First, a little history. Kershaw became the 10th pitcher to win the NL MVP, but the first since 1968. Here is the complete list:
Carl Hubbell, Giants (1933); Dizzy Dean, Cardinals (1934); Hubbell (1936); Bucky Walters, Reds (1939); Mort Cooper, Cardinals (1942); Jim Konstanty, Phillies (1950); Don Newcombe, Dodgers (1956); Sandy Koufax, Dodgers (1963); Bob Gibson, Cardinals (1968); Kershaw (2014).
Twelve AL pitchers have won the MVP, most recently the Tigers’ Justin Verlander in 2011. Here is that list:
Lefty Grove, Athletics (1931); Spud Chandler, Yankees (1943); Hal Newhouser, Tigers (1944); Newhouser (1945); Bobby Shantz, Athletics (1952); Denny McLain, Tigers (1968); Vida Blue, Athletics (1971); Rollie Fingers, Brewers (1981); Willie Hernandez, Tigers (1984); Roger Clemens, Red Sox (1986); Dennis Eckersley, Athletics (1992); Verlander (2011).
So, out of 168 MVPs, 22 have been pitchers. Clearly, the official voting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America has favored position players by a huge margin. But should pitchers ever even be considered?
Let’s start with the actual wording on the MVP voters’ ballots (per the BBWAA’s Web site):
Dear Voter:There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.2. Number of games played.3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.4. Former winners are eligible.5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from 1 to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot. Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration.Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.
On the one hand, it does specifically state that pitchers are eligible. On the other hand, it asks voters to take into account “Number of games played,” which is the primary issue cited by those who don’t think pitchers should win the award.
However, it is at least theoretically possible to decide that a given pitcher was so dominant in his, say, 33 games played that his contributions outweighed those of a position player who hit extremely well over, say, 153 games. Also, as a
noted, if one breaks down pitchers’ activity into batters faced, in a similar way to how position players are often measured by their plate appearances, one can arguably arrive at a fairer benchmark than simply games played.
For instance, Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, who finished second in the NL voting, came to the plate 638 times (in 145 games), meaning he had that many chances to help his team score runs. By comparison, Kershaw faced 749 batters (in 27 games), meaning he had that many chances to prevent the other team from scoring runs.
Then there’s the argument that pitchers already have their own equivalent of the MVP, the Cy Young Award, for which position players are ineligible, so they shouldn’t be allowed to double-dip, as Kershaw did this year. Those seeking to rebut that argument could point out that, since 1999, batters have had their own award, named in honor of Hank Aaron. If the Hank Aaron award doesn’t get as much publicity as the Cy Young (which has been around since 1956), should that be Kershaw’s problem?
If readers are sensing that I’m in the pro-pitcher camp, they’re right. (I’ve said this time and again — The Washington Post has such smart readers!) I’d also point to advanced statistics to bolster that argument. Wins Above Replacement is hardly a perfect stat, but it does make a pretty concerted effort to both sum up the total contributions of position players (factoring in defense and base-running) and to provide a framework for comparisons between pitchers and position players.
Baseball Reference has Kershaw with the highest WAR — 8.0 — of anyone who played baseball in 2014. The rest of the top 10 are as follows: Angels outfielder Mike Trout (who won the AL MVP), 7.9; A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson, 7.4; Indians pitcher Corey Kluber (who won the AL Cy Young); Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre, 7.0; Indians outfielder Michael Brantley, 7.0; Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels, 6.9; Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez, 6.7; Brewers catcher/first baseman Jonathan Lucroy, 6.7; and Royals outfielder Alex Gordon, 6.6.
Baseball advanced metrics Web site FanGraphs calculates WAR a little differently (one of the problems with that statistic), and they give 2014’s top mark to Trout. They have Kershaw third overall, behind Kluber but still ahead of any position player from the National League. Andrew McCutchen, the 2013 NL MVP who finished third in this year’s voting, is fourth overall in FanGraph’s WAR ranks.
Of course, there’s no “correct” answer to the question of whether a pitcher should win the MVP. Or is there? The great thing for baseball is that people have something about which to argue, well into the long, cold offseason.