Making the Winning Case for Each Top 2013 MVP, Cy Young Candidate

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistNovember 7, 2013

Making the Winning Case for Each Top 2013 MVP, Cy Young Candidate

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    Now that we know the finalists for the 2013 Major League Baseball awards, it is time to look at each player's case to win the hardware. 

    Specifically, we are going to focus on the two biggest awards in each league: Cy Young and Most Valuable Player. 

    The best part of awards season in baseball is the debate it encourages among fans and analysts. Some of it can be based on external factors that have nothing to do with a player's performance, but most of the time you will learn something new. 

    When you see the cases we make for each of these players, feel free to offer up your take and how you would like to see the vote go when the results are announced on Nov. 13 and 14. 

     

    Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted. Finalists are listed in alphabetical order. 

AL Cy Young Finalist: Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    2013 Stats: 32 GS, 13-9, 2.83 ERA, 209.2 IP, 145 H, 26 HR, 80 BB, 277 K, 1.07 WHIP, 145 ERA+

     

    Yu Darvish improved on his stellar rookie season by increasing his already insane strikeout rate and allowing 11 fewer hits this year despite throwing 18.1 more innings. 

    Even though Max Scherzer has the narrative of a 21-3 record working in his favor, Darvish finished with a lower ERA than Detroit's right-hander (2.83 to 2.90) and had the lowest expected fielding independent ERA of all three finalists (2.84). He led all starting pitchers in strikeouts per nine innings (11.83). 

    No pitcher in the American League was harder to hit. Darvish allowed a league-low 6.2 hits per nine innings and .194 opponents' batting average. 

    He was a hard-luck loser, taking defeats in four 1-0 games and getting the lowest run support per game among the three AL Cy Young finalists (4.26). Darvish also lost four other games in which he allowed three earned runs or fewer because the Rangers weren't scoring when he was on the mound. 

    Undoubtedly the owner of the best raw stuff in baseball, Darvish's resume continues to grow, and the steps he took in 2013 signal even bigger things in the future. 

AL Cy Young Finalist: Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle Mariners

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    2013 Stats: 33 GS, 14-6, 219.2 IP, 2.66 ERA, 179 H, 25 HR, 42 BB, 185 K, 1.01 WHIP, 138 ERA+

     

    Easily the most under-the-radar awards finalist, Hisashi Iwakuma was able to stand out in a Seattle rotation that featured Felix Hernandez. 

    It is time to start paying attention to Iwakuma, who had a strong debut season as a 31-year-old last year and got better in 2013. He finished with the lowest ERA of the three AL Cy Young finalists (2.66, third in the AL) and third-lowest walk rate in the league (1.72 per nine innings). 

    What makes Iwakuma's ERA even more impressive is the defense behind him. Seattle ranked last in the league in most major defensive metrics, including defensive runs saved (minus-99) and ultimate zone rating (minus-73.0). 

    Iwakuma had a lower WHIP than Darvish (1.01 to 1.07) and had more innings pitched than his two competitors. 

    MLB Network's Brian Kenny also pointed out a great Iwakuma stat: Seattle's right-hander led the league in runs allowed per nine innings WAR (RA/9 WAR). It's a similar stat to pitcher WAR, except it uses runs allowed per nine innings instead of fielding-independent ERA. 

    I can't imagine a lot of old-school voters even attempting to understand RA/9 WAR, but it's just another feather in the cap for the underrated Iwakuma. 

AL Cy Young Finalist: Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    2013 Stats: 32 GS, 21-3, 214.1 IP, 2.90 ERA, 152 H, 18 HR, 56 BB, 240 K, 0.97 WHIP, 145 ERA+

     

    Let's get the ugly elephant sitting in the room out of the way. Max Scherzer's 21-3 record, which was as much a product of getting the third-best run support per game among all starting pitchers (5.59) as anything he did on the mound, is going to get him a lot of votes. 

    Now we can look at everything Scherzer had direct control over to make his Cy Young case. No pitcher in the league was stingier when it came to baserunners allowed. His 0.97 WHIP was third in all of baseball, behind Clayton Kershaw and Matt Harvey. 

    Scherzer also kept the ball in the park at a better rate than Iwakuma (25) or Darvish (26), allowing just 18 home runs in 214.1 innings pitched. 

    Going over Scherzer's game log from 2013, the right-hander had 20 starts where he allowed two runs or fewer. He also had eight double-digit strikeout games, second to Darvish (12) among AL Cy Young finalists. 

    He led AL pitchers with 6.4 fWAR and had the best FIP among AL Cy Young candidates (2.74). 

NL Cy Young Finalist: Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins

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    Marc Serota/Getty Images

    2013 Stats: 28 GS, 12-6, 172.2 IP, 2.19 ERA, 111 H, 10 HR, 58 BB, 187 K, 0.98 WHIP, 176 ERA+

     

    How many superlatives can you use to describe Jose Fernandez's rookie season? They only get better when you factor in he pitched most of the season at age 20. 

    Fernandez led all of baseball with a minuscule 5.8 hits per nine innings, which happened to be the lowest rate in MLB since Pedro Martinez in 2000 and 11th lowest in history. 

    Even though Clayton Kershaw (8.85 K/9 IP) and Adam Wainwright (8.16 K/9 IP) are labeled as strikeout pitchers, and rightfully so, Fernandez was a better strikeout artist in 2013. He didn't have the volume of punchouts they did because his innings were limited, but Fernandez's 9.75 per nine innings blew the other NL Cy Young contenders out of the water.  

    Fernandez also didn't have the benefit of pitching in a division against the likes of Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, San Francisco or San Diego. Those teams play in huge ballparks that favor pitching and/or feature below-average offenses. 

    It takes a special season for a pitcher with just 172.2 innings pitched to get in the Cy Young conversation. That tells you how great Fernandez was in 2013. 

NL Cy Young Finalist: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    2013 Stats: 33 GS, 16-9, 236.0 IP, 1.83 ERA, 164 H, 11 HR, 52 BB, 232 K, 0.92 WHIP, 194 ERA+

     

    If it's possible to be better than extraordinary, Clayton Kershaw is at that level. He was already one of the most dominant starters in baseball the previous four years, but he took his game to another level in 2013. 

    Let's start with Kershaw's 1.83 ERA, which is the best for a starting pitcher since Roger Clemens in 2005. No other starter in baseball had an ERA under 2.10; Jose Fernandez was second at 2.19. 

    Not surprisingly, advanced metrics love Kershaw. The 25-year-old led the league with 6.5 fWAR, a 194 ERA+ and win probability added (4.69). He ranked second in fielding-independent ERA (2.39) and home runs per nine innings (0.42). He was sixth in expected fielding-independent ERA (2.88). 

    Kershaw had 22 starts in 2013 where he gave up two runs or fewer and 19 games with at least seven strikeouts. He was as consistently dominant as any pitcher in baseball, is widely regarded as the best starter in the game and has even better numbers than when he won his first Cy Young in 2011. 

NL Cy Young Finalist: Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    2013 Stats: 34 GS, 19-9, 241.2 IP, 2.94 ERA, 223 H, 15 HR, 35 BB, 219 K, 1.07 WHIP, 123 ERA+

     

    They say that you can't really know what a pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery will be until the second year.

    Adam Wainwright put together a strong first season back from elbow reconstruction in 2012, but he was even better this season. He had career bests in complete games (five), innings (241.2), strikeouts (219), walks per nine innings (1.3) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.26). 

    The innings and complete games were the best in baseball this season, while the strikeout-to-walk ratio was second behind Cliff Lee's 6.94 mark. 

    Wainwright also had the lowest expected fielding-independent ERA among NL Cy Young finalists (2.80). Of his 34 starts, 26 lasted at least seven innings. 

    Even though his strikeout rate and hits allowed didn't compare to Fernandez and Kershaw, Wainwright's ability to throw strikes and work deep into games makes him a compelling Cy Young candidate. 

AL MVP Finalist: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    2013 Stats: 148 G, .348/.442/.636, 193 H, 26 2B, 44 HR, 137 RBI, 90 BB, 94 K, 353 TB, 187 OPS+

     

    Is it possible to hit .330, slug 40 doubles and 44 home runs, win an MVP award, then get better the next season?

    When you are Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter on the planet, the answer to that question is yes. Not only did Miggy post a higher batting average and slugging percentage this season than in his Triple Crown year, he also increased his on-base percentage by 49 points and had the highest OPS+ of his career. 

    Cabrera's numbers did tail off at the end of the year (.278/.395/.333 in September) thanks to a number of injuries, but the overall body of work is as impressive as you will see from a hitter. He led the league in average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. 

    The late-season swoon cost Cabrera the home run and RBI titles, though it is hard to see that hurting his candidacy too much. He was declared the 2013 AL MVP basically from the word go, and voters won't be so quick to change their opinion. 

AL MVP Finalist: Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    2013 Stats: 160 G, .286/.370/.634, 167 H, 42 2B, 53 HR, 138 RBI, 72 BB, 199 K, 370 TB, 165 OPS+

     

    There was a time when Chris Davis looked like a busted prospect. The power was always there, but high strikeout rates limited his upside. Being traded to the Orioles in 2011 and getting consistent playing time has worked wonders for the first baseman. 

    Davis became the first player to break the 50-homer barrier since Jose Bautista in 2010, and he led MLB with 96 extra-base hits, 138 RBI and 370 total bases. No other player had more than 75 extra-base hits or 353 total bases. 

    His inability to make contact did result in a second-half decline (.245/.339/.515), but the power was so far above and beyond what anyone else did this year that he belongs in the MVP conversation. Davis was the only player in baseball whose isolated power was over .300, and his weighted on-base average of .421 was third behind his two MVP competitors. 

    No one would classify Davis as a burner on the bases, but he did rate as an above-average baserunner, adding 2.6 runs of value. 

    What makes Davis' huge power even more impressive is it came during a year when the average runs per game (4.17) was at the lowest level since 1992 and average home runs per game (0.96) was the third-lowest since 1993. 

AL MVP Finalist: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    2013 Stats: 157 G, .323/.432/.557, 190 H, 39 2B, 9 3B, 27 HR, 97 RBI, 33 SB, 110 BB, 136 K, 328 TB, 179 OPS+

     

    The baseball world looks up to Trout's greatness right now. There is no other player on the planet who does more to impact a game than the Angels' 22-year-old superstar. His 2013 performance actually bested his Rookie of the Year campaign, which was no easy feat. 

    Trout doesn't hit as many home runs as Davis or Cabrera, but his speed can turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples. It also helps him stay out of double plays, as he only hit into eight this season compared to 19 for Cabrera. Baserunning is also one of Trout's strong suits; he ranked fourth in MLB with 8.1 runs of value added. 

    Trout's weighted on-base average of .423 and weighted runs created a plus of 176, ranked second behind Cabrera. 

    Even though Trout's defensive numbers took a step back in 2013, he still rated as slightly above-average with the glove, which is more than Davis or Cabrera can say. Considering Trout plays a premium defensive position (center field) and posts ridiculous offensive numbers, his value only increases. 

    The only arguments against Trout for MVP have nothing to do with his performance and everything to do with the ineptitude of the Angels front office. 

NL MVP Finalist: Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    2013 Stats: 160 G, .302/.401/.551, 182 H, 36 2B, 36 HR, 125 RBI, 15 SB, 99 BB, 145 K, 332 TB, 160 OPS+

     

    He didn't get the same level of attention that Chris Davis or Miguel Cabrera did, but Paul Goldschmidt finished first in two of the three Triple Crown categories. That is a narrative that deserved more mainstream coverage. 

    Goldschmidt was also one of two NL players this season in the .300/.400/.500 club, along with fellow MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen. He led the league with 75 extra-base hits, 160 OPS+, .404 weighted on-base average, .249 isolated power and 332 total bases. 

    Not known for his speed, Goldschmidt has turned into a strong baserunner with 15 stolen bases thanks to his instincts and ability to read pitchers.

    He's also one of the best defensive first baseman in the league, credited with saving 13 runs in 2013. It's not a glamorous position, but Goldy handles it very well. 

    It's rare in today's game to find first basemen with Goldschmidt's all-around skill set. He's grown beyond even the most optimistic projections for him when Arizona took him in the eighth round of the 2009 draft and is a well-deserved finalist for the NL MVP award. 

NL MVP Finalist: Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    2013 Stats: 157 G, .317/.404/.508, 185 H, 38 2B, 5 3B, 21 HR, 84 RBI, 27 SB, 78 BB, 101 K, 296 TB, 158 OPS+

     

    Sometimes you can't help but get excited when the narrative and performance line up for a player like Andrew McCutchen to win a prestigious award. That's not to take away from Paul Goldschmidt or Yadier Molina, both fantastic players in their own right. 

    But for McCutchen, who was quick to sign a long-term extension with Pittsburgh when the Pirates were a doormat and has developed into a superstar for the franchise, it will be hard not to cheer if voters award him the NL MVP trophy. 

    McCutchen being in the .300/.400/.500 club this year makes him more valuable than Goldschmidt because of the position he plays. The offensive bar for a center fielder is much lower than for a first baseman. 

    McCutchen was also one of two players, along with Mike Trout, with at least 30 doubles, five triples, 20 home runs and 25 stolen bases. His 5.1 baserunning runs added ranked seventh in the NL. 

    This was McCutchen's best year defensively. He was credited with seven defensive runs saved and a 6.9 ultimate zone rating. His 8.2 fWAR was tops in the league, more than half a win better than Carlos Gomez. 

    A lot of things went right for the Pirates in 2013, but nothing more than the evolution of McCutchen from superstar to MVP. 

NL MVP Finalist: Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals

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    2013 Stats: 136 G, .319/.359/.477, 161 H, 44 2B, 12 HR, 80 RBI, 30 BB, 55 K, 241 TB, 131 OPS+

     

    Yadier Molina's career trajectory points to him winning an MVP award sooner or later. He finished 21st in the voting two years ago, fourth last year and will be in the top three this year. 

    You would struggle to find a player who garners more respect among fans and analysts than the Cardinals catcher. His value behind the plate and emergence with the bat can't be understated. 

    Molina's fWAR total of 5.6 is third among the NL MVP candidates, but that doesn't tell the whole story of all he does. The bar for catchers is so low that if a team can find one who plays defense well without embarrassing himself offensively, he is going to be a starter for years. 

    For instance, the average MLB catcher with a minimum of 150 at-bats in 2013 hit .240/.310/.377. Molina dwarfed those numbers, posting a .319/.359/.477 slash line. 

    When you combine Molina's ability with the glove, including throwing out 43 percent of basestealers and handling a staff as well as anyone, with the fact he's a .300/.350/.450 hitter, the package looks a lot better than some of the raw numbers would suggest. 

     

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