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September 4, 2008 at 9:33 AM

Sabathia for NL MVP?

A couple of weeks ago, I opined that C.C. Sabathia of the Milwaukee Brewers might be a solid candidate for National League MVP honors. One of the comparisons I made was with the impact that Pedro Martinez had with the Boston Red Sox during his fabulous, Cy Young Award winning 1999 season. Martinez finished second in AL MVP voting that year to Pudge Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers.
A couple of days ago, Buster Olney of ESPN visited this very topic in his blog.
Should the MVP be given to the biggest difference-making player in the league’s competition? If so, then you could make a strong case for Sabathia, who has almost single-handedly propelled the Brewers from a secondary playoff contender to a solid wild-card front-runner, going 9-0 with a 1.43 ERA for Milwaukee…
…If I had a ballot this year, these are the names that would be at the top, as of today: No. 1, Pujols; No. 2, Sabathia; No. 3, Reyes.

It was only a matter of time, really, based on what Sabathia has done.
Obviously, much will be told in September. If Pujols and his Cardinals fade from playoff contention while Sabathia and his Brewers remain the wild-card leaders, more weight will be given, pardon the pun, to the contributions made by Sabathia. The latter has not been awarded a no-hitter after a disputed official scorer’s call his last time out. Remember, the MVP is not a VORP or Most Outstanding Player Award. I know there are some folks, including some in my business, who would like to see it become that.
I disagree. In my view, the MVP awards in baseball are some of the most interesting in all of sport and one reason is the honest effort made by writers to determine actual value. Not objective, stats-driven value. But subjective, talk-to-the-players, dissect what the numbers truly mean, put-yourself-in-the-clubhouse kind of value. And more often than not, I’d argue that they get it “right”. Because the very nature of this award is not meant to have a “right” or “wrong” answer. It’s meant to spark debate.
My favorite vote was in 2003, when Alex Rodriguez edged out Carlos Delgado. In my view, the voters did not get it “right” and Delgado — who had sustained his offensive excellence on a more consistent month-to-month basis — should have won. For me, the Texas Rangers announcing that they planned to trade A-Rod the day he won his award was proof enough of exactly how “valuable” he was.
But that’s just my opinion. One man’s. Who am I to say my fellow voters got it “wrong”?
The truth is, that year’s vote was interesting because no one was sure who should win. There was no one dominant player propeling his team to a playoff spot. A-Rod and Delgado played for teams whose only playoff hope had vanished months earlier.
It was out of that scenario that Shannon Stewart emerged as an MVP hopeful based on what he’d done for two months with the Minnesota Twins. In the end, Stewart placed fourth in voting. Many observers without a vote (and some with) chided the choice. But talk to players inside that Twins clubhouse, and they would tell you that Stewart changed the culture of that year’s team. That his work ethic and approach to the game helped them win more than any other factor, including Johan Santana. So, whose word do you take? The players on the team that won? Or the folks crunching numbers? It makes for interesting debate. And I would not change it.
Back to Sabathia.

If Stewart can be said to have pushed the Twins from a so-so contender to a playoff team that year, what about a pitcher who singlehandedly wins 80 percent of his starts and whose team has won 10 of the 11 games he’s taken the hill?
That’s what Sabathia has done. He’s thrown 11 consecutive “quality starts” since his trade from the Indians two months ago. Six complete games. Eight games of seven innings or more. Bullpen need a break? Hand it to him. That’s the part about some pitchers and their impact on teams that never gets measured. When more than 50 percent of your outings are complete games, the impact on the bullpen is enormous. This guy has done in two months what Roy Halladay has been lauded for doing over an entire season in Toronto.
For me, that merits MVP consideration.
At this pace, Sabathia will go roughly 13-0 for the Brewers over a three-month span. Throw about nine complete games. All with an ERA below 1.50 and a strikeouts-to-walks ratio approaching 5-to-1. And his team will go about 16-0 over that period. A team that is now 4 1/2 games up in the wild-card race and 5 1/2 games ahead of the Pujols-driven Cardinals.
Some will argue that a pitcher can’t be an MVP if he switches leagues. I don’t see how this is relevant to an MVP discussion when the overall body of work is excellent. In this case, Sabathia will still win roughly 20 games combined, post an ERA well below 3.00. He’s already thrown 210 innings with a month to go in the season.
The numbers are there overall.
In Stewart’s case back in 2003, he’d produced a .796 OPS with a .347 on-base percentage in Toronto before his trade to the Twins. In Minnesota, the numbers jumped to an .854 OPS with a .384 OBP, stats much more befitting a leadoff hitter. Remember, Ichiro in 2001 and Miguel Tejada in 2002 already established the precedent that a mid-800s OPS was good enough to win an MVP race when other intagibles were looked at. But the argument was still there and remains valid. That Stewart’s numbers prior to the trade were somewhat ordinary. I’ll buy that to an extent. It doesn’t affect what he did for the Twins one iota. But it does further the case that perhaps Stewart nearly became an MVP simply by going on a two-month hot streak.
It doesn’t apply in Sabathia’s case. His numbers have remained excellent all season. He is not benefitting from having “saved” his arm in Cleveland for a second-half push. He’s already thrown over 200 innings, as we’ve shown.
I’ve seen comparisons made by some of you between what Sabathia is doing now and what Randy Johnson did for the Astros after the Mariners traded him 10 years ago. The final two months of 1998, Johnson went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA in 11 starts and pushed Houston into the playoffs. For it, he finished 21st in the MVP vote.
It’s a good comparison. But there are two major differences.
For one, the 11 starts made by Johnson for the Astros that year are exactly the same Sabathia has already made for the Brewers. With a month to go in the season. Sabathia will make roughly five more starts for his new team than Johnson did. That’s a much greater body of work — about a third more. Much more chance to have an impact. Sabathia has already thrown two more complete games for the Brewers than Johnson did for the Astros. Johnson also posted an ERA+ of 106 in Seattle prior to making the switchover, while Sabathia’s was 115 in Cleveland. So, again, an edge for Sabathia.
The second important factor is that the Johnson vote also came before the Pedro Martinez runner-up slotting in MVP balloting that took place in 1999. Let’s face it. Life does not occur in a vacuum. There are actions that occur one year that have reactions in years that follow. Certainly, the Johnson case, where pitchers as MVP candidates was discussed, had a certain impact on the Martinez vote. Which will impact any Sabathia vote, as will the Stewart precedent. Our legal system works that way. Off of precedents. Why should MVP voting not follow the same democratic principals?
In Martinez’s case, he made 29 starts and went 22-4 with a 2.07 ERA for the entire season in Boston, throwing 208 2/3 innings. He added a 23rd win in one of two relief outings that year. He threw five complete games. His strikeouts-to-walks ratio was 10-1. Boston won the wild-card race.
A few things stand out, namely the ERA (pitching home games at homer-happy Fenway Park) and the strikeout totals. Martinez was dominant, yes. He deserved the Cy Young Award. But in terms of MVP votes and carrying a team to victory? Sabathia has already thrown more complete games. His innings totals will easily trump what Martinez did and he will wind up making more starts.
Martinez went seven innings or more in 20 of his 29 starts. So, in 70 percent of his outings. With the Brewers, Sabathia, as we’ve mentioned, has done it at an ever-so-slightly higher rate. But roughly the same level of excellence and lack of dependance on his bullpen.
The real impressive part of what I saw out of Martinez is that his team won 23 out of his 29 starts. About 80 percent of the time. Over an entire season. Sabathia will never get a shot at helping the Brewers over an entire year. We know that. But he’s already seen them win 100 percent of the time he takes the mound. All of them in higher-pressure situations, with his team fighting to stick with other playoff contenders after July had already begun.
Let’s say that continues over his next five starts, assuming he makes that many. Do 100 percent wins over 16 starts come close to replicating 80 percent of wins in 29 starts? I’d say it starts to come close. The gap also narrows when you throw in more complete games by Sabathia. His “value” of giving the bullpen more nights off. And let’s not forget, he’s been under pressure to produce since he got to Milwaukee. All of the games he’s played have pretty much been “second half” affairs. No April warm-up months. And once again, Sabathia has already thrown more innings in 2008, with a month remaining, than Martinez did in 1999.
Look, in no way am I saying Sabathia would beat Martinez of 1999 in a head-to-head Cy Young race. Only that the factors considered in MVP voting do tend to point to Sabathia deserving a shot. Strikeouts are great in Cy Young voting, but don’t have as much relevance in MVP consideration. A team winning every time a starter takes the mound (or 90 percent of the time) should have great relevance. Provided a starter isn’t getting Glen Perkins-like run support (which is not the case here). Sabathia is earning each and every one of those victories credited to him and having great impact on his team.
While Johnson set the standard 10 years ago, I would argue, with the evidence already presented, that Sabathia is setting a new standard. Reaching heights Johnson’s great 1998 two-month span with Houston did not climb. If he keeps it up, there will be plenty to debate.



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