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Weighing In: Clayton Kershaw Wins NL MVP

Why I believe that the elite pitcher deserves what many consider a position player-exclusive award

Clayton Kershaw won the NL MVP - the first for a National League pitcher since 1968. Does he deserve it?

Clayton Kershaw won the NL MVP – the first for a National League pitcher since 1968. Does he deserve it?

It was practically a forgone conclusion, even though it hasn’t happened in 46 years.

Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, on the heels of winning his third NL Cy Young Award on Wednesday, continued his massive haul of recognition in 2014 by taking the Most Valuable Player Award in the National League, over Miami slugger Giancarlo Stanton and Pittsburgh outfielder Andrew McCutchen, on Thursday.

He essentially ran away with the voting, taking 20 out of 32 first-place votes. The distinction makes him the first pitcher to win the League MVP since Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander won the AL MVP in 2011, and the first in the NL since Cardinals Hall-of-Famer Bob Gibson in 1968. The 26-year-old from Dallas, Texas went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA – both career lows – after missing most of the first two months of the regular season. He also had an 0.86 WHIP, pitched six complete games, and – oh, by the way – had a no-hitter to his credit in 2014.

He was clearly the most dominant pitcher of the regular season – and quite possibly the most dominant player out of anyone in the National League – but some question whether he deserved to win an award that is usually won by position players. It’s one of the age-old questions in recognizing baseball excellence: Does a pitcher deserve to win the MVP?

While there are a growing number of experts and sportswriters that believe pitchers deserved to be recognized as an MVP, others still continue to rail against it. The two most common arguments why pitchers, no matter how stellar of a season they have, are:

1) Number of games played. It’s simple mathematics: You simply can’t give an MVP award to someone who will affect, at most, 35 games on the field of play. MVP position players will affect the play on around 150 games – almost five times as many as pitchers.

2) Pitchers already have their own award. It’s called the Cy Young – given to the best pitcher in a given league. With that in mind, why should pitchers also win something that is, by its general definition, meant for position players?

You also cannot ignore the fact that, not only did the Dodgers hurler only pitch in 26 games, Kershaw missed the entire month of April while on the DL due to a bad back.

Then, I have also seen arguments saying that Kershaw’s MVP win – as well as Verlander’s win in 2011 – further shines a light on the injustice of not giving the MVP award (based on said arguments) to Boston Red Sox SP Pedro Martinez in 1999, with a season in which he finished with a 23-4 record, 313 strikeouts and a 2.07 ERA, but lost to who may have been the fifth-best position player that year in Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

Sorry, Pedro.

Sorry, Pedro.

So, let me see if I can attempt to shoot down – or at least somewhat refute – the arguments against pitchers – Kershaw, in particular – winning the MVP (and, yes, I see the irony in that I, a Giants fan, would even begin to defend a Dodger):

1) The award is called “Most Valuable Player” – NOT “Most Valuable Position Player”. I’ve actually seen this argument made better than I am about to make it, but it bears repeating, nonetheless: The fact remains that it literally says in the BBWAA Guidelines for MVP voting that “all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters” (emphasis added).

Whether or not voters choose to ignore this guideline in favor of voting for players they deem more worthy of the award (read: position players), I suppose, is their prerogative. But many are ignoring the guideline, nonetheless.

2) Consider – if only for a second – that a position player simply wasn’t “more valuable” than Kershaw was to the Dodgers. Miami’s Stanton and Pittsburgh’s McCutchen were the closest trailers to Kershaw in MVP voting, and arguments could be made that they deserved the Award – obviously, the most prevalent being that they both were on the field in more than five times as many games as Kershaw – more than the Dodgers pitcher.

But their statistics weren’t necessarily mind-blowing. Yes, Stanton and McCutchen were 1-2 in the NL in WAR (6.5 and 6.4, respectively). Additionally, Stanton led the league in home runs (37), total bases (299) and slugging percentage (.555). But he was also tied for 25th in batting average (.288), tied for 19th in runs (89), and tied for 53rd in hits (155). McCutchen also led the league in on-base percentage (.410) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.952). But he also tied for 53rd  in hits, tied for 31st in RBI (83), and tied for 23rd in total hits (172). Not saying that their statistical years were anything to sneeze at, but they weren’t “Clear MVP” numbers.

On top of all that, you can make an argument that, just because you play in more games, it doesn’t mean you’re automatically more valuable than someone who plays in less. Again, consider this: if Stanton and McCutchen were off of their respective teams for the season, we can reasonably say – based on the standard definition of WAR (Wins Above Replacement) – that the Marlins and Pirates, respectively, would have been significantly worse off without them. Obviously, that would have made a difference for Pittsburgh (who reached the playoffs with an 88-win season). Not so much for 77-win Miami.

Sorry, guys.

Sorry, guys.

Now, imagine what a Dodgers team without Kershaw would have been.

Actually, we don’t have to imagine it, do we? We already have an idea of what they were, both mentally and competitively, without a Cy Young-caliber Kershaw. The LA ace went 2-2 in four May starts before he began a tear that saw him lose only once the rest of the season. At that time, on June 2, when he won his first of 13 straight starts and 11 straight decisions, the Dodgers were at a pedestrian 30-28 – a full 8 games behind rival San Francisco. When the Brewers broke his winning streak on August 16, the Dodgers were 70-55, having gone 40-27 in that span, and leading the Giants by full 4 games.

While it’s nearly impossible to say why exactly the Dodgers chose to go on a streak that would eventually see them win the NL West for the second straight year (i.e. the lineup figured things out, other starters started pitching well, etc.) when Kershaw was inserted into the rotation, one could make the argument that they wouldn’t have been able to do so without him.

After all, he was directly responsible for 21 team victories, and only 3 team losses – two of which occurred while the rest of the team was struggling. You stack that empirical (yet easily arguable) statistic on top of Kershaw’s dominance on the mound, and you simply can’t ignore how truly valuable he was to his team in 2014 – regardless of how many games he played.

Ultimately, I’m not saying Stanton and McCutchen were worthless to their respective teams, compared to how valuable Kershaw was to his. I’m not even saying that they were significantly less valuable. It’s subjective, it’s relative, and above all, it’s put to a vote. And, when all was said and done, Kershaw did enough for 20 voters to give him the title as “Most Valuable Player”.

Congratulations to him. Coming from a Giants fan, I still say it’s well-deserved.

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