The numbers all argue Cleveland Indians starter Shane Bieber should be MVP
The idea of giving the MVP to a pitcher is only really raised when a pitcher actually deserves to win the award, which basically means that to even ask the question is to answer it affirmatively. By objective measures, Bieber has been the most valuable player in the American League this season.
So why even consider anybody else?
In response, baseball’s Negative Nellies generally offer three excuses, none of which, if you think about it at all, make any sense. The process of refuting them is also the process of confirming Bieber’s MVP status.
Excuse 1: The MVP ought to play for a contending team.
Refutation: Under the rules established for the 2020 post-season, which qualify eight teams in both leagues for post-season, Bieber’s Indians remain well-positioned to shrug off their current eight-game losing streak and qualify on that basis. So … never mind.
Excuse 2: Bieber is a pitcher and pitchers have their own award, the Cy Young. The MVP should be reserved for hitters.
Refutation: Says who? Rookies have their own award. Should they be disqualified for MVP consideration? Just last year, NL Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso finished seventh in the MVP voting. Rookie of the Year Award winners routinely get MVP votes; Aaron Judge finished second in 2017, and Corey Seager was third one year earlier.
Beyond that, pitchers routinely are considered for the MVP. Just last season, eight received MVP votes, although – especially in the cases of Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom – not as many as they should have got.
In fact, since the establishment of the Cy Young Award in the 1950s, 10 pitchers have actually won the MVP … some not so long ago. Clayton Kershaw won in 2014, and Justin Verlander three years before that.
Have voting philosophies regressed that much just in the last five seasons?
Excuse 3: Pitchers only pitch every fifth game, so they cannot be as valuable as every-day players.
Refutation: Of course they can, and to argue differently is just silly. Use your brain a bit. While it’s true that a pitcher may only work every fifth game, he has a far greater impact on the outcome of that game than any hitter. If he’s any good at all, that pitcher is positioned to influence 25 or 30 batter-pitcher matchups per game, five to six times as many as any hitter.
That’s a week’s worth of impact compressed into a single game.
We can establish this unerring rule by comparing the actual impact of Bieber in 2020 against the actual impact of one of his principal contenders for MVP this season, Chicago’s Jose Abreu. If you want to substitute your own personal MVP candidate for Abreu, feel free to do so; the math won’t change much.
Through games of Sept. 16, Bieber had faced 247 opposing batters. That means he has influenced 247 batter-pitcher outcomes. Abreu had made 213 plate appearances, giving him a chance to influence 34 fewer batter-pitcher confrontations than Bieber.
So Bieber has actually provided more quantity than Abreu, not the other way around. But what about quality?
In those 247 batter-pitcher confrontations, Bieber has allowed 40 base hits and 16 walks. Of those hits, four were doubles and six were home runs, adding up to 62 total bases allowed. He has, in other words, allowed just over three-tenths of a base per confrontation.
Since just over four of every five batters Bieber has faced have been retired, he has also compiled an .813 out percentage. Keep those numbers in mind as we move back to Abreu.
There is no arguing with the idea that the Chicago White Sox first baseman has had a great season. In his 213 plate appearances, he has racked up 66 hits and drawn 11 walks. He’s also been hit twice. Those 66 hits, 11 walks and two HBPs have amounted to 140 total bases. He has been retired 134 times.
That means Abreu has gained about two-thirds of a base (the exact number is .657) for every plate appearance. His out percentage is .629.
The comparison is telling. Bieber has influenced more outcomes than Abreu. Measured by out percentage, he has been successful 81 percent of the time. Opponents have only accumulated less than one-third of a base against him per try.
Abreu has gained a fraction under two-thirds of a base per plate appearance. While that is very good, it is below Bieber’s .316 bases allowed percentage.
Meanwhile, Abreu has earned at least one base during 37.1 percent of his batter-pitcher confrontations. But Bieber has denied opponents any base 81.3 percent of the time.
You can run the AL numbers any way you want. They all come up in Bieber’s favor.
WAR: Bieber has 2.9, Lance Lynn is runner-up at 2.7, Abreu is at 2.4, and DJ LeMahieu 2.3.
OPS+/ERA+: Bieber is 302, Dallas Keuchel 203, Lance Lynn 191, Nelson Cruz 183, Mike Trout 178.
Win Probability Added or Pitcher Wins: Bieber 2.4, Brandon Lowe 2.1, Lynn 1.8, Michael Brantley 1.4, Keuchel 1.4, Ramon Laureano 1.4, Kenta Maeda 1.4.
Ten days remain to be played, enough time to change the numbers. But for the moment, the American League MVP contest has – or ought to have – a clear front runner: Shane Bieber.