Welcome to Round 3 of our Lead Writer debate series! Following a debate over the worst pennant race collapse in Major League Baseball history, two members of the Bleacher Report MLB team are ready for another scuffle.
It's not often that a pitcher wins the Most Valuable Player award. It's only happened a handful of times throughout MLB history and only three times since 1986.
Yet there stands Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, he of the golden left arm and microscopic ERA. In a year when there really is no clear favorite to win the National League MVP, a simple question has arisen in recent weeks:
Why not Kershaw?
That's a question for MLB Lead Writers Joe Giglio and Zachary D. Rymer, and they each have their own answers. Mr. Giglio is all for Kershaw winning the NL MVP award, while Mr. Rymer believes the award should go to Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
Their arguments for each other's candidates and their arguments against each other's candidates lie below. Anything pro-Kershaw or anti-McCutchen is Giglio, and anything pro-McCutchen or anti-Kershaw is Rymer.
The Case for Clayton Kershaw
Over the last 20 years, only two pitchers (Justin Verlander and Dennis Eckersley) have pulled off the Cy Young-MVP combo in the same season. When the Baseball Writers’ Association of America reveals the balloting for the two biggest National League awards of 2013, only one name should be announced: Clayton Kershaw.
After striking out nine batters in a no-decision Tuesday night in Los Angeles, the Dodgers lefty boasts the following pitching line for the season: 28 GS, 204 IP, 197 SO, 0.88 WHIP, 5.9 H/9, 4.28 SO/BB, 1.72 ERA, 2.37 FIP, 2.91 xFIP, 207 ERA-plus.
Before taking another sip of coffee, it is indeed 2013, not 1967. While it’s true that the run-scoring environment in baseball is down from recent years, not to mention the Steroid Era, run prevention of this nature is still very, very rare.
Since World War II, only five pitchers have had seasons of at least 204 innings pitched while holding an ERA of 1.72 or below. If Kershaw can continue his run of excellence over the next five weeks, he’ll join Dean Chance, Bob Gibson, Luis Tiant, Dwight Gooden and Greg Maddux atop the list of great pitching seasons of all time.
Of course, the Most Valuable Player award isn’t just about numbers or accolades. It’s about value. While that word can be confounding to voters, the concept has been made concise by the wonderful folks who work with baseball statistics.
Clayton Kershaw isn’t the National League MVP because of his place in the all-time pitching seasons, but rather because of his value in relation to other NL contenders and how much he’s meant on his own roster, despite the collection of All-Star names in Los Angeles’ clubhouse.
According to Baseball-Reference’s WAR calculations, Kershaw has been worth 7.4 wins above replacement through 132 games. While my esteemed colleague will try to convince you of Andrew McCutchen’s status as the league MVP, the difference in WAR between Kershaw and McCutchen (7.4 vs. 6.7) is a larger gap than the difference between first and second place in the 2012, 2007 and 2003 NL MVP voting. In other words, it’s a significant difference.
As Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated pointed out last week in the aftermath of a Kershaw victory over the Miami Marlins, the 25-year-old left-hander is on pace for a 9.1 WAR season. If Kershaw doesn’t win the award, it would mark the third straight year that a player with a 9.0 or better WAR has been denied the MVP. With apologies to Mike Trout in 2012 and Cliff Lee in 2011, the competition for the award in 2013 shouldn’t be stiff enough to make that come to fruition.
NL MVP Race: 1. Clayton Kershaw 2. Andrew McCutchen 3. Yadier Molina 4. Freddie Freeman— JIM BOWDEN (@JimBowdenESPNxm) August 12, 2013
We could go on all day about Kershaw’s value in the context of the National League, but the true line of demarcation when deciding upon an MVP is how truly valuable the player is to his own team.
The case will be made that McCutchen’s star status has raised the Pirates up from the dead. Unlike Kershaw, the Pirates star doesn’t play on a team of former All-Stars, in Hollywood or with a $200 million payroll. Of course, the narrative there doesn’t seamlessly weave with the facts.
At 78-55, Los Angeles is pacing the NL West field. Since a June 21 loss dropped them to 30-42, the Dodgers have reeled off wins in 48 of 61 games, running away with the division in the process. A quick glance at their roster shows many, many stars aside from Kershaw, seemingly diminishing his superior value to the team.
Of course, that leaves out injuries to Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez and Carl Crawford during the season, and Yasiel Puig’s two months spent in Chattanooga, Tenn., instead of Chavez Ravine.
On the pitching side, Kershaw’s wing men, Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu, have been good but not nearly as valuable as their staff leader. Due to missed starts from suspension and injury, Greinke has been worth 2.5 pitching wins above replacement. Ryu, in his first year in the majors, has contributed a 2.4 WAR.
Los Angeles has a roster full of stars but is 78-55 because of an MVP ace carrying everyone on his back.
The Case for Andrew McCutchen
I'll get to chipping away at Kershaw's case for the NL MVP soon enough, but for now, it's my turn to back my guy. After finishing third in the NL MVP voting behind Buster Posey and Ryan Braun last year, McCutchen deserves to win it in 2013.
Why? Mainly because he's been the best all-around player in the National League.
That's what WAR says, anyway. McCutchen leads all NL position players in WAR whether you consult FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference.com, and I should note that his FanGraphs WAR is higher than that of one Clayton Kershaw. That makes one WAR for Giglio/Kershaw and one WAR for me/McCutchen, which makes us even.
But simply saying, “Hey, look at this guy’s WAR! Doesn’t he look like an MVP to you?!” is lame. What makes McCutchen great are the specific things that have made him a WAR hero.
McCutchen's bat has been a terrific source of value. His .322 batting average ranks fourth among NL hitters, and his .399 on-base percentage ranks fourth as well. Given that getting on base is what it's all about, the Bucs star obviously stands out as one of the league's elite offensive performers.
Granted, McCutchen's power hasn't been the same this year. His slugging percentage is a respectable .508, but his .187 Isolated Power (ISO) is a more telling assessment of his power production. His ISO was .226 last year, and his .187 ISO this year only ranks 21st among NL players, according to FanGraphs.
But you know what? Extra-base hits are just a quick and easy way to get around the bases, and there are other ways players can do that if their power is down. Running the bases well usually works, and McCutchen's a guy who can tell you all about that.
McCutchen has stolen 26 bases in 35 tries this season, and he also ranks fifth in the NL in Ultimate Base Running, a FanGraphs stat that credits and debits players for various plays made on the basepaths. Between his base stealing and his baserunning, McCutchen ranks in the top 10 in the NL in baserunning runs.
So how much better has McCutchen been than the average offensive player? That's a job for Weighted Runs Created Plus, which has the Pittsburgh outfielder as the fourth-best offensive player in the NL behind Joey Votto, David Wright and Paul Goldschmidt.
The difference between those three and McCutchen, of course, is that they don't play a premium defensive position. McCutchen does out in center field, and both the Ultimate Zone Rating metric and Defensive Runs Saved metric agree that he's played it well this year (see FanGraphs).
The eye test also agrees:
Thus, do I rest my case that McCutchen has been the best all-around player in the National League. He's gotten on base, hit for some power, run the bases and played defense, all at a rate well above average. And there's not another player in the Senior Circuit who can claim to have done the same.
But since this is an MVP discussion, we can't ignore the various narrative aspects of McCutchen's 2013 season. We have to consider what the Pirates would be without him and whether he's playing well when the games—according to conventional wisdom, anyway—matter most.
Here's where the Pirates would be without McCutchen: not in second place in the toughest division in the National League.
The Pirates are not a strong offensive team, as they rank only 22nd in MLB in runs scored, even with their MVP candidate in their batting order. Pittsburgh's lineup certainly leaves much to be desired outside of him, as he's the only Pirates regular with a batting average north of .285 or an OBP north of .350.
For a quick comparison, consider Yadier Molina. He's one of four St. Louis Cardinals regulars with a batting average over .300, and the Cardinals also have four players with OBPs over .350.
So that takes care of how large Andrew McCutchen looms on the Pirates' fortunes. Now we have to look at how he's playing in crunch time, as doing so tends to hold quite a bit of sway when it comes to the MVP voting. See Miguel Cabrera last year and Chipper Jones in 1999 for examples.
Since the All-Star break, McCutchen has the highest fWAR of any player in the National League. He's reversed the narrative of 2011 and 2012, as he's following a decent first half with a brilliant second half rather than the other way around.
Goodness knows the Pirates have needed his help. They're only a .526 ballclub in the second half as opposed to a .602 ballclub in the first half. Take McCutchen's excellence out of the equation, and they might be collapsing just like they did the last two years.
Here, at the end, it's time to recap: McCutchen is the best all-around player in the National League, he's absolutely an invaluable member of a contending team and he's at his best when the games matter most.
Sounds like an MVP to me.
The Case Against Andrew McCutchen
The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates are the best story in baseball. From castoffs like A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano to homegrown talent like Sterling Marte and Pedro Alvarez, the team is on the path to the postseason for the first time in decades. Of course, they wouldn’t be close to that distinction without Andrew McCutchen.
Full disclosure: McCutch is awesome, a joy to watch as a baseball fan and truly deserving of MVP votes on any and every ballot. However, those should not be first-place votes.
As noted in support of the true NL MVP, Clayton Kershaw, McCutchen has been excellent, posting a 6.7 WAR this season. His status as the franchise player in Pittsburgh is well established, and it’s clear that the team will go as far as he takes them in October.
That being said, his value, relative to this Pirates team in this particular season, has been overstated. Along with that, the outstanding numbers he’s put forth in the second half of the season have been hollow in conjunction with wins and losses in the Steel City.
Unlike Clayton Kershaw’s task with carrying the value of his staff, McCutchen has had two excellent sidekicks in Starling Marte (4.9 WAR) and Russell Martin (3.8 WAR). He may be the biggest and boldest name in Pittsburgh’s everyday lineup, but that shouldn’t overshadow the help he’s had in this magical Steel City run.
A good chunk of support for McCutchen will be based on his outstanding second half (1.055 OPS, 7 HR, 23/26 walk-to-strikeout ratio) and Pittsburgh’s ability to sustain their chokehold on a run at October. Downplaying McCutchen’s play since the All-Star break would be silly, but baseball fans and, more importantly, MVP voters shouldn’t let a non-collapse be mistaken for excellent play.
Heading into play on Wednesday, Pittsburgh is 20-18 in the second half. The Pirates have done more than enough to capitalize on their excellent first half and sustain their mark of 21 games over .500. Yet despite McCutchen’s run of excellence, the team hasn’t truly thrived.
In fact, Pittsburgh won at a much higher clip during McCutchen’s good, not great, first half. Don’t believe me? Take a look:
- First half: .302/.376/.471
- Second half: .370/.454/.601
Despite the over 200-point difference in McCutchen’s OPS from the first to the second half, the team has gone from 56-37 juggernaut to 20-18 in its last 38. Of course, little of the Pirates' average play since mid-July falls on McCutchen’s shoulders, but shouldn’t the play of the National League Most Valuable Player have more bearing on the wins and losses of his team?
McCutchen is a 26-year-old superstar center fielder in the midst of back-to-back seasons of 7.0-plus WAR campaigns and OPS-plus figures of 150 or above. An MVP or two certainly looms in his future, but not in 2013.
The Case Against Clayton Kershaw
You know how there are some things in life that you just don't want to do? This is one of those moments for me.
I absolutely adore Kershaw. I don't miss any of his starts and I tend to be in a suspended state of glee when he's on the mound. So don't make the mistake of thinking that I'm not a Kershaw fan.
And no, I'm not against pitchers winning the MVP award. If there are no better candidates among the position player ranks and a pitcher is really that much better than everyone else in the pitcher ranks, then by all means, throw some MVP votes at him.
We know how I feel about the first part of that statement. McCutchen's my guy, and it's going to take one of those Clockwork Orange setups to convince me otherwise. But it's on me to make the case that Kershaw hasn't been far and away better than his National League pitching peers, which his 1.72 ERA and 207 ERA+ say is basically a suicide mission.
I can, however, say this: There’s no question Kershaw has been the most successful pitcher in the National League this season, but has he really been the best?
Yes, there is a difference. And yes, there is a reasonable doubt that he hasn't been the best.
Kershaw's ERA says he's been the best pitcher in the NL and so does his ERA+. But when it comes to assessing dominance, these stats are more the tip of the iceberg than they are the end of the line. Especially with all the fancy-pants stats we have today.
Mr. Giglio mentioned some of these when he was making his case for Kershaw, noting that he has a 2.37 FIP and 2.91 xFIP. Those are good marks indeed, but what Mr. Giglio neglected to mention is that neither mark is tops among NL starters.
According to FanGraphs, Matt Harvey and Adam Wainwright both have Kershaw beat in FIP and xFIP. That's not all, either, as they both lead Kershaw in SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA). There's also tERA (True Runs Allowed), which has Harvey leading Kershaw and Wainwright hovering closely behind him.
Surprised? Don’t be. ERA estimators tend to favor pitchers who limit walks and rack up strikeouts, and Kershaw is up against some formidable competition in these departments.
Harvey leads the National League in strikeout percentage and Wainwright leads the league in walk percentage. And here’s the kicker: Since both of them can rack up strikeouts and avoid walks with the best of them, they actually lead Kershaw by quite a bit in K/BB ratio.
The key to Clayton Kershaw’s dominance? That would be his .238 BABIP, which is tied for the lowest mark in the National League with Travis Wood. While keeping one's BABIP low is certainly a skill, Kershaw’s .238 BABIP is way lower than his career mark of .268.
And that's odd, because he's not working with a career-best ground-ball percentage and is actually surrendering more line drives than ever before with a career-high 21.7 line-drive percentage.
Point being: the Dodgers ace's BABIP should be higher than it is. And if it was, his WHIP would be higher. And if his WHIP was higher, his ERA would be higher and there would be none of this Kershaw-for-MVP talk. There's your debunking of Kershaw's ERA through the use of newfangled statistical sorcery. Now then, how about the narrative?
Mr. Giglio mentioned that none of the pitchers around Kershaw in the Dodgers starting rotation have been as good as he's been, which is undeniably true. But here's the thing: If you remove Kershaw from the Dodgers rotation and replace him with, say, a league-average pitcher, the Dodgers would still have an elite rotation.
According to FanGraphs, Dodgers starters currently lead MLB in ERA at 3.11. That goes to show that it helps quite a bit to have a guy with a 1.72 ERA in your rotation. But if we take Kershaw out and replace him with Jeff Samardzija, whose 4.03 ERA is exactly the league average for starters this year, what you would get is a rotation with a 3.67 ERA.
That's not as good, but such an ERA would still be good enough to rank sixth in MLB.
I could end this thing by pointing out that the Dodgers are only 16-12 in Kershaw's starts, whereas the 2011 Tigers were 25-9 in Justin Verlander's starts and the 1986 Red Sox were 27-6 in Roger Clemens' starts, but, well, nah. I consider myself to be better than that (he said with a wry smile on his face, keenly aware of how he had just Inceptioned unwitting readers).
Kershaw is an amazing pitcher who's bursting at the seams with 100 percent pure amazingness. But his ERA isn't the one and only testament to how good he's been in 2013, and the Dodgers would hardly be out of sorts if he were to be removed from the equation.
Give him the Cy Young, sure. But not the MVP.
We hope you enjoyed our third MLB Lead Writer debate between Joe and Zachary. Now it's your turn to tell us what you thought down in the comments section. Let us know who's side you're on in the NL MVP debate and why.
Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeGiglioSports
Follow Zachary on Twitter: @zachrymer