As Clayton Kershaw Paints His Masterpiece, Can the NL MVP Award Be Far Behind?

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistSeptember 12, 2014

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Did you hear that?   

"I heard it," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly says.   

"Totally," says Padres radio analyst Bob Scanlan, the former big league pitcher.

It is the sound of the angels' choir here in what they call Blue Heaven. The voices have now shifted from hosannas toward the left-handed deity that is Clayton Kershaw into a chorus of deep despair. Nobody knows, the trouble I've seen... San Diego's Yangervis Solarte has performed the miracle of dumping an actual base hit onto the left-field grass.

One harmless single leading off the fourth inning. One enormous, disappointed exhalation from the 41,886 in Dodger Stadium who arrived fully expecting Kershaw to again multiply two fish and five loaves of bread into another historic meal for all.

"Ahhhhhhhwwwwww," they sing in a chorus of dejection.

This is how it is now, the impossibly high bar the best pitcher of our generation has set: The no-hitter watch begins every fifth day, as soon as Kershaw walks to the bullpen to begin his pregame warm-ups. Maybe this is the night. And then, when that first hit falls, there is an audible gasp that amplifies and echoes throughout Chavez Ravine.

"Ahhhhhhhwwwwww."

His third Cy Young Award, at this point, is a foregone conclusion.

The question now is whether the Dodgers' ace left-hander, the one who reminds so many of Sandy Koufax, will win his first MVP award.

"I don't know, honestly," Kershaw tells Bleacher Report between crescendos, pondering the MVP question. "It's just too hard to think about that stuff during the season because you get wrapped up in the wrong stuff.

"I wouldn't take it for granted, for sure. But right now I'm just trying to focus on the last month of the season and try and get into those playoffs."

The numbers are dwindling to historic proportions, making your knees buckle like one of his Curveballs from Hell.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Dodgers are 20-4 in games in which Kershaw starts and 63-59 when he doesn't. His MLB-best ERA now is 1.67, putting him in line to become the first left-hander to finish at 1.70 or lower since Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell in 1933.

"I've got the best job in baseball," says his catcher, A.J. Ellis. "I get to be 60 feet, six inches from not just the best pitcher, but the best player on the planet."

Since June 1, Kershaw is 15-1 with a 1.20 ERA and has thrown six complete games in 18 starts. Between June 18 and July 10, he spun 41 consecutive scoreless innings, the fifth-longest single-season streak in the expansion era (since 1961), according to the Elias Sports Bureau (h/t ESPN.com).

The guy has surrendered only four triples all season—three coming in one game, May 17 at Arizona.

The numbers now are beyond silly. They singe the hair on your arms like one of his sizzling heaters.

"It's like, hey, this guy is a really good fastball hitter. Not my fastball!" backup catcher Drew Butera says. "Know what I mean?"

Viewing Kershaw this summer is like watching Keith Richards at the very moment he was constructing those first chords of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" or Mark Twain as he was writing Huckleberry Finn.

Even with two Cy Youngs already on his mantle, this is Kershaw's masterpiece.

"There's no difference from year to year," he maintains. "Everybody comes in thinking they're going to have their best year. It's just a matter of preparing, and if it happens it happens, and if not hopefully it's not because you didn't prepare." 


Now will he, can he, should he bring home the NL MVP award?

The answer to that question became even more complicated in light of Giancarlo Stanton's devastating injury Thursday night. He took a Mike Fiers pitch to the face in what Marlins manager Mike Redmond acknowledged probably will end Stanton's season.

The answer is absolutely Kershaw can and should win...if he has no poor starts the rest of the way and the Dodgers win the division, plus the Marlins are sitting home in October.

The answer is absolutely not...if the Dodgers fail to win their division and settle for a wild-card slot. And especially if, in this scenario, Andrew McCutchen propels the Pirates into the playoffs, or the Marlins sneak in.

Stanton? McCutchen? They remain very much in the mix.

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 02:  Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the Washington Nationals in the fourth inning at Dodger Stadium on September 2, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

"He's on my team, so I'm voting for him," says Mattingly, who, of course, does not actually have a vote. "I think he should be in consideration. I know it's hard for a pitcher to be in the conversation, but what Clayton's been able to do..."

Kershaw has started only 24 games. Stanton, who led the NL in home runs (37), RBI (105), slugging percentage (.555), OPS (.950), total bases (299) and extra-base hits (69) into Friday, had played in all 145 of his team's games.

Before anyone rages into a diatribe about how much that tilts the scales toward Stanton, consider a couple of points:

One, there are those who believe the total number of batters faced by a starting pitcher roughly can equate to a hitter's total number of plate appearances. Kershaw, who next starts Sunday in the Dodgers' crucial series in San Francisco, has faced 662 hitters so far this season. Stanton has 638 plate appearances.

Two, there is an argument to be made that a starter as dominant as Kershaw directly affects his team at least three out of every five days, not just every fifth day. Because the day before he starts, Mattingly can liberally use his bullpen, figuring that he won't need many relievers the next night. Then Kershaw starts, and the day after he starts, Mattingly has a well-rested bullpen.

"No question," Mattingly says, before admitting, "I've been a flip-flopper with that."

Yes, he has. In 1986, one season after he won the AL MVP award as the Yankees' first baseman, Mattingly led the league in OPS (.967), slugging percentage (.573), total bases (388), hits (238) and plate appearances (742), only to finish second in the voting to Boston's Roger Clemens (24-4, 2.48 ERA, 0.969 WHIP).

Then, Mattingly was asking, how in the world could voters give the award to a pitcher when he played in all 162 games?

Now?

"As a manager, you see the value in stopping losing streaks and extending winning streaks," he says when asked about a guy like Kershaw contributing more than just once every five days.

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

"And the day before he pitches, you can count on him going six innings, for sure, even if he's getting knocked around. Then when he pitches, you're definitely not going to need a lefty [reliever] that night. And the day after he pitches, your pen is rested.

"There's definitely value in what he does."

Loads of it. And not just in his left arm.

The night in June when he no-hit the Rockies and fanned 15, which, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, were the most strikeouts in MLB history by a pitcher who did not allow a runner to reach base via a hit or a walk? What blew away Dodgers broadcaster Rick Monday that evening was a simple Kershaw ground ball to shortstop with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning—Kershaw sprinted the entire way to first base attempting to beat it out in an 8-0 game (he didn't).

How many pitchers in that situation—two outs from a no-hitterwould bother expending all that energy at the plate with history beckoning?

Last month in Milwaukee, Kershaw's uniform looked like something out of the Pig Pen Collection after diving to catch a bunt. Earlier this month at home against the Nationals, he went first-to-third, barely beating Bryce Harper's throw to the bag with a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust slide.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 18:  Pitcher Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers reacts (foreground) after pitching a no-hitter against the Colorado Rockies as fans jubilate in the background after the MLB game at Dodger Stadium on June 18, 2014 in Los
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

All this from a player who missed 31 games in April and May with a strained muscle in his back. Which is important to bring up now because that is legitimate ammunition for those who argue against Kershaw for the MVP—and more importantly, from the perspective of Kershaw and the Dodgers, maybe the early time off will leave him fresher as the Dodgers chase their first World Series since 1988.

Currently, he is at 177.1 innings pitched after throwing 236 last summer, his fourth consecutive season of working 200 or more.

"I don't think I feel that much different," Kershaw says. "People look at my innings, and my innings are down because of that month off.

"Medically, I think people are happy about that just because it gives me a little bit of a breather from last year. But I felt good last year in October, and I feel pretty much the same this year too."


The differences between the 2014 Kershaw and previous vintages are subtle at best. Mattingly says the one difference he's noticed is that the velocity on Kershaw's slider is up this year; it's "harder."

"I think that's true, and it's not by design," Kershaw says. "I don't really know why. Just the way it's coming out."

He guesses maybe he's throwing it with more confidence. Better arm speed.

But Ellis dismisses this as a significant reason why the always-dominant Kershaw is blowing away everything in sight at a higher frequency this year.

Sep 2, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) slides into third base in the fifth inning against the Washington Nationals at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

"That wouldn't be something I'd gravitate toward," Ellis says. "For me, his curveball has been dominant this year. That's what's kept his run going, his ability to throw it for strikes. On a 1-and-1 count, he has the ability to drop it in and switch the count back in his favor. Before, he almost had to throw his slider in that situation because he didn't have the ability to consistently throw the curveball for strikes."

As Ellis says, Kershaw's curve is rarely going to get swings early in the count because it comes out of his hand so steep and with such tilt.

"It's a free strike early, and now you're staring at two strikes," Ellis says.

Kershaw's average fastball is roughly 93 mph. His slider is 87, and his curve 74. As the old saying goes, hitting is timing and pitching is disrupting that timing. With three dominant pitches that range from the 90s to the 70s, most hitters are just biding their time until they get vaporized.

Then, there is Kershaw's ability to paint in textures. More and more, he has become a master of touch and feel. If his fastball and curve are working well in a particular game but his slider is temperamental, he will put the slider in his back pocket and try it again maybe in, say, the third inning. If it's still rough, back to his back pocket it will go until maybe the fifth.

Sometimes, by then, his curve is getting tired, but he'll regain control of the slider. That could mean in the middle innings, hitters will get a diet of fastballs and sliders, while Uncle Charlie gets a rest.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 10:  Starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers embraces catcher A.J. Ellis #17 after Kershaw finished the nintth inning for a complete game victory over the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium on July 10, 2014 i
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

"That's exactly right," Ellis says. "That's what makes him so great. He has an ability to adapt in-game. Against the Nationals [on September 2, a 4-1 win], he could not throw his slider for a strike. So it was all fastballs and curveballs for a while, and we kind of went away from the slider.

"But then, sometimes even if the curve isn't working the way we want it to, it's still valuable because it'll be 72, 74 and slow hitters down."

Says Kershaw: "I think you learn to deal with it better, probably, as the years go on. You maybe don't get quite as frustrated when things aren't going your way, and you try and power through it and move on to something different instead of trying to beat a dead horse."

How many mistakes does Kershaw make with pitches during a typical game?

Aug 26, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis (17) against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

"It's more than you would think, because he's so aggressive in the strike zone," Ellis says.

The catcher thinks this over for a bit and finally decides: On an average night, maybe 10 to 15 pitches are not located in the exact location where Kershaw wants them.

"But in the no-hitter?" Ellis says. "I'd say it was under five."

It is no wonder that each of his starts is an event and that they arrive by the hordes at Dodger Stadium expecting that tonight will be the night when he throws his next no-hitter and makes his next grab at another hunk of immortality.

It is the closest thing to both Koufax and a World Series—a very dependable three hours in a highly undependable world.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball @ScottMillerBbl.

Related

    Report: Astros May Have Worn Buzzing Bandages

    Houston players allegedly used the bandages to relay pitches

    MLB logo
    MLB

    Report: Astros May Have Worn Buzzing Bandages

    Matthew Demeke
    via AM 570 LA Sports

    MLB Conducting 'Really, Really Thorough Investigation' of Astros

    MLB logo
    MLB

    MLB Conducting 'Really, Really Thorough Investigation' of Astros

    Tim Daniels
    via Bleacher Report

    Each Team's Biggest Offseason Obstacle 😰

    MLB logo
    MLB

    Each Team's Biggest Offseason Obstacle 😰

    Joel Reuter
    via Bleacher Report

    MadBum Is a Terrible Fit for the Yankees

    Why the Giants star is better off staying in the NL

    MLB logo
    MLB

    MadBum Is a Terrible Fit for the Yankees

    Zachary D. Rymer
    via Bleacher Report