The Case for Clayton Kershaw Winning the NL MVP

Yes, this is a departure from my posts about my ballpark tour, but with the regular season ending yesterday, I thought I would put up this post regarding a hot topic in baseball right now.

There have only been three pitchers to win the National League Most Valuable Player award since 1955. Why did I choose that year? That’s the year the Brooklyn Dodgers won their first championship, and their only title while still playing in Brooklyn. The last player to do it was Bob Gibson (St. Louis) in 1968. Before that, two dominant Dodger pitchers won the MVP: Sandy Koufax (1963) and Don Newcombe (1956).

Many former players didn’t like facing those three previously mentioned pitchers. In fact, even HoF’ers like Maury Wills even said that they hated facing Bob Gibson because of the intimidation factor he presents. Fast forward to 2014, and we are hearing about several players saying the same thing about Clayton Kershaw. His twelve-to-six curveball – or “public enemy number one” according to Vin Scully – is a plus pitch in his arsenal that fools countless batters every game.

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This season has been beyond special for Clayton Kershaw, and his season statistics are something you would see once in a generation. To put his season stats into perspective for 2014, here’s the skinny. Kershaw only started 27 games this season, going 21-3. He finished the season with a 1.77 ERA, allowed only 42 runs (39 earned) over 198.1 innings pitched. He threw 239 strikeouts and pitched SIX complete games (2 shutouts) while only allowing 139 hits and 31 walks. I know some of you are thinking that those numbers are really low because he only pitched in 27 games, and you’d be correct. Thus, I will focus on other stats like WHIP (Walks + Hits per inning pitched), ERA+ (100 times [League ERA / ERA] ), FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching which measures a pitcher’s effectiveness at preventing home runs, walks, HBP, and causing strikeouts… it’s a complicated formula), strikeouts per nine innings, and K/BB ratio.

First, let’s compare Kershaw’s stats with the last three pitchers to win the National League MVP award, shall we?

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While it looks like Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson had some incredibly dominating numbers, Clayton’s stats rank up there with those two great pitchers. In fact, Kershaw’s strikeout numbers are staggering. Over 10 strikeouts per nine innings is ridiculous, and his strikeout to walks ratio is among the best in history for a single season. His numbers show that he can control a game with the strikeout and limit runners on base. Yes, he does well in getting out of jams by inducing double plays, not allowing walks, and flashing his spectacular gold glove defense.

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Looking at the statistics for the previous three National League MVP winners can be objective because those three previously mentioned pitchers all came from a different era. Pitchers had more starts per season, and usually pitched complete games on a weekly basis. However, those other three pitchers were of a different generation. Thus, let’s look at how Kershaw stacks up against the last three American League pitchers to win the MVP award.

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One special note on this table is that Dennis Eckersley won the 1992 MVP award as a reliever for the Oakland A’s. He earned an amazing 51 saves that season, which explains some of his numbers. This was also a season where the A’s led the AL in wins, so that played a huge factor in the MVP voting that season. If you take away Eckersley, Kershaw leads over the other three starting pitchers in ERA, WHIP, ERA+, FIP, K/9, and K/BB, which show just how incredible Clayton Kershaw has been this season.
Dennis Eckersley throwing out a first pitch

Dennis Eckersley throwing out a first pitch

Another thing to explore is some of the sabermetrics involved between Kershaw and other recent pitchers. To my friends, it’s no secret that I love numbers (I have the math degree to prove that). One particular stat I found interesting was the “Starting Pitcher Effectiveness Model” devised by Eric Seidman, and featured in his book Bridging the Statistical Gap. This model looked at several key components such as the K/BB ratio, WHIP, innings pitched per each game started, and even adjusted quality starts. That AQS component goes into other stats such as “cheap wins” and “tough losses.” I looked at the season stats of Roger Clemens in 1986 and Justin Verlander in 2011. While Roger Clemens had a dominating season, he also had the benefit of having a ton of run support while he pitched (6.26 runs/game). Clemens earned an effectiveness total of +93 that season. Meanwhile, Verlander had a bunch more AQS, and he actually got an effectiveness total of +95 in 2011. Yes, this suggests that Verlander had a better season in 2011 than Clemens had in 1986.

On to Clayton Kershaw, this effectiveness model hurts Clayton in that he only made 27 starts this season due to injury and pitched in less than 200 innings. Despite that, Kershaw earned an excellent total of +88 for the 2014 campaign. However, imagine if you will… Kershaw makes three more starts, which would add two points. Let’s say he pitches 20 innings, that adds another two points. Assuming they are all adjusted quality starts, that could add anywhere from three to six points. Let’s also assume one of those is another complete game, which adds another two points! Folks, we could have looked at the first effectiveness total of +100 in a very long time. Ahhhh… conjecture.

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One final route I want to take involves how many of these pitchers won the MVP in the first place. Usually, when you have a pitcher who is deserving of the MVP, the only way he will achieve this is if there is no clear-cut position player worthy of earning the MVP award. In 2011, Verlander beat out Jacoby Ellsbury (.321 avg, 32 HR, 105 RBI) who had a solid year with the Red Sox, but didn’t lead them into the playoffs like Justin did. In 1992, Dennis Eckersley beat out Kirby Puckett who, sadly, never won the coveted award. Puckett (.329 avg, 19 HR, 110 RBI) had just come off a World Series title with the Twins, but it was the Athletics who won the division title, and that helped Eckersley win the MVP. Roger Clemens had a stellar season in 1986 helping lead the Boston Red Sox to the World Series… only to see that golden opportunity pass right under them… literally. The Yankees also had a great 90-win season led by current Dodgers manager, Don Mattingly, who tore up the American League with a .352 average, 31 home runs, and 113 RBI. Those are numbers very deserving of winning the MVP award, but Donnie Baseball’s bid to become a repeat MVP winner just fell short.

Of course, now Don Mattingly sees this same thing possibly happening again this season. In 1986, Mattingly was denied a second consecutive MVP thanks to a season of pitching for the ages. Now the exact same thing can happen to Andrew McCutchen who has had a remarkable season (.314 avg, 25 HR, 83 RBI) and helped lead his Pirates into the postseason. While Andrew’s stats are nearly identical to those from last season when he won the MVP, Kershaw has led the Dodgers to an NL West title, and are strong contenders to win it all. Am I saying history repeats itself? I sure hope so. Clayton, you deserve this.

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