A couple of weeks ago, Phil wrote about the 2007 Cy Young race, which ultimately ended with CC Sabathia winning the award but had Josh Beckett right there along for the ride the entire time. It was a nice reminder of a close race for a major award that I had somehow forgotten about. It also made me think of another close race for a major award involving a Red Sox player, though my feelings about this one are a little different. With the 2007 Cy Young, it’s more of a look back in awe at how good both pitchers were and how it really was a toss-up. When I look back at the 2011 AL MVP race, I just think about how one of the best individual seasons I’ve ever seen was robbed of the recognition it deserved.
This isn’t something that had slipped my mind like that 2007 race, because that 2011 season from Jacoby Ellsbury was a very special one for me that will forever be imprinted in my mind. That was a very special season for me, as it was the first one I wrote about, albeit for an audience of maybe five people on a good day. It’s also, ya know, one of the most historically heartbreaking seasons for any team in baseball history, which contributed to Ellsbury getting robbed of his award. Speaking of Ellsbury, he also happens to be one of the handful of Red Sox players I loved watching play the most, as his aesthetic at his best perfectly matched what I’d like baseball to be all the time. So, one of my favorite players having an MVP-caliber season in one of the most historically significant team-wide campaigns that also happened to be the year I started doing something I’m still doing a decade later? That holds some significance in my mind, believe it or not, and it clearly makes me a little biased here.
Don’t mistake that acknowledgement of bias for me admitting that I am just being petty and therefore am wrong, though. Sometimes, I will acknowledge that I at least may be wrong and am being clouded by my bias. I will not do that here. I stand firm in my belief that Justin Verlander should have gotten the Cy Young and nothing else in that season.
It can be easy to forget given everything else that happened in that season and the weirdly negative feelings many have felt for Ellsbury, even before he signed with the Yankees, but he was on another level that season. This was one of the rare seasons in which the center fielder was able to stay healthy all the way through, playing in 158 games and grabbing 732 plate appearances. He made the most of that playing time, too, hitting .321/.376/.552 with a 150 wRC+, smacking 32 home runs out of nowhere — that is double the next highest total of his career — and swiping 39 bases while using his athleticism to cover all of center field. The end result was 9.5 wins above replacement by Fangraphs’ measure.
This was clearly an outlier season for Ellsbury, which is generally the narrative around it. As years have gone by, the focus has been more around how much better that season was than anything he had done before or since and less on just the performance that season. The outlier narrative is fair, but it shouldn’t be everything. The fact is that this was Ellsbury at the peak of his career, with his two productive stages meeting each other in harmony with some health finally mixed in. Early in his career, Ellsbury was just a raw athlete who used that to catapult himself at the plate and in the field. At the end of his Red Sox career — this is another topic for another day, but his 2013 has become very underrated as well — he was more of a complete player who had developed into a “real baseball player,” albeit with less athleticism. In 2011 he had both working, and it showed in every area.
Now, obviously Verlander is the elephant in the room here, and there’s really no argument you can make against the former Tigers ace, to be fair. This isn’t like a guy getting 20 wins and using that to win the MVP over a player who deserved it more. Verlander was legitimately great, pitching to a 2.40 ERA with a 2.99 FIP over 251 innings. This wasn’t the best season in what has been a Hall of Fame career, but it was smack in the middle of his first peak.
That said, if we look at DRA-WARP, which is my favorite all-encompassing pitching value metric, he finished with 7.7 wins above replacement level, almost two fewer than Ellsbury. That’s a massive difference, and that is the difference between the two seasons. Verlander was outstanding and more than deserved the Cy Young that year. Ellsbury had the kind of season we see once every few years at the most. In fact, looking back at the entire 2010s decade, only six individual seasons were better (by fWAR), and only two of those were in the non-Trout division.
At the end of the day, the biggest reason this bothers me so much is that Ellsbury not getting the award is not due to him but rather than what happened to him on the field. Obviously, I understand that many voters use team success as a barometer for MVP voting, and the 2011 Red Sox had one of the highest-profile collapses of all time. If they had made the playoffs, I firmly believe Ellsbury wins the MVP. The biggest issue is that the September collapse was not Ellsbury’s fault, as he finished that month with a 186 wRC+, his second month of the season.
If he had struggled right along with the team, I could better accept him losing out. As it is, I’m just petty all these years later and will continue to be. The one silver lining in all of this is that another Red Sox pitcher in Rick Porcello stole the Cy Young from Verlander five years later. Objectively speaking, would I have given it to the latter over the former? Sure. But the baseball gods have a way of making things work out, and this was their revenge on Verlander for stealing Ellsbury’s deserved 2011 MVP.