On Wednesday, we looked at where Paul Goldschmidt fits in the MVP race against fellow position players. We learned that Goldy’s individual performance definitely put him in line for consideration, but that to win, he probably needs Arizona to mount a serious campaign for a playoff spot. We also saw that some regression from Andrew McCutchen could end up making the difference, and that more late-game heroics down the stretch might go a long way toward getting Goldy the award.
What we didn’t discuss was the possibility that a pitcher could end up winning the NL MVP. There’s been some support for Clayton Kershaw, but while there’s a lot of room for differences of opinion, I do not think Kershaw will win the award unless McCutchen and Goldy both fade and a few other things break in Kershaw’s favor.
The idea of conferring the NL MVP on a pitcher is novel enough for BBWAA writers to enjoy discussing it. While it’s not outlandish, it is uncommon. A total of 164 MVP awards* have been doled out since 1931, and only 21 have gone to pitchers (12 AL, 9 NL). When Justin Verlander won an MVP in 2011, he was the first pitcher to do so since Dennis Eckersley in 1992. Eckersley’s award capped a run in the AL of four pitcher MVPs in 12 years, but it’s been ages since the NL MVP was last won by a pitcher, St. Louis’s Bob Gibson in 1968.
Of those 21 pitchers to have won an MVP over the course of the 82 years of the award, 11 did so before the establishment of the Cy Young Award in 1956, and 13 of the 21 got it before the Cy came to be given to two winners per year in 1967. Since 1967, there have been 92 awards – and pitchers have won an MVP only 8.7% of the time. In a normal year, we have every reason to suspect that a position player will win out.
Verlander’s 2011 award may have broken the ice. He was brilliant in stats normally counted on for Cy Young determinations: 251 IP, 24-5, 2.40 ERA and a whopping 250 Ks in 34 starts. FanGraphs pegs Verlander’s WAR that year at a very impressive 6.9 – he was tops among AL pitchers in that regard (C.C. Sabathia had 6.5 WAR, while the recently traded Dan Haren had 6.2).
Interestingly, Verlander was not the top pitcher in the majors that year, as Roy Halladay’s performance was worth 8.0 WAR. Halladay’s stats (233.2 IP, 19-6, 2.35 ERA and 220 Ks in 32 starts) didn’t tell the whole story – he had a ground ball rate (50.9%) that was superior to Verlander’s (40.2%), giving Halladay a fielding-independent pitching (FIP) score of 2.20, well ahead of Verlander’s 2.99.
Halladay didn’t win the NL MVP, largely because there were other very strong candidates – MVP Ryan Braun (7.2 WAR) and runner-up Matt Kemp (8.4). Braun and Kemp were the only players to receive more than one first-place vote, and Halladay finished 9th in the MVP voting that year, receiving no first-place votes. Verlander won despite a bunch of good candidates: Jacoby Ellsbury (9.1 WAR), Jose Bautista (7.7), Curtis Granderson (6.7), and Miguel Cabrera (6.7) all received at least 2 first-place votes.
In the 2011 AL, Verlander at least had the benefit of being the clear choice among pitchers in his league. A very strong candidate in his own right, you might say that Verlander’s excellent season won over a fractured field of position players. Detroit also went 95-67, winning the AL Central by 15 games, which certainly didn’t hurt, especially when the Tigers seemed like the belle of the ball after finishing the previous year at the .500 mark.
Roughly three quarters of the way into the season, Clayton Kershaw (5.0 WAR) is barreling toward a finish in the 6.5-7.0 range, which would put him near Verlander’s 2011. Like the 2011 Tigers, the Dodgers have an excellent record this year and may finish the season with a large cushion in their division. And in the last post, we saw that no NL position players are likely to finish with a WAR much above 7, meaning that Kershaw is up against a weaker field than Verlander was.
But there’s a pretty big distinction between Verlander’s 2011 and Kershaw’s performance so far this year: Verlander was the best pitcher in his league. Can you really say that of Kershaw? Consider the numbers below of the six NL pitchers who have 3.5+ WAR as of today:
If it were just about personal performance, we’d have to pick Matt Harvey as the best pitcher candidate for the NL MVP. It’s not just about that, however, and so the win total (just 9 so far) and the fact that the Mets have never been in contention this year will kill his MVP chances (though perhaps not for the Cy Young, as Harvey could be for the 2013 race what Felix Hernandez was in the AL in 2010). We might note, though, that for Kershaw to win an MVP over Harvey, voters might have to choose to ignore win-loss record but also choose to consider team performance.
As awesome as Patrick Corbin has been, he too is unlikely to be in MVP discussion, in part because his stat sheet is just about identical to that of Mat Latos. Jhoulys Chacin has somehow been more valuable than either of those guys, but the strikeout total and poor team performance also eliminate him.
But what about Adam Wainwright? Other than in ERA, Wainwright has been very similar to Kershaw. Innings total is a wash, and the slight dip in Ks for Wainwright is made up for with his higher ground ball rate. New-school has the two candidates at a nearly equal FIP, giving Wainwright the edge in expected FIP (xFIP) because of bad luck on fly balls turning into home runs. Old-school at least has to register that Wainwright has the superior win-loss record.
It is Adam Wainwright who is likely to end up the reason why Kershaw gets MVP votes but does not win the award. It would take a pretty big swing by one (or probably both) of the two pitchers to significantly differentiate them as candidates, unless Kershaw manages to keep an ERA under 2. No matter what, it looks right now like each pitcher will siphon the other’s MVP votes.
There’s no position player in the National League this year who has had an offensive performance that can rival that of Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout or Chris Davis. If there were one player like that in the NL this year, we wouldn’t be talking about possible pitcher candidates at all. But oddly, the Verlander case seems to suggest that a pitcher does not need a weak field of position player candidates to win; Verlander beat out a lot of guys who had very good seasons. What the Verlander case does teach us is that the having position player votes split between several hitters may be important to the candidacy of a pitcher.
Probably the biggest reason why Verlander won the MVP, though, was that he was unquestionably the best pitcher in his league that year – he won the Cy Young unanimously. The NL Cy Young will not be unanimous this year, with Matt Harvey offering a different flavor of candidate and Kershaw and Wainwright jockeying for the more conventional vote.
We saw above that in the last twenty years, it’s been very rare for pitchers to win MVP awards. It’s just hard to see any NL pitcher, Kershaw included, walk away with the NL MVP this year, even if Goldy and McCutchen do not pick up their games.
*For this analysis, I’m treating the 1979 NL MVP as a single award shared between two position players (Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell).
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