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Why Santana isn't the AL MVP

9/22/2006 - MLB Johan Santana

Johan Santana is the most talented, most charismatic, most dominating pitcher in this hemisphere. And that's something we should all be able to agree on, except perhaps for certain members of Roy Halladay's immediate family.

If Santana doesn't win the AL Cy Young award this year, George Mitchell ought to bag his steroid investigation and try looking into something really scandalous.

But now that we have that out of the way, here's one thing Santana isn't:

The MVP of the American League.

Our buddy, Buster Olney, has presented an eloquent MVP case for Santana over the last couple of weeks. Now it's time for The Other Side of that Case:

1. THERE'S A REASON THEY INVENTED THE CY YOUNG
And that reason was to make sure that pitchers -- specifically, starting pitchers -- got the trophies, the honors, the accolades and the cash they deserve. You can look that up.

Even a half-century ago, it was obvious the MVP had become largely a position player's award. Not in every case. Not in every year. Not with every player or every pitcher. But had pitchers been viewed as equal MVP material, there would have been no reason the Cy Young would have materialized out of the mist in the '50s.


History could not be more clear on this, even if it spoke in the voice of James Earl Jones.

Starting pitchers won three of the first eight MVP awards handed out by the Baseball Writers Association. But in the last 60 years, things have changed just a mite.

We're now up to 121 MVP trophies handed out in that time. Starting pitchers have won seven of them.

But in the division-play era -- which has lasted 38 seasons -- the trend is so obvious, even your great-grandma could see the writing on this wall and not even need her reading glasses.

Of the 75 MVP awards in this era, starting pitchers have won exactly two more than beer vendors, mascots and even resin bags. Vida Blue (1971) and Roger Clemens (1986) are the only starters since 1969 to win an MVP. And since Clemens won, his fellow starters are 0 for two decades.

That's not a trend. It's an avalanche.

But it says, right there on the instructions to voters, that "all players are eligible for MVP, and that includes pitchers and designated hitters." So because we take that into consideration, we wouldn't say we would never favor a starting pitcher for this award.

It would just take an extraordinary season and an extraordinary set of circumstances.

The pivotal question, then, is as basic as a 3-and-0 fastball: Is Santana's year extraordinary enough to convince voters to rank it above all the compelling position-player seasons on the table, from a field that includes Derek Jeter, Jermaine Dye, David Ortiz and even Santana's own teammate, Justin Morneau? Now let's look at that topic.

2. "TRIPLE CROWN" IS NOT A SYNONYM FOR "MVP"
One big item on Santana's MVP qualification list is the surest sign that he has clearly been the very best starting pitcher in his league:

If the season ended in the next 30 seconds, he would win the prestigious "Pitcher's Triple Crown" -- by leading the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA.

History tells us that's a Cy Young award waiting to happen -- because all 11 times a pitcher has pulled off that trifecta since the invention of the Cy Young, that pitcher has won the Cy unanimously.

But MVP? That's another story.

In the division-play era, six pitchers have won the Triple Crown. None of them won the MVP award. Their average finish in the MVP voting: sixth. Only Pedro Martinez (23-4 for the 1999 wild-card Red Sox) made the top three.

But if the season ended today, Santana also would win the Quadruple Crown, since he leads the league in the fourth major category -- innings pitched. No AL pitcher has won The Quad since Hal Newhouser in 1945. And -- whaddaya know -- Newhouser did win the MVP.

What we have to remember, though, is that there weren't as many hitting megastars to compete with back then, since Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and so many of their fellow patriots were off to war, trying to win something slightly more significant than trophies. So it was a really, really different era in all kinds of ways.

But we're willing to consider that parallel. Except if we do, we also have to consider the fate of the three NL quadruple-crown winners in the division-play era: Steve Carlton in 1972, Dwight Gooden in 1985 and Randy Johnson in 2002. And those three finished fifth, fourth and seventh in the MVP voting, respectively.

Bob Brenly, who managed Johnson in 2002, told us he doesn't remember any talk of the Unit as MVP back then -- even in a monstrous year (24-5, with 334 strikeouts) for a team that finished first. Of course, Curt Schilling also pitched for that club. And Brenly admits that "when I was sitting in that dugout, I didn't concern myself much with those individual awards."

Nevertheless, Brenly says that with all due respect to Santana, "to me, an MVP is a guy who is out there doing something every day to help his team win." And we agree with every word of that quote.

Great as Santana is, he has had an impact on 32 games this year. Jeter, Dye and Morneau are going to have an impact on 150 games, give or take a few. And while that's not Santana's fault, it's also tough to compete with.

3. WINNING PERCENTAGE DOESN'T EQUAL MVP
Santana's No. 1 selling point as an MVP candidate is a stat that homes right in on the heart of his "value" to his team:

When he pitches, the Twins always win.

Well, almost.

Heading into his start Thursday in Boston, his team is 26-6 (.813 winning percentage) when he pitched -- and 64-55 (.538) when anyone else pitched.

Since April 27, when Santana righted himself after an 0-3 start, those numbers get even more insane. The Twins are an off-the-charts 25-3 (.893 winning pct.) in his 28 starts since then. But we should note that their record with anyone else out there (58-46, .558) is also better than it was early on.

So what's the moral of this story? Take Santana away from that team, and the Twins turn into -- what? -- the Blue Jays? Something like that. They wouldn't finish last. But they wouldn't be a team with a shot to pull off one of history's most miraculous comebacks, either. So Santana is, beyond question, a huge difference maker.

That's an argument any rational human should feel obliged to agree with, at least on some level. Which is why Santana at least deserves a place on every voter's ballot.

The only real issue is which place.

But this is also an argument you can play some fun tricks with. The Tigers are playing .741 baseball (23-8) when Kenny Rogers pitches. The Cardinals are playing .667 baseball (20-10) when Chris Carpenter pitches. The Padres are playing .667 ball (14-7) when Woody Williams starts. The Phillies are an .800 team (8-2) when Randy Wolf pitches. There's also a big drop-off for all those teams when other pitchers pitch. That alone doesn't make them plausible MVP candidates.

Or say Santana had gotten hurt in July, but Francisco Liriano had stayed healthy all year. Until Liriano's last two starts of the year, when he wasn't himself, the Twins won nearly 80 percent of Liriano's starts, too (11-3).

If he'd kept that up the rest of the year, but Santana had gone down, would Liriano be the leading MVP candidate? And if the answer is yes, doesn't that indicate that, for at least half the season, Santana had a fellow pitcher in his rotation who was nearly as good -- and valuable -- as he was?

You can chew on that for as long as you'd like. But in the meantime, let's accept the premise that Santana is more valuable than any starting pitcher in his league. Because he is. But is there any recent precedent that suggests he ought to be the MVP?

That answer is a big: no.

We had the Elias Sports Bureau research two questions for us: (1) Over the last 20 years, which 10 pitchers' teams had the best record on days they pitched? And (2) over that same period, which 10 pitchers' teams had the biggest disparity in record when other pitchers pitched?

You can see those charts for yourself. But here's what we learned:

• Santana's 2006 season didn't even make the top 10 in the "best record" study. Which means there were at least 10 pitchers in that time whose teams had even better records when they started than Santana's team does this year. So that makes it tougher to consider his season "extraordinary." And of those other 10, only one (Pedro in '99) was even a factor in the MVP discussion.

• All 10 of those pitchers on the "best record" list pitched for teams that either made the playoffs or were alive until the last week of the season. Outside of Pedro, though, none of the other nine wound up higher than sixth in the MVP election (Randy Johnson's finish, for the '95 Mariners). And from there, they dropped off all the way to Not Receiving One Stinking Vote status (John Smoltz's fate, for the '98 Braves).

• We can work Santana into the top 10 by using that "Compared With Other Pitchers" list. But even using that criterion, his 2006 season still ranks only 10th. So again, we ask: Was this a season so above and beyond other great pitchers' seasons that it merits an MVP award? It's tough to conclude it was. And again, even with this slightly different list, only Pedro was a blip on the MVP screen.

Looking back through those theoretically parallel seasons, we remember the arguments for Martinez in '99 being similar to the case for Santana this year. But in reality, the pitcher whose season was closest to Santana's this year was Johnson in '95.

The story of the Unit's Mariners will sound familiar to anyone following this year's Twins. Both teams were once 12½ games out of first place. Both got on unconscious late-season rolls. Both started out making apparent wild-card runs, then found themselves still charging in late September with a shot to steal their division.

And above all, both teams had rotations fronted by The One Starter in Baseball Nobody Wanted to Face.

In Seattle's case, that was Johnson, whose team went 27-3 (.900 winning pct.) when he pitched -- and actually had a losing record (52-63) when any other Mariner got the ball.

So the Unit was a man who had an even bigger impact than Santana. And he did it in a season when Ken Griffey Jr. got hurt, removing the most logical Mariners MVP candidate from the entire discussion. Yet Johnson still finished behind five players in the MVP vote -- including two (Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner) on his own team.

"I think that's a great parallel," said John McLaren, a coach on that Mariners team. "Minnesota was a team just like Seattle was then. They were almost counted out. Nobody wanted to say they were out ... but they were out. And they came back, just like we did."

It was Johnson -- whose team went 15-1 in his last 16 starts -- who pitched them back. But when the MVP debate began, "I never heard his name, to be honest with you," McLaren said.

You never heard it because Martinez hit .356 that year and Buhner mashed 40 homers. And above all, you never heard it because it sold the position players on that team short to suggest it was a pitcher who made those Mariners what they were.

So spin that scenario forward to the 2006 Twins and answer us this: Why isn't Joe Mauer this team's Edgar Martinez? Why isn't Morneau their Jay Buhner?

And why haven't more people noticed that Morneau has driven in more runs (125) than any Twin in history whose name wasn't Killebrew? Why haven't more people noticed that, since June 8, Morneau has hit .374, and knocked in as many runs as Ryan Howard (87 -- tied for the most in baseball)?

That, to us, is what an MVP front-runner looks like. And there isn't an ounce of disrespect to the always-spectacular, always-mesmerizing Johan Santana when we tell you what he looks like:

The Cy Young shoo-in that he is. Period.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.