Why Is There Even a Pitcher-for-MVP Debate?

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.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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PWR
Guest
PWR

If there wasn’t a Cy Young Award, I bet many more people would come around to having a pitcher as MVP.

Anon21
Guest
Anon21

Yeah, exactly. Jeff sort of brushes by this, but basically, my reasoning is that it’s unfair for pitchers to get double the award eligibility. Pitchers have their own award, and position players don’t. (The Hank Aaron Award is given to the best hitter, not the best position player.) Change the name if you must, but keep the awards separate, with the renamed MVP being explicitly reserved for position players.

Nick
Guest
Nick

And just what kind of snowball’s chance in… does a pitcher have at winning the Hank Aaron Award? Come on, no pitcher is ever going to win that. First of all most of them don’t bat hardly ever. So now that your left with pretty much only NL starting pitchers… only the good ones will even get to bat a 3rd time in a game… so thats 3 PA per start… and not when they start in an AL building… I honestly don’t see a pitcher having a chance at 100 PA. Would you ever give the Hank Aaron award to a batter that hit even say .500 over 100 PA? Of course not. What a ridiculous point.

Anon21
Guest
Anon21

No, you’ve completely missed the point. The Hank Aaron Award doesn’t take into account a player’s defense or, as best I can tell, his baserunning. It would be like if the considerations for the Cy Young Award were limited to the pitcher with the fewest home runs per batter faced. Both the Hank Aaron Award and this hypothetical “homers only” Cy Young Award leave out too many important aspects of the player’s overall game to be considered an authoritative award.

Nathan Richardson
Guest
Nathan Richardson

I don’t think the point you’re attacking is the one he’s making. The Hank Aaron award, as he points out, goes to the best hitter. The best position player may not be the best hitter because of defense.

Yirmiyahu
Member

It seems a lot more sensible and fair to deprive position players of a “best overall position player” award when they already have a “best batter” award than it seems fair to deprive everyone of a “best overall baseball player” award.

If you want an award solely for the best overall position player, then invent that award. Don’t co-opt an award that is explicitly for something else (the most valuable player).

Yirmiyahu
Member

If the consensus is that pitchers aren’t eligible for the MVP, then we should all be pissed that there’s not a “Best (or Most Valuable) Overall Baseball Player” award. It’s the award we should care the most about, and it’s stupid to not have such an award.

Wade Sammis
Guest

Another point of view: Kershaw will pitch to about 1000 batters this year – any one of which could change a game if not cause a L. he will also bat about 100 times and have about 30-50 fielding chances. Remember the double play he started off a pop bunt? If you add up all the at bats, fielding chances, stolen bases, hits, and RBIs of any position player, and forgive their strikeouts and errors, they will not have anywhere near the amount of chances to effect a game as Kershaw, or any starter. Then tweak these results for being particularly outstanding at your position. You still have Kershaw as MVP!

Simon
Guest
Simon

@Anon21

The Cy Young ignores pitcher fielding/offense, so your point doesn’t make sense.

Ted Brogan
Guest
Ted Brogan

Okay, how about we call it the Bud Selig Award of Position Playing Achievement, as inspired by the San Diego Padres’ Bud Selig Plaza.

Anon21
Guest
Anon21

Simon: Per below, it does ignore pitcher hitting, which isn’t a big deal because a) NL only and b) it has almost no impact on pitcher value. It doesn’t ignore pitcher defense.

Mao Zedong
Guest
Mao Zedong

Do we need to give an award for every “best”, doesn’t the best pinch-hitter need recognition as well?

Time for a Lenny Dykstra award.

Steven
Guest
Steven

Lenny Harris Award?

BDF
Guest
BDF

It’s for spitting tobacco and violating bankruptcy trustee rulings.

Jake Perry
Guest
Jake Perry

With all due respect how can you not name it after Matt Stairs.

Andy
Guest
Andy

I think this nails it. It’s in the name, the prestige that has accumulated over decades. I would make the MVP for position players only, then establish a new award for the best overall player. No matter whether a pitcher or PP won it in any given year, the best other type of player would get either the MVP or the Cy Young.

jg
Guest
jg

The NFL already does this. They have MVP as well as offensive and defensive player of the yeast awards. Oddly the midst valuable is often neither of the other two. Sometimes it seems like offensive POY is the consolation prize for the second best quarterback

nealcp
Guest
nealcp

See that’s a fallacy about “pitchers have their own award” as though that should disqualify them from the MVP…hitters have the “Silver Slugger” and there are “Gold Gloves” for fielding so ALL players, position and pitchers have “other” awards besides the MVP…

JamesDaBear
Guest

This would be a point if there was just one Silver Slugger or one Golden Glove given out.

Mark L
Guest
Mark L

No it wouldn’t.

Mark
Guest
Mark

This is my issue with it. Pitchers get an award in the Cy Young, and the MVP is the position player version of it. If someone created an equivalent position player award (call it the Babe Ruth or whatever), then I would be fine with an MVP award going to a pitcher. At least that way you have a legit position player only award, and a legit pitcher only award, and a top player (MVP) award.

And the Hank Aaron award doesn’t cover this because as Anon said, that’s for the best bat, not best or most valuable position player.

cass
Guest
cass

Since Babe Ruth was a great position player and a great pitcher, his name should go on the MVP Award.

Barry Bonds would be the perfect name for the Position Player Only award, but since some baby boomers would freak out about that, we can go with their hero, Willie Mays.

Cy Young can stay, even if Roger Clemens, Walter Johnson, or Greg Maddux would also be good options.

Simon
Guest
Simon

Cy Young isn’t for the most valuable pitcher, though. It’s for the best arm. Ignores fielding/offense.

D. Gooden
Guest
D. Gooden

Which goes into the top overall player award.

BDF
Guest
BDF

Is this true? Is it in the guidelines that you don’t consider a pitcher’s non-pitching contributions?

#SemperFudge

John Havok
Guest
John Havok

I agree. What MLB could do if they really cared, was announce the Cy Young and the Hank Aaron Awards first, giving the same coverage and prestige to both awards, then announce the MVP a few days later.

They would of course probably have to send new instructions to all the writers out there still sending in ballots with hammers, chisels and stone tablets… but it would be a relatively easy way to start.

Captain Tenneal
Guest
Captain Tenneal

I feel like people will stop caring about the MVP if you do it this way. It’s just gonna end up being either the Cy or the Hank winner.

Bill
Guest
Bill

It seems to me that there’s a general misunderstanding of what these awards are supposed to mean. Some argue that a pitcher shouldn’t win the MVP because they already have the Cy Young. However, these two awards aren’t looking at the same things and thus they aren’t equivalents. The fact is that the Cy Young is equal to the Hank Aaron Award, not the MVP.

Of course, some are quick to point out that the Hank Aaron Award is not a “complete” award because it only focuses on one thing (hitting), and they’re right. But, what those same people tend to forget is that the Cy Young Award isn’t a complete Award, either. It only examines a pitcher’s “pitching” without taking into consideration all of the other ways pitchers can contribute, like with fielding and through their bat. (For example, Kershaw has been worth nearly half a win with his bat and glove alone, which can’t be considered during Cy Young voting.) So neither of these awards looks at everything a player does. And yes, while pitching does make up a bigger chunk of a pitcher’s value than hitting does to a a position player, isn’t that the point of the article? Namely, that position players spread their value out over more time and in more ways, while pitchers bunch their value into a much narrower category and time frame?

And with all that said it’s not like winning the Hank Aaron Award or Cy Young is a slight against these others ways these players contribute, because there are other awards that look at these different aspects. Gold gloves honor defense for each position (even if the voting for them is often a joke).

So in the end I think the thing to keep in mind is that almost every award in baseball (including the Cy Young) is intended to honor one specific component, not the whole package. On the other hand, the ONLY award that attempts to capture every aspect a player brings to the table is MVP. An unwillingness to vote for pitchers for the MVP simply ignores the less obvious aspects of a pitcher’s value, which is contrary to what sabermatics is about.

Steve
Guest
Steve

Misunderstanding indeed… Jeff says, “No one disagrees the most valuable player is the player worth the most wins to a team.”

That’s not even true… a lot of people will then further complicate it by arguing that some wins are more important than others.

Jianadaren
Guest
Jianadaren

Or even that some team are more important than others… e.g. no MVP on a non-contender

lewish
Guest
lewish

I guess all this interesting discussion on a topic I don’t really think about leads me to wonder…is there an example of an MVP pitcher that wasn’t also a Cy Young award winner the same year? Perhaps that would help my clarity, as there seems to be many compelling angles…and by the way, nice article Jeff!

Anon21
Guest
Anon21

“But, what those same people tend to forget is that the Cy Young Award isn’t a complete Award, either. It only examines a pitcher’s “pitching” without taking into consideration all of the other ways pitchers can contribute, like with fielding and through their bat.”

Well, it actually does take their defense into account indirectly. If they’re a good defender, their ERA will be lower as a result. If they’re a bad defender, it will show up in ERA too; most pitcher misplays are of the “play could have been made” type, not the “dropped the ball” type that get assigned errors. ERA is one of the writers’ primary considerations.

It doesn’t take their hitting into account at all–except maybe extremely indirectly in W-L record. I am fine with that because pitcher hitting rarely matters. By analogy, if the Hank Aaron Award included all aspects of a player’s value except how often he gets hit by a pitch, I would be okay with that because it rarely matters. The current version of the Hank Aaron Award is radically incomplete insofar as it’s meant to crown the best position player. The current version of the Cy Young Award is barely incomplete as to pitchers in one league.

Bill
Guest
Bill

My point, though, is that there are still awards that acknowledge the different aspects of a each players game. There’s an award that acknowledges the hitting aspect of position players, as well as an award for defense. So it’s not as if position player defense is ignored — it’s merely split up, the same as with pitcher value.

You can argue that the position player value is more diversified than pitcher value, but, again, isn’t that what this article addresses? So what if a a player gets all their value in one area and another spreads it out over several if in the end the total is the same?

Now if your argument is that there really should be one award that acknowledges everything a position player does then that’s fine. I wouldn’t dispute that. However, you can’t exclude pitchers from the MVP just because you don’t think that there’s a sufficient award for position players. That’s misunderstanding what the MVP is.

Anon21
Guest
Anon21

“That’s misunderstanding what the MVP is.”

No, it’s disagreeing with your interpretation of what the MVP Award should be.

Bill
Guest
Bill

I’m sorry, but you are simply incorrect on this issue. Unless you feel that pitchers can never be more valuable than position players you are being inconsistent and should argue for a new, distinct position player award. It really pretty simple.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

The fact is that the Cy Young is not equal to the Hank Aaron award, because the Hank Aaron award is for the most impressive offensive performance, not the most outstanding position player.

Bill
Guest
Bill

And yet the Cy Young doesn’t take into account all that a pitcher brings to the table, such as his hitting and defense. It only acknowledges his act of throwing the ball. And while that is certainly the most important aspect of his job it by no means gives a 100 percent picture of his value as a player. So if you think my comparison is off I understand, but I think its a closer comparison then trying to make the Cy Young and MVP equivalant.

Again, if you think the Hank Aaron Award is too limited to actually be meaningful then thays fine. But then the logical conclusiom is to advocate a new award that honors all the aspects of a position player, not shoehorn the MVP into the existing void. The MVP asks who the most valuable player is in all of baseball, so unless you think a pitcher can never be more valuable than a position player you cannot logoically exclude them from the award.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

Does a pitcher hit 4 times a game for 150 games? Does he play for 9 innings a game for 150 games?

Not accounting for pitcher hitting or defense isn’t remotely the same thing as not accounting for position player position or defense.

D. Gooden
Guest
D. Gooden

How is that relevant though?

Bill
Guest
Bill

I think we’re talking past each other. I fully acknowledge what you just said — namely, that pitchers will add a much larger chunk of their value through pitching than position players will through hitting. I agree with that, and stated as much in my first comment. However, your point doesn’t really address mine.

1)It’s the person who says pitchers shouldn’t win MVP’s who are inconsistent on this issue. Pitchers do more than just throw the ball, just like position players do more than swing a bat. Neither of those actions gives us a 100% look at everything the player brings to the table in terms of value. But your side is the one drawing an arbitrary line in the sand and saying “one award for everything position players do, yet not one award for everything a pitcher does.” Why is that?

2)The logical conclusion for those on the other side is to advocate a new award that encompasses everything a position player does and that can only be won by said position players, not redefine the MVP. Because, unless you believe that a pitcher can never be more valuable than a position player, then we already have an award that seeks to find the single most valuable player in all of baseball, regardless of position, and thus through it we can examine every possible way a player adds to his value.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

I agree with point 2. That’s what I’ve been saying all over this thread. I want a real “Willie Mays Award,” or whatever, for the most outstanding performance by a position player.

That way they can give Miggy the MVP (because his team made the playoffs), while recognizing the fact that Trout had a better individual performance that year.

Bill
Guest
Bill

I think that’s perfectly fair. Having an award specifically for position players is a good idea. And that would take out that aspect of the “pitcher for MVP” discussion. Then we can look at the actual numbers and real arguments, which is where we should be anyways.

Luke
Guest
Luke

Yeah, I really think this is actually a simple question. There is no award for best position player, as the Hank Aaron award is for hitting, only. Add a 3rd award for the best overall position player. Then you have 3 awards: best position player, Cy Young, and MVP. That would change this debate from “is it OK to give MVP to a pitcher?” to “Is this particular Cy Young winner more valuable than this particular best position player winner?”

jg
Guest
jg

They should have proactively eliminated pitchers from MVP consideration the day the cy young was invented, or at least the day they stayed giving a cy young to each league. The real problem is that MVP predates cy young by 30 years. When there was only one award, it made sense to be inclusive. Once pitchers got their own award those days ended.

Bill
Guest
Bill

No, Luke is right. Your method suggests that we cannot compare pitchers to position players and that is simply false.