Detroit's ace pitcher Justin Verlander registered a once-in-a-generation performance this year. Still, even that magnificence may not be enough to overcome some baseball writers' biases against awarding the Most Valuable Player award to a pitcher. But a video game—Sony's acclaimed MLB 11 The Show simulation—suggests anyone who votes against him is flat wrong.
Verlander, scheduled to start tomorrow in Game Five of the American League Championship Series, won 24 games, struck out 250 batters, and had a 2.40 earned run average this year. That means, roughly, he was extremely effective as a starting pitcher, sent a lot of mumbling batters back to the dugout, and even if the Tigers didn't win, he didn't surrender a lot of runs. Leading a league in victories, strikeouts and ERA is considered the pitching Triple Crown, and it practically assures the Cy Young award, given to each league's best hurler.
Whenever a pitcher turns in such a dominating season, talk always turns to whether or not he can cross over to eligibility for a league's overall MVP, which is almost always given to a hitter. Like its Hall of Fame, baseball's Most Valuable Player award, thanks to open-ended definitions of "valuable" and even "player," seems tailor-made for this kind of jowl-sloshing talk-radio controversy.
For MLB 11 The Show on the PlayStation 3, there is no controversy. Verlander is a more deserving MVP, according to its formula, than even seven-time MVP Barry Bonds was in his best season.
This week I reached out to Sony and its San Diego Studio, makers of The Show, which is far and away considered the most accurate baseball simulation in console video gaming. I asked if its computer-generated outcomes could create a season in which a starting pitcher won the MVP, something that has happened only twice since St. Louis' Bob Gibson and Detroit's Denny McClain won it in the National and American Leagues, respectively, in 1968.
According to a Sony spokesman, The Show will spit out a starting pitcher MVP (not user controlled) about once every 20 seasons, mostly because, according to its internal formula for the award, it is easier for hitters to reach the MVP threshold than it is for pitchers.
The internal threshold is typically a score of around 1,110 to 1,200, a background calculation that factors in a hitter's performance (or a pitcher's) in certain key categories. In simulating postseason awards, for pitchers, the heaviest-weighted stat is victories, followed by losses (weighted inversely), and ERA. After that, strikeouts and then, saves, which gets relief pitchers into the mix. (Rollie Fingers, in 1981, Wllie Hernandez in 1984 and Dennis Eckersley in 1992 were relief pitchers who won a league MVP.)
Verlander won 24 games, lost 5, struck out 250 batters and had a 2.40 ERA. All led the American League. "Verlander is having numbers that are pretty rare in the modern era, period." said Eric Levine, spokesman for Sony Computer Entertainment America.
"We took Verlander's 2011 numbers and ran them through our MVP logic," Levine said. " He comes in with a score over 1,500 which is a pretty huge number. Typically MVP's in our game are around 1,100 to 1,200. "
The closest hitter, in either league, to that kind of an MVP rating in The Show is the Los Angeles Dodgers' Matt Kemp, who led the National League in home runs and RBI, both key categories, and was third in batting average. Those three statistics make up the hitter's (and classically defined) Triple Crown, not won in either league since 1967. Even then, Kemp came in at 1,150 by The Show's metric, Levine said.
"Even Barry Bonds in his best year would not have been over a 1,300," Levine added. "In The Show, with Verlander's numbers, you would be pretty much assured to win the MVP."
What's ironic is that The Show, praised for its exacting statistical representation of baseball, returns an objectively defensible simulation of a subjective award, and it all has little chance of happening in real life. The game credibly mimics the historic weight a layperson gives to a pitcher's wins and losses, which are glamour statistics largely dependent upon other factors, if not entirely discredited as a means of player evaluation.
And yet even then the video game cannot account for the ultimate real world variable, the obstinate baseball writer who simply won't vote for a pitcher for MVP. I don't know if this exercise speaks better of MLB 11 The Show or worse of the BBWAA.