Why Is There Even a Pitcher-for-MVP Debate? by Jeff Sullivan September 17, 2014 This is about Clayton Kershaw, but this isn’t about Clayton Kershaw. This is about all great pitchers and the Most Valuable Player award. We know that, in the voting, pitchers face a severe penalty. That’s the long-established track record of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, and it’s not about to dramatically change. There are writers who think pitchers need to be insanely good to be worth a high vote. There are voters who refuse to vote for pitchers entirely. We know the habits. Why are these the habits? It’s not just a writer thing, either. Consider this recent Internet poll: Should pitchers should be eligible for the MVP? Here are the responses of a learned audience: 59%: Yes 30%: Yes, if the pitcher’s way better than the position players 11%: No Even among FanGraphs readers, one-in-nine voters doesn’t think pitchers should be eligible — and another big fraction puts an asterisk on the eligibility. This is a question people argue almost every year, and the more I think about it, the more I don’t get it. I do understand how, maybe in the past, this was a fascinating and worthwhile conversation. How do you balance 700 plate appearances against 250 innings, or whatever? I get how people would’ve settled on position players being able to make a difference every day. But WAR kind of leads us to a conclusion. Pick your preferred WAR. Doesn’t matter to me. Say the best position player comes in around 8. Say the best pitcher comes in around 8. Say, for simplicity, that all of the different WARs are even in agreement. Doesn’t that function as a conversation-ender? You can always debate a given individual’s WAR, but doesn’t that rather matter-of-factly put pitchers and position players on the same scale? Doesn’t that indicate equal award eligibility? The numbers tell us that pitchers and position players can be worth the same, at the upper end. The difference, obviously, is position players play all the time, and starting pitchers play less than a fifth of the time. The second player might seem less “involved,” but then this isn’t about value — this is about the distribution of value. And then that’s just a subjective preference. You’ve read something like this before: Position players and pitchers end up being involved in a similar number of events. Position players have times at bat, and fielding opportunities. Pitchers have all their plate appearances. The numbers don’t come out exactly equal, and then position players tend to have a little more control than pitchers do, but that’s one way of saying they’re about the same. If two guys are involved in 800 plate appearances, who cares how they’re spread out? We can also look at this a little differently. For the sake of example, let’s use some numbers from Baseball-Reference. This will identify two particular players in 2014, but I’m trying to make a more general point. According to B-R, an otherwise average team in 2014 would have a winning percentage of .533 with Giancarlo Stanton starting. An otherwise average team in 2014 would have a winning percentage of .745 with Clayton Kershaw starting. If you figure Kershaw starts 20% of the time, then that team’s overall winning percentage would be .549. A position player can make a little impact a lot of the time. A starting pitcher can make a big impact some of the time. Now, that’s just a different way of expressing WAR. That doesn’t make a new point — that’s a different way of making the same point. As anecdotal evidence, you could just consider that, in 2014, the Dodgers are 21-4 when Kershaw’s taken the mound. All people are doing is arguing value distribution. Player 1 generates 10total bases in one game, then none in the next four. Player 2 generates two total bases in each of the five games. A lot of people out there would prefer the consistent impact of Player 2, even though Player 1 did a ton to improve his team’s odds of winning one game. To use real-world examples, I took all the players worth at least 6 WAR in a season between 2011 and 2013. This left me with fairly small samples, and not everything is properly controlled, but just to make a simple and general point: When those position players started, their teams won 54% of the time. When those pitchers started, their teams won 66% of the time. The best pitchers give an overwhelmingly greater single-game advantage than the best position players. This gets balanced out by the fact that pitchers might top out around 34 starts, but the advantage they begin with is huge. People argue the MVP because there’s no clear definition of “value.” But, we know what teams value more than anything else: wins. Wins are what get a team to the playoffs. No one disagrees the most valuable player is the player worth the most wins to a team. Where people disagree is the methodology. But then what matters is the end result, the overall sum. Why does it matter if a player is in there almost every game, if his impact isn’t greater than that of a player in there a fraction of the games? A hitter can spread out his contributions in a way a pitcher can’t, but a pitcher can own a game in a way a hitter usually doesn’t. Does your job pay you every two weeks? What if, instead, it paid you every work day? You’d have the same job and the same salary. At the end of the year, you’d have earned the same amount of money. A very common reason presented for ignoring pitchers is that pitchers have their own award. For one thing, hitters do, too, although no one cares about that award. For another, and more importantly: so what? I’ve read the rules for MVP voting. Most of you have, too. Pitchers are intended to be eligible. Nowhere in the rules does it instruct voters to consider the rest of the MLB award landscape. The MVP award has nothing to do with the Cy Young award. They’re different awards. They’re given out around the same time, but they’re otherwise independent. The point isn’t to make the MVP voting fair for an underrepresented population of position players. The point is, very simply, to give something to the most valuable player in the game. If that’s a pitcher, neat for the pitcher! Neat for his contract bonuses. I understand that — because I’m on one side of the argument — I can’t fully grasp the other. But it’s just weird to me there’s still an other side of the argument. Pitchers can produce as well as position players. Pitchers can get paid as much as position players. Pitchers can’t make a difference as often as position players, but when they do make a difference, they can make an enormous one. Sometimes a league’s most valuable player is a pitcher. Sometimes it is not. If that’s not how the award should be given, then that’s not what the award should be named.