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Great pitcher-hitter MVP debates

11/13/2014

This year's National League MVP vote promises to be an interesting result no matter who wins -- Clayton Kershaw, Andrew McCutchen or Giancarlo Stanton. If Kershaw wins, he'll be the first NL pitcher to win MVP honors since Bob Gibson in 1968; if McCutchen wins, he becomes a back-to-back MVP winner, the first center fielder to do that since Dale Murphy in 1982-83; if Stanton wins, he becomes the first MVP on a losing team since Alex Rodriguez of the Rangers in 2003.

Does a pitcher deserve to win, even one who went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA? There's still a reluctance by some voters to consider a pitcher for MVP honors, or at least consider them for the top of their ballot. Working against Kershaw is that he missed a month of action and pitched 198 innings, a low total for a Cy Young winner let alone an MVP. Working in his favor is that there was no clear best position player and it's possible that McCutchen and Stanton split first-place votes, allowing Kershaw to slip past them as the winner. Kershaw led all National League players in WAR at 8.0 -- more than a win better than the No. 2 player according to Baseball-Reference, Cole Hamels. Jonathan Lucroy led position players at 6.7 with Stanton at 6.5.

Still, it's a classic pitcher versus position player debate. Here are few others from the past:

2011: Justin Verlander vs. Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Bautista

Verlander: 24-5, 2.40 ERA, 251 IP, 250 SO, 8.4 WAR.

Ellsbury: .321/.376/.552, 32 HR, 105 RBI, 39 SB, 8.1 WAR.

Bautista: .302/.447/.608, 43 HR, 103 RBI, 8.1 WAR.

Verlander ended up winning with 280 points to beat out Ellsbury (242 points) and Bautista (232 points). Two things worked to Verlander's advantage: 1. There was no clear position player rival, as five different position players received first-place votes -- collectively, they had 15 first-place votes compared to Verlander's 13; 2. The other thing that happened was Ellsbury's Red Sox collapsed in September and missed the playoffs. Ellsbury himself had a great month -- he hit .358 with eight home runs and 21 RBIs -- and he probably would have won the award if Boston had made the playoffs.

1999: Ivan Rodriguez versus Pedro Martinez

Rodriguez: .332/.356/.558, 35 HR, 113 RBI, 25 SB, 7.0 WAR

Martinez: 23-4, 2.07 ERA, 213.1 IP, 313 SO, 9.7 WAR

Actually, you can throw Roberto Alomar and Manny Ramirez into the mix, as voting results went Rodriguez with 252 points, Martinez 239 and Alomar and Ramirez with 226. (Derek Jeter actually might have been the best position player that year but finished sixth in the voting.) Pedro had the most first-place votes with eight compared to Rodriguez's seven, but was left off two ballots. Most infamously, George King of the New York Post said pitchers shouldn't win MVP awards -- even though he had included two pitchers on his 1998 ballot, including David Wells of the Yankees.

Anyway, the voters missed this one as Pedro had a historic season. The Red Sox even made the playoffs that year, so that wasn't a viable excuse. The next year, Pedro could have won again when he went 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA; he finished fifth in the voting.

1995: Barry Larkin and Dante Bichette versus Greg Maddux

Larkin: .319/.394/.492, 15 HR, 66 RBI, 51 SB, 5.9 WAR

Bichette: .340/.364/.620, 40 HR, 128 RBI, 1.1 WAR

Maddux: 19-2, 1.63 ERA, 209.2 IP, 181 SO, 9.6 WAR

Wow. In retrospect, this looks like an awful vote. Larkin had a great year and was honored for his all-around play while the Reds won their division, but Maddux had that 1.63 ERA in an era when offense had started to peak. Larkin received 11 first-place votes to Bichette's six and Maddux's seven, with the final vote totals going 281-251-249. That 1.1 WAR isn't a misprint for Bichette, who put up his numbers in Coors Field and was a lousy defender. In the end, at least Larkin won and not him.

1986: Roger Clemens versus Don Mattingly

Clemens: 24-4, 2.48 ERA, 254 IP, 238 SO, 8.9 WAR

Mattingly: .352/.394/.573, 31 HR, 113 RBI, 7.2 WAR

This one was a good debate in part because it was also Red Sox versus Yankees. Clemens actually won pretty easily, collecting 19 of the 28 first-place votes, and the fact the Red Sox won the division certainly helped. I think the voters got it right (and Clemens would be the last starting pitcher to win MVP honors until Verlander) ... actually, Baseball-Reference says Teddy Higuera was the most valuable player in the AL that year at 9.4 WAR. (Clemens led the majors in WAR in 1987, 1990 and 1997, so you can argue he deserved three MVP awards.)

1985: Willie McGee versus Dwight Gooden

McGee: .353/.384/.503, 10 HR, 82 RBI, 56 SB, 8.1 WAR

Gooden: 24-4, 1.53 ERA, 276.2 IP, 268 SO, 13.2 WAR

McGee wasn't a bad choice -- he led NL position players in WAR -- but it's hard to believe that Gooden received only one first-place vote with that otherworldly 1.53 ERA. He actually finished just fourth in the voting so it wasn't even much of a debate. The Cardinals did beat out the Mets for the NL East title, but it still seems strange now that Gooden's season didn't impress the MVP voters. (Especially when Clemens would win in the AL the next season with the same 24-4 record and an ERA a run higher.)

1978: Jim Rice versus Ron Guidry

Rice: .315/.370/.600, 46 HR, 139 RBI, 7.5 WAR

Guidry: 25-3, 1.74 ERA, 273.2 IP, 248 SO, 9.6 WAR

Unlike 1986, this Red Sox-Yankees debate went to the position player whose team failed to win the division. Guidry even got the win in the Bucky Dent tiebreaker game. Rice got 20 first-place votes to Guidry's eight.

1966: Roberto Clemente versus Sandy Koufax

Clemente: .317/.360/.536, 29 HR, 119 RBI, 8.2 WAR

Koufax: 27-9, 1.73 ERA, 323 IP, 317 SO, 9.0 WAR

Clemente had his best season while Koufax's Dodgers won the pennant. Koufax got nine first-place votes and Clemente eight, but Clemente edged him in the voting, 218 points to 208. In the '60s, the MVP went to a player on the pennant winner or division winner almost every year -- 15 out of 20 times -- so it has to be considered a little surprising that Clemente beat out a 27-game winner.

1965: Willie Mays versus Koufax

Mays: .317/.398/.645, 52 HR, 112 RBI, 11.2 WAR

Koufax: 26-8, 2.04 ERA, 335.2 IP, 382 SO, 8.6 WAR

Mays could have easily won eight or nine MVP awards in his career instead of the two he did win. The Dodgers won the pennant by two games over the Giants, but Mays easily won his second MVP award with nine first-place votes to Koufax's six. Remarkably, Maury Wills, who hit .286 with no home runs for the Dodgers, received the other five first-place votes. Anyway, the voters got it right as Mays had one of his greatest seasons.