November 3rd, 2011
Justin Verlander kept repeating a phrase all year when reporters asked: If you expect greatness, greatness shouldn’t surprise you. The recognition of that greatness, though, might be a surprise for a few people.
As badly as he might want MVP-type recognition, he couldn’t be sure he was going to get it, a question more of precedence than performance. His first chance came from his peers, who decided he was the best player in baseball this year — not just best pitcher, best player.
As a result, Verlander became the second pitcher ever to win MLB Player of the Year honors at the annual Players Choice awards. Whether or not it was a surprise for Verlander, it was clearly meaningful as he talked about it on a conference call with reporters.
“Coming from your peers makes it all the more special,” Verlander said. “I think with all the talk about should a pitcher be able to win MVP or a top player award, I think it shows a lot of support for my fellow players to be able to vote me for that. I think it means a lot. When it comes from your peers, the guys you’re playing with, the guys you’re playing against, it’s special.”
The Player of the Year award covers both leagues, and dates back to 1998. Before then, the MLB Players Association had one award for each league’s best pitcher, and one for each league’s best position player, with no mixing.
The last pitcher to win MVP honors from baseball writers, Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley, did it in 1992, six years before the Players Choice awards added their equivalent. Some pitchers made their case since. Pedro Martinez won it in 1999. Randy Johnson had a case in 2002, as did Johan Santana in 2006. They all won pitching triple crowns and led their teams into the postseason, but they still didn’t have the resume Verlander posted in 2011.
Though Verlander didn’t allow himself to reflect on his season until the Tigers’ run through October ended in the AL Championship Series, his fellow players had to reflect a lot sooner than that.
“Obviously from a personal standpoint, it was an amazing year,” Verlander said. “I worked extremely hard for this, and I told you guys a few times, if you expect greatness it shouldn’t surprise you. I’ve always expected myself to be able to pitch this way. It still doesn’t surprise me that I did.”
Yet it still surprised him to be mentioned with Martinez, Santana, Johnson and others among the greatest single seasons in baseball history.
“Looking back and seeing how the numbers stack up, even to be mentioned in that category, I know it doesn’t measure up to some of them, it’s still pretty special,” Verlander said. “I think it’ll be a season I remember for a long time.”
Verlander easily beat out Angels All-Star Jered Weaver and Rays ace James Shields for AL Outstanding Pitcher. His competitors for MLB Player of the Year were his former Detroit teammate Curtis Granderson, who hit 41 homers with 119 RBIs while leading the league with 136 runs scored, and Boston’s Adrian Gonzalez, who finished second to Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera in batting average at .338 while driving in 117 runs and posting a .410 on-base percentage.
To beat them out was big. Verlander tried to match that with what he did with his winnings. The Player of the Year honor comes with a $50,000 grant from the Players Trust to the winner’s charity of choice. AL Outstanding Pitcher brings another $20,000. Verlander took that $70,000, added $30,000 of his own and split the total between two veterans hospitals in metro Detroit.
The John D. Dingell Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Detroit and the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System in Ann Arbor will receive donations of $50,000 each. Both took part in the Verlander’s Victory for Veterans program this summer, allowing veterans who sustained injuries or illness serving in Iraq or Afghanistan to enjoy a game from Verlander’s luxury suite at Comerica Park on days when Verlander started.
“I added a little bit to make it a nice round number,” Verlander said. “I wanted to donate some of my own money because it’s a personal cause. It’s something I believe in. This is something I feel greatly, so I wanted to give some of my own money.”
Only one Major League hitter posted a better OPS than Cabrera, and it wasn’t Adrian Gonzalez. It was Jose Bautista. Gonzalez hit 76 points lower than Cabrera.
Cabrera posted higher on-base and slugging percentages (again, he led the league in the first category), scored more runs, hit more home runs and more doubles than his former fellow Marlins farmhand. He led such specialized stats as Wins Above Replacement (7.3 to 6.6, according to fangraphs.com), had a higher isolated power rate, had more runs created, had a higher win probability, and enough other numbers to keep going for a while.
Cabrera did not win the Silver Slugger at first base. Gonzalez did.
What gives? Well, the best explanation is that the Silver Slugger is very much like the Gold Glove. In some cases, it might be worse. This might be one of those cases, and I’ll explain why.
Like the Gold Glove awards, managers and coaches around the league vote for the Silver Sluggers. They make out their ballots toward the end of the season, but not at the very end. They have enough things to do at the very end of the season with their own teams.
With the Gold Glove ballots, that usually doesn’t matter. A great defender is seen as a great defender, no matter what happens from one week to the next, in part because defensive stats aren’t followed and aren’t changed that much in that short of a stretch. Hitting stats, of course, are a lot different, which makes the Silver Slugger a lot easier to critique.
Cabrera wasn’t leading the league in hitting with a week left in the season, and he wasn’t particularly close. Adrian Gonzalez was on his way, and his challenge was seemingly coming from Michael Young. Cabrera hit 17-for-29 with four doubles, four homers and eight RBIs over Detroit’s final eight games and turned a great season into an excellent one, maybe even MVP caliber. It was just in time to sway the batting race, too late to sway votes.
How can a batting champion not win a Silver Slugger? Pretty easily, it turns out. NL batting champ Jose Reyes was left out, too. No AL batting champ had been snubbed since Michael Young in 2005, but look over the 32-year history of the Silver Sluggers, and Cabrera is the 12th such victim on the AL side. In the National League, it’s even more common. Reyes is the 13th. Nobody, however, is going to argue that Troy Tulowitzki wasn’t deserving as the NL shortstop.
Add together the snubs, and a league batting champ makes the Silver Sluggers about 60 percent of the time. Conventional wisdom suggests that those who get snubbed usually don’t hit for more than batting average, but that’s not always the case. Larry Walker batting .350 for the Rockies in 2001 with 38 homers and 123 RBIs, and he didn’t make it. Nomar Garciaparra hit .372 in 2000 with 21 homers, and A-Rod still beat him out, just as he did when Nomar drove in 104 runs with a .357 average a year earlier. Terry Pendleton won an NL batting crown and NL MVP in 1991, but lost out on the Silver Slugger at third base because Howard Johnson led the league in homers and RBIs while hitting just .259.
Does that make it right for Cabrera to get snubbed? Heck no. But it does put some history on it.