Making the Case for Clayton Kershaw as 2013 NL MVP
While players like Andrew McCutchen, David Wright and Paul Goldschmidt are getting all the MVP buzz in the National League, Clayton Kershaw is the dark-horse candidate in the field who might end up grabbing the honor.
There has always been a (ridiculous) stigma against giving pitchers the MVP award because, as Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan wrote in 2011, comparing an everyday player against someone who only participates in 33-35 games in a given season is "a clear apples-vs.-oranges issue."
Of course, someone as astute as Ryan (and others who don't believe a pitcher should win the MVP) would know that even though they are only playing in a fraction of the games a position player does, starting pitchers have much more control over the outcome of their games than anyone else.
It should also be pointed out that the actual ballot that the Baseball Writers' Association of America fills out specifically says "keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters."
Justin Verlander broke through the stigma two years ago by winning the AL MVP award when he was the best and most dominant pitcher in baseball, so why shouldn't the game's current best and most dominant pitcher be able to reap the same rewards?
Granted, Verlander had 24 wins in 2011 and Kershaw isn't going to approach that number with just 11 so far this season. Voters love rewarding high win totals for pitchers.
But as Dave Schoenfield of ESPN.com wrote, if you think wins are the measuring stick of a pitcher's performance, Kershaw has had seven games this year giving up two or fewer runs allowed without earning the win and has not won a game in which he allowed three or more runs.
(Schoenfield notes that Max Scherzer, arguably the favorite for the AL Cy Young award, has gotten five wins this season giving up three or more runs.)
It's not like Kershaw doesn't have the numbers to support his case, as shown in the following section:
The Standard Stuff
It doesn't take much to see Kershaw is great at what he does. Whether you are a casual fan who doesn't like all of the new stats used to analyze players or a hardcore sabermetric lover, Kershaw passes any test you throw at him.
Looking at the most basic stats you will see on a television broadcast (innings, ERA, hits allowed strikeouts, walks), Kershaw ranks first or second in three of the five categories among NL pitchers. He ranks eighth in hits allowed, and 20th in walks with 39, hardly a concerning number when you have thrown 182.1 innings.
But what does that tell us about Kershaw's performance compared to the average pitcher in the National League? Here are his numbers put side by side against a league-average NL starter in 2013:
As you can see, Kershaw is significantly better than the rest of the NL starters.
In fact, going by percentages, he is dwarfing the field. He has thrown 18 percent more innings, walked 14 percent less batters, stuck out 32 percent more, has a WHIP 68 percent lower and an ERA 105 percent smaller than the typical starter.
But we can't just compare Kershaw to another starting pitcher in the NL. We want to show how much better he has been at his job than any other player in the National League this season.
To provide more context, then, here is how McCutchen, who I consider the leading MVP candidate among position players in the NL, compared to the rest of the league using some basic statistical analysis:
McCutchen has been stellar this season, just as he was in 2012 when he had a very strong MVP case but wound up losing to Buster Posey.
The Pirates outfielder has a 19 percent edge over the mean in average, 18 percent in on-base percentage, 23 percent in slugging, 24 percent more home runs and a nearly 400 percent edge in stolen bases.
Since we don't get a clear separation between Kershaw and McCutchen in the usual numbers, we have to dive deeper into what the advanced metrics are telling us.
First, the easiest stat to point out is wins above replacement (WAR). It is not the be-all, end-all stat, but it does provide a good, solid jumping off point.
Going by Baseball Reference WAR (rWAR), Kershaw's 6.1 leads all starting pitchers in both leagues. His lead over the No. 2 pitcher in the National League, Matt Harvey (5.3), is fairly substantial. He also gets an extra 0.2 WAR boost from hitting, putting his full total at 6.3.
I know there are going to be Harvey supporters pointing out that his Fangraphs WAR is greater than Kershaw's (5.7 to 5.0), but that is based more on fielding independent pitching than anything else.
Baseball Reference's version of WAR accounts for a pitcher’s runs allowed and adjusts to account for their opponents, team defense, park, and role (h/t Fangraphs). That strikes me as a better way to determine pitcher value because the opponents you are playing, ball park effects and the defense behind you are important parts of how good or bad a pitcher is.
In the National League, there are only three players with an rWAR over 6.0—Kershaw (6.3), McCutchen (6.3) and Carlos Gomez (6.4).
Gomez is the one outlier in that group because he gets such a huge boost from his defense. There is tremendous value to being an elite glove in center field, but his offensive numbers have dropped the last two months with an .801 OPS in July and .570 in August.
Who is the NL MVP if the season ended today?
McCutchen is having his best defensive season ever, based on defensive runs saved (eight) and UZR (5.5). He has always had the tools to be a plus defender in center, but the math never lined up because PNC Park's measurements didn't help him out.
Kershaw and McCutchen have provided roughly the same amount of value this season, but there are some separators that push Kershaw over the top.
Examining ERA+ and OPS+, two stats that show how much better or worse than average a player is on a scale starting at 100 (more than 100 is above average, under 100 is below average), we see that Kershaw's ERA+ is 189 and McCutchen's OPS+ is 153.
What that tells us is that McCutchen is 53 percent better than the league-average position player in 2013 and Kershaw is 89 percent better than the league-average starter in 2013.
It's an apples-to-oranges comparison because there is no way to use exact stats as a way to separate a pitcher from a position player, but it doesn't take a mathematician to see that being 89-percent better than a league-average starter is better than a 53-percent edge over the league-average position player.
No Bad Days
Since starting pitchers only have a fraction of the games to make an impression on the voting populace—but if you factor the total number of outs/plays they are directly involved in compared to a position player, those numbers actually even out—it is important that they be at the top of their game every time they step on the mound.
You would be hard pressed to say that Kershaw has had a bad outing this season. His two shortest starts came in the middle of April when he threw 5.1 innings against San Diego giving up five runs (three earned), seven hits, four walks and recording five strikeouts. He followed that up with a five-inning start against the Mets walking four, striking out five and giving up two earned runs.
Since then, Kershaw's worst start was against St. Louis on May 26 when he gave up four runs (all earned) on seven hits, three walks and five strikeouts in seven innings. He hasn't gone less than six innings in a start since the end of April, has thrown at least seven innings in 20 of 25 starts and at least eight innings six times in his last nine starts.
Position players, because they are on the field everyday, are going to have more "bad" days, but they also don't have as much direct control over the outcome of a game as a starting pitcher.
Kershaw has been masterful this season, leading the NL in ERA, WHIP, ERA+, shutouts, hits per nine innings and only trailing Adam Wainwright in innings pitched by one out (182.2 to 182.1). He has a very real shot to win the award and at the very least deserves serious consideration alongside McCutchen and Wright (who has no shot to win because the Mets are terrible).
If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments.
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