Clayton Kershaw has led all MLB starting pitchers in ERA the last two years. Is there any reason to think he won't pull off a three-peat?
Baseball is a numbers-driven sport. It is the only game where science and on-field performance combine to bring about debate among fans all across the country.
Last year's American League MVP debate was one of the loudest in history, between people who see all facets of the game supporting Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout and those who think all that matters are three offensive categories voting for Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera.
Whether you were on Team Trout or Team Cabrera, you had an opinion and fought ferociously to defend that stance. This kind of passionate analysis is what separates baseball from every other sport.
As we near the end of the first full week of games for the 2013 season, it is time to start looking ahead and projecting the leaders in the 10 major statistical categories that are discussed—rightly or wrongly—when MVP awards get handed out.
Some of these will be relevant to an MVP conversation (innings pitched, strikeouts, home runs), and others will tell you nothing about how well a player performed (wins, saves). But the debate about what constitutes value will always rage on.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Justin Verlander has proved he can handle a heavier workload than any other pitcher in baseball.
American League/Overall Leader: Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
Predicted Total: 238.0 IP
This one is almost too easy, because Justin Verlander has led all pitchers in innings pitched three of the last four seasons. He has thrown 953.2 innings since the start of 2009 and has six consecutive seasons of at least 200 innings pitched.
We know that Detroit manager Jim Leyland is going to push Verlander as hard as he possibly can, within the bounds of reason, because the 30-year-old has proved himself capable of handling a heavier workload.
It isn't exactly going out on a limb to think Verlander will lead all pitchers in innings pitched, but predictions aren't always about taking chances.
National League Leader: Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
Predicted Total: 223.0 IP
Thanks to Tim Lincecum's fall from grace last season, Matt Cain finally took his turn in the spotlight as San Francisco's best pitcher. And he did exactly what he has done the last six years.
Always one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball, Cain is at a point where he can have the best season of his career. He is right in his prime at 28 years old, he's thrown at least 217 innings in five straight seasons and he's lowered his ERA each season since 2010 (3.14 in 2010, 2.88 in 2011, 2.79 in 2012).
Consistency is a common thread when you look at potential starters who will lead the league in ERA. It is hard to find anyone better than Cain in the National League.
Other Contenders: Clayton Kershaw (L.A. Dodgers), James Shields (K.C.), Stephen Strasburg (Washington)
Yu Darvish's electric 2013 debut against Houston is just the start of big things to come for him.
American League/Overall Leader: Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers
Predicted Total: 242
This is a difficult category to pick, just because there are so many great strikeout pitchers in baseball. But you also have to rack up enough innings to strike out enough hitters.
Again, Justin Verlander could have been the choice and no one would have batted an eye. This prediction is just a sign of the faith I have in Yu Darvish taking the next step in his growth as a pitcher—he is also my AL Cy Young pick.
It helps Darvish's case that he pitches in a division against teams like Houston, Los Angeles and Oakland—teams that boast a lot of free swingers who will strike out a ton.
Darvish finished second in the AL last season in strikeouts per nine innings pitched (10.4), just behind Detroit's Max Scherzer (11.1). Because Scherzer tends to throw so many pitches, it is hard for him to pile up enough innings to be at the top of the strikeout mountain.
The Rangers need Darvish to be the ace that his stuff suggests he can. He finished last season very strong, with at least six strikeouts in each of his final 12 starts (a trend he kept up by striking out 14 Astros in his 2013 debut). But the biggest change has been in his ability to throw strikes. Dating back to last year, he has walked two or fewer hitters in eight straight starts.
National League Leader: Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
Predicted Total: 225
Stephen Strasburg could be trying a different tactic this season, at least based on one start, where he tries to get hitters to put the ball in play early in the count so that he can work deeper into games. That is the natural evolution of a pitcher with stuff as great as Washington's ace.
It may put a dent in Strasburg's strikeout potential, but when you have three plus-plus pitches and plus command, the K's will be there when you need them.
If Strasburg had enough innings to qualify for the ERA title last year, he would have finished ahead of Scherzer in strikeouts per nine innings (11.13). The Nationals will still monitor him very closely, but I expect a huge year for the big right-hander.
Other Contenders: Clayton Kershaw (L.A. Dodgers), Cliff Lee (Philadelphia), Justin Verlander (Detroit)
Kershaw's overpowering stuff and consistency make him an easy choice as MLB's ERA leader in 2013.
American League Leader: Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels
Predicted ERA: 2.69
Since the lineups in the American League Central look better, at least on paper, it would be easy to see Justin Verlander's ERA rise slightly. And David Price will face stiff competition in a loaded American League East.
Meanwhile, Jered Weaver will be hidden away in the American League West once again. The benefit of ballpark effects and lineups in the division will help him out tremendously. Past results support that theory, as he is a fly-ball pitcher in one of the biggest parks in baseball.
Weaver has finished in the top three of AL pitchers in ERA each of the last two seasons. He continues to defy any rational explanation given the loss of velocity on his fastball, which dipped to a career-low 88.0 mph in 2012 (via Fangraphs).
Until we have a reason to believe that Weaver can't get away with a below-average fastball, you have to like his chances to lead the league in ERA at least once.
National League/Overall Leader: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Predicted ERA: 2.62
If we are going to go the safe route for innings pitched with Justin Verlander, why should we abandon Clayton Kershaw in the ERA category when he has led the league in each of the last two seasons and finished in the Top 10 for four straight years?
The National League West is a pitcher's division, with bad lineups and big ballparks helping to make ERA numbers look better than they actually should be. But Kershaw is obviously an exception to that rule, because he has true swing-and-miss stuff, durability and continues to get better as he enters his age-25 season.
When you put a pitcher of Kershaw's caliber in parks like PetCo, AT&T and Dodger Stadium, all of which finished in the bottom six for hitters last season (via ESPN.com), it is a recipe for more domination from the former Cy Young winner.
Other Contenders: Justin Verlander (Detroit), Yu Darvish (Texas), Matt Cain (S.F.), Cliff Lee (Philadelphia)
Since Stephen Strasburg will be really good this year, why not pick him to lead MLB in wins?
American League Leader: Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
Predicted Total: 19
Justin Verlander is another case study where you can see how deceptive pitcher wins can be. He was nearly as good in 2012 as he was in 2011, when he won the Cy Young and MVP. But he finished with seven fewer wins, and that likely cost him another trophy on his mantle because David Price won 20 games.
Like Stephen Strasburg, Verlander is really good, the team around him will be really good and, even with a mediocre bullpen, he can finish most of his games to ensure he gets wins.
National League/Overall Leader: Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
Predicted Total: 20
I hate pitcher wins. I am not going to sugarcoat it. They don't tell you anything about how good or bad a pitcher was on the day he started.
Cliff Lee went 6-9 last year, but threw 211 innings, struck out 207, walked 28 and had an ERA of 3.16. Yet there were probably people who wouldn't put him on a Cy Young ballot because of his low win total.
Pitcher wins are more about when you pitch and the team around you than how you pitched.
So with that caveat out there, Stephen Strasburg gets the nod to lead MLB in wins this season because he is really good, the Nationals are really good and the bullpen is good enough to hold leads that he gives it when he gets taken out.
Other Contenders: Clayton Kershaw (L.A. Dodgers), Jered Weaver (L.A. Angels)
In another category designed specifically for fantasy owners, why not pick the best closer available?
American League Leader: Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Predicted Total: 39
Joe Nathan had a nice bounce-back season with the Rangers last year, saving 37 games with an ERA of 2.80, striking out 78 and walking just 13 in 64.1 innings.
The Rangers will be good again—though there are plenty of closers who save a lot of games for bad teams—so Nathan will have plenty of chances to save more games than he did in 2013.
National League/Overall Leader: Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Predicted Total: 44
Saves, like pitcher wins, tell you nothing about how a pitcher performed. The rate of attrition for relievers makes it very difficult to find any noticeable patterns, other than that Mariano Rivera has been great at closing games for a long time.
Since Craig Kimbrel is the best ninth-inning reliever in baseball right now, he seems like as safe a bet as anyone to lead the league in saves.
Other Contenders: Rafael Soriano (Washington), Aroldis Chapman (Cincinnati), Joel Hanrahan (Boston)
Miguel Cabrera, the best pure hitter in baseball, has given no reason to think he won't lead MLB in BA again.
American League/Overall Leader: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
Predicted Average: .331
Until Miguel Cabrera gives us a reason to think that he is declining—at just 29 years old, that shouldn't happen for at least a few more years—he has to be considered the favorite to win the batting title.
The Tigers' third baseman has led the American League in average each of the last two seasons, finished second in 2010, tied for third in 2009 and has hit at least .320 in seven of the previous eight years.
It is a bit concerning that Cabrera's walk rate dropped more than six percent from 2011 to 2012 (15.7 to 9.5), but his strikeouts stayed roughly the same as they have been throughout his career. No one is better with a bat in his hand than the 2012 AL MVP.
National League Leader: Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
Predicted Average: .326
Joey Votto controls the strike zone so well that he will be in the mix for batting titles for a long time to come. If an injury didn't cost him 51 games last season, he could easily have won his second NL MVP award.
The Reds have done well to build a team around their superstar first baseman, but everything on offense starts with him.
Competition is fierce at the top of the National League batting chain, with Andrew McCutchen making great strides last season, Buster Posey continuing to evolve into an extraordinary hitter and Ryan Braun finishing in the top three in average the last two years.
Other Contenders: Joe Mauer (Minnesota), Buster Posey (S.F.), Robinson Cano (N.Y. Yankees)
Even with no lineup around him, Giancarlo Stanton's prodigious power will light up ballparks in 2013.
American League Leader: Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays
Predicted Total: 40
No one knew what to expect from Jose Bautista at the start of this season, as he was coming off a wrist injury that cost him 70 games in 2012. But after he hit two home runs in Toronto's first three games, those fears are gone.
Looking at how proficient Bautista has been at hitting home runs over the last three years—even with the missed time last year, he hit 27 in 92 games—why shouldn't he be the favorite to lead the league in home runs one more time?
National League/Overall Leader Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins
Predicted Total: 42
There seems to be some thought that Giancarlo Stanton will have a down season because the team around him isn't very good.
Certainly, his RBI total won't be as high as it could be due to the hitters above him in the lineup. But the idea that Stanton's home-run total will be hurt because he has no protection is ridiculous. Andrew McCutchen put together an MVP-caliber season with Pittsburgh last year, hitting .327/.400/.553 with 31 home runs, in an awful lineup.
Stanton's swing is incredible, and he generates tremendous power. He hit 37 home runs last year in just 449 at-bats. As long as he stays healthy, Stanton will win many home-run titles throughout his career.
Other Contenders: Albert Pujols (L.A. Angels), Jay Bruce (Cincinnati), Ryan Braun (Milwaukee)
With the players hitting in front of him, Albert Pujols will drive in a ton of runs.
American League/Overall Leader: Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels
Predicted Total: 132
The Los Angeles Angels have put together an offense that could put up video-game numbers when it is firing on all cylinders. With Mike Trout and Erick Aybar hitting in front of him, Albert Pujols should drive in a truckload of runs.
Pujols' teammate, Josh Hamilton, might be a better candidate in this category, because he will be hitting behind Trout, Aybar and Pujols. But given Hamilton's penchant for prolonged slumps, you have to give Pujols a slight edge.
To lead the league in RBI, you need teammates who can get on base in front of you. Trout figures to be the best leadoff man in baseball once again, while Aybar is good enough in the No. 2 spot. Those table-setters will make Pujols look very good in 2013.
National League Leader: Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers
Predicted Total: 116
Since you have to look for consistency and a middle-of-the-order hitter when trying to figure out who will lead the league in RBI, what better place to start in the National League than Ryan Braun?
The 2011 NL MVP has been as consistent as anyone in the game over the last six years. He has hit at least 30 home runs in five of his first six seasons, he's driven in more than 100 runs in five straight seasons and the lineup around him is good enough to keep inflating his RBI total.
If I had any confidence that Troy Tulowitzki would play in 140 games, he would be the choice, because the Rockies always score a ton of runs and he is the force in the middle of the lineup that drives everything.
Other Contenders: Josh Hamilton (L.A. Angels), Matt Kemp (L.A. Dodgers), Miguel Cabrera (Detroit)
Mike Trout is the most dynamic offensive force in baseball.
American League/Overall Leader: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
Predicted Total: 114
Much like RBI, runs scored are as much a function of the players who hit behind you as anything else. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton figure to drive in a ton of runs this season thanks to having Mike Trout leading off for the Angels.
Since Pujols and Hamilton are going to drive in runs, someone has to be scoring when they step up to the plate. Trout is the easiest, and obvious, choice to lead the league in runs scored because of his ability to get on base, rack up stolen bases and take the extra base on balls hit to the outfield.
Trout also has plenty of power to hit the ball over the fence and drive himself in when no one else will. His run total might drop a bit this season, because it is doubtful he will hit .326/.399/.564 again, but he will still lead the league by a good margin.
National League Leader: Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves
Predicted Total: 106
The Braves spent the offseason rebuilding their entire lineup. They have handed the leadoff spot, at least for now, to Andrelton Simmons on the basis of 49 games in 2012 when he hit a respectable .289/.335/.416.
But it is what comes after Simmons where the real fun starts in the lineup. Heyward is plugged into the No. 2 spot, ahead of Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman and B.J. Upton. Eventually, Brian McCann will be back in that mix, giving the Braves five good power hitters in a row.
No one will have more opportunities to score runs than Heyward, since he starts the trek through the heart of the order. It is a good strategy by Fredi Gonzalez, which is something I never expected to say, and one that will yield big results for Heyward.
Like Trout, Heyward is a terrific baserunner with power to drive himself in with a home run. This is going to be a big season for the Braves' right fielder, regardless of how many runs he scores.
Other Contenders: Miguel Cabrera (Detroit), Justin Upton (Atlanta), Ryan Braun (Milwaukee)
With a sweet swing, Robinson Cano will continue to rack up more hits than he knows what to do with.
American League/Overall Leader: Robinson Cano, New York Yankees
Predicted Total: 202
As mentioned throughout this piece, one thing you have to look for when trying to predict stat leaders is a history of consistency. So long as the player is still in his prime—or close to it—and has proved himself to maintain performance, there is a very good chance he will be near the top of the leaderboards when the season ends.
On the list of best pure hitters in baseball, certainly, Miguel Cabrera would lead the group. Robinson Cano would not be too far behind, as the Yankees' second baseman has hit over .300 with at least 25 home runs and at least 188 hits in four straight seasons.
Another thing that works to his advantage is he doesn't take a lot of walks. But because he controls the strike zone so well and can barrel the ball with ease, he also doesn't strike out much. That gives Cano more opportunities to pile up the hits.
National League Leader: Starlin Castro, Chicago Cubs
Predicted Total: 197
Starlin Castro is a lot like Robinson Cano in that he doesn't step up to the plate looking to take a walk. He is going to hack at anything close to the plate. That tends to get him in trouble, as he will chase bad pitches and make a lot of weak contact.
But when he is at the top of his game, Castro is as good of a hitter as there is in the National League. He does swing and miss more than Cano, which hurts his batting average, but he has proved himself to be durable, playing in 320 of 324 games the last two years.
The more you play, the more opportunities you have to boost your stat totals. Castro, even though he hit just .283 last year, finished seventh in the National League with 183 hits. He had 207 in 2011 and 139 in just 125 games as a rookie three years ago.
Other contenders: Miguel Cabrera (Detroit), Ryan Braun (Milwaukee), Adrian Gonzalez (L.A. Dodgers)
If you want more analytical predictions for the 2013 season, or just want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter.