Should pitchers be in MVP discussion?

I’m intrigued by the Justin Verlander-for-MVP debate.

It’s a debate that I’ve been interested in for awhile but have never fully formed an opinion on the matter, primarily because there hasn’t been a pitcher seriously in the discussion in quite some time. But Justin Verlander has captured the attention of the baseball world and appears to have a realistic shot this season.

Most MVP voters these days either stick to their guns and argue that batting average and RBI are the stats to consider. Those trying to join the new era of stats tend to lean toward WAR (without having any real concept of what WAR is in most cases).

For the purpose of this discussion, however, I’m going to analyze pitchers and hitters using win probability added (WPA). Without going too deep into the explanation of the stat (check out the link for Fan Graph’s definition), I will say this: I like WPA because it evaluates each plate appearance and puts it into perspective, something which WAR and other raw stats fail to do. In other words, all 20 home run seasons are not created equal, and WPA recognizes that.

The argument against pitchers being involved in the MVP discussion is that they only appear in roughly 30-35 games per season. As a result, they have zero impact on roughly 1/5th of their team’s season. Based on this it should come as no surprise that the WPA leaders are typically hitters.

Looking at cumulative numbers, however, probably isn’t the best way to compare hitters and pitchers. In theory, a player could increase his team’s chances of winning by three percent in all 162 games and post a WPA of 4.86 – good enough to warrant MVP consideration. However, he would have done so without ever impacting his team in any real meaningful way. For a more realistic example consider this: there have been 55 games this season in which Jose Bautista impacted the Blue Jays WPA by 1 percent or less.

So to determine an MVP shouldn’t we look at the games in which the candidates – hitters or pitchers – actually made the difference?

Let’s look at games in which players increased their team’s chances of winning by at least 20%.

The names on the list are similar, but the margin is considerably smaller. Jose Bautista, despite playing everyday, has only had one more 20%-impact game than Verlander and James Shields (who probably deserves more Cy Young consideration than he’s getting).

So is Verlander the MVP?

Well, the debate shouldn’t end here but clearly he deserves to be considered. Bautista may appear in more games, but he and Verlander truly impact the outcome at roughly the same rate. I’m not willing to weigh on who should win just yet, but after looking closer at these numbers I am comfortable putting pitchers into the MVP conversation.

Shelley Duncan enters rare club

Shelley Duncan belted two home runs off Justin Verlander on Wednesday afternoon, joining Carlos Quentin as the only players to do so this season.

But that’s not that rare club.

It was Duncan’s second multi-home run game of the season, despite the fact that he’s hit just eight homers all season.

Assuming he fails to hit another home run this year (a very realistic possibility) he’ll join Jose Hernandez, Frank Duffy and possibly Jack Hannahan as the only Indians with two multi-home run games in a season in which they hit eight or fewer total homers (since 1970).

David Huff’s remarkably improbable performace

Last season David Huff became the 14th pitcher in Indians history to make at least 15 starts with an ERA over 6.00. In fact, he entered his start on Monday with the 3rd worst ERA in franchise history (min. 200 innings).

So what he did in Minnesota – seven shutout innings – was nothing short of remarkable. And yet, it’s becoming common in Cleveland.

Prior to Huff, the two Tribe pitchers with with an ERA over 6.00 were Cliff Lee (2007) and Fausto Carmona (2009). The following year each pitcher became the Indians’ ace, with Lee winning the Cy Young.

Carmona, of course, has regressed back into his 2009 version, but the fact remains that the Indians coach staff (mostly the minor league staff I would assume) has done a remarkable job rebuilding these pitchers.

It’s hard to know who to give credit to because the staff has changed so much in recent years, but someone is clearly doing something right. Let’s hope Huff can keep up the good work.

Trade options for the Indians

If the Indians are going to win the AL Central, it’s safe to say they’ll need to upgrade the offense, most likely with an outfield bat.

What the Indians really need here is someone to replace Grady Sizemore. He may be the worst everyday player not named Yuniesky Betancourt. [Not willing to admit how bad Sizemore’s been? Then consider this depressing stat: when he gets two strikes on him with runners in scoring position, he’s 0-25.]

But we know the Tribe front office is too stubborn to sit Sizemore down, so realistically all we’ll get in the outfield is someone to replace Austin Kearns.

Here are some options (ordered from most to least realistic):

Laynce Nix, Nationals
Nix is a similar player to Morse and is also one of the Nationals’ expiring contracts.  He can play all three outfield positions, but is really more of a corner outfielder at this point in his career. His OBP (.314) is nothing special, but he could provide some pop off the bench (12 HR, 25 XBH).

Jeff Francoeur, Royals
After an impressive start to his career, Francoeur has fallen flat in recent years. He’s only 27, but his .303 OBP over the last four seasons has limited his playing time in Atlanta, New York, Texas and now Kansas City. He plays good defense though and has some pop (12 HR) which makes him a decent candidate for the Tribe.

Mike Morse, Nationals
Since the Indians aren’t looking for an everyday player, Morse makes a lot of sense. He can play both corner outfield positions as well as first base and even could even play third base in a pinch. This season he’s batting .302 with a .351 OBP and 15 home runs. He’s a free agent at the end of the season, meaning he could be a reasonably cheap option.

Josh Willingham, A’s
Willingham would be another two-month rental who could provide some pop off the bench (12 HR this year). The downside is he’s a liability on defense and has limited experience playing anywhere but left field.

Casey Blake, Dodgers
It’s been five years since Blake played the outfield consistently, but he’s worth mentioning in the discussion. He could be had for a relatively cheap price, and would provide the Indians with depth at third and first as well as right field. He definitely isn’t he most exciting option on the market, but could be a nice veteran addition who could platoon at a few positions. Blake has  a team option for next season, which likely would not be picked up.

Marlon Byrd, Cubs
Byrd is one of the more expensive options out there (he’s still owed $6.5M in 2012), but may be worth it if the Indians have any doubts about Sizemore’s ability to stay healthy (which they definitely should). Byrd can play all three outfield positions. He was somewhat of a late bloomer, but has blossomed into a consistent player. Over the past five seasons he’s batting .296 with a .350 OBP – and he’s right on target to match those numbers this season (.307/.349).

Reed Johnson, Cubs
Johnson is an ideal fourth outfielder who can play all three positions reasonably well.  In limited playing time in Chicago he’s batting . 325 with a .368 OBP. He may give you the most bang for buck, as the Cubs are paying him just $900,000 this season, the last year of his contract.

Coco Crisp, A’s
Crispy wouldn’t give the Tribe the power they’d ideally like to get, but his versatility and speed make him an ideal candidate to be the fourth outfielder. He’d be a two-month rental who could be valuable in pinch-running situations down the stretch and in the playoffs.

Ryan Ludwick, Padres
The former Indian will be a hot commodity and may be too expensive for the Indians to rent for two months.  He isn’t having a great season (.305 OBP) but there’s reason to believe his power will increase once he’s out of Petco Park. The Tribe could reasonably rely on him for 8-12 home runs down the stretch.

Hunter Pence, Astros
Pence is undoubtedly the best option if the Indians have questions about Sizemore or Choo’s health. He’s just 28 years-old and is still subject to arbitration through 2012. He’s a consistent 25 HR-per-year guy who would give the Indians offense a huge boost. However, they’ll need to part with Sizemore, Brantley or Choo sometime in the near future to make room for his bat.

Vinnie Pestano shuts down righties

Vinnie Pestano has been arguably the Tribe’s most dominant pitcher out of the bullpen this season. And a big reason why is his dominance vs right handers. Righties are batting just .132 against Pestano (lefties are at .245).

The key to Pestano’s success has been his ability to slam door once he gets two strikes on the hitter.

Pestano has forced a two-strike count on 58 right-handed batters this season. In those 58 plate appearances, 44 have resulted in strike outs (75.9%), nine have recorded an out in the field, four have walked and just one (Scott Rolen) recorded a hit.

For those keeping score at home, that’s a .019 BA for righties in two-strike counts.

Pitching efficiency rating – 1st half stats


A couple years ago I developed a stat called PER (pitching efficiency rating). The purpose of the stat is pretty self explanatory – to determine how efficient a pitcher is. I had posted the data on another site previously, but just uploaded some of it here where I’ll leave it for now (check out the new tab in the nav bar at the top for a full explanation.)

Updating the numbers is a tedious task, but I’ve used this time over the break to update the first half data.

Your first half PER leader is Justin Verlander, narrowly edging out Jered Weaver. Here’s the rest of the top ten:

First Half PER Leaders – Min. 12 Starts
Justin Verlander, DET
Jered Weaver, LAA
Roy Halladay, PHI
James Shields , TB
Cole Hamels, PHI
Johnny Cueto, CIN
Dan Haren, LAA
Cliff Lee, PHI
CC Sabathia, NYY
Felix Hernandez, SEA
As for the Tribe, the numbers are about what you would expect. Justin Masterson leads the way (.793), followed by Josh Tomlin (.784) and Carlos Carrasco (.743). In a distant 4th is Fausto Carmona (.719). And among pitchers with at least 10 starts, only two guys have posted a PER worse than Mitch Talbot‘s .682.
As a whole, the Tribe’s PER is just .745 – ranking the 23rd in all of baseball. In the AL, only the Blue Jays, Royals and Orioles have a worse team PER. That just goes to show you how dominant the bullpen has been. But if they’re going to remain in the playoff race, it’s safe to say they’ll need more consistency from the starters.
If you’re familiar with excel, feel free to download the data here and play around with the stats yourself. There’s a pivot table as well as all of the raw data in another tab.

Some All-Star break notes on the pitching staff

  • Justin Masterson is the 8th Indians pitcher (min 75 IP) since 1990 to post a pre-All-Star Break ERA under 3.00 and the first since Cliff Lee in 2008. The lowest in that time span belongs to Tom Candiotti (2.24 in 1991), who didn’t even make the All-Star team that year.
  • Josh Tomlin is the 10th Tribe pitcher since 1990 with double-digit wins before the All-Star break, but does so with the third-highest ERA of the group. The highest ERA in that span belongs to Charles Nagy, who went 11-4 with a 4.43 ERA in the first half in 1999.
  • Joe Smith has the lowest ERA (min 25 IP) of any Tribe pitcher since 1957 (as far back as the baseballmusings database goes). The previous low belonged to Derek Lilliquist (1.13) in 1993.
  • Amazingly, Mitch Talbot‘s 6.33 ERA is only the 4th highest by a Tribe pitcher (min 10 starts) before the break in the past five seasons. Fausto Carmona (7.42 in 2009), Jeremy Sowers (6.93 in 2007) and David Huff (6.71 in 2009) were all worse. Carmona’s dreadful 2007 first half is the Tribe’s worst since 1957. The only other pitcher above 7.00 in that span was Don Schulze (7.27) in 1985.