By Ben Sieck
When Clayton Kershaw stepped off the mound for the final time Sept. 24, he concluded the best individual pitching season of the past decade.
He’s a shoo-in for the NL Cy Young, but the accolades should not stop there.
Despite the perception position players are more deserving of the award, Kershaw’s season merits NL MVP honors as well.
The Dodgers’ ace led the league in ERA, wins, complete games, Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched (WHIP), Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
Kershaw clearly has the edge over his fellow hurlers, but he also bests all NL position players in WAR. Kershaw averaged 7.2 wins above the league average for his position. His closest challengers were Andrew McCutchen, 6.9, and Anthony Rendon, 6.6.
On statistics alone, Kershaw is a strong candidate—if not the frontrunner. However, there are several other factors at play.
The argument against any starting pitcher winning the MVP award, never mind one as dominant as Kershaw, is starting pitchers don’t have the same impact over the course of a season as position players. Position players take the field every day, while starters only grace the field once every five.
It’s an interesting argument. A player who plays in 150 games would seemingly have a bigger impact on his team than a player who participates in just 30. But consider this: a pitcher’s impact on a game is significantly greater than any position player’s.
Over the course of Kershaw’s 27 appearances, the lefty faced 749 batters. Compare that with the NL leader in plate appearances, Matt Carpenter, who batted 709 times. Position players may play more often, but pitchers make more of their appearances.
There is a case to be made for the defensive and base-running impact of a position player. Thankfully, WAR factors in those things. Kershaw’s league-leading WAR should also dispel the notion his influence is not as great as an everyday player.
As deserving as Kershaw may be, history is not on his side.
In the history of the NL MVP award, a pitcher has only won it nine times since it was first given out in 1931. Since the NL Cy Young was first awarded in 1967, only Bob Gibson has won both awards. He did it once in 1968.
Although Justin Verlander accomplished the feat in the AL in 2011, the NL hasn’t had a dual winner in nearly 50 years.
I can’t speak for all voters, but the trend is clear. The best pitcher is given the Cy Young, and the best position player wins the MVP. However, the ballot does not mandate voters overlook pitchers when considering who’s most valuable. As long as all players are eligible, pitchers should not be excluded based on the presence of another award.
Even with this unwritten rule in place, Kershaw’s performance might be historically good enough to win over enough voters.
His 1.77 ERA is the lowest since Pedro Martinez’s 1.74 in 2000.
His 1.81 FIP is the fourth-best mark in the past 60 years.
His streak of 41 scoreless innings in June and July is tied for the fifth-longest streak since 1961.
His June 18th no-hitter against Colorado is the second-greatest pitching performance in the modern era, according to sabermetrician Bill James’ game score metric.
The Dodgers won 23 of Kershaw’s 27 starts. If Kershaw were to be replaced with an average pitcher, and the Dodgers won about half of those starts—lets say 14—Los Angeles would have missed the playoffs entirely. Instead, Kershaw will start game one of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday.
Pitcher or not, Kershaw was the best player in the NL.
Unwritten rules be damned, give the man his trophy.