Pitcher Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays during the game at Tropicana Field on in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
Pitchers winning the MVP is rare, and though both Verlander and Halladay are having great seasons, they may not be great enough according to history.
Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay have both been dominant in 2011, and have done so for first-place teams. In Halladay's case, he has been the best of a productive bunch of starting pitchers, while Verlander has been the Most Important Tiger on a team that, despite their place atop the American League Central, hasn't been all that impressive.
For these reasons, both pitchers are coming up in MVP discussions. Halladay leads the NL with 190 innings, has a 7.9 K/BB ratio that slots into the top 10 best rates since the mound was lowered in 1969, and is in the top five in the league in both ERA (2.56) and ERA+ (156). He ranks first in the NL in Wins Above Replacement, as well.
Verlander's case is much the same. His 7.4 rWAR leads all pitchers, and his 6.3 fWAR is ahead of everyone save Halladay. That's thanks to 210 innings pitched before we even get to September, a total that just 29 pitchers matched in all of 2010. He's pitched fantastically, striking out over a batter per inning, leading the AL in strikeouts, and is second in the AL in ERA+ at 172, just behind Jered Weaver and his 178.
As good as they have been, though, they face a serious bias in the quest to take not just Cy Young honors, but also an MVP. For one, Halladay ranks behind Matt Kemp (7.5) and Ryan Braun (6.2) in rWAR, though he has no such problem in fWAR, where he leads all players, the closest to him being teammate Shane Victorino (6.2). The kinds of voters who would look at wins above replacement to inform their decision would see that Halladay is not a definite for the honors of best player in the league.
Verlander faces the same dilemma, as he is behind Jose Bautista in rWAR (7.7 to 7.4), and lags well behind in fWAR (Bautista, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Ben Zobrist are all ahead of Verlander).
Of course, most award voters have little interest in WAR and its ilk, but more importantly, pitchers winning the MVP award is rare regardless of how amazing a pitcher's season is via any metric. The last time a National League pitcher won an MVP Award was 1968, when Bob Gibson won thanks to a 1.12 ERA in a season so dominated by pitching that the mound was lowered following the campaign. The last AL hurler to win was Dennis Eckersley in 1992, when he was worth all of 3.0 WAR; had the Internet been around in its current form then, you can be sure entire websites would have been devoted to snarking at the people responsible.
So it's rare, and even when a pitcher is deserving, he probably won't win. Pedro Martinez is the finest example of this. In 1999, there wasn't a pitcher alive that could touch Martinez's stuff or results, but then again, there weren't many hitters who could, either: he struck out 313 hitters in just 213 innings. Martinez was worth 8.4 rWAR and 12.1 fWAR in 1999, both at the head of the class for all players, for both stats. (The reason for the loftier fWAR is that Fangraphs uses FIP in their WAR calculations, and Pedro, for all the glory of his 2.07 ERA, had peripherals that suggested he should have been closer to 1.39.)
Pedro finished second in the MVP balloting despite having more first-place votes (eight) than the winner, Ivan Rodriguez, as two of the 28 voters -- George King and La Velle Neal -- left Martinez off of their ballots entirely due to his being a pitcher. This, despite the fact that King had listed Rick Helling and David Wells on his MVP ballot just the year before. (Because when I think immortal pitcher season, I think Rick Helling in 1998.)
This was an embarrassing situation for the BBWAA, as many of its non-King members admitted at the time, and has supposedly caused them to be more careful about making sure MVP voters are willing to cast votes for pitchers, not just position players. It hasn't come up much since, though: Pedro finished fifth in 2000, and that's the closest any pitcher has come in either league to the award since.
That situation is a reminder that, no matter how good Halladay and Verlander may be in 2011, and no matter how close to being the best player in their respective leagues they are, they may not get the recognition they deserve in the form of an MVP award. It's an uphill battle, as Pedro Martinez will tell you. And as good as these two have been, they are not Pedro Martinez. If that wasn't enough, it's hard to imagine what is.