We are roughly three-quarters through the 2014 MLB season, which means we are approaching the time for award debates. They happen every year, usually revolving around one or more of the following criteria: traditional versus advanced metrics, whether team success should factor in to individual awards, and/or common disagreements over how to determine value/success (ie. what type of contributions are important).
This year, though, we could be in for a much more rare debate, and that is whether pitchers should be considered for the Most Valuable Player award. Some feel, myself included, that pitchers should be considered for the honor just as position players are. If they were the most valuable man in their league, then they deserve to be treated as such.
Others feel, for various reasons, that pitchers should not be considered, either because they aren’t position players, or because they do not believe they are on the field enough to be as valuable as hitters. 32-34 starts versus 150+ games from a position player seems like a pretty large gap, right?
The problem with that debate is, it just isn’t true in most cases. First off, though they aren’t involved in as many games as full-time position players, pitchers are involved in more plays. in 2013, Clayton Kershaw faced 908 batters, and stepped to the dish 92 times (1000 total). Dustin Pedroia was 2nd in the league in plate appearances, while being involved in 688 plays on defense, for a total of 1412 plays.
Now, Pedroia was in on 400 more plays, sure. But we cannot act as though all plays are created equal, and it’s safe to assume a large portion of Pedroia’s defensive plays (routine pop-ups, fly balls, outs at second base) were far less important or valuable than many of Kershaw’s batters faced.
On top of that, Wins Above Replacement, an extremely accurate and helpful stat that takes into account offensive and defensive contributions, tells us that pitcher can be, and often are, more valuable than many everyday players.
Using Baseball Reference’s iteration of WAR, Kershaw was the third most valuable player in all of baseball last year with 8.4 WAR, behind just Carlos Gomez and Mike Trout (8.9 each). Cliff Lee shows up tied for 7th with Miguel Cabrera at 7.5, and Hisashi Iwakuma rounds out the top 10 with 7.0.
So yes, hitters are often more valuable than pitchers, but that is certainly not a rule, as outlined above. So knowing that, why wouldn’t we consider pitchers too? It has happened before, obviously, with Justin Verlander winning both the MVP and the Cy Young in 2011, but it is rare, and some of the stigma against the practice is likely rooted in past tradition.
As mentioned earlier, we could be in for another Most Valuable Pitcher this year, this time on the National League side of things. Clayton Kershaw is getting a lot of buzz as we enter award season, for both the NL Cy Young and MVP, and for good reason.
Despite missing all of April following an injury in the year’s opening game in Australia, he has still managed to post an NL best 6.2 rWAR (Baseball Reference) on the year, and the other numbers give you a good idea why. He currently owns a 1.78 ERA (50 ERA-, park-adjusted and converted so 100 is league average) and 1.75 FIP (fielding-independent pitching, taking into account strikeouts, walks and home runs, the three outcomes a pitcher has more complete control over), in 136.1 innings.
rWAR uses runs-allowed as its basis for value, so run prevention is the key for value there. Fangraphs WAR, however, uses FIP, due to the belief that pitchers do not have much control over balls in play, rendering runs allowed heavily influenced by luck, and the defense behind the pitcher.
In this case though, it matters little which you prefer, as Kershaw also leads NL pitchers, and is 2nd among all NL players, in fWAR at 5.0. And he trails only Troy Tulowitzki right now, and he will miss the rest of the year due to injury, giving Kershaw a great opportunity to pull ahead.
Kershaw has managed to be this valuable despite missing a month by way of absolutely dominating when he has been healthy. He leads the NL in ERA, FIP, xFIP (FIP with the HR/FB rate regressed to league average to eliminate small sample size issues), and K/9, and is 2nd in BB/9 and HR/9. Apart from innings, Kershaw is at, or right next to, the top in every stat that matters, and he deserves to be recognized for that.
And yeah, the Cy Young would be nice recognition, and he has that all but locked up. But if a pitcher is good enough, and ends the season having brought the most value to his team, he deserves to be the MVP, or at the very least in the conversation just like everyone else.
There is still a month and a half to go, so these things can all change. But Kershaw has been mind-blowingly good so far, and there is a very real chance that he ends the year having been more valuable than anyone else in the National League. If that happens, give him the award that he pitched his butt off to earn.