Monday, June 11, 2007

The AL MVP Is A Two Horse Race.... And The Horses Are Closer Than You May Think

If you don't know much about Dan Haren, this picture will give you all you need to know. He likes puppies and dudes.

It would be difficult to argue that anyone other than A-Rod even has a prayer in the AL MVP race. If you want to argue that Mags has a shot, I say A-Rod has almost double the homers and Mags has given way to Sheffield recently in terms of who is carrying the team. Plus, Ordonez will likely get hurt and miss too much time to garner much consideration. If you're taking Vlad, I'd have to listen a little longer because while that lineup as a whole is pretty solid, Vlad is clearly the only consistent threat on that team and without his production and stability the Angels would not be in contention. The only problem with the argument is that Vlad is in a tough division and with A-Rod so far ahead in terms of numbers, Vlad would have to step up his production a bit and the Angels would have to win the division in order for him to improve his candidacy enough to have a shot. Ortiz, well, that's an argument for another day but if he couldn't win in 2005 (or even garner serious consideration last year), he'll likely never win. But there is one guy who is having a year that is so outstanding and so important to his team's success that he is not only worthy of conisderation for AL MVP, he'd get my vote if we were voting today (admittedly this has something to do with my dislike of A-Rod AND my strongly-held belief that pitchers are undervalued in the MVP debate).

Oakland's Dan Haren isn't just having a good year, he's on pace to put together the best season by an AL pitcher since they lowered the mound. In order to properly recognize just how outstanding a season Dan Haren is having, you first must discount what Jake Peavy is doing in the National League as he is the only player in the majors with comparable numbers. Distinguishing Peavy is pretty easy. He plays in the National League and in the National League they play Tee Ball. To give you an idea of just how bad the lineups in the NL are, Peavy's team, the National League West leading Pads, is hitting Josh Bard in their cleanup spot. In 147 ABs, Bard has 2Hrs, 18RBI and has an OPS of .661. Carlos Zambrano has an OPS of .740. When talking about stellar pitching, unless an NL pitcher has an ERA below 1.00, they are having an average year. Haren on the other hand, is out of control. First, he plays in the real Major Leagues so his stats are official and second, if he were to finish the year with at his present ERA (1.58) it would be the lowest ERA since the Big Train Walter Johnson in 1919. And back then they actually batted with their fingers and the ball they used was made of granite because twine and rawhide had been used up for the war.* It would seem that Johnson had a bit of an advantage given that he was capable of throwing at or near 100mph, or so they say. But to truly understand what Haren is doing, you've got to look a little deeper.

I think it'd be fair to say that the high water mark for pitching in the modern era was Pedro Martinez in 1999. At the height of the "steroid era," Petey started 29 games, won 23 games, lost 4, threw 233 innings, struck out 313, walked 37 (strikeout to walk ratio over 8. Pedro's the only pitcher in AL history to record such a feat. And he's done it twice.), had an ERA of 2.02 and gave up 9 home runs. 9. To put that in perspective, since Johan Santana has taken the reins as the AL's best pitcher, the fewest home runs he's given up in a year is 22 (he gave up 17 in 2003 but only pitched 158 innings. He's given up 13 already this year.). But what was most amazing about that year was just how much better than everyone else Pedro was. The second best ERA was David Cone at 3.44. He had 100 more strikeouts than the next guy. And he had 5 more wins than the next guy. While Haren may not end the season with the K numbers or have 5 more wins than anyone, the comparison to Pedro's '99 season is fair in terms of just how much better a season he's having than every other pitcher in the AL.

Haren's 1.58 ERA is not only the lowest ERA in almost 100 years but it's almost a full run lower than the next closest guy (who happens to be his teammate, Chad Gaudin at 2.43). He's only given up more than 2 runs once (3 runs to he Yanks in a game he won) and has given up 1 run or less in 8 of his 14 starts, including 4 games where he gave up no runs. Opponents are hitting .179 against him. The next lowest is more than 30 points higher at .211. His opponents on base percentage is an absurd .227, a mere 30 points lower than the next closest and opponents OPS is .513. That's 60 points lower than the next closest pitcher and 150 points lower than the 10th lowest OPS in the AL. He doesn't have killer strikeout numbers like '99 Pedro, but he's still amongst the league leaders in K/9 and K/BB ratio. Because his ERA and opponents batting average are at historic lows, the fact that he's not striking out as many people as one of the greatest of all-time shouldn't obscure the fact that he is so much better than every other pitcher in the game that his performance warrants MVP consideration.

Unfortunately for Haren, he has multiple factors working against him. First, he pitches in Oakland. If he were pitching in New York or Boston, his number would be retired and songs would be sung about him. And because of this relative lack of exposure, he will likely fail to lead many ballots when they are cast (assuming that against all odds Haren is able to keep this pace up). He also is playing in a very tough division and the ONLY chance he has is if Oakland wins the AL West and Haren wins 20+ games. Both of which are unlikely. My guess for what Haren would have to finish the season at in order to compete with A-Rod is 22-3, 1.85 ERA, perhaps a couple complete game shutouts and maybe a photo with two or three Canadian strippers. Again, it's very unlikely that Haren will be able to keep this up but what's more important is that Haren's year not be obscured just because players like A-Rod are hitting the cover off the ball, or just because A-Rod likes strippers that resemble men.

*Information about baseball equipment in 1919 may not necessarily be factually correct.

1 comment:

Rickey Henderson said...

Quick correction: pugs are not dogs. Best as Rickey can figure them out, they're some kind of rat creature that makes grunting noises.

For the record, they are terrific for punting.