Since time began, pitchers have been underrated. In today’s game, pitchers generally make up about half of the players in baseball, yet only 77 have been inducted into the Hall of Fame compared to 172 position players and even 68 manager, executives and umpires. In addition, only 14 pitchers have won the AL MVP since 1911 with just six of those coming after the advent of the Cy Young award in 1956, the most recent being Justin Verlander in 2011 when he won the triple crown.
There have been two major arguments for why this is. First, considering only starting pitchers, they only play every five days and second, looking only since 1956, they have their own award. The second argument is valid enough that this article is not to state that Corey Kluber or Chris Sale should win the AL MVP, but just that Kluber should be considered the MVP of the Cleveland Indians, an award that doesn’t really exist although we do name someone as such each year on BurningRiverBaseball. Of course, that second argument doesn’t really account for the fact that only 8 pitchers won the MVP before the Cy Young existed, but that’s a story for another day.
Back to the first point, on the surface this seems to make sense. Especially since he missed a month of the season this year, Kluber will end the season just over 200 innings pitched compared to someone like Francisco Lindor who has already played over 1,300 innings in the field in addition to having near 700 appearances at the plate. The problem with this is that these numbers are not a fair representation of how much a player has played and how important their play has been.
Of course, this is why stats like WAR have been created and here, Kluber easily leads the team with a 6.9 compared to 6.0 for Jose Ramirez. This might not be particularly easy to understand, however, if you undervalue what 200 innings mean.
Instead of looking at innings for how much a pitcher has worked, we should instead look at total batters faced. Just as we credit hitters based on what they do in plate appearances, we shouldn’t only include outs made, but also those at bats that ended in walks, hits, errors or any other random event that was anything other than an out. For a fun example of why we need this in hitters as well, check out the career stats for the two players below:
Without context, which player is the better hitter? It seems an easy decision by these stats alone that player B is at least slightly more productive than player A. Well, player A is Francisco Lindor coming into this season through 257 games played while B is Bob Lemon through 615. Of course, Lindor has nearly doubled all these numbers in 2017 alone, but in general, this is why we never solely look at counting stats.
To compare the production of a pitcher and a hitter more fairly, we should look at exactly how many plays they impacted on the field. Coming into Sunday, Corey Kluber had faced 728 batters, had 32 total chances on defense and two plate appearances for 762 individual interactions on the field of play. Ramirez, the Indians only other contender for team MVP, had 615 plate appearances and 481 total chances in the field for 1,096. These still, however, are not equals.
According to fangraphs, 147 of Ramirez’s plays at second have been considered routine (he had a 98% success rate on such plays) as were 165 plays at third (97% success rate). While these shouldn’t be discounted entirely, they certainly don’t have as much effect on the game as Ramirez’s plate appearances or Kluber’s on the mound. Fangraphs has Ramirez as being about 6 runs better than the average defender at his two positions, so that seems a fair amount to credit.
For the sake of equality, however, we can say that an at bat from the mound is of the same importance and difficulty as one at the plate and Kluber with 728 and Ramirez with 615 are close enough to compare, especially when you give Ramirez the added bonus of a few defensive runs saved. The chart below shows some stats (through 9/23) for the two players, but rather than show total numbers, everything is shown as a percent of plate appearances for the season and compared to the league average for a pitcher and a hitter, rather than each other.
|League AVG SP||20.5%||8.0%||–||3.6%||.258||–||–|
|League AVG H||21.3%||8.4%||4.5%||3.4%||.256||.325||.429|
When compared to the league average, there’s no question that each player has his strengths and no discernible weaknesses. Some are more obvious than others as Ramirez has struck out significantly less than the rest of the league, while Kluber has walked significantly less than the rest of the league. Both are extreme stand outs at their positions and that’s why they both have already earned more than six wins above replacement this year. Picking between the two is extremely difficult and there is a lot more that should go into it than this small chart, including but not limited to Ramirez’s slightly below average base running (-1.8 BsR). There is also one more week of games to make a slight different including one more start. On Sunday alone, Ramirez added another home run to the numbers listed above and Kluber added eight innings, ten strike outs and no earned runs allowed.
The goal here is not to necessarily argue one over the other, but to show that despite pitching just once every five days, Kluber has actually had more plate appearances (TBF) than Ramirez. Where I see one separation is in comparable players around the league. There are four hitters in the AL with a WAR of 6 or more right now and another at 5.7 (Lindor) that all have an argument for the AL MVP. Jose Altuve has the overall advantage, Aaron Judge has the power, Mike Trout has the reputation and the two Indians have better defensive numbers than the others combined.
On the mound, however, there are really only two contenders for Cy Young, Chris Sale and Kluber. Both will end the season with a WAR above 7.0 with Sale taking the lead thanks to about 20 extra innings despite Kluber having a significantly lower ERA and walk rate. If he had played the full season, there is little doubt that Kluber would be leading all these races by a mile, but since that isn’t the case, there is an argument for the competition in all of them.
You now know my argument for Kluber as Indians team MVP this year, but you can see how the rest of the crew votes and who actually wins when we post the Burning River Awards during the ALDS.