Clayton Kershaw and the History of MVP Pitchers

This week Clayton Kershaw becomes the first pitcher since Justin Verlander in 2011 to try to sweep the Cy Young and MVP Awards…and the first NL pitcher to do so since Bob Gibson in 1968.

Since the inception of the Cy Young Award in 1956, only 10 pitchers have won both awards. There have been 58 years of awards since that first Cy Young, meaning this has only occurred 17% of the time since pitchers got their own separate award. I’m going to do a quick breakdown of each pitcher who has won the Cy Young and MVP as well as give my opinion on who should have won the award each of those years.

In 1956, Don Newcombe won the Cy Young (which was given to the best pitcher in the majors, it wasn’t split among the AL and NL until 1967) and managed to pull double duty by claiming the MVP as well. Funny enough…the second place vote getter that year was Sal Maglie – also a pitcher. Hank Aaron rounded out the top three vote getters that year. Looking back now, it would seem Aaron was the more deserving player with his 7.1 WAR (using rWAR for this article) that season versus a 5.4 for Newcombe and 4.3 for Maglie.

Newcombe’s votes likely came from his win column after racking up 27 that year, but as we all know in the modern day…wins aren’t the best way to measure a pitcher’s success or value. For what it’s worth, Duke Snider finished 10th in the vote and had a 7.6 WAR. Willie Mays matched Snider’s number but wound up 17th.

Did Newcombe deserve the MVP? I’d have to say probably not.

Sep 24, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) pitches in the eighth inning against the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

1963 saw the legendary Sandy Koufax sweep both awards. Koufax was flat out dominant as a pitcher that year, posting a 1.88 ERA, .875 WHIP, and striking out 306 batters while walking only 58. All that adds up to a 9.9 WAR, which by most standards is a ridiculous number that would seem to merit the MVP. However…in third place we have Aaron once again, this time with a 9.1 WAR – close to Koufax, but not quite enough to push him over the top. Further down the list, fifth place finisher Willie Mays and his 10.6 WAR have a strong argument.

Given the way voters viewed players back then, I’m surprised the award didn’t go to Aaron with his 44 homers, 130 RBI, and 31 stolen bases. Aaron was the better offensive player that year, with Mays gaining some value in the field. In this case, you could probably argue for either Aaron or Mays, but I’ll go ahead and say Koufax deserved this one, with one of the most dominant pitching performances of the last 50+ years.

1968 was an interesting year, with both leagues being swept by pitching. Bob Gibson won both awards in the NL, with Denny McLain taking home the trophies in the AL. I’ll keep the NL analysis short and sweet: Gibson and his 11.9 WAR certainly deserved the nod here. He flat out ran away with it this year. McLain won his award on the back of his 31 wins, which is of course an most impressive tally…not to mention his 1.96 ERA and .905 WHIP. McLain posted a 7.3 WAR, which is impressive but was actually topped by another pitcher, Luis Tiant, with a 7.8. Carl Yastrzemski, who finished at 9th in the vote actually posted a better WAR than either pitcher, though, with a 10.5. Yaz had a .922 OPS, 23 home runs, 13 steals, and a whopping 119 walks.

I’ll say the 1968 voters were half right. Gibson should’ve won, no question. McLain though…maybe not? It would appear Yaz was robbed here, and Tiant put up better numbers (minus the wins and an impressive 336 IP by McLain) on the pitching side.

In 1971, Vida Blue won the MVP with 14 first place votes and an 8.6 WAR. Two of the top ten vote getters topped Blue in WAR…and they were both pitchers. Mickey Lolich squeaked by with an 8.7 and a 10.9 WAR was posted by Wilbur Wood that year. Did the voters get it right that year? Maybe, maybe not. We’ll say that at the very least the award belonged to a pitcher that year.

Rollie Fingers took home the hardware in 1981. A closer with just 78 innings was the MVP? Yep. And he beat the likes of Rickey Henderson, Dwight Evans, Tony Armas, and Eddie Murray. No. Just….no. Henderson posted a 6.6 WAR with Evans edging him out at 6.7 while Rollie put up a WAR of just 4.3. They got it wrong that year. Big time.

Jumping ahead to 1984 and another closer…Willie Hernandez won both awards that year for the Detroit Tigers. Hernandez at least logged 140 innings that year, but finished the season with a 4.8 WAR. Yes, his numbers were impressive. He had a 9-3 record with 32 saves, 112 K, and only 36 BB to go along with a 1.92 ERA and 0.941 WHIP. Pretty awesome. Funny enough, the third place finisher was another closer, Kansas City’s Dan Quisenberry. Second place finisher Kent Hrbek had a better WAR than either pitcher at 5.5, while Eddie Murray and Don Mattingly (the other top five finishers) beat Hrbek with 7.1 and 6.3 WARs, respectively. Again…the voters seem to have got it wrong.

The year is now 1986, and Roger Clemens tops the AL MVP ballot with an 8.9 WAR. A quick scan of the top vote getters shows that his award is pretty deserved, with the closest competition among the top ten coming from teammate Wade Boggs and his 8.0 WAR. However, if you look down at the 15th place vote getter, you will notice a 9.4 WAR coming from…yes…another pitcher. Teddy Higuera. A quick comparison of pitching statistics though, and I still give the nod to Clemens.

After 1986, there are only two more pitchers to win the MVP: Dennis Eckersley (another closer!) in 1992 and Justin Verlander being the most recent in 2011. I’m combining the two because a look at Eck and it’s a resounding NO. He had a 2.9 WAR that season, while runner up Kirby Puckett posted a 7.1, and 14th place Roger Clemens had an 8.9. Ridiculous, right?

Verlander, on the other hand, had quite a year. He finished with a 2.40 ERA, 0.920 WHIP, and 250 K in 251 IP. That all adds up to a WAR of 8.4, which edges the first and second runners up, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jose Bautista, who both posted an 8.1 WAR. The biggest gripe probably comes from Ben Zobrist, who came in 16th with an 8.7 WAR. In this case, however…Verlander was dominant all year in leading his team into the ALCS.

That brings us all the way back to Mr. Kershaw. He of the 1.77 ERA, 6 complete games, 0.857 WHIP, 10.8 k/9….and so on…and so on….oh, did I mention the ERA- of 50? Speaking of ERA-, the following chart compares Kershaw against the other starting pitchers we’ve looked at today:

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According to Fangraphs, an excellent ERA- is 70 or lower (so that 1968 Bob Gibson year is just off the charts). Kershaw is clearly no slouch, coming in at second place. I pulled the relievers from this comparison, but if you’re curious, Fingers had an ERA- of 30, Hernandez a 49, and Eck trailed him with 52.

Now that we’ve put Kershaw into context among the MVP pitchers…let’s get back to our 2014 NL MVP comparison. Kershaw led the MAJORS in WAR at 8.0. How does that stack up against fellow NL MVP finalists Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton? McCutchen had a 6.4 and Stanton a 6.5 WAR. Voters clearly prefer to go with position players if history is any indication…and  yes, McCutchen and Stanton will get their share of votes, that said, I’m ready to crown Kershaw MVP. Time to add an 11th member to the group discussed above. Whatever you think of those past decisions, in this case, it’s well deserved.