IN 2011, WHEN Justin Verlander became only the 10th pitcher to win both the Cy Young and MVP awards in the same season, the Tigers righthander was the game's most feared ace (and, in the eyes of the voters, the most viable candidate in an underwhelming field). Verlander is the last AL pitcher to be named MVP, and that will likely remain true after the ballots are counted in November. And yet his '11 season was worse by every conceivable metric than that of Indians righty Corey Kluber in '17—the latest player to force the pitcher-versus-position-player MVP debate.
Voters err by siding with everyday players over pitchers who make around 30 starts, but if Verlander did enough to win the award, then Kluber deserves it at least as much—even in a year in which Astros second baseman José Altuve was hitting .348 at week's end and Yankees rookie Aaron Judge had bludgeoned 50 home runs. On an AL Central championship team (page 40) with two other MVP candidates—infielder José Ramírez and shortstop Francisco Lindor—Kluber is the most consistent and dominant force. Since June 1 he has been the game's best pitcher, with an astonishing 1.62 ERA and 221 strikeouts (12.34 per nine innings). He trailed only Altuve among AL players in Wins Above Replacement (according to Baseball Reference) through Sunday and is the preemptive favorite to take the Cy Young over Red Sox lefthander Chris Sale, the first American League pitcher to log 300 strikeouts since 1999. After a so-so first two months Kluber has held opposing hitters to a .171 average, and he leads the majors with five complete games, three shutouts and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 9.61.
Kluber's primary competition will be Altuve, who leads the majors in batting average and will eclipse 200 hits for the fourth consecutive season. Altuve is a deserving candidate as the most consistent player on baseball's best offense, but Kluber's role as baseball's best pitcher for the AL's best team should elevate him. The Indians are 19--8 when Klubot—as he is known for his precision and efficiency—starts, though he has allowed two earned runs or fewer in six of those losses. Excluding a May game against Detroit, he has not exited a start with the Indians trailing by more than two. When Kluber is on the hill, Cleveland is always in a position to win, just as the Dodgers were in 2014, when lefty Clayton Kershaw toed the rubber. (L.A. was 23--4 in games he started.) Kershaw is the last pitcher to win an MVP, and he did so by a healthy margin over Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who finished with 37 home runs and a mere .950 OPS. It seems that pitchers historically win the MVP award only when the rest of the competition is decidedly weaker.
Kluber's competition for the AL award is much stiffer than Kershaw's or Verlander's. Altuve might be the most well-rounded hitter in baseball, with 24 home runs, 32 stolen bases and a .968 OPS, while Judge shed a nasty midseason slump to break Mark McGwire's rookie home run record and help New York earn a wild-card spot. Ultimately, the questions MVP voters need to ask is, Which player gives his team the best opportunity to win whenever he's on the field?
The answer is Corey Kluber.
José Altuve is a deserving candidate, but Kluber's role as baseball's best pitcher for the AL's best team should elevate him.
BY THE NUMBERS
Pitchers in major league history who have won an MVP award; only six since 1972.
Kluber's Wins Above Replacement, as measured by Baseball Reference. He trails only José Altuve (8.2) among major leaguers.