LOS ANGELES -- For those members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who plan to hold it against Clayton Kershaw that he is a starting pitcher when it comes to casting their National League MVP votes, let’s get this out of the way.
Kershaw would play every day if they let him.
“I’d love to if I could, but I just can’t quite hit enough,” he said.
The Los Angeles Dodgers don’t view Kershaw strictly as a starting pitcher, if that means anything. They view him as a fifth infielder on days he starts. He works hard at his fielding, even messing around at shortstop some days during batting practice.
Unlike most pitchers, he runs hard and aggressively when he can get on base. He sparked a two-run rally in the Dodgers’ 4-1 win over the Washington Nationals by aggressively (and, he later said, ill-advisedly) trying to go from first to third on Bryce Harper’s powerful arm.
He can hit pretty darn well for a pitcher (.173), too, if not quite well enough to play a position on days he’s not on the mound, like they do in college.
“I just look at him as a baseball player. You love seeing him out there in the mound in whatever inning it was and he’s all dirty,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “You don’t see many guys like that.”
OK, so Kershaw has a few more of the intangibles than some people may realize, but intangibles shouldn’t win him the MVP award. What should win him the award is the fact he’s the most valuable player in his league.
This, despite almost impossible odds back in April. After missing six weeks with a bad back, he has played in 23 of the Dodgers’ 139 games, or 16 percent of them, and somehow he is still the league’s most-valuable player?
Consider, for a moment, the man viewed as his primary, if not only, competition. Giancarlo Stanton has slugged 34 home runs and driven in 99 runs while leading the league in slugging and total bases and getting on base at an impressive .401 rate. He is considered a good fielder but not great. He’s got a big arm, but doesn’t get to as many balls as some smaller, nimbler right fielders.
Oh, and he plays every day. That’s a big deal, right? He has missed just one of the Miami Marlins’ 137 games.
But is a player more valuable simply because his contributions are spread out over a season rather than concentrated in bursts of brilliance? Kershaw has exerted absolute control over the portion of the Dodgers’ schedule that he can control. The Dodgers are 19-4 in games Kershaw has started.
Say what you will for defense and baserunning, but the vast preponderance of the game still comes down to the classic individual matchup -- a hitter against a pitcher. Stanton has batted 599 times this season. Kershaw has faced 638 batters.
Kershaw leads the majors in wins (17), ERA (1.70), WHIP (0.83), and with at least five fewer starts than everyone ranked above him, is seventh in strikeouts (202).
Kershaw didn’t have great command early Tuesday evening against the league-leading Nats. His fastball was explosive, but it wasn’t going where he wanted it. He walked two batters in the first three innings, putting him in danger of his first three-walk game since May 23. But after that nobody got a free pass. He wound up going eight innings, allowing three hits and striking out eight while earning his MLB-best 17th victory. Ho hum.
It’s all become so numbingly routine around the Dodgers this season that Mattingly walked into his postgame news conference and quipped, “Just use my quotes from his last game.”
And Kershaw is just not going to talk about the majesty of this season or the individual accolades that could beckon. Somebody asked him to talk about picking up No. 17.
“Sure, what do you want to know?” Kershaw said, snapping his fingers distractedly.
It’s really not about the award itself, anyway, which gets announced sometime in November, after the Dodgers have either celebrated a World Series title or dejectedly gone back to their homes after coming up short of their goal. Remember, it was Kershaw who first agreed with a radio host who suggested it was “World Series or bust” for this team.
What it’s about is measuring a player’s value to something that matters. And if there has been a player who has meant more to his team this season than Kershaw, it would come as a shock to anyone who works at Chavez Ravine.