My buddy, and rabid Blue Jays fan, Jay Kumar (@koomdogg), tweeted this yesterday:
"Good for Verlander, but I still feel Bautista was more valuable to his team."
The Verlander in question is Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers starting pitcher and both the 2011 American League Cy Young Award winner and the 2011 American League Most Valuable Player. The Bautista in question is Jose Bautista, a formerly meh player who has found his inner Reggie Jackson over the past two years since joining the Toronto Blue Jays.
A lot of people are feeling the way that Jay feels, although some are replacing Bautista with Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox*. Their argument seems to be (and i haven't discussed this with Jay) that Bautista plays every day in right field (or third base), whereas Verlander starts games once every 5 days. His 250 innings don't contribute nearly as much as Bautista's 513 at-bats, according to these folks.
However, i think Verlander is the deserving MVP of the American League, and i will hopefully convince you all that Justin is worthy.
The best way, in my opinion, to judge a position player against a pitcher is my personal favorite statistic, WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. What this means is that, let's say that Albert Pujols blows out his knee on Day 1 of the season, and is replaced by the Cardinals AAA first baseman - how many wins will the Cardinals miss out on because of Pujols's absence? This is done by aggregating all their individual stats and comparing them to the stats of an "average" player out of AAA. It is not a perfect stat, but is a good cross-position tool.
Verlander and Bautista were tied for the AL lead in WAR this year, with 8.5. So, if either were not playing this year, their teams would have lost 8 or 9 additional games (let's round up for this argument). Let's use that to determine the value to both teams:
The Blue Jays finished 81-81, for fourth place in the AL East. Without Bautista, they would have finished 72-90, still good for fourth place. Although Bautista made the team interesting to watch, even during a mediocre season, without him, the Jays would have had almost exactly the same season overall.
The Tigers finished 95-67, first place in the AL Central. If you subtract the 9 wins that Verlander would have brought, Detroit would have finished 84-76, still finishing first in their division.
So, neither player pushed their team into the playoffs. However, the Tigers did make it, and in Verlander's 4 post season starts, his team went 2-2, so he was a wash in the post season.
I think the real judgment here has to come from which player would be harder to replace if he went down. Right field, Bautista's primary position, is a relatively easy position to fill defensively. His offensive prowess would be much harder, but if a few other parts were swapped out, finding 9 wins via offense over the course of a season wouldn't be impossible (although would probably hurt the team defensively).
As for Verlander, premier starting pitcher is maybe the hardest thing to come by in all of baseball. Verlander is durable, strikes out a ton of batters, and doesn't walk very many. To make up 9 wins from the rotation, that is significantly tougher. Plus, if you lose Verlander, there is no guarantee that whoever replaces him will go as deep into games as he does, therefore taxing the bullpen more, which might lead to less wins from the bullpen.
When a starting pitcher gets the ball, he has more control over the game than anyone else on the team. When a starting pitcher is as dominant as Verlander, it is hard to argue that he isn't the most valuable player in the league this year. One way to help this situation is to establish a Willie Mays award - it can be for hitting what the Cy Young award is for pitching, and the MVP can be what it is supposed to be - the award for the player who helped their team the most this year. If that is the case, Bautista is the Willie Mays winner for 2011.
But Verlander is still the MVP.
*Ellsbury may be more valuable to his team than Bautista because he plays a more premium position and adds the component of speed to his game. Although he lacks some of the plate discipline of Bautista. I'd take either on my team.