Was Justin Verlander screwed out of the Cy Young Award? Should we care?
Justin Verlander was left off of a couple of Cy Young Award ballots completely and Rick Porcello won it despite getting far fewer first place votes than Verlander received. This certainly got Kate Upton worked up -- and it has likewise worked up a lot of people online -- but was Verlander truly boned? And, more generally, should we, as baseball fans, really care?
First question first: did Bill Chastain of mlb.com and Fred Goodall of the Associated Press -- the two voters who left Verlander off of their ballots -- doom Verlander’s shot at the Cy Young? Short answer, possibly, but by no means conclusively.
For Chastain and Goodall’s votes to make a difference in the winner, both would have had to have Verlander third or better for him to win. I, personally, think that he, Rick Porcello and Corey Kluber would all be good Cy Young Award choices and I think that, in any event, they are the top three in some order. It’s worth noting, however, that seven other voters placed Verlander either fourth or fifth on their ballots. Absent Chastain and Goodall actually coming out and saying “yeah, we think Verlander was the third-best or better pitcher but we wanted to screw him anyway,” (which is affirmatively not the basis for one of their votes) it’s safer to say that they just value pitching differently than the 21 voters who believe Verlander was a top-three choice.
That may be maddening to what I presume to be the majority of people and certainly the majority of Cy Young voters who think Verlander is a top three choice, but I’d argue that unless we’re Justin Verlander or Kate Upton, it shouldn’t matter to us all that much. I’d also argue that the major postseason awards should not matter to us anywhere near the degree to which they have mattered to us in the past.
There was a time when I lived to fight over the BBWAA awards each November, but that impulse has faded. For a couple of reasons, really. The first one being that, in general, awards voting has gotten way better than it was even a few short years ago. What was once an annual exercise in truly dumbfounding awards voting choices has, in recent years, become an exercise in splitting hairs. The BBWAA voters, in general, do an OK job and it’s become increasingly difficult to muster genuine outrage at their choices. We live in an age with an increasing number of actual outrages, so we should probably keep our powder dry for them.
But even when there are legitimately bad awards season choices -- and there will be some again some day, I’m sure -- I’ve slowly come around to the notion that it shouldn’t matter to us too terribly much. These awards are not the definitive determination of greatness. Rather, they are one insular organization’s decision about who is worthy of being honored and who is not, nothing more. By virtue of history there is a lot of importance placed on these awards and there likely always will be, but they are no more meaningful in an absolute sense than awards handed out by some editorial board, a collective of online writers, Major League Baseball, the MLBPA or anyone else who puts themselves in the business of handing out hardware. In any case, they should not matter to us as fans nearly as much as we have come to believe.
BBWAA voters consume baseball in a manner fundamentally differently than most baseball fans do. They don’t buy tickets and don’t cheer. They’re not watching a game for the simple enjoyment or appreciation of it. They are paid to be there and they have a specific job to do: report on it. Given the nature of beats and the unbalanced schedule, most of them see one team 162 times a year and four others 18 or 19 times each, while they never see some teams and can quite easily miss seeing a great many players, particularly starting pitchers. While you or I, if we’re so inclined, can watch at least two full baseball games a night given east and west coast start times and while we can flip back and forth between a dozen games most evenings, a beat writer can’t reasonably do so. The requirements of their job forecloses them from that. By the time they’re done each night they’ve been at the ballpark for nine hours, made a tough deadline and either head home or to their hotel rooms.
Take one of the voters who left Verlander off of his ballot. Bill Chastain covers the Rays. Justin Verlander faced the Rays exactly once this season. They play in the same time zone as the Tigers most nights too, so how many times do you think Chastain saw him pitch? I’d wager pretty strongly it was just that one time. Meanwhile, Porcello started six games against the Rays, winning five of them. Chastain’s second place vote went to Zach Britton, who faced the Rays eight times, picking up saves in all eight of those appearances. It’s pretty understandable if Chastain has a stronger and better impression of those two than he does of Verlander, who faced the Rays once before the All-Star Break. And that’s before you realize that Chastain admitted that he turned his ballot in before Verlander’s final two starts of the season, in which he gave up one earned run in 14.2 innings pitched.
None of which is to say that Chastain did something wrong. The rules for voters are almost non-existent apart from relying on their own judgment. It’s simply to say that Chastain’s judgment is informed by the particular manner in which he consumes baseball and that that manner is fundamentally different than the way most fans consume it. And it’s not even about the number of games he sees. According to Chastain, his deliberative process included talking to players in various clubhouses to get their impressions of the various candidates. That’s fine -- whatever works for him works for him -- but is that something you care about when it comes to determining who the best pitcher in baseball was in 2016?
We can and all should appreciate good writing and reporting from its baseball writers, but we do not need the BBWAA to tell us who is good and who isn’t in this day and age. We have eyes, access to analytics and, if we are so inclined, we can actually watch more baseball on any given night than any one BBWAA voter can given their particular job responsibilities. While, for historical purposes, it’s always worth noting and remembering who has won the MVP, Cy Young Award and Rookie of the Year Awards, and while they are still good shorthands for referencing the elite of the game, those awards are not the be-all and end-all of baseball greatness. Indeed, the more time we spend arguing about the BBWAA’s choices in this regard, the more we abdicate our own right to assess the game of baseball.
I think Alan Trammell is one of the baseball players of all time, but the BBWAA feels differently when it comes to Hall of Fame voting. I think Mike Trout has been the best player in baseball for a good three or four of his five full big league seasons, but the BBWAA feels differently. They’re entitled to give their awards and honors to whomever they choose, but their doing so does not negate my own assessment for my own purposes. Moreover, if we work hard enough and analyze baseball vigorously enough, those awards and honors will not overshadow a better, more robust collective historical assessment of these players either. To simply say “they’re a Hall of Famer so they’re the best” or “he was the Cy Young Award winner so he was the best” is the height of laziness.
Which is to say that, no, I’m not gonna get too worked up about a couple of voters leaving Justin Verlander off of their Cy Young Award ballot. They did not think Verlander was one of the top five pitchers in the AL this year and it is their right to think that. I think he was one of the top three pitchers in the American League this year and that’s good enough for me.