Was Clayton Kershaw the Right Choice for NL MVP?
It hasn't happened very often.
Since 1950, only 12 other pitchers have done what Clayton Kershaw did yesterday; win his league's Cy Young and MVP Awards. It's the first time a National League pitcher has done it since Bob Gibson in 1968, and Clayton did it by having a ridiculous season, posting an FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) of 7.2, with a 21-3 record, a 1.77 ERA and a Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 1.81.
As a result, Kershaw received 355 total points, including 18 of the 30 first place votes. Miami's Giancarlo Stanton came in second with eight first place votes and 298 points. Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen received the remaining four first place votes, and finished third overall with 271 points.
When a pitcher wins the MVP award, it's usually because of an unusual combination of two things; no position player truly separating himself from the pack, and a pitcher who had a season that was simply fantastic.
Is that what we saw this year? Did the writers do the right thing by giving the Most Valuable Player award to a player who appears in a small percentage of his team's games?
Last week, I wrote about the National League MVP race, and said a position player should win his league's most valuable player award, barring truly drastic circumstances. As such, I felt both McCutchen and Stanton had good enough seasons to win the award over a starting pitcher who only participated in 27 of his team's 162 games (16.7%).
This year, McCutchen put up an fWAR of 6.8 and Stanton's was 6.1. Kershaw's was 7.2, however, player and pitcher WAR totals are not exactly apples-to-apples comparisons. But is the gap between Kershaw's WAR and the position players with whom he was competing against large enough to warrant giving it to a player who appeared in just 16.7% of his team's games?
Below is a table of all the pitchers to win their league's MVP award since 1950. Also in the table is the position player in that league who had the highest WAR that season.
As you can see, there have been some pretty egregious MVP votes over the last 64 years. Particularly awful were the MVP awards given to relief pitchers, like Jim Konstanty in 1950, Rollie Fingers in '81, Willie Hernandez in '84 and Dennis Eckersley in 1992. Even though a relief pitcher appears in more games overall than a starter, their impact in those games is largely for only an inning or two. In terms of innings played/pitched, relief pitchers have the least impact on the game. They should never win an MVP award.
As for some of the other seasons, there were only five instances in which the pitcher who won the MVP award had as good a WAR or better than a position player in his league.
In '63, Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays both had fWARs of 9.8. In '68, Bob Gibson's fWAR of 9.5 easily trumped Hank Aaron's 7.1. Vida Blue's 8.7 fWAR in 1971 was better than Craig Nettles' 7.4. In '86, Roger Clemens was just a bit better than teammate Wade Boggs, 7.8-to-7.7. And finally, Kershaw's 2014 season, with an fWAR of 7.2, better than McCutchen's 6.8.
For me, Gibson's MVP in '68 was legitimate. He was worth 2.4 wins more than the best position player. And Blue's MVP in '71 is hard to argue against, with his season worth 1.3 wins more than Nettles'.
Kershaw's 2014 season was worth 0.4 wins more than McCutchen's, the third-highest difference in which a pitcher had a better WAR than a position player and won MVP. Additionally, McCutchen's National League-leading fWAR of 6.8 among position players this year was the lowest league-leading number among non-pitchers since 1988, when Andy Van Slyke led the NL with just a 6.4 fWAR.
For those reasons, it's hard to argue against Kershaw being more deserving.
And there is one more argument that, I must admit, helped change my mind on this whole "pitchers winning MVPs" issue. Despite playing in just 16.7% of his team's games this year, Kershaw pitched to 749 batters. Meanwhile, Stanton had 638 plate appearances as a hitter, while McCutchen had 648.
On a plate appearance-basis, Kershaw affected more raw plate appearances than Stanton or McCutchen. The difference is that Kershaw's effectiveness was concentrated into one game every fifth day, whereas the contributions of McCutchen and Stanton were more spread out.
After further analysis, I still believe that it should be an extremely rare thing for a pitcher to win an MVP award. I'm not a big fan of it.
But it's important to admit when you are wrong. And, after doing a little bit more digging into the numbers, I will admit that I was wrong to discount Kershaw as an MVP candidate in my piece last week. He deserved to win this year, and this time, the voters got it right.
Heck, they even gave an MVP award to Mike Trout this year. We're making progress here, people.