During the Division Series, I got into an extended discussion with several Dodgers about the National League MVP race.
They asked if I had a vote. I said yes. They asked which player I selected. I declined to say, explaining that we are not allowed to reveal our ballots until after the Baseball Writers Association of America announces the results.
My face, or body language, must have given away that I did not vote for Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw.
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“You picked Stanton!” outfielder Matt Kemp said, referring to Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, incredulous.
I couldn’t say it then, but I can say it now.
Actually, I picked Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
It was not an easy decision. I’m fairly certain that I deliberated about this vote more than any I have made previously during my 27 years in the BBWAA. But in the end, I was just not comfortable picking Kershaw despite his historic brilliance during the regular season.
Kershaw, of course, was a unanimous selection for the NL Cy Young Award, the award for best pitcher. He also won MVP, as announced Thursday night, and I’m totally fine with the choice of my brethren. I just could not get comfortable with Kershaw as MVP, not when he made only 27 starts and pitched only 198 1/3 innings.
The argument for Kershaw, of course, is that the Dodgers went 23-4 in his starts and that those 198 1/3 innings were so brilliant that he led all major-league pitchers in the baseball-reference version of Wins Above Replacement.
As Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez explained to me at length, Kershaw performed far better than the Tigers’ Justin Verlander did when he won the AL MVP in 2011. True enough, but I had a vote in that election, and chose the Red Sox’s Jacoby Ellsbury, who, like McCutchen, is a center fielder.
No, I’m not against voting for pitchers — the voters’ instructions specifically state that “all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and DHs.” I just prefer position players, up-the-middle defenders, in particular. In my view, they hold greater value. And I could not justify making an exception for Kershaw, who I placed third on my ballot behind McCutchen and Stanton.
Verlander’s 251 innings in ’11 were the previous fewest by a starting pitcher who won MVP. Kershaw, who missed five weeks early in the season due to an inflamed back muscle, was nearly six complete games below that. And while Rollie Fingers won the 1981 AL award with 78 innings, the fewest by a pitcher, I doubt seriously that any reliever will be MVP again in this statistically savvy age.
Don’t tell me that Kershaw had a higher WAR than McCutchen and Stanton — the difference in measures between pitchers and hitters makes that an apples-and-oranges comparison. And don’t tell me that, “It was a down year for position players. No one else was worthy.” McCutchen and Stanton both were worthy, and I even considered Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy for the top of my ballot before placing him fourth.
The value of catchers is virtually impossible to assess — even as we have to come understand the importance of pitch framing, a particular strength of Lucroy’s, we cannot fully measure a catcher’s contribution. Lucroy, though, was not as good offensively after the All-Star Game as he was before. McCutchen, on the other hand, returned from a fractured rib in August to produce the fifth-highest OPS in the NL in September.
The Pirates went 5-9 in McCutchen’s absence from Aug. 4 to 18, then rallied with him to win home-field advantage for the National League wild-card game. McCutchen led all NL hitters in OPS and wOBA, the latter combining all of the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighing each in proportion to their actual run value. Heck, his .952 OPS was 41 points higher than it was last season, when he won the MVP.
If there is a rap on McCutchen, it’s that his defense in center rated below average — he ranked 32nd at the position in defensive runs saved, down from ninth the year before. McCutchen plays deep, and his negative results throwing and on balls hit in front of him outweighed his positive marks going back, left and right.
Stanton, meanwhile, ranked seventh in defensive runs saved among right fielders, and his OPS was just two points below McCutchen’s. And while Stanton did not play after Sept. 11 due to getting hit in the face by the Brewers’ Mike Fiers, he still appeared in 145 games, just one fewer than McCutchen.
My choice, in the end, was between the two position players. I saw it almost as a coin flip, but in the end, I went with McCutchen due to his performance in September after returning from his injury. Yes, that is an argument influenced by narrative. Yes, it penalizes Stanton unfairly for the timing of an injury that was no fault of his own. And yes, Kershaw had a 1.43 ERA in his last 23 starts, an even longer and more incredible stretch drive than McCutchen’s.
Again, I just prefer the position player, the guy who grinds it out even when he is slumping, even when he physically is less than 100 percent. A starting pitcher such as Kershaw can influence three days out of five, enabling his manager to empty his bullpen the day before he pitches and providing him with a rested bullpen the day after. But a McCutchen, Stanton or Lucroy is there for his team every day.
Reasonable people can disagree with my selections; Reds righty Johnny Cueto, Pirates catcher Russell Martin and Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo were among my notable snubs, though none would have influenced the top of my ballot.
Gonzalez’s impassioned argument for Kershaw resonated with me, even though I already had voted. Many position players do not believe a pitcher should win the award. Gonzalez, the NL leader with 116 RBI, was a down-ballot candidate himself. And yet, he strongly believed that Kershaw was the only possible choice.
Some sabermetricians get frustrated with the subjectivity of the voting, but that to me is the beauty of the award. We all have our definition of MVP. And this season, I think we can all agree on one thing: We had some pretty darned good players to choose from in the National League.