By Paul Boyé
In 2011, when Justin Verlander became the first pitcher since Dennis Eckersley in 1992 to bring home the Most Valuable Player award, it seemed we might be living in a brave new world of award consideration.
Maybe "brave" isn't quite the right descriptor. But it sure seemed as though we were witnessing a sea change: Maybe pitchers, for better or worse, were now going to be regularly counted among MVP finalists. Verlander's 2011 was an impressive season, to be sure: 251 innings pitched, 250 strikeouts, a 2.40 ERA and a Cy Young Award-guaranteeing 24 wins. CC Sabathia, James Shields and Jered Weaver also had nice seasons, but crowning Verlander was a foregone conclusion.
What was unusual was all of the talk and hype around Verlander as a potential MVP candidate, seeing as nearly 20 seasons had been played since Eck laid claim to the title. It wasn't as if Verlander was unworthy, but the reluctance to show other pitchers the same love in recent voting -- Roy Halladay in 2010 and Johan Santana in 2006 come to mind -- made the groundswell of support for the Tigers' ace feel unusual. In any event, it seemed a new bar was being set, and it seemed safe to assume extraordinary pitching seasons were going to be regularly included in MVP shortlists going forward.
Why, then, is Clayton Kershaw going to finish outside the top three in this year's National League MVP vote?
Kershaw, the magnificent pride of the Dodgers' pitching staff, laid waste to the majors for the third -- or, depending on how one defines "laid waste," arguably the fifth -- consecutive season, boasting an almost comically good portfolio: A 1.83 ERA (1.83!), 232 strikeouts, 7.8 Baseball-Reference WAR, and on and on. His highest monthly ERA was June's 2.65, which would've been good for fourth in the NL on its own, and four of the other five months it was below 2.00. You'll find Kershaw's name at the top, or among the leading 10, in 24 National League pitching leader categories, and only one of those is for anything bad (wild pitches, where he's tied for sixth).
It's very tough to find flaws in Kershaw's 2013. He had the best season of any pitcher in either league and will waltz away with the NL Cy Young Award, and any alternate universe would be an embarrassing one. But if we're to work off the precedent set by the election of Verlander in 2011 and stick to newly-created tradition, Kershaw should also be in contention for Most Valuable Player, if not leading the race outright.
Consider the three who, as the BBWAA announced, will finish at the top, in some order. Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew McCutchen and Yadier Molina each had great seasons, and whoever emerges victorious won't be wholly undeserving. Goldschmidt leads the pack in raw offensive numbers, with a .302/.401/.551 slash, a league-leading 36 homers, and defense at first base good enough to land him a Gold Glove, for whatever those are worth these days. McCutchen hit .317/.404/.508 with 21 homers as a competent center fielder, which compensates for his slight lag in basic numbers when stacked against Goldschmidt. Molina hit .319/.359/.477 with just 12 home runs, landing among the top three largely because of his earned reputation as a stalwart defensive catcher. That's two finalists with fewer than 30 homers, one year removed from Buster Posey's 24 dingers becoming the lowest for a NL MVP since Barry Larkin in 1995. On paper, the field is weaker than it has been in power-heavy seasons past.
So there would appear to be a window for Kershaw's candidacy, especially when Verlander beat out the likes of Jose Bautista's 43 homers and 1.056 OPS, or Miguel Cabrera's undervoted .344/.448/.586, either of which would win the 2013 NL MVP running away. And Kershaw faced 908 batters, while the highest total of plate appearances among the three finalists is Goldschmidt's 710 -- so, playing every fifth day or not, his overall impact on the season rivals that of his top three hopefuls. It seems curious, then, that so few have taken up his cause, when Verlander was so fervently championed not long ago.
It could be related to his win total. Sure, the fight over the pitcher win in this day and age has been contentious, but its influence on BBWAA award voters is still tangible -- that the figure is still regularly cited is all the proof needed there. Kershaw's 236 innings pitched didn't lead the league like Verlander's 251 did, but they were second only to Adam Wainwright's 241.2. Beyond that, an apples-to-apples comparison leaves little wiggle room for an argument against Kershaw winning the hardware. Baseball-Reference's WAR (rWAR) places Kershaw third in the NL, behind McCutchen and Carlos Gomez, who received considerable bumps on the defensive side of the equation. FanGraphs' version, which uses a different "replacement level" standard, has Kershaw in fourth, with Matt Carpenter claiming third. Verlander, for what it's worth, didn't lead the AL in either version in 2011, either.
Honestly, I'm not quite sure how I personally feel about pitchers winning the MVP. The strange, esoteric manipulations of the word "valuable," which can mean 100 different things to 100 different writers, and the comparison of value between pitchers and hitters -- at least in this award's seasonal context -- can be difficult to level. And, yes, pitchers already have their own major award which hitters aren't eligible for.
What is clear to me is this: A new standard was set in November 2011 when Justin Verlander, with 13 of 28 first-place votes, was named Most Valuable Player. Pitchers are now worthy of more regular consideration in voting. Verlander's 2011 was not an exceptional, historic season; it was a great one, but it did not outclass the rest of the league in the way once thought to be necessary for a pitcher to even enter MVP talk. If Pedro Martinez wasn't going to win in 1999 or 2000, what made Verlander so worthy?
There's a history of inconsistency with major award voting, but this year, Clayton Kershaw offered a chance to start a trend in the opposite direction. Instead, he'll finish no higher than fourth. The award has returned to its comfort zone, and pitchers are back out in the cold.
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Paul Boyé is a freelance writer living in New York City. He has written for ESPN.com and MLB Insiders Club magazine, and is a regular contributor at Crashburn Alley. He can be found on Twitter at @paul_boye.