With about 50 games remaining, the National League MVP race is as wide open as we've seen in years. Andrew McCutchen may be the favorite right now, but he's not an on-paper landslide candidate just yet as he's on pace to drive in fewer than 100 runs (MVP voters love RBIs) and voters often overlook defensive value. Yadier Molina was a strong candidate until his recent knee injury. Joey Votto has the sabermetric numbers but not the RBIs. Paul Goldschmidt has the RBIs but the Diamondbacks may not make the playoffs. Carlos Gomez may have been the best all-around player in the league so far but players from losing teams rarely win MVP awards (the last one was Alex Rodriguez in 2003).
Take a pitcher seriously as an MVP candidate? In Clayton Kershaw's case, absolutely.
So, Kershaw. Only one starting pitcher in the past 25 years has won the MVP award, Justin Verlander in 2011, and he won 24 games. As dominant as Kershaw has been with that fancy 1.91 ERA, he has only 10 wins. Not his fault, of course. On Tuesday, he pitched six solid innings against the Cardinals; not a classic Kershaw effort, but he gave up just two runs, leaving in the seventh when Don Mattingly pinch-hit for him with a runner on first base and one out, removing Kershaw after just 90 pitches. I thought it was an inning early to hit for him; Kershaw was working on five days of rest, he'd thrown just 97 pitches his previous start, the Dodgers were down just one run, and it wasn't really that high leverage of a scoring situation. Anyway, Kershaw left trailing 2-1 and ended up with the loss as the Cardinals won 5-1.
That's now seven games this year in which Kershaw has allowed two runs or fewer and not earned a win. He has no wins in any starts in which he has allowed three or more runs. Compare that to, say, Detroit's Max Scherzer, who has five wins when allowing three or more runs.
Anyway, my argument is this: Ignore Kershaw's 10-8 record. He not only should be the Cy Young favorite right now, he should also be in the MVP discussion.
His chances, however, are probably slim. As we break down the NL MVP race, consider the different types of MVP winners.
The first stat column many voters usually turn to is the RBI column. It’s why leadoff hitters or No. 2 hitters rarely win the award. Even more than his Triple Crown, it’s why Miguel Cabrera beat out Mike Trout last year. Even though the stat is team- and lineup-dependent, the RBI altar is still a popular place to worship.
Howard led the NL with 149 RBIs and, even though the Phillies missed the playoffs, he beat out Albert Pujols of the division-winning Cardinals with 20 first-place votes to Pujols' 12. Pujols beat out Howard in Wins Above Replacement, 8.5 to 5.2. Howard also led the NL in RBIs in 2008 and 2009 and finished second and third, respectively, in the voting.
Morneau finished second in the AL in RBIs but was named MVP even though he ranked just 23rd among AL position players in WAR. Teammate Joe Mauer was more valuable but had fewer RBIs.
Helps/hurt: This is the big advantage for Goldschmidt. He leads the NL in RBIs with 27 more than McCutchen, 35 more than Molina and 37 more than Votto.
The Best Player On a Team That Made the Playoffs Guy Recent examples: Joey Votto, Reds, 2010; Ryan Braun, Brewers, 2011.
Votto and Pujols had basically identical numbers, so it should have at least been a toss-up. But the Reds made the playoffs, the Cardinals didn’t, and Votto collected 31 of 32 first-place votes. Braun beat out Matt Kemp in 2011 because the Brewers made the playoffs and the Dodgers didn’t.
Helps/hurt: Big advantage here for McCutchen, as most of the other leading position player candidates via WAR are on non-contenders: Carlos Gomez, David Wright, Carlos Gonzalez, Buster Posey. Plus, the Pirates are a surprise playoff team, which is kind of like earning extra credit.
The voters love this kind of player, especially if he’s small and scrappy. Pedroia had won Rookie of the Year honors but certainly nobody would have projected him as an MVP candidate heading into 2008. Pedroia was actually a good choice in a year when no player had statistical dominance, but his surprise season pushed him over the top. Same thing with Ichiro in his rookie year. Teammate Bret Boone was probably the better choice but he couldn’t match Ichiro in surprise factor.
Helps/hurt: This would normally help Gomez, but the not-playing-for-a-playoff-team factor trumps the surprise factor. Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig could be helped here, as everyone figured Ramirez was on the decline and Puig would spend the season in the minors.
This is often a decisive factor for voters, who have determined that a win in September counts more than a win in April, and thus helping your team in September is better than helping your team in April. Guerrero ranked sixth among AL position players in WAR but hit .363 with 11 home runs in September and the Angels beat out the A’s by one game to win the West. Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz were 2-3-4 in the voting with similar offensive numbers but the Yankees and Red Sox cruised into the playoffs. In an otherwise close MVP race, a big September can push a player over the top (see also: Chipper Jones, 1999; Jason Giambi, 2000).
Helps/hurt: To be determined. Keep in mind, however, this only helps guys who are in a tight race. Freddie Freeman could have a monster final two months but it doesn’t really matter because the Braves already have a huge lead in the NL East.
The Momentum Guy Recent example: Justin Verlander, Tigers, 2011.
This is when groupthink starts to develop and that player rolls to the MVP award. Verlander went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and became the first starting pitcher since Roger Clemens in 1986 to win the MVP. Baseball-Reference.com values him at 8.4 WAR; a great season, no doubt. But B-R rates 28 other pitcher-seasons at 8.5 WAR or better since 1987, and none of those guys won MVP awards. Only one of them (Randy Johnson in 2002) won 24 games, and he finished seventh in the voting. Behind the RBI guys. It's hard for a pitcher to get that momentum vote, but it happened with Verlander.
Helps/hurt: Kershaw isn’t going to win 20 games, let alone 24. If I had to predict, McCutchen will probably be the momentum guy. Everyone loves the Pirates' story and that will help McCutchen. But if Ramirez or Puig keep going -- despite missing two months -- they could be sneaky candidates.
The We Can’t Give the Damn Thing to Willie Mays Every Year Guy (Also applied in various eras to Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols.)
Rollins did have an excellent season at 6.0 WAR, but he also led the NL in outs made, which is a pretty amazing feat for an MVP.
Helps/hurt: Votto is the guy who has won before, but since he’s having just another Joey Votto year, he's probably a long shot.
The Glue Guy Recent example: Buster Posey, Giants, 2012.
This is a guy with something that goes beyond the stats: leadership, toughness, recovery from horrific injury, you name it. The all-time glue guy MVP was probably Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers in 1988.
Helps/hurt: Definitely Molina, although he needs to get healthy soon and back in the lineup.
The Best Player in the League Guy Recent example: Mike Trout, Angels, 2012.
Oh, wait ...
Helps/hurt: This may be the strongest argument for Kershaw. Who is the best player in the National League? The one guy you would build a team around for 2013? I believe that's Mr. Kershaw. And that's the MVP.