"If I get a vote, me," he told Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday. "Yeah. Who wouldn't [spend it on himself]? It's not like I would just vote for anybody. But, yeah, if pitchers are eligible, and they clearly are, I would say I'm worthy of it. I wouldn't say I should win it over others. I haven't really delved into those numbers. So if I had a vote, I'd have to do my homework, but I wouldn't discount my season."
Here's the rub: Verlander believes that even with his sparkling 24-5 record, his league-leading ERA and strikeout total and the majority of the media discussion focused on his MVP worthiness, the likelihood of a starting pitcher taking the award for the third time since 1968 is minimal.
"I don't plan on winning," he said.
Verlander isn't sandbagging. He just knows history and the reticence of voters in the Baseball Writers Association of America to give proper due to starting pitchers in MVP voting. Plenty around the game share such sentiment, too, from Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira(notes) ("There is an MVP for pitchers: It's called the Cy Young Award," he told Sports Illustrated) to Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who in August told Detroit-area radio station WXYT: "I don't think a pitcher should be the Most Valuable Player."
Leyland has backtracked since and Tuesday couched his feelings about Verlander's candidacy accordingly: "My thoughts are that Justin Verlander is the top candidate to win the MVP today as the way the voting is set up."
It's set up to afford the voter full subjectivity, regardless of position. The first line of an MVP ballot reads: "There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means." The last says: "Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters." In between are allusions to "actual value," "number of games played" and "general character, disposition, loyalty and effort."
Voters tend to disregard pitchers even with the mandate not to. Only Vida Blue in 1971 and Roger Clemens in 1986 have won the award since baseball lowered the mound to 10 inches. Certainly there have been worthwhile candidates, from Steve Carlton in 1972 to Ron Guidry in 1978 to Doc Gooden in 1985 to Pedro Martinez(notes) in 1999.
Martinez went 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA that season and struck out 313 hitters in 213 1/3 innings. He gave up only nine home runs and 37 walks. His ERA was nearly 2½ times better than the league average. He was the best player in baseball, and he finished second to Pudge Rodriguez because two writers left Martinez completely off their 10-player ballots.
"And that just shows you as the voting goes," Tigers catcher Alex Avila(notes) said. "I'm not sure of all of his numbers, but they're probably better than what Justin's put up this year, and that's crazy."
Verlander's numbers actually match up better with Clemens' from '86. The seasons are eerily similar, and that's beyond their success (both won their divisions) and the relatively muddled group of candidates behind them.
"I just remember when I was younger [hearing about] guys like Roger Clemens winning MVP," said Verlander, who, when read the numbers Tuesday by Fox Sports' Joel Goldberg, immediately knew they were Clemens' from '86. "That was awesome. That really sticks out. Every year there's a Cy Young. Not very often is a pitcher an MVP. And if a guy has an extremely special year, he should win an extremely special award."
The question for voters is: Just how special is Verlander's season? How does it stack up with Jose Bautista(notes) leading the league in on-base and slugging percentages while providing valuable positional flexibility? How does it compete with Curtis Granderson(notes) leading the league in the classic counting categories (RBIs and runs) while sitting one homer behind the league-leading Bautista's 42? How does it compare to Jacoby Ellsbury's(notes) possible 30/30 season with top-of-the-line defense in center field?
Advanced metrics lend Verlander's candidacy some credence. Baseball-Reference.com gives him 8.5 Wins Above Replacement, tied with Bautista for the league lead and ahead of Ellsbury (7.3) and well ahead of Granderson (5.3). The FanGraphs version of WAR doesn't even have Verlander as the best pitcher in the AL – it instead crowns CC Sabathia(notes) – and ranks him behind Ellsbury (8.7), Bautista (8.2) and Granderson (7.1).
Wonkiness aside, Verlander is finishing the season with aplomb. He has thrown 15 shutout innings over his last two turns and is 12-0 in his last dozen starts, with his regular-season finale set for Saturday against Baltimore.
"I'm just glad I'm able to mix it up a little and give people something to talk about, something to argue about," Verlander said. "That's what baseball's about, isn't it? Numbers and arguing and who should and who shouldn't."
Verlander won another AL Player of the Week award Tuesday, which, as Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski acknowledged upon congratulating him, "is becoming old hat." There is at least one bigger award ahead for Verlander – and maybe the biggest of all.
Justin Verlander can win the MVP, as long as 28 voters ignore their predecessors' tendencies and biases and breathe life into the Little MVP Campaign That Could.
He's just not holding his breath.
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