While I’d argue it’s not yet a given that Clayton Kershaw is even going to win the NL Cy Young — Matt Harvey and Adam Wainwright are both really, really, good — I do think that he’s the easy favorite if he can keep his ERA below two. But the “Kershaw for MVP” train is starting to get moving anyway, particularly with the lack of an obvious Miguel Cabrera / Mike Trout candidate in the National League, and with how dominant Kershaw continues to be.
So can he do it? Let’s look at what it might take. 22 pitchers have won the MVP previously (and the predecessors to it, since it wasn’t officially awarded as we know it until 1931), but you’ll forgive me if I don’t look at things like the great Walter Johnson winning awards in 1913 & 1924 as being particularly instructive in this discussion. Over the last 30 years, it’s been done just four times, and two of those — Willie Hernandez in 1984 and Dennis Eckersley in 1992 — were relievers. The only two starting pitchers to take it since Vida Blue did so in 1971 are Roger Clemens in 1986 and Justin Verlander in 2011.
In 1986, Clemens had it all. He had the surface-level stats, going 24-4 and leading the AL in ERA at 2.48. He had the big moment — becoming the first pitcher to strike out 20 in a nine-inning game — and he played for a Red Sox team that won 95 games and won their division by 5.5 games, which you know some voters will always take into mind. He also had the numbers that the advanced stats crowd loves, leading the AL with a 2.81 FIP and 7.7 WAR, well above Anaheim’s Mike Witt at 6.5 for the best of any pitcher in the league. (Both, however, were behind Houston’s Mike Scott, at an insane 8.6.)
Clemens easily won the Cy Young voting, being named as the winner on all 28 ballots, and he’d win it again the next year… and then five more times. He also pretty easily won the MVP, picking up 19 of 28 first-place votes, and that’s because he had a few things in his favor that year.
First, the Red Sox didn’t have an obvious position player to win, because while Wade Boggs had a fantastic season, the climate wasn’t yet right to appreciate a third baseman who had a .453 OBP with only eight homers. (He finished seventh.) Jim Rice, who finished third, had a good season, but only 20 homers, the lowest he’d had in a non-strike year of his entire career. It was actually Don Mattingly who finished second, despite being arguably the third-best hitter in the AL, but of course the Yankees didn’t make the playoffs.
So Clemens won in 1986 by being very obviously the best pitcher in the league, on a playoff team, on a team that didn’t have a clear position player alternative (at least through the prism of 1986 voters), and in a league that had some very good position player seasons, but nothing quite historic like Cabrera winning a Triple Crown.
How about Verlander in 2011? He was a unanimous Cy Young choice on the strength of his 24-5 record and league-best 2.40 ERA, though not quite as obvious as Clemens had been; you could have made a half-hearted argument for CC Sabathia, who had 6.5 WAR to Verlander’s 6.8, if you’d wanted.
Verlander was named as the MVP selection on 13 of 28 votes, and benefited from the fact that the electorate was very split. Five other players received at least one first-place vote, including one for Michael Young (!) in what remains one of the most infuriatingly homer votes of all time. The right choice that year was probably Jacoby Ellsbury, who combined good defense in center field with 32 homers and 39 steals to collect 9.1 WAR. But Ellsbury had missed most of the previous season with injury and was regarded as a possible “flash in the pan”; you’ll also remember that Red Sox season as being the one that ended in a massive collapse that led to the ousting of Terry Francona and installation of Bobby Valentine for an even worse 2012.
Kershaw should be helped as well by the fact that there’s not really a single shining NL candidate this year. Carlos Gomez, Yadier Molina, Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez, & David Wright all have arguments, but they’re all going to have missed enough time for various reasons that they’ll be hurt in the voting. (Gomez & Wright are on lousy teams, anyway, and Gomez’ outstanding defense won’t get the credit it deserves.) Joey Votto should be in the conversation, but enough people will foolishly care about his low RBI total (57) that he will be held back.
The main competition is Andrew McCutchen, who not only leads the NL in WAR, but has been the best player on a Pittsburgh team that will make the playoffs for the first time since 1723. (Or something.) But he’s also just 14th in homers and 10th in RBI, and while that shouldn’t mean much, it does.
It seems the conditions are there for Kershaw, the best player on the best team in the league, to do something rare. But if we’re going to ding other guys for stats I don’t care about, we have to do it for Kershaw, too. He’s not going to win 24 games like Clemens & Verlander did. He’s not going to win 20, either; with something like ~eight starts remaining, he could top out at 16 or 17. That’s enough to win him the Cy Young, because Harvey & Wainwright aren’t especially likely to do a whole lot better, but it’s going to make it hard to convince the “pitchers shouldn’t win MVP” crowd, no matter how much we talk about how little wins matter for pitchers.
So can Kershaw win the MVP? Sure, and I think he’ll probably get a few first-place ballots. Unfortunately, he’s probably not likely to win it, and I can’t really argue with that; if I had a vote, I’d probably go McCutchen. But the fact that we’re even having this conversation shows just how special this season has been for him.