Pitchers are an oxymoron in sports. Their stated goal is contradictory to the efforts of every other pro athlete: Forget about more playing time, pitchers live by the paradigm “less is more.”
They earn more money by playing less. The best of them – starters – are treated like championship thoroughbreds, which is fitting, considering they cost just as much. They throw once every five days, usually on regimented pitch counts, and between starts their arms are massaged and their mechanics tweaked. Everyone else is relegated to rougher, day-to-day task of throwing out of the bullpen.
The best reliever of all time, Mariano Rivera, began his career as a starter before he was shipped off to the bullpen. The same with Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage and Rollie Fingers. With all due respect to those men, there’s a point to be made in examining their career arcs.
So while every other athlete should be jealous that a starting pitcher has the coolest part-time gig around, it’s not all great: Simply put, sometimes, starters don’t get the credit they deserve.
More specifically, are they worthy of winning the MVP Award? There has never been a more prudent time to have that argument with Dodgers lefty starter Clayton Kershaw currently in the midst of one of the greatest seasons for a starting pitcher in MLB history.
He’s got a 1.67 ERA and an 18-3 record this year. Opponents are hitting .182 against him, his current WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) stands at 0.82 and his WAR (wins above replacement) is 7.5, all of which are tops amongst starters. Those marks also place his 2014 along such dominant campaigns as Randy Johnson’s ’02 season, Pedro Martinez’s masterful ’00 and ’99 efforts – he finished in the top 5 in MVP voting in both – Dwight Gooden’s ’85 and Bob Gibson’s MVP season of ’68.
And though he’ll throw less innings (Kerhaw missed six weeks at the beginning of the season with a back injury) than Justin Verlander did in 2011, he’s already pitched more complete games and equaled his number of shutouts. And barring some late-season meltdown, Kershaw will finish with an ERA that’s at least half-a-run lower than Verlander’s. Oh and like V that year, Clayton’s also thrown a no-hitter.
Verlander, of course, won the MVP in 2011, becoming the first starter in 25 years to do so (Dennis Eckersley won it in 1992 as a lights-out closer for the Oakland A’s). In fact, pitchers winning the award in the American League is – I suppose – a relatively common occurrence: It happened three times in the ’80s and ’40s, and the very first AL MVP went to Lefty Grove in 1931.
In the National League, which, as you are probably aware, is the more conservative of the two, it’s anything but a regular thing. The Baseball Writers’ Association has been hesitant to award the honor to a player whose contributions to the team come once every five days, and if Kershaw wins the MVP this season, he’ll be the first starter to do so in the league since Gibson in ’68.
And while there are other NL’ers having standout seasons – outfielders Giancarlo Stanton and Andrew McCutchen, plus Cardinals workhorse Adam Wainwright (who, in any other year, would he a shoo-in for the NL Cy Young Award) – Kershaw should beat them all, so long as stubborn voters are willing to put their bias behind them.
Because baseball has changed. Let’s consider how the game’s evaluators – scouts, general managers and player personnel executives – value starting pitchers. Five of this year’s highest-paid players are starters, with the Dodgers’ Zack Greinke topping the list. In January, Kershaw signed a record-setting $215 million deal which will earn him an annual salary of more than $30 million, making him the game’s top-paid player for the foreseeable future (ahead of Verlander). His new contract is also the seventh-largest in MLB history.
If the baseball executives value a starting pitcher as much as any position player, why can’t the voting baseball writers? Their argument: A position player plays every day, therefore has a greater impact on the entire season. But look at Kershaw’s effect on his team: The Dodgers have won 20 of the 24 games he’s started this season, and given that they currently hold a slim 2.5 game lead over the Giants in the NL West, his value becomes apparent. And while team success is not a necessary requirement when it comes to MVP voting, Kershaw’s WAR of 7.5 is higher than both Stanton and McCutchen’s, and their respective teams are currently scrapping for postseason spots.
In each of his starts this season, Kershaw – or any pitcher for that matter – can change the course of a game to a far greater degree than any position player. Sure, they can save runs with plays in the field, but, more commonly, they’re limited to four at-bats per game. Meanwhile, a dominant starter can neutralize an entire lineup, negating the impact of nine bats.
In rare occasions, a position player can win a game with a swing or two. And when a guy like Kershaw is on the mound, one or two swings is all they’re likely to get. That’s what an MVP brings to the game.