Can Clayton Kershaw Win The MVP?

Yesterday’s start by Clayton Kershaw featured great pitching (though not up to his usual standards) as well as contributions on both offense and defense. He has been absolutely incredible this year, even though he missed over a month with a teres major strain. At this point, even with the missed time, he is by far the frontrunner for the Cy Young award. The distance between him and the second most valuable pitcher (per Fangraphs) in the National League (Adam Wainwright) is the same as the distance between Wainwright and Henderson Alvarez, who is 18th among 46 qualifiers. Oh, and he pitched one of the best games of all time.

At this point, Kershaw’s season has been so dominant that asking if he should win the Cy Young is a non-question. Instead, we need to be asking if he should be awarded the National League MVP. Let’s take a look at his chances.

The case for Kershaw

Since Clayton Kershaw came back from the disabled list in May, he has been pitching even better than ever. His 2014 ERA (1.78) is even better than his 2013 ERA. He also hasn’t allowed an un-earned run, so his RA9 is also 1.78. Kershaw’s 1.76 FIP is the best of his career by over half a run. Johnny Cueto is still relatively close to Kershaw in adjusted ERA, and he has more innings. He might still win over voters in the Cy Young voting, based on how they have voted in the past (let’s face it, 99% of the BBWAA doesn’t care about FIP). Even so, Kershaw’s peripherals blow everyone else out of the water. Kershaw would be up there with the best in baseball in counting stats, too, if Felix Hernandez wasn’t also out of his mind and if Cueto didn’t have 40 more innings.

Kershaw has been pitching well enough to enter into “historic” territory. If the season ended today, Kershaw’s 31.8% strikeout rate would be the 13th highest of all time, behind 10 combined seasons of Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, one season from Kerry Wood, and Yu Darvish last year. Kershaw’s 28.1% K-BB% would be the fourth best of all time, behind Pedro Martinez twice and Randy Johnson once. When you combine that with Kershaw’s low home run rate, you get a 49 FIP-, which would be the seventh best of all time behind many of the same names listed before, even after adjusting for league and offensive environment.

However, since Kershaw still has a few starts left, it’s likely that his historic levels of dominance won’t continue fully. He’ll probably go back to being a “normal” best pitcher in baseball. We’ve seen this a bit over his past few starts. They’ve still been excellent, just not the same level of insane dominance displayed previously. In order to make a good guess of how Kershaw will finish the season, we’ll use projection systems. I’ve never liked how conservative Steamer is with Kershaw, so we’ll use ZiPS for this estimate.

ZiPS is projecting that Kershaw will make eight more starts, pitching 56 innings with a 2.07 ERA and a 2.37 FIP. This would leave Kershaw with 193 innings, a 1.87 ERA, and a 1.93 FIP. Even after the projected “regression”, Kershaw would have the 9th best K%-BB% of all time, the 19th best K% of all time, and the 18th best adjusted FIP (55) of all time. All told, ZiPS projects Kershaw to finish with 6.5 fWAR, and somewhere near 7.5 RA-9 WAR.

Some people don’t think pitchers provide enough value to be voted MVP, but I disagree. Kershaw has faced 512 batters this season. At this point, only 12 batters have more than 512 plate appearances. If Kershaw stays healthy, he’ll finish the season with more batters faced than any position player plate appearance total. In those 512 plate appearances, batters have managed a collective .236 wOBA against Kershaw. The worst qualifier for the batting title has a .256 wOBA. Basically, Clayton Kershaw turns the opposing lineup into an army of Miguel Rojases who strike out more.

These values are also from pitching alone. After last night’s performance with the bat, Kershaw has been worth 0.3 wins over a replacement level hitting pitcher (which is fifth in baseball because of course it is). Pitcher defense is pretty hard to quantify since the sample is so small, but Kershaw has been worth around another 5 runs per season with the glove over the past four years (fourth best in baseball over that span). When comparing him to the position players later, we can assume that Kershaw has been worth an extra 0.5-1 win over the value contributed from throwing the ball alone.

Based on the current and projected values, Kershaw absolutely deserves to be a part of the discussion. His values are projected to be consistent with players who usually win MVP. It’s only one piece of the puzzle, but the piece is in place.

The history

A pitcher winning the MVP isn’t unprecedented, but it’s really rare. Here’s a table of the last ten pitchers to pull off the feat.

Player Year IP ERA- FIP- RA9-WAR fWAR
Justin Verlander 2011 251.0 58 73 9.2 6.9
Dennis Eckersley 1992 80.0 52 47 3.1 3.0
Roger Clemens 1986 254.0 57 65 9.5 7.8
Willie Hernandez 1984 140.1 49 65 5.2 3.0
Rollie Fingers 1981 78.0 30 58 4.7 2.5
Vida Blue 1971 312.0 56 65 11.3 8.7
Bob Gibson 1968 304.2 38 65 13.8 9.5
Denny McLain 1968 336.0 64 78 10.2 6.8
Sandy Koufax 1963 311.0 62 62 11.8 9.8
Don Newcombe 1956 268.0 78 86 6.9 4.9

To get ten pitchers, we have to go all the way back to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Three of the last five are relievers, and once you get into the 70s and before, most of the pitchers threw over 300 innings. The last National League pitcher to win was Bob Gibson in 1968 (the high mound year). There have definitely been some impressive seasons skipped over in the past as well. The fact that Pedro Martinez didn’t win the award in either 1999 or 2000 remains baffling to this day.

Currently, Kershaw has a 50 ERA- and a 49 FIP-. He’s projected to finish around 53 and 55. Among the starters on the list, a 53 ERA- would be second best, and a 55 FIP- would be on top. However, Kershaw suffers in the cumulative areas in comparison to other starters. Every starter on the list has thrown more than 250 innings and Kershaw is projected to end up with less than 200. This hurts things like raw strikeout total as well as his WARs.

There’s another issue, one which makes me absolutely cringe to have to write about. But, when we’re talking about if Kershaw can win and not if he should win, we have to discuss pitcher wins. In recent years, the BBWAA voters have focused less on wins in the Cy Young voting, which is excellent. However, on the above list, all starters had at least 22 wins; all non-Gibson starters had at least 24. Verlander only won over the more deserving Jacoby Ellsbury because of his win total. Kershaw has 14, and might need to get over 20 to actually get votes. (That’s my first time talking about pitcher wins here. I feel like I need to go take a shower now.)

Kershaw winning the MVP based on historical precedent seems like a long-shot, but we need to consider the other factor…

The Contenders

Now that we’ve looked at Kershaw’s numbers and the history, we have to look at who he will be up against. Since he’s dominating all other pitchers in total value, we need to compare him to some of the top position player candidates in the National League. Here are five of them (which, admittedly, omits some other players who have a decent case):

Player BA OBP SLG HR wRC+ Def. runs fWAR fWAR proj.
Yasiel Puig .311 .395 .528 13 163 -3.8 4.6 5.8
Andrew McCutchen .311 .411 .536 17 167 -10.3 4.6 5.5
Troy Tulowitzki .340 .432 .603 21 172 +6.8 5.1 6.8
Giancarlo Stanton .290 .390 .554 29 157 -3.1 4.8 6.2
Jonathan Lucroy .309 .376 .492 12 141 +4.7 4.3 5.4

On top of the list is Yasiel Puig. This is fun already! Puig is following up his amazing rookie year with an absolutely stellar sophomore campaign, despite a recent dip in home run power and affinity for pop-ups. In reality, Puig is probably the main competition to Kershaw at this point in the season.

Andrew McCutchen was probably the most realistic challenge to the top Dodger contenders before his rib injury. As of this writing, he has not been placed on the disabled list (see, it isn’t just the Dodgers who do that). ESPN has a good analysis of his injury here, written a few days ago. More recently, Pirates GM Neal Huntington stated that McCutchen is making “remarkable” progress. Even so, we don’t really know if he will miss a week or a month. McCutchen’s missed time will have a significant impact on his overall value and thus his MVP case. His defensive numbers seems anomalously low here; he has been about average through his career. There is potential for his defensive value to improve, which could propel him in front of the other candidates. His projection is the lowest due to a pessimistic playing time estimate.

Troy Tulowitzki started the season on an absolute tear. He’s cooled off since, but his raw numbers are still well above the pack. Even after his offense is adjusted for park, they’re still the best here. He also plays incredible defense at shortstop. He’s the full package, and would probably be the most deserving had he played the full year. His lead in WAR has evaporated as he has been out since mid-July with a hip flexor injury. As of yesterday, he was not close to returning. Whatever chance he had of actually winning disappeared with the initial injury and the Rockies’ precipitous fall from contention. He’s not on a playoff team, so the voters will incorrectly ignore him.

If the Marlins somehow make the playoffs (about 3% odds), Giancarlo Stanton is almost guaranteed to win the award. He has the homers, which voters like. Sabermetrically, he has been great too, but he’s the 4th best hitter on this list. He probably isn’t deserving of a first place vote right now, but a strong finish would change that.

That brings us to the dark horse of the list, Jonathan Lucroy. Catchers have been well represented in the MVP race lately; Joe Mauer won in 2009 and Buster Posey won in 2012. Lucroy is having a surprisingly great season with the bat. He is also one of the better pitch framers in all of baseball, which adds a win or so to his overall value. If you add framing to his fWAR, he deserves to be on this list. The voters won’t do that, but they might give him narrative credit for propelling the surprising Brewers to the playoffs if they don’t do the same to the also-deserving Carlos Gomez. If Lucroy finishes hot and the Brewers survive the central, he has a shot.

If the season ended today, Clayton Kershaw would absolutely be a deserving candidate for the MVP award, despite missing a few starts. His rate stats are completely ridiculous, which makes up for the fact that he missed so much time. As of today, Kershaw’s pitching WAR is 5.0, and the best position player (Tulowitzki) has produced 5.1. Tulowitzki and McCutchen, who would be the two most deserving cases, are both out for awhile. Puig’s case isn’t perfect, either, plus Kershaw is likely to produce more value through the rest of the season. Kershaw’s defensive and offensive skills can be seen as a tie-breaker. Kershaw’s case is flawed, but his contenders are flawed too. If he was up against Mike Trout or even Felix Hernandez, it would be a different story.

Ultimately, the issue isn’t the should, it’s the will. The biggest detractor isn’t his value, it’s the lack of history behind his case. If Kershaw wins, it will be one of the more unique pitcher MVPs in recent history, and that’s what makes me think that it probably won’t happen.

About Daniel Brim

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Daniel Brim grew up in the Los Angeles area but doesn't live there anymore. He still watches the Dodgers and writes about them sometimes.