In the absence of a dominating year by a player on a contender, Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw is getting a lot of buzz as the MLB’s Most Valuable Player candidate in the National League.
Kershaw is having a dominant season—already with two Cy Young Awards in his trophy case, he’s having the best year of his career for the NL West leaders.
Kershaw is 16-3 with a 1.73 ERA and 0.837 WHIP in 22 starts, with a major-league best six complete games and 194 strikeouts in 161.1 innings, an NL-best rate of 10.8 Ks per nine innings.
And according to the advanced statistics, Kershaw leads the majors in Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball-Reference.com.
So is Kershaw the NL MVP?
Not even close.
He’s the runaway winner for the Cy Young, but he’s not the most valuable player.
Well, what has he done for the Dodgers in the other 84 percent of their games? He’s been a fantastic cheerleader.
The Dodgers are 77-60, meaning they’ve gone out there and played 115 other games without Kershaw.
As great as he’s been, it’s hard to be the Most Valuable Player in your league when you have had no influence on 84 percent of the games your team has played.
The Baseball Writers Association of America has voted on the MVP award in each league since 1931 and in that time, they have given the award to pitchers 21 times, 17 to starters and four to relievers.
There has been only one pitcher named MVP in the last decade—Detroit Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander in 2011 was the AL MVP and it happened in a year where the guy who was probably the most valuable played for a team that doesn’t get a lot of attention and had a season that didn’t include overwhelming offensive numbers.
Ben Zobrist of the Tampa Bay Rays did everything for his team in 2011. He batted second. He batted cleanup. He played second base. He played right field. He set the table, he was a run producer.
But it wasn’t a season that overwhelmed the senses of the voters, so he finished a distant 16th in the voting—behind three pitchers, Verlander, CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees and his teammate in Tampa Bay, James Shields.
Another terrific candidate that year happened to play for a team that had a historic collapse. But it doesn’t change the fact that Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury hit .321/.376/.552 in 158 games, with 119 runs, 46 doubles, 32 homers, 105 RBI and 39 stolen bases.
That seems more valuable than a guy who pitched in 34 games.
Particularly in the age of pitching specialization, where starting pitchers are asked to work six or seven innings before handing the ball off to a relay team of relievers, it’s hard to make a case for a pitcher as an MVP.
Looking at Verlander’s 2011 season, he won 24 games. That’s nice, but the win is not an individual statistic … and it never really was.
It is a team-dependent statistic. There have been great pitchers who toiled for bad teams and mediocre pitchers who put up stellar win totals with great teams and that has been the case since the modern game evolved in the late 19th century.
The press and fans have had a fascination with the win statistic for as long as baseball has been around, but it’s hard to put a lot of value in a statistic that can reward a pitcher for giving up nine earned runs in five innings of a game his team wins 10-9 and doesn’t reward a pitcher for giving up one unearned run in nine innings of a game his team loses 1-0.
Beyond the logic of the thing, there is a question of fairness, as well.
Pitchers have an award, the Cy Young. Position players are not eligible to win it, as it is awarded to the best pitcher in each league.
Conversely, shouldn’t the Most Valuable Player award go to a guy who actually plays more than once every five days?
It is true that you can’t win in baseball without pitching. But it’s just as true that you can’t win with just one pitcher—it takes a village, particularly in the era of the 12- or 13-man pitching staff.
Some pitchers are, of course, more valuable than others.
But none of them is more valuable over the course of 162 games than a player who actually participates in most, or all, of those 162 games.