The case for Clayton Kershaw as NL MVP

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
11:12
AM PT
Clayton KershawJayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsClayton Kershaw's no-hitter and all-around stellar season have energized the Dodgers.
LOS ANGELES -- Don Mattingly won the American League MVP award in 1985. The following season, he batted .352 and led the league in hits, doubles, slugging, OPS and total bases. He won a Gold Glove at first base.

And he finished second to Roger Clemens in MVP balloting.

Clemens, who played in 20 percent of his team's games, got 19 first-place votes. Mattingly, who played in all of his team's games, got five.

"I had a better year than '85," Mattingly said. "At the time, I'm like, 'I'm out there 162 times. This guy's out there 35 times. What about all the other games?' "

It took a quarter of a century for Mattingly to begin to change his opinion about whether pitchers should be considered contenders for the MVP award. It took getting to see what an MVP performance from a starting pitcher looks like. It took managing Clayton Kershaw.

"The first year he won the Cy Young, we weren't very good, but the dude stopped every losing streak," Mattingly said. "You can't get guys like that. They're just so important."

Could this be the year?

After Clemens, it took 25 years for a pitcher to win another MVP. Justin Verlander took the trophy in 2011 after going 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts. He fairly handily defeated Jacoby Ellsbury, who hit 32 home runs and stole 39 bases while playing Gold Glove center field for the Boston Red Sox. It has been nearly 50 years since a pitcher won the MVP in the National League. St. Louis Cardinals great Bob Gibson did it in 1968, the year he had a 1.12 ERA and 268 strikeouts.

This might be the season the NL drought comes to an end, and Kershaw might be the pitcher who ends it.

Two of the other contenders for the award, Andrew McCutchen and Troy Tulowitzki, are hurt. McCutchen is on the 15-day disabled list, has a broken rib and has only recently resumed batting practice. Tulowitzki plays for an awful team and just had season-ending hip surgery.

Kershaw leads the NL in wins above replacement (WAR), according to Baseball Reference. Kershaw's WAR is 6.4. Slugger Giancarlo Stanton of the third-place Miami Marlins is next with a 6.2 WAR. Another pitcher, 15-game winner Johnny Cueto, is next at 5.7, followed by Tulowitzki (5.6) and Jason Heyward (5.5). Fangraphs has another measure of WAR and paints a slightly different picture, but Kershaw’s WAR (5.2) is still slightly better than Stanton’s (5.1), McCutchen’s (4.8) and teammate Yasiel Puig's (4.7).

You can concoct a cruder measure of "wins above replacement" that seems equally relevant to the discussion. The Dodgers have gone 16-4 in the 20 games Kershaw has pitched. In his most dominant stretch, from June 2 to Aug. 10, they won all 13 games Kershaw pitched. They went from 7½ games behind the San Francisco Giants to 4½ games up.

What if the Dodgers really had needed a replacement for Kershaw for his 19 starts since Opening Day in Australia, stringing his spot in the rotation together with the likes of Paul Maholm or any of their minor league pitchers, most of whom have ERAs in the 5.00s?

To say the team would have gone 9-10 in those games is probably generous, but even if it had, that still gives Kershaw a "crude-WAR" of 6.0. Put another way, the Dodgers would be 2½ games behind the Giants -- and out of a postseason spot for the moment -- not 3½ games up and comfortably in position for an October run.

Kershaw also has an intangible edge: narrative. He pitched one of the greatest games in baseball history on June 18, a 15-strikeout, no-walk no-hitter, helping to ignite the Dodgers' confidence. The team learned it could win without expecting another MVP-caliber season from injury-plagued Hanley Ramirez or reliable power from Puig, who ranks 41st in the NL in home runs.

Puig's candidacy shouldn't be discounted, but Heyward, Jonathan Lucroy, McCutchen and Jhonny Peralta all have better WAR values, according to Baseball Reference, and all play for bona fide contenders. Puig has one narrative that could help boost his candidacy, presuming voters are paying close enough attention: His move to center field, where he has played sometimes-spectacular defense, helped stabilize the Dodgers' defense and gave Mattingly a set lineup.

What Kershaw has that none of the hitters who play for contending teams has is the "wow" factor. His numbers are simply more impressive than those of any hitter you can build an argument for. So even hitters who are normally staunch critics of giving the award to a pitcher have begun to change their opinion to a degree.

"Sometimes, when you're dominant like that, you deserve it," Dodgers left fielder Carl Crawford said. "It's got to be an extreme case, though, not like a normal, regular good season. It's got to be an overwhelming case. I think it feels like that this year with Kershaw."

Kershaw's biggest obstacle to snapping the pitchers' NL MVP losing streak is the fact he missed six weeks with a strained muscle in his upper back. In a way, even that is an argument in Kershaw's favor. The Dodgers were two games over .500 while Kershaw was out. They're 12 games over when he has been healthy. Plus, he has managed to put himself in position for his third Cy Young Award in four seasons with six fewer starts than some pitchers. He's just that much better than everybody else. That's kind of what an MVP is supposed to be, right -- extraordinary?

"I wouldn't be against it. I wouldn’t be like, 'Oh, it's Clayton. I can't believe it,' " Dodgers outfielder Scott Van Slyke said. "If he keeps going, I might be of the opinion that he got snubbed."

When the voting is done, somebody always feels that way.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Clayton Kershaw
WINS ERA SO IP
21 1.77 239 198
OTHER LEADERS
BAY. Puig .296
HRA. Gonzalez 27
RBIA. Gonzalez 116
RY. Puig 92
OPSY. Puig .863
ERAC. Kershaw 1.77
SOC. Kershaw 239