How Pitchers Can Be as Valuable as Hitters

By Bill


As you may remember, I don’t think pitchers should be eligible for the MVP award. And were I voting today, when the rules explicitly state that they are eligible, I wouldn’t vote for one. It’s funny to me that there are people who think voters are bound to consider pitchers because the instructions say they’re technically eligible, but think voters are free to consider utterly irrelevant things the instructions more or less unambiguously don’t leave room for, like whether or not the candidate’s team made or contended the playoffs…but that’s a discussion for another day.

Jim Ingraham was the lone voter to leave Verlander off his ballot yesterday, and I think he did it for totally the wrong reason (which will be the point of the rest of this post), but he certainly had the right to do so, and I’m kind of glad someone did.

But I’ve spent some time (more than I should have, certainly) hanging around on MVP-related discussion and comment boards today, and I was shocked by how many casual or non-sabermetrically minded fans were dead-set against Verlander winning, and for what seems to me like a crazily stupid reason, the same reason Ingraham used in the link above. I’ll quote from Ingraham, since he’s considerably more literate than the dozens of other examples I’ve seen:

I know Verlander is a great pitcher. I also know, by the nature of his job, he did not appear at all in 128 of the Tigers’ games this year. That’s 79 percent of the Tigers’ season. I can’t think of any other sport in which a player who didn’t play in 79 percent of his team’s games could be voted the Most Valuable Player in his league.

And it just blows me away how relentlessly, determinedly ignorant this position is. And I think most people who get to this blog probably have the same reaction, or at least understand mine. But I was so overwhelmed by the lack of understanding of what I thought was a really straightforward, facially obvious fact — pitchers can be just as valuable as hitters — that I thought a more thorough breakdown than what we did in our blogfight was warranted.

So let’s break it down into little bits, starting with the basic question:

  1. How can a “player” who’s on the field for less than 25% of his team’s games be the most valuable?

    The one slightly hard thing about this is that there’s one tiny bit of truth to it: pitchers had a lot more value back when they were regularly throwing well over 300 innings in a season; nowadays, the most valuable player in the league according to your metric of choice is usually going to be a hitter, because pitchers just aren’t on the field as much as they used to be. But that’s innings, not games, and I don’t think it would’ve changed those people’s minds much — even Steve Carlton only started 40 games twice, and that’s still less than 25%. 

    But even now, when the league leader might top out at 35 starts and 250 innings, it’s certainly possible for a starting pitcher to be the most valuable player in the league, and it shouldn’t be that hard to see why. Justin Verlander faced 969 batters (and you could add in his total chances and a couple of at-bats if you wanted to); Jose Bautista had 655 plate appearances and handled 333 fielding chances, for a total of 988; and Jacoby Ellsbury had 729 and 394, for a total of 1123. There certainly wasn’t enough difference between the three to make quantity completely trump quality. 

    All “games played” are not created equal. In his typical game, a center fielder might bat four times and catch a couple routine fly balls. A shortstop might bat four times and come up with two putouts and three assists, only one of which necessitated anything above the minimal level of skill required to be a major league ballplayer. The starting pitcher, meanwhile, faces something in the neighborhood of 25 to 35 batters, and is the player most responsible (though obviously not solely responsible) for getting them out and keeping runs off the board. Every now and then a position player will hit three home runs and make the game-saving catch or something, but in any given game, a good starting pitcher is likely to provide much more value than anyone else on the field. 

    Why, then, is it so hard to believe that a really great pitcher, in a particularly great year, can provide more value in one average game than any position player does in five average games? It sure seems plausible to me. Maybe it doesn’t, but if you’re going to arrive at that decision, you’d better show your work; simply stating that 35 is less than 160 doesn’t come close to getting there, because while they both might be referred to as “games,” you’re talking about 35 of a qualitatively entirely different thing than the 160. Ten new top-line refrigerators is less than fifty Mr. Coffees, and they’re both kitchen appliances, but I’d have a solid guess as to which group was more valuable.  

  2. You can’t just add up the value, though. No matter what he does, a pitcher can’t impact any more than those 35 games, while a hitter has a chance to impact 162. 

    This is pure fantasy, but it’s something that I’ve discovered you’ll hear, a lot, from the more casual fan. And you can kind of get why. It’s a very romantic idea, that your truly valuable player is the guy who is always out there on the field, who, at any given moment, can change an entire game. Take it over. Carry the team on his shoulders.

    But of course, that doesn’t happen, ever. One of the great things about baseball is that no one player (or even two, really) can carry a team. A really, really great, MVP-caliber player will have a handful of those games, quite a few more total clunkers…and a ton of games where he was somewhere in between, average-to-good, a useful part of a winning effort (if the team won) but far from a world-beater.

    Take Miguel Cabrera’s gamelog (easiest, since his case is all offense). He had eight games of three hits, seven more of two extra-base hits, one more in which he scored three or more runs, four more in which he had three or more RBI. Out of the 161 games Cabrera played, that’s 20 that stand out as being take-charge sorts of performances, very loosely defined. He also failed to reach base entirely in 16, and reached first base on his own just once — through a single or walk — another 24 times. So by this quick-and-dirty method, Cabrera had a huge impact in 20 games, little to no impact in 40, and was just kind of okay in the other 101. Even each of his 20 very good games, certainly, pale in comparison to the total impact of a great start by a starting pitcher.

    And Verlander? Sorry for the really low-level analysis here, but he started 19 games in which he went at least seven innings and gave up two or fewer runs, which alone pretty much covers for all those game-changing performances Cabrera had. Verlander never threw fewer than six innings or had a true disaster start, so he didn’t have anything like the 40 clunkers Cabrera did. Did Cabrera’s standing out there have value because he could have impacted the game while Verlander was sitting on the bench, even though he didn’t actually do it? Do those 101 in-between games put Cabrera over the top? I don’t know (I suspect they’re about equal in this case, actually), but the point is that you don’t either, and you can’t tell just from counting up the number of games played.

  3. In what other sport can a guy who only plays in a quarter of the games be named MVP?

    I can’t even quite believe I have to answer this, but you hear it a lot among fans, and even a professional writer (see above). A quarterback, goalie or power forward who only played in one out of every four or five of his team’s games would never get MVP consideration. Why should baseball be any different?

    To which I hope your answer is…”really?” There’s no other sport (among the ones I know anything at all about) that has anything remotely comparable to the pitcher’s position. This is a guy (a) who exerts himself in such a physiologically unnatural and taxing way that he can’t actually go back out there for his team’s next four games (or at least three, but that’s a whole different issue), and, much more importantly for these purposes, (b) who controls much more of the game when he is out there than anyone else in the sport is capable of doing.

    For there to be any comparison to another sport at all, it would have to be something like this: say the NFL gets greedy and starts scheduling teams to play three to four games a week, so every team needs four or five quarterbacks that they rotate in and out. And the rest of the offensive players are replaced by robots, so the quarterback has roughly as much control over his one game in every four or five as a pitcher does — the quality of the defense (in this case the opposing defense), weather/field conditions and luck are your only variables, and the QB has a great deal of control over most everything else. Then, you’ve got a pretty comparable situation. And I think there’s a pretty good chance that in that game, the best quarterback is still your league MVP, even if he’s only playing in a quarter of the games. (You’d abolish the offensive & defensive MVP awards, of course, since each team would have only one offensive player in the game at a time.)

    Failing that, though, there’s just no comparison at all between the pitcher position and anyone in any other sport. Stop trying, because it’s ridiculous.

  4. It’s not even about the numbers. Get out of the stat sheets, nerd! It’s participating in that daily grind of the 162-game schedule, the flow of the grueling regular season, etc.

    Yep, I’ve actually heard that one too. The gist is: position players are really part of the team, going out there and giving everything they’ve got every day, while pitchers get to sit on their butts for four games in every five (drinking beer and eating fried chicken in some cases, apparently).

    Which, kind of like 3. above, is just a colossal failure to understand what pitching actually entails. From everything we can see, your average pitcher suffers more fatigue, and is clearly more susceptible to injury, than your average grind-it-out, in-the-trenches, 162-game-playin’ position player. You can’t compare the two in that way. It’s like if I walk a mile a day, every day, and you compete in an ironman triathlon every Sunday (but otherwise don’t exercise). The “daily grind” logic dictates that I’m working harder than you, because I’m out there every day.

    And if you want to get into speculative, metaphysical fairytale stuff like the importance of the position player’s constant presence in the lineup and on the field, what about that image of the ace pitcher as “stopper”? You know the story: if your team is on a losing streak, you feel pretty confident that when his turn comes up, that guy is going to step up and shut the other team down, because that’s just what he does? As cliched intangibles arguments go, those two seem to me to be roughly equal, to cancel each other out. 

So there it is: a pitcher who appears in 35 games absolutely can be as valuable as a position player who appears in 160, because they’ll tend to get about the same number of chances to have an impact, and a pitcher’s game started isn’t remotely the same thing as a position player’s game played, and all the other arguments you’ll hear on that front are, frankly, frivolous.

So to recap the two totally different questions:

A pitcher can be the most valuable player in the league (I don’t believe Verlander was, personally, but that’s beside the point). But:

A pitcher shouldn’t win the Most Valuable Player Award, under the current system, because there are exactly two prestigious awards per league in baseball, and the other is already dedicated exclusively to pitchers. But the name of the award aside, the award and his value are two totally different questions. 

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