby making it less likely that the Hank Aaron Award ever achieves its rightful status, or institute a de facto ban on pitchers winning the award, which would essentially do the same thing? Your proposal doesn’t actually fix that problem at all. It just kicks it down the road a ways. In the meantime, you would drastically change the long-established rules for MVP voting, rules that would have to be changed back once the Hank Aaron Award would receive its due. And then, when this mess is finally resolved, we would have extra footnotes in the record books about how the voting rules changed and when, and who was eligible for what when, and why. Ugh.

How is that a viable position? If the problem is with the Hank Aaron Award, fix the Hank Aaron Award, and leave the other two honors in place as is. Give Hank Aaron the recognition and respect he deserves, rather than marginalizing the award that bears his name even further. Leave the pitchers and their eligibility out of it and get to the heart of the matter. Because the MVP itself doesn’t seem to be the problem, the lack of recognition for the hitters (from which they are apparently not really suffering, given they’ve won every vote since 1992) is.