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Can Felix Hernandez Win the AL MVP Award?

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Can Felix Hernandez Win the AL MVP Award?
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
Felix Hernandez is running away with the AL Cy Young and has now entered the discussion for MVP.

The Seattle Mariners have been led into playoff contention by a historic season from Felix Hernandez, who is well on his way to winning the American League Cy Young Award.

Hernandez owns a sub-2.00 ERA in mid-August and has pitched seven or more innings while allowing two runs or fewer in 16 straight games, an MLB record. Barring an epic meltdown, Hernandez will win his second career Cy Young over Chris Sale, Jon Lester and Corey Kluber.

Just like the rest of us, Mariners catcher Mike Zunino is running out of words to describe Hernandez's dominant run, which he expects to continue, via Greg Johns of MLB.com:

It's something else. But he is something else. That's all you can say. He's got the best stuff right now and he's pitching, too. When you have a combination of both, it's pretty hard to score multiple runs off him.

However, Hernandez might not stop at the Cy Young. 

Another strong outing Monday against the Toronto Blue Jays put Hernandez ahead of Mike Trout for the league lead in WAR with 6.2. As a result, Hernandez winning the AL Most Valuable Player Award is not out of the question:

At this point, Trout is still firmly in the driver’s seat to win. Trout has been the best all-around position player in baseball for the last two seasons and the voters are likely to finally (deservedly) reward him for it.

If the season ended today and Trout won, it would be hard to argue that Hernandez was truly snubbed. Still, recent precedent indicates that Hernandez has a decent chance of being named MVP. 

Justin Verlander won the award in 2011, becoming the first starting pitcher to do so since Roger Clemens in 1986. Hernandez’s 2014 numbers compare favorably so far:

2014 Felix Hernandez vs. 2011 Justin Verlander
W/L IP ERA K/9 BB/9 FIP xFIP WAR
Hernandez 13-3 180.1 1.95 9.68 1.60 2.07 2.83 6.3
Verlander 24-5 251.0 2.40 8.96 2.04 2.99 3.12 6.9

FanGraphs.com

Hernandez is in good shape to top Verlander in most categories other than record and innings. If the voters use the same process as three years ago, Hernandez will be right there.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
Hernandez's 2014 numbers are better than several of those from Verlander in 2011, but Trout will be a tough opponent to beat.

Of course, that’s only half the story. Here’s how Trout’s 2014 numbers compare to those of Jacoby Ellsbury, the second-place finisher in 2011:

2014 Trout vs. 2011 Ellsbury
Line HR RBI SB wRC+ WAR
Trout .294/.382/.570 27 85 12 169 5.7
Ellsbury .321/.376/.552 32 105 39 150 9.1

FanGraphs.com

If Trout roughly continues his current pace, the two will split major categories. Trout’s numbers at the plate look a little better, but Ellsbury’s baserunning and defense made him more valuable overall.

By that logic, Hernandez is not only firmly in the running, but he deserves to be the favorite. However, Hernandez will have a few other factors working against him.

Trout’s WAR is down from the past two seasons, in part because FanGraphs has him at -11.7 UZR/150, easily the worst mark of his career. One-year defensive numbers can be shaky for outfielders and the eye test indicates Trout really isn't that bad, so he won’t be penalized too much by voters for his defense. 

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
Trout may not be a great defender, but most scouts and fans would agree that he is better than his UZR indicates.

In addition, pitcher wins are losing importance among the baseball community, but still carry a small amount of weight in award voting. Hernandez is probably going to fall short of the magic number of 20 wins and certainly won’t match Verlander's 2011 total of 24, which could hold him back.

Finally, some voters simply won’t vote for a pitcher to win the MVP award. There’s merits to both sides of that argument, but it’s not going to help Hernandez either way.

That thinking could change this year, however. As Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times points out, Clayton Kershaw is building a strong case to be MVP in the NL: 

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
Kershaw has a strong chance to win the NL MVP. Would voters even consider giving both MVPs to pitchers?

With all those factors, Hernandez faces an uphill battle to win the award, but he has still given himself a solid chance.

Hernandez will have to keep up his current pace to have a shot. It’s impossible for anyone but maybe Kershaw to get any better, but Hernandez’s current form indicates he won’t be slowing down at all.

Trout is too good to go into a major slump over the last month and a half. But if he slows down just a bitparticularly in home runs or RBIshe door will be open for Hernandez.

Its Trout’s award to lose for now, but Hernandez should finish at least in second, if not first. The fact that Hernandez is even deservedly in the conversation for MVP deserves celebration.

 

All stats via FanGraphs.com unless otherwise noted.

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