Here’s the Case for Shane Bieber as AL MVP

This is not the case for José Ramírez as AL MVP.

As I see it, the Most Valuable Player award should go to the best player in either league. We often get into semantic debates about what makes up the MVP, which is tough, because we already have enough trouble trying to come to a consensus even if we agree on the operational definition of MVP. Last year, Shane Bieber raised the MVP hardware over his head, but it was in the All-Star Game. This year, though, I’m going to state the case for Bieber as the clear-cut AL Cy Young winner, but also as a player with a case for winning the MVP award too.

For AL pitchers, it’s not even close. Even in a shorter season, Bieber has distanced himself by 1.1 WAR from the next player (Zack Greinke). For reference, the difference between Bieber and Greinke (1.1 WAR) is equal to the difference between Greinke and Mike Minor, who ranks 25th in starter WAR. Bieber has been out of his mind this year.

Here’s how he ranks by various metrics, for AL starters:

  • K%: 1st
  • K-BB%: 1st
  • ERA: 1st
  • FIP: 1st
  • xFIP: 1st
  • xwOBAcon: 29th (46th percentile)

Limiting hard contact has never been Bieber’s strong suit—in fact, it was previously the one flaw in his game that made him mortal—but he’s hovering close enough to league average that his ability to garner called strikes and whiffs outweigh his batted ball quality significantly, hence his 95th percentile xwOBA.

Bieber’s dominance goes even further than this, though, as he’s captured more conventionally prized accolades:

The obvious caveat here is that Bieber is operating under the auspices of a dramatically shortened season, so there’s something of an asterisk here as it pertains to the pitching triple crown, but it’s impressive nonetheless. In any case, the MVP doesn’t only include pitchers! We should consider hitters!

On the hitting side, it gets more complicated. Bieber and José Ramírez are tied in WAR, at 3.2, to end the year. Already, Bieber may be at a disadvantage, but it should also be considered that a pitcher hasn’t won the MVP since Clayton Kershaw in 2014. For AL pitchers, Justin Verlander in 2011. Before that? Dennis Eckersley in 1992. It simply doesn’t happen—but I think the arguments for it happening this year are strong.

In any given season, WAR is often a pretty good measure for the most valuable player. In general, it’s an approximation of a player’s value, and it has error bars on either side for every player. That makes it pretty messy over a full season! In a 60-game season? We’ve descended into madness. Fortunately, on the pitching side, there isn’t really an argument to be had that there’s been a more valuable pitcher than Bieber.

American League WAR Leaderboard

As mentioned, WAR has its limitations, but it’s generally pretty strong at capturing the broad strokes. With that said, I would be remiss if I let it guide the entire conversation here—especially given the tie for first. Given that there aren’t many overlapping statistics between hitters and pitchers, the best that I think we can do here is to consider WPA/LI and REW. Those don’t exactly roll off the tongue — and they’re not cited very often, either — but they should give us additional insight paired with what we already know with WAR. WPA/LI is essentially the win expectancy version of WAR, whereas REW is RE24 (similar to WPA, but doesn’t account for inning or score, and thus is more context-neutral), converted to a wins scale. All three of them serve the purpose of counting stats on similar scales to WAR, coming from different perspectives.

Let’s start with a scatterplot, plotted by WAR and WPA/LI, considering AL hitters and pitchers:

Here, you can see that Bieber is in a league of his own. Ramírez matches him by WAR, but falls well short by WPA/LI. Conversely, Maeda measures up by WPA/LI, but is 1.1 WAR behind Bieber. And so, not only did Bieber demolish other pitchers, but he also sets himself apart from hitters, which feels fairly uncommon.

And then another scatterplot, this time plotted by WAR and REW, looking at AL hitters and pitchers, once again:

Again, Ramírez matches Bieber in WAR, but he falls well short in REW. This time, José Abreu is equally close to Ramírez here: the sum of Abreu’s WAR and REW is 5.03, while Ramírez’s is 5.0 and Bieber’s is 5.9. Bieber can’t be touched.

By plain ol’ WPA, Bieber’s 3.05 bests the next-best player, Brandon Lowe, who checks in at 2.50. Bieber’s 28.89 RE24 leads the league. By rWAR, Bieber, once again, leads the league, at 3.3. Unless I’m misapplying these statistics—and I don’t think I am—then perhaps Bieber should be the favorite for the AL MVP. The only thing left to do, in my mind, is to consider MVP pitchers from the past decade. It hardly happens, so we have 2014 Clayton Kershaw, and then we have 2011 Justin Verlander. Let’s consider these two years from the same perspective we’re considering Bieber.

A leaderboard, showing WAR, REW, WPA/LI, and their sum (which we’ll call COM) for 2011 AL players:

2011 AL WAR Leaderboard (And More!)

And then another leaderboard, showing the same statistics, but this time, for 2014 NL players:

2014 NL WAR Leaderboard (And More!)

 

Verlander? He shouldn’t have won. But he did! This is, to me, proof (albeit anecdotal) that pitchers don’t necessarily have to have the best case to win. It can happen! Although, I will mention that this is more so a function of voters not being as savvy in 2011. I wouldn’t think this same mistake would happen today. For Kershaw, he had a much more compelling case relative to his peers, but given something of a toss-up between him and a catcher (Posey or Lucroy, depending on how you look at it), the voters are going to go with Kershaw. Although these are six and nine years ago, they serve as precedents for Bieber, and I think Bieber states a better case than either of them did.

Regardless of who wins the AL MVP award, both Bieber and Ramírez are deserving. If I were a betting man—and I am not a betting man!—I imagine Ramírez will come home with the hardware. That Bieber has kept up a pace like this over a 60-game stretch is awfully impressive, and if he were in the NL (which is packed with competition for NL Cy Young), he would still likely win the Cy Young. Nonetheless, Cleveland has two MVP candidates on their team. If Bieber wins, it would be nearly unprecedented. That’s how good his 2020 has been. I’ve talked myself into Bieber as MVP. I hope I’ve talked you into it too.

Photos by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Scatterplots by Paul Brendel (@brendalizer on Twitter)

Michael Ajeto

Michael writes about the Mariners at Lookout Landing, while doing other analysis here at Pitcher List. You can follow Michael on Twitter @dysthymikey, or you can not.

4 responses to “Here’s the Case for Shane Bieber as AL MVP”

  1. Avatar Rocket says:

    I think the reason SP’s are normally not considered an MVP candidate is the fact that they are only on the field once or maybe twice a week for 6, 7 or 8 innings when they do play. Also, pitchers have the Cy Young Award that already comes with a great deal of prestige. Is this the year where we had a pitcher reach above and beyond everyday players like Jose Abreu(2.8WAR, .317BA, 60RBI’s, and 19HR’s)? I think this is where other factors come into play. Looking at what the White Sox have accomplished as a young team, that veteran leadership may be the difference maker. ChiSox were 72 and 89 last year and I think that is a significant factor.

    Having said that it has been a crazy year and Bieber has been lights out. I really think it will come down to how the voters view the criteria of an MVP.

  2. Avatar theKraken says:

    I’ll take the idea more seriously when position players win Cy Youngs. Pitchers are not baseball players, they are pitchers. They should never win. It is like an apple winning the award for best orange… granted this is not an unfounded precedent. The weight put on a pitcher’s value is completely arbitrary. They could simply double or cut the value in half whenever they want to… and they might over time. Progressives would have motivation to do exactly that as they attempt to create new paradigms to create value for themselves.. but that is a rant of its own. Personally I like Abreu as this shouldn’t be about anything other than hitting IMO, which also puts DJL in the conversation who was the only constant for NYY this year.

    WAR is not strong at capturing anything. It is not even computed the same at different places and it often has different people on top. Once you get past the top (which was never hard to identify), it has no value whatsoever as it does nothing to sort mediocrity. Lets use Baseball-reference for a moment which is a more reputable source than FanGraphs for sure. FG is dying and has been for many years – it is progressive first and baseball second. It is so progressive that it eats up its own core. It is kind of like a black hole that ultimately collapses on itself. At B-R DJL is your AL WAR leader followed by Abreu. Consider that DJL missed time and that games are the main input into WAR and you know who the best player was this year. JoRam checks in at #4 in the AL using that metric right ahead of a guy that has no business in that conversation named, Jackie Bradley Jr. Its not like Mike Trout is far removed from this conversation either as he is 3rd in the AL in offensive WAR. Alas, the MVP vote has been about creating headlines and hype more than celebrating the best player for quite a while now.. it is after all a byproduct of the media.

    In any case, both the MVP and WS mean absolutely nothing this year in my book. Let us not forget that for one second. Every player and team that has ever accomplished these things in a previous season did more. There is no disputing that these are the least significant versions of these awards to ever exist.

    • Avatar theKrakenCracker says:

      So many bad takes here. I’m almost impressed that you got so many into one post. Holy shit, this is so bad.

      MVP is only about hitting? LOL
      WAR isn’t strong at capturing anything? LMAO
      FG is dying? BAHAHAHAHA
      And then just discarded the entire season bc it was only two months is coup d’dipshit on this entire garbage post.

      This is aggressively stupid and got dumber at every turn. Please consider never posting again.

  3. Avatar Rocket says:

    Well, Bieber’s result tonight will not factor in the sports writers votes but, I do think it highlights why an SP has a steep road to climb to earn the title. He will have a very limited impact on his teams chances of producing back to back W’s to continue on their road in 2020’s playoff race. A positional player could have a terrible game for 4 and two/thirds of an innings and be removed while still having a chance to contribute in the rest of the series.

    Bieber undoubtedly will win AL Cy Young and is still looking like the first SP off the board for 2021 or do deGrom and a newly resurgent Cole continue at the top? Cole with his battery mate Higashioka seem to have found another gear. Should make for some interesting early 2021 drafts.

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