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The Quiet MVP

September 29, 2020
One of the arguments you will hear against pitchers being considered for the MVP award is that they do not play every day. "Shane Bieber impacts a game every five days," our imagined strawman will say. "While he has a very big influence on the games he starts, it doesn’t equal the day-by-day, game-by-game contributions of Jose Abreu."
What this argument misses is the very obvious fact that pitchers do impact other games. Shane Bieber does not merely have a say in the games when he pitches: he also influences the games around his starts. When Terry Francona knows that he has Bieber toeing the slab the next day, he can stretch out his bullpen a little more. And when Bieber has a good game, that has an impact, too.
Cleveland’s offense struggled significantly to score runs this year, particuarly early in the season. Bieber, pitching like Smoky Joe Wood circa 1912, managed to keep a dead-ball offense in the games he started. Cleveland won each of his first two starts by scores of 2-0 and 2-0…the offense really wasn’t working then, but Bieber pitched well enough to get the team a couple early victories. That eased the pressure on the hitters, it eased the pressure on the other pitchers, and it eased the pressure on the management. It is a psychological impact, impossible to quantify but still relevant to our understanding of how a team wins games.
I am not looking to argue that Shane Bieber should win the AL MVP. He will certainly win the Cy Young Award, and I'll be surprised if it isn’t a unanimous decision. And I wouldn’t decry anyone’s decision to support his candidacy for the MVP. He’s a fine candidate.
But my attention is to call your attention, briefly, to a pitcher who has generally stayed under the radar this year. This player shouldn't win the Cy Young Award, and he won't win the Most Valuable Player award. But there is a very good chance that no one in baseball has done more to postively impact their team's success in 2020 than this quiet ace. 
I am talking about Hyun Jin Ryu, starting pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays.
We can start with wins. Not pitcher wins, a statistic that is justifiably maligned in our circle, but team wins. The wins that decide a season.
Shane Bieber - the best pitcher in baseball this year – made twelve starts. His team won ten of those games.
Hyun Jin Ryu also made twelve starts. His team won nine times.
Which wins were more impactful?
Here’s a table to consider:
Team Overall W-L
35-25 (.583)
32-28 (.533)
Record in starts
10-2 (.833)
9-3 (.750)
Record otherwise
25-23 (.521)
23-25 (.480)
Without Bieber, Cleveland was a winning team. They’d still have Jose Ramirez and Carlos Santana and Francisco Lindor. They’d still have - from the seemingly endless crop of Cleveland arms - a pitching rotation that had Salazar and Plesac and Clevinger and Civale and McKenzie. They’d have a solid bullpen of Brad Hand and James Karinchak and the ageless left-handed out guy Oliver Perez. Absent Bieber, the Cleveland team would still be a very, very good baseball team.
Toronto has significantly less. After Ryu, the pitcher who threw the most innings for Toronto was Tanner Roark, who managed a 6.80 ERA. After that it was Chase Anderson (7.22). After that it was Matt Shoemaker (4.71).
Let’s take a quick look at the starting pitchers:
Hyun Jin Ryu
Tanner Roark
Chase Anderson
Matt Shoemaker
Taijuan Walker
Robbie Ray
Nate Pearson
Julian Merryweather
Trent Thornton
That is not good. Taijuan Walker has been terrific since coming over from Seattle, but the Blue Jays rotation, outside him and Ryu, is terrible.
The their bullpen wasn’t considerably better: collectively, their ERA of 4.71 ranked 12th in the AL, more than a run higher than the Rays (3.37), who they’ll face tonight. The pen has gottenbetter as the season has progressed, but it isn’t exactly a shut-em-down group.
Toronto does have a potent offense, but even that hasn’t been a smooth run. Shortstop Bo Bichette, perhaps the best player on the team, spent half the year on the IL with a knee sprain. Cavan Biggio and Vlad Guerrero Jr. made only small gains towards matching the outputs of their Hall-of-Fame fathers. The heavy lifting for the offense has mostly been done by Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
I’ve been watching the Jays closely this year: they were my pick to surprise us in 2020, and I write that article every year to have someone to root for. I’m rooting for them in the postseason.
But they certainly aren’t a great team, at least not yet.
They are a young team, and for that reason they have lost a few games that more experiences teams would win. They make more mistakes than they should: they have the second-worst defensive efficiency in the league, ahead of only Boston. And, compounding the issues of youth and inexperience, they’ve had to endure an away season playing (and practicing, and isolating) in lesser facilities: the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Blue Jays to migrate to Buffalo for the season, where they played home games in the Triple-A park in Buffalo.
It would not have been surprising if the Blue Jays, with a lousy rotation and a bullpen that took a month to find its feet, with a lineup of young hitters, would stumble through a pressurized season. They did stumble: they started the year on a 7-11 tilt before they won their first series. They had another 2-8 stretch in mid-September, getting clobbered by the Yankees and then swept by the Phillies before their 6-2 finish. They’ve been outscored by their opponents: their Pythagorian W-L record was worse than the Phillies, Giants, and Nationals.
But they are in the playoffs. And if you had to explain how a team like the Blue Jays managed to secure a playoff spot, you’d start at Hyun Jin Ryu. The South Korean southpaw is the biggest reason Toronto (or Buffalo) will be playing the Rays this afternoon. He stabilized a team that could have gone off the rails numerous times this year, providing a young team with an anchor that has brought Canada into the baseball playoffs for 2020.
Hyun Jin Ryu isn’t the best player in the American League. He will not (and should not) win the AL MVP award. But there is another player in the American League that has been more integral to his team’s success in 2020 than Ryu has been for the Jays. My hat’s off to him.  
David Fleming is a writer living in southwest Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at

COMMENTS (5 Comments, most recent shown first)

Dave: I assume your second-last sentence is supposed to read, "But is there another player in the American League that has been more integral to his team’s success in 2020 than Ryu has been for the Jays?"​
9:02 PM Oct 1st
Yeah, a rough ending for Ryu and the Jays. Still, they have a bright future, especially if Pearson pitches like he did yesterday.
2:08 PM Oct 1st
It pains me to say it but Ryu, and Bieber had horrible starts in the playoffs.
6:57 PM Sep 30th
Regarding msandler's comment, I always used to point to the "Batters faced by pitcher" number and compare it to a hitter's "Plate Appearances." For regular starting pitchers vs. regular starting players, it's usually pretty close. I think I got this from Bill back in the days of the Guidry/Rice and Clemens/Mattingly comparisons.
9:37 AM Sep 30th
I never understood why the obvious, immediate retort to "Pitcher X only impacts one in every 5 games, can't equal the day in, day out contributions of Position Player Y" wasn't "Position Player Y only has a chance to impact a game during his 4 to 5 at-bats, and only if his spot in the order happens to come up in a crucial spot. That can't equal the every pitch, inning after inning impact of Pitcher X, on days when he starts." It's a little skewed now with bullpens taking over more innings, but historically, a pitcher starting every fourth or fifth day had at least equal impact to a position player who played every day, but only got 1 out of every 9 of his team's at bats and a handful of defensive plays at most per game.
2:16 PM Sep 29th
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