The race for most valuable player is typically headlined by a position player among the top of the leader board in one or more of the Triple Crown categories (average, home runs and RBI). But every once in a while, a pitcher comes along and throws a wrench into the works. This year, that pitcher is Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox.
Sale is in the midst of a monster season. The 28-year-old ace is setting career highs in strike out percentage (36.5 percent of batters faced, a major league high), WHIP (0.880), OPS against (0.545) and ERA (2.57, lowest in the AL). In fact, his ERA might actually be higher than it should be.
According to FIP, which measures what a player’s ERA would look like over a given period of time if the pitcher were to have experienced league average results on balls in play and league average timing, Sale’s ERA should be 1.98, the lowest mark compared with the league average since Pedro Martinez had a 1.39 FIP for the Red Sox in 1999.
Sale is buzzing through the league with four pitches in his arsenal — a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a slider and change-up — with the fastball and slider accounting for 213 of his major league leading 229 strikeouts this season. His 15 games with 10 strikeouts or more this year are not only a major league best in 2017, only Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan had more games with double-digit strikeouts than Sale at this point of the season.
He also has a good chance at recording 300 or more strikeouts this season. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections have Sale finishing the season with 306 strikeouts and Steamer projections are expecting 309, both estimates place him alongside 2014 NL MVP Clayton Kershaw as the only pitchers in the last 15 years to meet or exceed that mark.
Sale’s historic performance should make him the runaway choice for the AL Cy Young, but there are some purists who feel that, because a pitcher plays every fifth day, they shouldn’t be in the conversation as the league’s MVP.
Sale is having a better season than either Kershaw or Justin Verlander did when they won their MVP awards and has been the most valuable player in baseball this season — and it isn’t close. His seven wins above replacement is one more than sluggers Aaron Judge and Jose Altuve and two more than Corey Kubler (4.9 fWAR) and Max Scherzer (4.7 fWAR), the next two most valuable pitchers in baseball.
Leading the league in fWAR is significant. In the NL, the eventual league MVP ranked No. 1 in fWAR in eight of the past nine seasons, the lone exception being Ryan Braun’s 2011 campaign for the Milwaukee Brewers (third in fWAR that season). The AL doesn’t have as strong a track record at rewarding the league leader in fWAR, but the first-place finisher has been named the MVP four times since 2007 and in two of the past three seasons.
And Sale still has between nine and 10 starts remaining in the season, giving him a chance at between 8.9 and 9.2 total fWAR in 2017. Not only would that be the highest among any of the 22 pitchers who have been named the league’s MVP, it would be the most fWAR by a pitcher since 2006, the first year MLB initiated its leaguewide drug testing program.
Perhaps there was a time when a pitcher’s workload relative to a position player’s needed to be taken into account, but the data and technology we have at our disposal has made that reasoning a thing of the past. Now, a pitcher’s performance can be looked at side by side with a hitter, giving us a clear picture of value, leaving no doubt that Sale should be the league’s most valuable player.
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