In Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, game's best win MVP awards
Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw won Most Valuable Player honors in the American and National League on Thursday night. Trout was a unanimous selection and, having just turned 23 in August, is the fifth-youngest player to receive the MVP award since its introduction in 1911 and the youngest since Cal Ripken Jr. in 1983. Kershaw, who received 18 of a possible 30 votes to edge out runner-up Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins, is the first National League pitcher to win the MVP since Bob Gibson in 1968.
Kershaw, who won the NL Cy Young award unanimously on Wednesday, went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA in 27 starts for the Dodgers this year, though he missed all of April due to a teres major strain. As a result, his 198 1/3 innings pitched this season were the fewest ever by a starting pitcher in an MVP-winning season by more than 50 innings. The previous low was Justin Verlander’s 251 innings in his AL MVP season in 2011. Prior to Verlander, a starting pitcher hadn’t won the MVP award in either league since Roger Clemens in the AL in 1986.
As his unanimous Cy Young selection indicates, there was no question about Kershaw’s dominance this season. I unpacked his statistics at length on Wednesday night, but his dominance is perhaps best summarized by the fact that his was just the third season by a qualified pitcher in major league history to combine an ERA+ of 190 or better, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 7.00 or better and a WHIP of 0.90 or lower, joining Greg Maddux in 1995 and Pedro Martinez in 2000. What likely won over MVP voters, however, was the fact that Kershaw posted a 1.38 ERA over his final 21 starts, during which Los Angeles went 20-1. That stretch by Kershaw included 19 quality starts, 15 of which saw him complete at least eight innings. One of them was his 15-strikeout no-hitter of the Rockies on June 18, one of the most dominant nine-inning performances in major league history. Only an error prevented it from being a perfect game, meaning Kershaw effectively retired 28 straight batters.
Kershaw’s MVP win is the crowning achievement in what has been an amazing four-year run. He is the third pitcher to win consecutive Cy Young awards and the MVP award in a two-year span, joining Denny McLain (1968-69) and Clemens (1986-87), and just the second ever to win three Cy Youngs and an MVP in a four-year span, joining fellow Dodgers lefty Sandy Koufax (1963-66). Meanwhile, as I noted last night, Kershaw is the first pitcher in major league history, dating all the way back to the 1870s, to lead the majors in ERA four years in a row.
Given that no pitcher has ever won four Cy Young awards in a five-year span, Kershaw, who will turn 27 in March, seems likely to be closer to the end of his reign of dominance than the beginning (or at least the end of this particular run). However, Trout appears to have his prime well ahead of him. I mentioned above that Trout was the fifth-youngest MVP in the award’s history. Here’s the list of the top five with their ages as of November 1 of their MVP year:
|Player||League||MVP year||Age (years-Days)|
The four hitters ahead of Trout on that list all became first-ballot Hall of Famers. The only pitcher, Blue, never made it to Cooperstown. Bench won another MVP two years later, and by the time he was forced to move out from behind the plate in his age-33 season, he had established himself as the greatest catcher in the history of the game. Ripken spent eight more years as one of the best shortstops ever before his production fell off after his second MVP win in 1991, his age-30 season. Musial, meanwhile, won two more MVPs and continued to put up absurd numbers into his mid-30s and didn’t retire until he was 42, a full 20 years after his first MVP win.
Then there’s this: None of the members of that group had a second top-10 finish in the MVP voting prior to their age-23 season. Trout, who will enter his age-23 season next year, has now had three such finishes and has been in the top two in the voting in all three of his full major league seasons. No player his age has ever received so many MVP votes, and there are still those who believe, myself included, that he should be celebrating his third straight MVP award this year, not his first.
The shocking thing about Trout’s unanimous MVP win, which was the first in the majors since Albert Pujols' in the NL in 2009, is that it came in what was inarguably his worst full season. Leaving out the 40-game cup of coffee which straddled his 20th birthday in 2011, Trout this year posted career lows in batting average (.287), on-base percentage (.377), OPS (.939), OPS+ (167), stolen bases (16), hits (173) and wins-above replacement (7.9, per Baseball-Reference). That latter stat was still the top total among all major league position players this season, topped only by Kershaw’s 8.0.
Most of the previous paragraph actually speaks to just how great Trout has been. That hitting .287 with a .377 OBP, 167 OPS+ and a 7.9 WAR is anyone’s worst season, never mind a player who put up most of those numbers at the age of 22, is ridiculous. Trout’s rising strikeout rate -- 2.22 K/BB and an AL-high 189 total -- however, looms as a genuine concern, a topic SI.com’s Jay Jaffe tackled way back in May. As absurd as it might be to suggest given his amazing season, Trout will have to make some adjustments to the adjustments made to him in the last year, particularly on pitches up and in. The Royals were especially effective at that in the Division Series, holding Trout to one hit (a Game 3 home run) in 12 plate appearances, albeit with just two strikeouts.
Trout overcame all of those career-worsts in 2014 with a few career-highs, specifically in the power department. He hit 36 home runs, which were a personal best and tied for third most in the league. His 39 doubles and nine triples matched his previous highs set last year. His 338 total bases, also a career high, led the major leagues, and his .274 isolated slugging (batting average minus slugging percentage) was 36 points higher than he'd ever posted before.
What we saw from Trout this year was a player who ran less (just 18 steal attempts after seasons of 49 and 33 stolen bases in 2012 and '13, respectively) and had more of a power-hitter’s approach at the plate, hitting for a lower average with more strikeouts but generating the extra power to compensate for those losses. Still, Trout’s OPS+ this year was just one point below his league-leading total from 2012, something that also reminds us how much run scoring has declined in the last two seasons; the average AL team scored more than a quarter of a run less per game this year than in 2012, something which surely contributed to all of those career-lows above for Trout. It could be that what we’re seeing is simply Trout’s transition from the top-of-the order hitter he was as a rookie to the middle-of-the-order hitter he will be in his prime.
Whatever their futures may hold, in Kershaw and Trout, the 2014 MVP awards honored the best pitcher and best all-around player in baseball, not just this year, but over the last three seasons combined. As I wrote Thursday morning, one could easily mount a convincing argument in the NL for Stanton or Pirates centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, who finished third this year after winning the award last season. Even with that, it’s difficult to think of two men more deserving of being named the game’s most valuable players than Kershaw and Trout.