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.

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