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Johan Santana: MVP?

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Pitchers are generally left out of the MVP conversation, and generally, I agree.  This season, with this pitcher, should an exception be made?

The last time a pitcher won an MVP was 14 years ago, in 1992, when Dennis Eckersley won for the Oakland Athletics.  In 1986, Roger Clemens took home the AL MVP.  1984, Willie Hernandez.  1981, Rollie Fingers.  But instead of listing off all the pitchers who took home Most Valuable Player, let's look at it this way:  Since the inception of the Cy Young award in 1956, only 9 pitchers have won MVP.

There are many arguments against having a pitcher as the league's Most Valuable Player.  He doesn't play everyday, pitchers have their own award, it's hard to judge pitchers and position players on the same level.  Indeed, the question that plagues the All Star game nominee debacle also haunts this award conversation:  What are the specific benchmarks required for consideration?

Honestly, I can't answer that question.  I know you have to have a great season, by any measure.  Generally, the player has to be on a winning team, but even this is up for debate.

Statistical Evidence

Stat    Total   MLB Rank
Wins       18    1
ERA      2.77    1
GS         32    2(t)
IP      220.2    2
K         237    1
K/9      9.67    1
K/BB     5.39    2
Avg      .213    3
WHIP     0.98    1

First in wins, ERA and strikeouts.  Second in innings pitched, he trails Bronson Arroyo by 2 outs.  If we were having a conversation about Cy Young winners, which we're not, there isn't another pitcher in baseball to run with Johan Santana.  But when talking about MVP, it's just Exhibit A.  These numbers get Johan in the door.

In 1965 and 1966, Sandy Koufax led all of baseball in ERA, strikeouts, wins and innings pitched.  He was the last player to do so.  Wins were certainly a better measure of a pitcher's worth in the 60's, when a starter was far more likely to go the distance and therefore completely responsible for the performance from the mound the entire game.  In today's game, wins alone are a deceptive measure of a pitcher's worth.  Still, we all know that to win 18 games, Santana needed to be keeping his team competetive in a vast majority of his starts.  While having "only" 15 wins should no longer discount a pitcher from being in the race for awards, if Santana wins 20, that has to work in his favor.  Being only 2/3rds of an inning behind the MLB leader in innings pitched, it's well within the realm of reality that Johan Santana could be the first pitcher in 40 years to lead baseball in all four categories in one season.

Running the gamut from control to stamina to deception to sheer dominance, a glance at Santana's statistics will tell you the story of his season.  He's been baseball's best pitcher, by many of baseball's traditional standards.

Non-Traditional Standards

Bill James, Baseball Prospectus, Moneyball...there's a not-so-new breed of statistical analysis to America's favorite pasttime.  Oftentimes, when the traditional statistics lie, taking the time to look at the newer numbers can paint the entire picture.  What follows are two of the more common advanced statistics, Value Over Replacement Player and Wins Above Replacement Player.

Name         VORP    Name         WARP
T. Hafner    80.6    J. Santana   10.3
A. Pujols    78.2    D. Jeter      8.9
J. Santana   76.1    R. Halladay   8.3
M. Cabrera   76.0    J. Mauer      8.0
R. Howard    74.8    T. Hafner     7.9
D. Jeter     74.6    J. Dye        7.6
C. Carpenter 68.9    M. Tejada     7.5
B. Webb      67.5    G. Sizemore   7.0
R. Halladay  66.2    D. Ortiz      6.9
D. Ortiz     66.0    M. Ramirez    6.0
G. Sizemore  65.0
C. Beltran   65.0
J. Dye       64.1
B. Arroyo    63.8
R. Oswalt    62.6
M. Ramirez   61.3
M. Tejada    60.9
J. Mauer     60.0

This first column is every player in baseball with a VORP equal to or above 60.  Note the location of other American League MVP candidates like Derek Jeter, David Ortiz and Jermaine Dye.  The second listing is of the American League players taken from the group to the left.  Again, Johan Satana comes out ahead of other mainstream MVP candidates.

The Role of the Most Valuable Player

It's the easiest thing to do:  picking the player with the biggest offensive season as the league's MVP.  This isn't what the award is for.  While hitting .300 with 40 homers and 120 RBI certainly qualifies you for an MVP conversation, it shouldn't make you an automatic winner.  An MVP award is for a player whose performance has played a major role in the course of the team's success.  This implies a big statistical season; it doesn't imply the winner should be a hitter.

Does an MVP candidate need to be on a team that will participate in October?  Maybe.  At the very least, these players have more going for them than a player whose team doesn't compete.  Travis Hafner is an excellent example.  If he wasn't injured and out for the rest of the season, his numbers could be MVP-worthy.  Yet the Indians haven't been in the postseason conversation for quite some time.  In addition, the Indians wouldn't be competing for the crown with their biggest performer in the lineup.  Season's end for Cleveland is the same with or without their basher:  it ends on October 1.  While Cleveland is obviously better with Travis Hafner than without him, his presence hasn't changed the fortune of his team in a meaningful way; the season for the Indians still ends in two weeks.

By either measure, Santana fits the bill in his role with the Twins.  In a starting rotation changing faces more often than (pick one:  Madonna changes accents, Michael Jackson changes noses, Pamela Anderson gets married, Family Guy cuts to a flashback), Santana has been a constant.  In nearly every start he gives his team a chance to win.  He's given the rotation much needed stability.  His ability to come up huge when it's needed has helped propel this team from being one of the league's bottom-dwellers to being a single game out of first place.  And those stats, well, they speak for themselves.  All these things combine for a pivotal role that's helped a team, a winning team, surge toward the playoffs.

Defining the role of the MVP is certainly a vague job.  No matter what your measure, however, it certainly appears that Santana has fit this role as a performer and a leader.

Bias Against Pitchers as MVP

Ultimately, Cy Young is for a pitcher.  It's an award named for a pitcher, after all.  Most Valuable Player, MVP...well, it's not MVH.

If you want to argue that a pitcher doesn't play everyday, well, that doesn't fly.  As legit of an argument that "he plays everyday" is, it ignores the impact that a pitcher has on the game.  As a starting pitcher, Santana has a direct effect on each and every opposition at-bat through five, six, seven, eight...even nine innings, in that game.  A position player never has this kind of an effect or impact, not even as a catcher.  It's unusual for a hitter or a fielder to have an impact on two consecutive at-bats in a game, much less three, much MUCH less enough at-bats to put together an inning.  If playing everyday is an advantage for a position player, how is being a part of every opponent at-bat not an advantage for a pitcher?

This argument becomes the impact of 550-600 at-bats per season versus the impact of 230+ innings of work per season.  An average of 25 at-bats per week to roughly 10 innings per week.  There's no denying the impact a player like Derek Jeter or Jermaine Dye has on a game; there's no reason to ignore the impact of a player like Johan Santana.

Conclusions

If we were having a conversation about who should win the Cy Young award, which we're not, the answer would be Johan Santana.  This discussion, however, is about the American League's Most Valuable Player.  By any measure, Johan Santana should be a candidate.  When comparing him against other pitchers, he's the best.  Historically, he's having a fantastic season.  When comparing him to position players, VORP and WARP insist he's on the same level as the top players in the game, including Albert Pujols.  When comparing his role on the team and his effect on his team's success, Santana comes out on top.

No matter what benchmark there is to be reached, our Venezuelan southpaw has proved his worth.  I'm not saying he should win the award, because there are plenty of players who deserve consideration.  All that's right is that he should be considered with these players, because he deserves it.  He's earned the right to be the first player in 14 years to win; to be the 10th pitcher since 1956 to take home the MVP award.  Whether or not he can take home that award, whether or not he's even considered, is up to people I have no sway over.  Hopefully these people don't exclude Johan, just because he's a pitcher.  He's earned his shot.  Because frankly, even if you're asking for a historically great year, you're getting it.

Pitchers Winning MVP Since 1956
Year  League  Name
1956    NL    Don Newcombe
1963    NL    Sandy Koufax
1968    AL    Denny McLain
        NL    Bob Gibson
1971    AL    Vida Blue
1981    AL    Rollie Fingers
1984    AL    Willie Hernandez
1986    AL    Roger Clemens
1992    AL    Dennis Eckersley

Go ahead, say it out loud.  Johan Santana, MVP.