Verlander looms over impressive AL MVP field

Verlander looms over impressive AL MVP field

The eye-popping offensive numbers were all across the American League in 2011, making it hard to differentiate which hitter separated himself from the others in terms of value.

Who could benefit most of all from that dilemma? Justin Verlander.

There is no rule that prohibits a pitcher from winning a Most Valuable Player Award. It's just that it's rare when one does.

The winner will be revealed on Monday, with Verlander among the favorites in a strong pool that includes hitting standouts like Jacoby Ellsbury, Miguel Cabrera, Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, Jose Bautista, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, Michael Young and Paul Konerko.

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After displaying sheer dominance throughout the season on his way to being a unanimous Cy Young winner, the Tigers right-hander might just be in prime position to be the first pitcher to win an MVP Award in either league since Oakland's Dennis Eckersley in 1992. Eckersley was a closer, however, giving him the chance to influence his team on a near-daily basis.

The last starting pitcher to be an MVP? Boston's Roger Clemens in 1986.

Verlander's 24-5 record is eerily similar to the 24-4 mark posted by the Rocket a quarter-century ago.

Not only did the hard-throwing righty lead the league in wins, but he was also first in winning percentage (.828), ERA (2.40), innings (251), strikeouts (250) and WHIP (0.920).

Behind Verlander, the Tigers won 95 games, won a division title for the first time in 24 years. and wound up going to the AL Championship Series, losing to the Rangers in six games.

Verlander was recently named MLB's Player of the Year in the annual Players Choice Awards.

"Coming from your peers makes it all the more special," Verlander said of that honor. "I think with all the talk about, 'Should a pitcher be able to win MVP or a top player award?' I think it shows a lot of support for my fellow players to be able to vote me for that. I think it means a lot. When it comes from your peers, the guys you're playing with, the guys you're playing against -- it's special."

Writers from the Baseball Writers' Association of America, who cast their votes at the end of the regular season, determined Verlander's MVP candidacy. Voters select 10 nominees. First-place votes are worth 14 points. From second to 10th, it goes 9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.

While some scribes have long been reluctant to vote pitchers for MVP Awards, Verlander's season was dominant enough that some opinions might have been changed.

Either way, the voting figures to have been tight. When the 2011 season started, Ellsbury was just trying to prove to the Red Sox and their rabid fan base that he could stay on the field after playing in 18 games because of left rib fractures the year before.

All Ellsbury did was put together a breakthrough season that was as impressive as that of any position player in the game.

Boston's leadoff man hit .321 with 212 hits, 32 homers, 105 RBIs and a league-leading 364 total bases. He also stole 39 bases. Ellsbury has already been busy collecting awards. He was named the AL Comeback Player of the Year by MLB.com, and later received the same honor from the Players Choice Awards. In addition, he won a Rawlings Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger.

Though the Red Sox had a historically poor finish, becoming the first team to blow a nine-game lead in September, Ellsbury was the reason his team still had a chance to make it to the postseason in Game No. 162. September was an exceptional one for Ellsbury, who hit .358 with eight homers and 21 RBIs during a time his team needed him most.

But he's not the only center fielder in the MVP discussion. Granderson went on a power rampage, hitting a career-high 41 homers while driving in 119 runs and scoring 136 times. He was also a factor with his speed, stealing 25 bases. What might have hurt Granderson, though, was his batting average (.262) and strikeout total (169).

Why hasn't Granderson's teammate Cano gotten more mention? Perhaps because he makes hitting look so easy with his sweet swing.

Cano hit .302 with 104 runs, 188 hits, 46 doubles, seven triples, 28 homers, an .882 OPS and 118 RBIs for the AL East-champion Yankees.

In the AL, Gonzalez is probably the only lefty whose swing is as fluid as Cano's. And Gonzalez, as many predicted, was a monster in his first season in Boston.

Aside from winning Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards, Gonzalez hit .338 with 108 runs, 213 hits, 45 doubles, 27 homers, a .957 OPS and 117 RBIs. It's possible, though, that Ellsbury took a lot of votes away from Gonzalez.

A third MVP Award candidate from the Red Sox has won one before. That would be Pedroia, who put on another, as he likes to call it, "laser show" in 2011. Pedroia had more homers (21) and RBIs (91) than in his MVP season of 2008, and had an OPS (.861) that was only eight points lower than three years earlier. Pedroia also won a Gold Glove for his defense at second base.

The AL batting champion had a pretty impressive season in his own right. That would be Verlander's teammate Cabrera.

The big first baseman hit .344 with 111 runs, 197 hits, 48 doubles, 30 homers, 105 RBIs and a 1.033 OPS that was second only that of Bautista.

Oh yes, Bautista. His heroics were performed north of the border, and, perhaps detrimental to his MVP Award cause, away from a pennant race.

But he probably holds the distinction of being the most feared hitter in the game. To go along with his .302 average, 43 homers and 103 RBIs, Bautista was walked a whopping 132 times. He also scored 105 runs and had a Major League-best OPS of 1.056.

Young, considered by many to be the heart and soul of the two-time AL-champion Rangers, had one of his best all-around years. Moving around the infield while also spending his share of time at designated hitter, Young hit .338 with 213 hits. Despite a modest 11 home runs, Young drove in 106 to go along with a .380 OBP. And he will always be one of those players whose value transcends the stat sheet.

The same can be said of the gritty Konerko. Though his White Sox fell out of the race, Konerko kept on bashing, hitting .300 with 31 homers, 105 RBIs and a .906 OPS.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.