ST. LOUIS • First off, the innings were a problem, a real problem.
Regardless of what he did during his 198 1/3 innings this past summer, the fact that Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw had not thrown 200 innings, had not made 30 starts, and missed significant time made it difficult to consider him ahead of everyday players like Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton. In pure percentage of team games played, it wasn't close. When I had a National League Cy Young Award ballot for many years, I put a premium on consistency and part of consistency is workload. A pitcher who goes out there and logs more than 220 innings is doing something more than his peers. The last NL pitcher to win the MVP award threw 304 2/3 innings. The last pitcher to win the American League MVP award had more than 250 innings.
I mean, 198 1/3 isn't even close.
But then there is what Kershaw did in those innings.
The Dodgers' lefty, by any measure, had a historically great season, and when compared against the era it is absurd what he did. You could make the argument that the pocketbook-titan Dodgers aren't in the postseason without Kershaw. I'll list the stats later. In 2000, deep in the heart of baseball's brawniest era, Pedro Martinez had a 291 ERA+ – basically a season for the ages when compared against the rest of the league. Kershaw had a 197 ERA+ this season, falling behind Zack Greinke's 205+ (2009), Ron Guidry's 208+ (1978), Dwight Gooden's 229+ (1985), Greg Maddux's 271+ (1994) and 260+ (1995) and a handful of seasons from Roger Clemens. There have been 14 seasons with a pitcher scoring a 200 or better ERA+ since Bob Gibson's 1968. Kershaw's 2014 is next-closest to that group. And it's important to also add context – it's not Kershaw vs. Martinez for the 2014 MVP, it's Kershaw vs. the 2014 field.
There were several position players who deserved consideration for the NL MVP award, and all of them appeared in far more games and played far more innings than Kershaw's 198 1/3. There was Stanton with his 37 homers and league-leading .555 slugging percentage. There was Milwaukee catcher Jonathan Lucroy and his Molina-like all-around game and a league-best 6.8 WAR among position players to go with a plus-11 Runs Saved at his position. And there was the reigning NL MVP McCutchen. All he did was have a better season in 2014 than 2013. McCutchen was the only 3-4-5 hitter in the league. That is, he was the alone in hitting better than .300, having an OBP higher than .400, and slugging better than .500. His .952 OPS edged Stanton's .950. His team made the playoffs, if you're into that sort of thing. He played a more demanding position, and we're all into that sort of thing.
When I did by MVP Aggregate scores – a chart I started doing years ago, some of the readers here may remember – Stanton and his higher WAR score edged McCutchen, 45.0 to 47.5.
But it was close, and MVPagg was never supposed to be foolproof.
Just like comparing pitchers to position players never is.
Just like comparing pitchers across time lines never is.
Look, if you were looking for whether Kershaw deserved the MVP this past season by comparing him against the previous NL pitcher win the MVP then he had little chance. Different era. Different game. Gibson, in 1968, dominated the Year of the Pitcher in such a way that officials changed the game so that it wouldn't happen again. Gibson's 258 ERA+ in a season when pitching ruled would be the fourth-highest since expansion. That's absurd. Check out his '68 numbers compare to Kershaw's in '14:
Gibson 32, Kershaw 26
Gibson 22-9, Kershaw 21-3*
Gibson 1.12*, Kershaw 1.77*
Gibson 34, Kershaw 27
Gibson 28, Kershaw 6
Gibson 13*, Kershaw 2
Gibson 304 2/3, Kershaw 198 1/3
Gibson 198, Kershaw 139
Home runs Allowed
Gibson 11, Kershaw 9
Gibson 62, Kershaw 31
Gibson 268*, Kershaw 239
Gibson 4, Kershaw 2
Gibson 1161, Kershaw 749
Gibson 258, Kershaw 197
Gibson 0.853, Kershaw 0.857
Gibson 5.8, Kershaw 6.3
Gibson 1.8, Kershaw 1.4
Gibson 7.9, Kershaw 10.8
Gibson 4.32, Kershaw 7.71
Cy Young Votes
Gibson received all 20 first-place votes, Kershaw received all 30.
Gibson received 14 of 20 first-place votes, Kershaw 18 of 30.
Gibson 11.9, Kershaw 7.5
Offensive Stats (for fun)
Gibson – .170/.233/.223, 0 HR, 9 RBIs
Kershaw – .175/.235/.206, 0 HR, 3 RBIs
FanGraphs.com also does a fun thing where it puts a dollar figure on the production from individual players. It's basically a measure of what that single year of production could get a player on the opening market. It's for entertainment as much as anything. Kershaw's 7.2 fWAR would be worth, according to the web site, $39.9 million on the open market. The web site didn't calculate a number for Gibson's fWAR of 9.5 in the 1968 season. But consider that Greinke's 9.1 fWAR in 2009 was, according to the web site, worth $41.0 million then you get a sense. If you calculate Gibson's value at the same exchange rate of Kershaw's, then Gibson's '68 would be worth $52.6 million in today's market.
Most Valuable Player, indeed.
And that brings us back to filling out this year's ballot.
Comparing Kershaw against history is telling, but not helpful. Again, it's not Kershaw vs. Gibson for the 2014 MVP award, it's Kershaw vs. his contemporaries. And his contemporaries had far more playing time than Kershaw but neither stood so far above his peers so as to make the decision easy. The position players this past year and the game's bend toward pitching left the ballot open for not just one pitcher to crack the top 10 but, on my ballot, three starting pitchers. That's three more than I had last season. There was a similar trend in 2013. Paul Goldschmidt and McCutchen had strong offensive seasons, but not so strong that they could make the decision easy. They left the ballot open for another pick, and I made that other pick, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.
Really it came down to one: influence.
What player held the most influence over his team's success?
I fell back on that question again this year. Lucroy had a claim. Stanton had a claim. Obviously, McCutchen had a claim. But so too did Kershaw. While the innings were a problem, I did fall into the camp that being a pitcher didn't exclude a player from consideration for the MVP. Let's face it, though pitchers appear in a smaller percentage of games their influence is greater throughout those games. Look at the raw numbers. Kershaw faced 749 batters. Stanton, potentially baseball's first $300-million man, had 638 plate appearances. McCutchen had 648. Kershaw influenced more plate appearances from the mound than either of the everyday players had from the plate. And then there is what he did in those plate appearances against. I had a friend push back by saying, yeah, well, sure, but McCutchen and Stanton were in the field for all of those innings Kershaw wasn't on the mound. True, but don't discount that Kershaw also played defense for all of the 198 1/3 innings he was on the mound. McCutchen and Stanton had 308 and 332 total chances, respectively, and of course dozen more plays where they routinely tracked down a single and threw the ball in. Kershaw had 37.2 percent of those plate appearances end in a home run (nine), walk (31) or strikeout (239) when there wasn't a ball put in play for the fielders to handle.
The innings are important, but don't treat them superficially.
The pitcher and catcher are involved in every pitch.
They have influence over every pitch.
It's kind of in the job description.
What Molina was able to do in addition to his offense in 2013 by shepherding a young pitching staff to a 97-win season was a testament to his influence, and thus his value. What Kershaw was able to do within his 198 1/3 innings and the trickle-down effect that had on the rest of the Dodgers – sometimes one run was enough to win – was evidence of his influence, and thus his value. It was through that prism then that I viewed the rest of the ballot. If a pitcher was going to be No. 1, then other pitchers were going to deserve mention too. And they did. Here's my final ballot, and hopefully it's clear how the measurement of influence helped guide who went where:
1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
2. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
3. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
4. Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
5. Buster Posey, Giants
6. Anthony Rendon, Nationals
7. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
8. Johnny Cueto, Reds
9. Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
10. Russell Martin, Pirates
Three Cardinals received votes from the 30 NL voters. Adam Wainwright finished eighth overall, and the highest vote he received was fifth. Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta, a player I was surprised to leave of my ballot because I had him on some rough drafts, tied for 14th. Holliday received a vote as high as fifth, and Peralta's highest vote was seventh. There are obviously some notable absences from my ballot: RBI-king Adrian Gonzalez, Hunter Yes! Yes! Yes! Pence, and uber-utility Josh Harrison, to name three. I gave them all a look.
The floor is yours.