The Case For Clayton Kershaw As The NL MVP
Many baseball followers believe the MVP award should be reserved for hitters, as the Cy Young award is, of course, reserved for pitchers. But until the Baseball Writers’ Association of America changes the name of the award to Most Valuable Hitter, pitchers should have just as much of a shot to win the award as hitters.
This year, Clayton Kershaw is having the greatest single season of any pitcher in the 21st century, and he should be rewarded with the National League MVP award.
Some argue that because pitchers only pitch every five days, their actual value to their team is limited because they don’t contribute to the team’s winning to the same degree as position players. However, I’d argue that pitchers have just as much influence as batters. While they do pitch only once in every five games, their influence is tremendous in those games in which they play. A batter may compile 20 plate appearances in five games, while a pitcher almost always faces more batters than that in a single game.
Following his eight shutout innings today, Kershaw has now faced 751 batters over his 27 starts, an average of 27.8 per start. While there’s no doubting that a batter reaching base is more valuable than a pitcher getting an out, Kershaw obviously gets batters out at a higher rate than, say, Andrew McCutchen reaches base. It’s a difficult point to argue because it’s like comparing apples to oranges, but the point is that pitchers certainly contribute more than some people give them credit for.
Luckily, there is a way of measuring overall player value among hitters and pitchers. Kershaw ranks first in the National League in WAR (and second in the majors, behind Mike Trout). In terms of pure statistics, there is no doubting Kershaw’s brilliance. However, in order for a pitcher to win the MVP, he must not just be significantly better than all of the pitchers in his league in the given season. (That’s what the Cy Young award is for.) He must be better than many other pitchers in previous years, and Kershaw has certainly done just that. His current ERA of 1.72 would be the lowest in a single-season since Greg Maddux’s 1.63 in the strike-shortened 1995 season. It would also be the lowest in a full season since Dwight Gooden posted a 1.53 ERA in 1985.
Another measure of a pitcher’s dominance (and value) is the number of categories in which he leads the league, and Kershaw certainly measures up in that regard. He leads the major leagues (a bonus because this is the National League MVP) in ERA, WHIP, hits per 9, innings pitched, and ERA+. He’s also somehow compiled 13 wins despite receiving the 11th-lowest run support in the major leagues (3.26 runs p/game). Also, his consistency is remarkable, as he’s allowed four runs in a game only twice. He has yet to allow five earned runs in an outing this year, and he’s allowed two or fewer runs in 21 of his 27 starts. Finally, the average ERA in the majors this year is 3.88, a total Kershaw has eclipsed by two full runs.
Another point supporting Kershaw’s MVP case is the lack of a dominant batter in the National League this year. Following Kershaw in WAR in the NL are Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen, and Paul Goldschmidt. Of the three, Goldschmidt would be Kershaw’s main competition, as he leads the league in home runs and RBIs. He’s on pace to finish the season with 40 homers and 129 RBIs, which are great numbers but also a bit lower than the typical MVP winner (especially for a first baseman). He also has a .300 batting average and a .947 OPS, which doesn’t quite measure up to past MVP winners’ totals. If he can indeed match those numbers by season’s end, voters might be inclined to vote for him, but batters typically fade near the end of the season. Even if he does maintain his pace, I believe Kershaw would still be a more qualified MVP winner.
I could go on and on about Kershaw’s statistics, and the lack of a dominant hitter in the league. It’s clear that the Dodger lefty is having the greatest season by a pitcher in a number of years, but it remains to be seen if he can maintain his performance over his final seven or so starts. If he does, he’ll get my vote as the National League’s MVP.