No starting pitcher has won the National League MVP award since 1968, when the Cardinals' Bob Gibson put a forceful end to the second Dead Ball era with a 1.12 ERA. As pitcher workloads have decreased, it's become harder to make a case that even the league's best hurler can have the value of a top everyday player, no matter how strong the performance. Gibson threw 3042/3 innings the year he was honored. Just one NL pitcher has thrown even 250 in the last nine years. Justin Verlander won the AL MVP in 2011 with 251 innings pitched, but his selection was, as most starter MVP awards have been, about a gaudy win-loss record (24--5).
So it's a credit to his performance that the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw has a case in the NL MVP discussion. The lefthander's 16--9 record should be ignored. He led the National League in ERA at 1.83, the lowest mark of any major league starter since 2000 and the best in the NL since Greg Maddux hung a 1.63 in 1995. Kershaw led the NL in strikeouts (232), base runners per nine innings (8.35) and adjusted ERA (194). In fact, according to baseball-reference.com, he led all NL players, not just pitchers, in Wins Above Replacement, barely edging both Carlos Gomez ... and my pick for NL MVP, Andrew McCutchen.
Non-statheads have often made the point that you can't simply look at a single list of numbers and use that to rate players. It's more complicated, and the numerical differences among Kershaw, McCutchen and Gomez amount to rounding errors. In 2013, McCutchen had his third straight 20--20 season, hitting 21 homers and stealing 27 bases. He was the most productive offensive player in the National League, ranking third in OBP, sixth in slugging and sixth in steals. He plays a key defensive position, centerfield, and he plays it well, gunning down 11 base runners and showing good range. He was one of the better defenders on a Pirates team whose defense was a critical part of its run to the postseason. McCutchen played in 157 games, and he's played in at least 154 in each of his four full seasons in the majors. Hitting, fielding, throwing, baserunning, health: McCutchen ticks all the boxes. He's not as young or as spectacular, but he's essentially the NL's version of Mike Trout.
So why McCutchen over Kershaw? For one, we're in an era that favors pitchers. Look around baseball and you see teams promoting talented hurlers who come to the majors and succeed quickly. Middle-of-the-lineup hitters, especially ones who play key defensive positions, are considerably less common. In a low-OBP era McCutchen's 2013 performance is somewhat rarer and therefore somewhat more valuable than Kershaw's. There's also the playing-time issue: Kershaw made 33 starts and threw 236 innings, near the upper bounds of what pitchers are allowed to do these days. It's not his fault, but the lower workloads forced on starters make it harder for them to accumulate value. One way to look at it is to count "participation." McCutchen had 674 plate appearances, made 321 putouts and added 11 assists, for 1,006 plays. Kershaw faced 908 batters and had 92 plate appearances, for 1,000 plays. On the margins—and we're very much on the margins here—that matters.
It's a little easier to eliminate the other candidates. Gomez's case is largely built on defensive metrics that indicate an alltime great season in centerfield for the Brewers. He's always been a terrific defender, and he certainly was the best defensive centerfielder in 2013, but it's wise to be wary of building an MVP case with an outsized defensive rating as a cornerstone.
Elsewhere, Paul Goldschmidt was the only NL hitter other than McCutchen to hit .300 with an OBP above .400 and slugging above .500. The Diamondbacks' first baseman led the NL in home runs, RBIs and slugging as well. Maybe in 1997 Goldschmidt would have won the MVP, but the improved understanding of position, defense and baserunning gives McCutchen the edge this year.
In the AL MVP debate, Miguel Cabrera versus Trout, there's a clear division of arguments—batting stats versus overall performance, including team success versus not—that isn't in play in the NL. The AL argument has the feel of a battle within a larger war. There's no such dynamic in the NL, just two great players at the peak of their powers, leaving the crowd less full of anger, more filled with admiration. And where there is a wrong answer in the AL debate, there is no wrong answer in the NL: Clayton Kershaw and Andrew McCutchen would both be worthy MVPs, but by the slightest of margins, McCutchen is more so.
Faces in the Crowd
Inches by which Derrick Rose says his vertical leap has improved since surgery to repair his torn left ACL, an injury that sidelined the Bulls' point guard for more than 17 months.
Margin of victory in No. 6 Florida State's shutout of then No. 25 Maryland last Saturday, tied for the worst defeat ever for a ranked team.
Length in seconds of Louisville coach Rick Pitino's interview to promote his book The One-Day Contract with radio hosts Fred Toucher and Rich Shertenlieb of Boston's WBZ. After greeting Pitino, who had a 102--146 record in 3½ seasons as the Celtics' coach, Toucher said, "You stink. You ruined the Celtics," and then hung up.
Consecutive games in which Texans QB Matt Schaub—who has nine interceptions this year—has had a pick returned for a TD, an NFL record.
Toppings that Skeeter's in Houston jokingly offered their patrons for a Schaub-inspired Pick Six burger.
Runs allowed by Justin Verlander of the Tigers and Sonny Gray of the A's in Game 1 of the ALDS. It was the first time in postseason history that both starters had at least nine strikeouts without being scored upon.
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
MICHAEL CONROY/AP (ROSE)
ST. MARTIN'S PRESS (BOOK)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (SCHAUB)
RICH SCHULTZ/GETTY IMAGES (K SIGN)