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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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.

Sizemore is incredibly easy to strike out

Grady Sizemore has never shied away from the strikeout. In each of his four full seasons he’s struck out at least 130 times. This year has been particularly rough for Sizemore in the strikeout department, however, mainly due to the fact that once he gets two strikes on him, he’s done.

Sizemore has worked his way into a two-strike count 73 times this season, 45 of which have resulted in a strikeout.

The reason for his lack of success with two strikes? He’s a free swinger.

Of the pitches Sizemore has offered at with two strikes this season, he’s whiffed on nearly half (48%) – easily the worst percentage in the majors. That number has risen steadily over the past few seasons – from 35% in 2008 to 38% in 2009 to 40% last season.

To better understand just how bad he’s been, consider this: the major league average is just 21% – less than half of Sizemore’s current rate.

The issue for Sizemore isn’t just that he struggles to make contact, but also that he’s chasing pitches out of the zone. With two strikes Sizemore swings at 45% of the pitches he sees out of the strike zone – well above the MLB average of 36%.

So while Manny Acta tries continues to juggle the lineup to find the best spot for Sizemore, the fact remains that he isn’t going to hit anywhere until he learns to shorten his swing and remain patient with two strikes.

Can Brantley continue his hot start?

According to Baseball-Reference, Michael Brantley has made contact 92% of the time he’s taken the bat off his shoulder this year – good for the second highest percentage in the majors, trailing only Minnesota’s Denard Span (94%).

Brantley's patience at the plate may be too predictable

Brantley’s contact percentage, coupled with his incredible patience at the plate, is why he has been so valuable when leading off for the Tribe this season.

However, a pattern is emerging which may tip pitchers off as to how to attack Brantley.

Brantley may rank among the leaders in contact percentage, but he also has the 7th-lowest first-pitch swing percentage (10%).

His patience, particularly at the start of an at bat, allows him to get into a hitters count and pick out his pitch. However, when pitchers do get ahead in the count, Brantley struggles. After falling behind 0-1, Brantley is batting just .200 with a .254 OBP. When ahead 1-0, his OBP is .524.

Fortunately for Brantley he has gotten ahead 1-0 in over half of his plate appearances this season, but if his patient approach remains too predictable pitchers will start feeding him fastballs early in the count to get ahead.

It’s only a matter of when, not if, pitchers make this adjustment. And Brantley’s continued success will depend upon his ability to then adjust to their adjustments.

An encouraging sign for Matt LaPorta

In 2010 Matt LaPorta looked more and more like a bust every day, and his .239 BA through 15 games this season isn’t exactly doing a lot to change that.

Patience is key for LaPorta

However, there is one stat that could serve as an encouraging sign.

LaPorta appears to be more patient at the plate this season, which is certainly what you want to see from a potential middle-of-the-order hitter. His OBP of .345 this season is 35 points higher than his career average. And a part of the reason for that may be his ability to fight back once he falls behind in the count.

LaPorta has seen a first-pitch strike 19 times this season. In those plate appearances he has as many strikeouts as hits (four apiece). However, he also has drawn three walks – good for a .368 OBP after a 0-1 count. In 2010, LaPorta had just a .255 OBP after falling behind 0-1.

Clearly it’s a small sample size, but I’ll take what I can get from LaPorta. Any sign of life is a good thing.

Masterson continues to roll

Justin Masterson improved to 3-0 on Friday night against the Orioles, becoming just the third Indians starter to win each of his first three starts while posting an ERA under 2.00 in the past 30 seasons.

Masterson joins Cliff Lee (2008) and Greg Swindell (1988), each of whom would go on to win at least 18 games that season. In 2008, Scott Lewis also accomplished the feat, but did so only after being recalled from Buffalo in September.

While it’s nice to imagine Masterson turning in a Cliff Lee-like season (or even a Swindell season, for that matter) realistically we have to assume he’ll fall back down to earth.

Through his first three games his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is only .242. Over the course of a full season, we can expect that number to even out around .300, meaning to this point he’s probably been the beneficially of some balls simply rolling his way.

Along those same lines Masterson’s FIP (fielding independent pitching – in essence, ERA with defensive variables removed) is 2.64. However his xFIP (expected FIP) is 3.43. Like his BABIP numbers, this indicates that Masterson has benefited from a certain amount of luck through his first three starts.

By no means do I intend to take away from what Masterson has accomplished through three starts. It undoubtedly is a good sign and hopefully a confidence booster, but we need to keep our expectations realistic.