The National League Cy Young race has come down to two candidates: Roy Halladay and Adam Wainwright. Most people — in both the mainstream and Sabermetric parties — tend to side with Halladay, and for good reason. Heading into yesterday’s start against the Washington Nationals, he led the league in SIERA at 2.95, twelve points ahead of the closest competitor in Josh Johnson. Wainwright sat at 3.13. Including yesterday’s start, the right-hander has 21 wins, a 2.44 ERA, and leads the league in complete games (9), shut-outs (4), innings pitched (250.2), and walk rate (1.1 per nine innings). He trails Tim Lincecum for the league lead in strikeouts, 220 to 219.
More interesting, though, is the debate around Halladay’s MVP candidacy. Although rare, a pitcher winning the award is not unheard of: Dennis Eckersley was the last pitcher to receive the honor, in 1992 with the Oakland Athletics. As a closer, he finished with a 1.91 ERA and 51 saves in 60 innings of work. The last starting pitcher to win the award was Roger Clemens in 1986 with the Boston Red Sox. That year, Clemens went 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA in 254 innings with ten complete games and one shut-out.
Baseball Reference’s version of WAR (which is better than FanGraphs’ version as it pertains to pitchers) puts Halladay right next to Albert Pujols in a tie for the National League lead. He has put together the best season of his career in his first season with a new team, with high expectations in the thick of a heated pennant race.
Why shouldn’t Halladay win the award, or at least draw substantial consideration? It seems that, since pitchers have their own end-of-season award in the Cy Young, the MVP award has become a hitters-only award, although that is never explicitly said anywhere. Most likely, the NL MVP race will come down to five hitters: Joey Votto, Carlos Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, Troy Tulowitzki, and Adrian Gonzalez.
Others will argue that, since other pitchers failed to win the award with better performances (such as Pedro Martinez circa 1997-2003), Halladay should not be rewarded either. And you can certainly understand the sentiment: Halladay’s stats don’t begin to compare with Pedro Martinez in 1999 when he finished with a 2.07 ERA and 23-4 record in the steroid era. His ERA merited a 243 ERA+ whereas Halladay’s 2.44 yields a 167 ERA+. The past, however, should have no impact on the results of this year’s awards. In 2007, Chipper Jones finished sixth in MVP voting despite a league-leading 1.029 OPS. Jimmy Rollins won it that year despite not even being the most valuable player on his own team. If anything, that’s another reason to take the voting away from the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Based on the fact that the MVP award is still pitcher-eligible, Halladay deserves to be a top-tier candidate along with the likes of Votto and Car-Go. Based on past trends, though, don’t expect the BBWAA to consider Doc. The Cy Young will probably go to Halladay, but the MVP award will not.