Yesterday was a terrific day to have no real life responsibilities, because I was able to be logged onto Twitter at 2:00 when the AL MVP was announced to the world. Because there were so many qualified candidates this year (Justin Verlander, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Bautista and Miguel Cabrera all had legitimate cases to be made), there was going to be outrage no matter who won. The fact that it eventually went to Verlander, a pitcher and Cy Young award winner, only caused more.
Let me start by saying what everyone else has said. Verlander winning this award only highlights even more how much Pedro Martinez deserved to win in 1999. His case has been made ad nauseum, and rightfully so. However, saying Pedro should have won in '99 has absolutely nothing to do with Verlander winning in 2011. I realize that people didn't vote for Pedro because they didn't believe pitchers should win, but that is just going against the clearly stated rules in the MVP rulebook. The rules say to vote for the most valuable player in the league that year, batter or pitcher. So even though Pedro got robbed after the greatest single season in baseball history, that should have absolutely no bearing on the MVP award. It is a tiring and lazy argument to try and change history based on present-day results.
Now, that being said, did Verlander actually deserve the AL MVP? My totally honest and mostly unsatisfying answer is maybe. Would I have given him a vote in the totally unrealistic world in which I am allowed to have a vote for this sort of thing? No. But I am not jumping off any bridges because he did. Personally, I think I would have put him fourth, behind Ellsbury, Bautista, and Cabrera. Verlander deserved the Cy Young, for sure. However, I just don't think his season was so spectacular that he should have received the league's highest individual honor. If you throw away his gaudy "winzz" total, you have a pitcher who had an outstanding, but non-historic year. In fact, his 7.0 fWAR was 1.3 fWAR behind his career-high, set in 2009. The reason being that he struck out more batters and allowed fewer home runs, while still allowing more total runs. Verlander's fWAR, 2.40 ERA, 2.99 FIP and 3.12 xFIP were good enough to merit his inclusion in the MVP race, and even good enough to prevent major outcry from me over him winning, but that doesn't necessarily mean I believe he should have won.
To me, the main battle for MVP should have come between Ellsbury and Bautista. They were the two premiere offensive players in the American League this year, and were one-two on the AL fWAR leaderboard, with Ellsbury contributing 9.4 WAR and Bautista 8.3. Looking more closely at the numbers, you can see that Bautista was superior on offense, putting up one of the best non-Barry Bonds seasons of the past decade. The Blue Jays 2010 breakout star, coming into the season carrying the pressure of a big contract extension, followed up with an even better 2011, putting together a .302/.447/.608 triple slash line. He also put up a ridiculous .306 ISO, .441 wOBA and 181 wRC+. Bautista improved his walk rate from the year before, up to 20.2% in 2011, while keeping his K-rate stagnant at 16.9%. Comparing Ellsbury's offensive numbers are not favorable for him, although he wasn't exactly blown out of the water, either. The Red Sox center fielder finished 2011 with a .321/.376/.552 triple-slash line, along with a .230 ISO, .402 wOBA and 150 wRC+. Ellsbury also did all of this with a BABIP just nine points above his career average, while Bautista's was 32 points above his.
The thing that puts Ellsbury over the top, for me, are his base running abilities and nifty glove work in a premium position (And, although admittedly a problem, there is probably be a touch of bias involved because I watched him play everyday. There is a strong case regardless). Looking at base running first, Ellsbury is clearly the faster runner. He stole 39 bases in 54 tries, good for a 72% success rate. Bautista, on the other hand, stole just 9 bases in 14 tries, for a 64% success rate. Also, Ellsbury legged out 51 doubles and triples, compared to 26 for Bautista. Looking next at the defensive work of the two players, Ellsbury wins that battle as well. Ellsbury put up 15.6 UZR and 15.7 UZR/150, all in center field, which is one of the most premium defensive positions in baseball. Bautista, on the other hand, split time between third base and right field, with most of his time being spent in the latter. He was above average at third base, with a UZR of 3.8 in 205 innings (19 UZR/150 in a small sample size), but much worse in right field (-8.6 UZR; -10.6 UZR/150).
Now, typically I put more emphasis on offensive performance, which pretty much makes this a dead heat. For the tiebreaker, I think you have to consider that Ellsbury put these numbers up in the leadoff spot for the vast majority of the year, while also playing a premium position. However, while I think Ellsbury did deserve the AL MVP this year, it was no great travesty that he didn't win, although if it wasn't him, it probably should have been Jose Bautista.
P.S. I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention the biggest source of outrage yesterday. Michael Young, everybody's favorite intangible-laden player, inexplicably received a first place vote from Dallas reporter Evan Grant. On Twitter, many people unleashed their personal opinions on the matter at Grant, some more maturely than others. Of course, I agree this was a dumb vote filled with homerism. However, and this is not an original thought, we must give Grant credit for revealing his ballot. Unfortunately, this is not required by the BBWAA, but Grant did it anyways. I'm sure he knew he would receive a lot of backlash for his ballot (he also had Bautista 7th!), but he was man enough to publicly reveal his ballot, and for that we should praise him.