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The Strike Zone

Kershaw making strong case for NL MVP as well as Cy Young

Clayton Kershaw, DodgersClayton Kershaw is all but certain to win his second Cy Young award in the past three years. (Marc Serota/Getty Images)

On Thursday, Clayton Kershaw didn't flash his most dominant form, but he nonetheless tossed eight shutout innings against the Marlins in the Dodgers' 6-0 victory in Miami. It was the second start in a row and third out of the last five in which Kershaw put up eight zeroes and departed in favor of a reliever. Even without sticking around to finish the job, he lowered his MLB-leading ERA to 1.72, and it's now time to seriously consider him not just for the National League Cy Young award, on which he has a stranglehold, but for the league's MVP honor as well.

Kershaw spent the first three months of the season carving out a spot in the Cy Young race alongside Adam Wainwright and Matt Harvey. He lost out to Harvey for the honor of starting the All-Star Game thanks more to a combination of venue, buzz and antiquated accounting than to performance. Since then, he has distanced himself from the field:

Pitcher1st Half IPW-LERAK/9 2nd Half IPW-LERA K/9
Matt Harvey1177-12.0010.254 2/32-32.809.1
Clayton Kershaw121 1/36-52.088.8777-21.178.2
Adam Wainwright125 2/311-52.228.2643-23.528.3

Kershaw now leads the majors in ERA, ERA+ (207), innings (198 1/3) and hit rate (5.8 per nine), while also leading the NL in strikeouts (188). Despite receiving a paltry 3.5 runs per game of offensive support -- the ninth-lowest rate among NL ERA qualifiers -- his 13 wins are within one of the leauge lead, meaning that he could win a second pitching Triple Crown to go along with the one he won in 2011, his previous Cy Young season.

From a modern value standpoint, Kershaw towers over the field; his total of 7.1 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version) is 1.5 more than Wainwright and 1.6 more than Harvey, the second- and third-ranked pitchers in the NL, and it's 1.1 more than AL leader Chris Sale. In fact, he's on pace for 9.1 WAR, a total that would rank 11th since the majors expanded to 28 teams in 1993; he could climb into a three-way tie for ninth with Kevin Appier (1993) and Randy Johnson (1999) at 9.2; leader Roger Clemens (11.9  in 1997) is far out of range.

Perhaps more impressive from a traditional standpoint, Kershaw's ERA would rank fifth among qualified pitchers since the 1969 expansion and rules changes. As it is, three of the four above him pitched in strike-shortened seasons and compiled innings totals he'll soon surpass if he hasn't already:

Rk Player Year Tm IP ERA
1Dwight Gooden1985NYM276 2/31.53
2Greg Maddux1994ATL2021.56
3Greg Maddux1995ATL209 2/31.63
4Nolan Ryan1981HOU1491.69
5Clayton Kershaw2013LAD198 1/31.72
6Pedro Martinez2000BOS2171.74
7Ron Guidry1978NYY273 2/31.74
8Tom Seaver1971NYM286 1/31.76
9Vida Blue1971OAK3121.82
10Roger Clemens2005HOU211 1/31.87

Once you account for park and league scoring levels via ERA+, Kershaw does drop to 13th since 1969, with Pedro Martinez's 2000 (291) and 1999 (243) sandwiching those two strike-shortened seasons from Greg Maddux (271 in 1994, 260 in 1995) as the top four.

While some amount of regression on Kershaw's part could tighten the Cy Young race, Harvey's looming innings cap and Wainwright's fairly ordinary second half make a dark horse candidate such as Jose Fernandez (9-5, 2.41 ERA, 9.7 K/9, 4.8 WAR), Patrick Corbin (13-3, 2.45 ERA, 7.8 K/9, 4.5 WAR) or Francisco Liriano (14-5, 2.53 ERA, 9.4 K/9, 3.4 WAR) as likely as those two to present a late challenge, though don't expect any of them to surpass Kershaw.

The more compelling question is whether Kershaw could win the MVP award as well as the Cy Young, something only 10 other pitchers have done. Keep in mind that the Cy Young wasn't introduced until 1956, and not until 1967 were separate awards given for each league. While the eternal argument -- how can a pitcher who works every four (now five) days or just an inning or two every other day measure up to a regular who plays every game? -- has occupied barstool philosophers for decades, WAR makes it considerably easier to compare the values of pitchers and hitters directly, though it's a stat that has only become popular in recent years and thus wasn't available to voters in many of the cases below.

Let's first look at his competition. Kershaw's pitching-only WAR is better than that of the top three position players: the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen (6.6), the Brewers' Carlos Gomez (6.4) and the Diamondbacks' Paul Goldschmidt (5.7). If you include Kershaw's hitting (.156/.217/.250), his total becomes 7.4, which only increases his lead in that stat. McCutchen, who has hit .321/.399/.512 with 17 homers and 26 steals, is by far the top challenger when one considers the potential narratives that could sway a certain segment of voters: he's the only one of that trio playing for a first-place team, he's doing so for the one that has had 20 consecutive losing seasons, and his second-half performance thus far (.374/.459/.626 with seven homers) has been off the charts. That said, while the Pirates are in good shape to make the playoffs, a fall out of first place (behind the Cardinals or Reds) in the NL Central could compromise his chances, as could a dropoff from his torrid pace.

If Kershaw does manage to win both, he would join an exclusive club. Here's a WAR-minded look at the pitchers who have pulled off the MVP/Cy double, in reverse chronological order:

2011: Justin Verlander, Tigers. Like Kershaw, Verlander won the pitching Triple Crown in the AL, notching 24 wins (and just five losses) with a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts. Thanks to a staggering 251 innings, he finished with 8.4 WAR, tops among all pitchers but second behind position player leader Ben Zobrist (8.8), who was virtually ignored in the MVP voting. MVP runner-up Jacoby Ellsbury and third-place finished Jose Bautista both finished with 8.1 WAR; that neither of those two played for teams that reached the postseason. The fact that Verlander's Tigers reached the playoffs almost certainly helped his cause.

1992: Dennis Eckersley, A's. The last of three relievers to pull off the double-award feat, Eckersley pitched in 69 games and threw 80 innings with a 1.91 ERA while saving an MLB-leading 51 games in 54 opportunities for a team that reached the postseason for the fourth time in five years. His performance was worth only 2.9 WAR, but the notion of him as a near-everyday player on a playoff team must have resonated with voters, who gave him the nod over runner-up Kirby Puckett (7.1) and overall WAR leader Roger Clemens (8.9), whose Red Sox finished last in the AL East at 73-89.

1986: Roger Clemens, Red Sox. The first of his seven Cy Young seasons saw Clemens finish seven strikeouts shy of a Triple Crown; meanwhile, he went 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA. His 8.9 WAR didn't even outdistance Brewers pitcher Teddy Higuera, who racked up a league-leading 9.4 but won "only" 20 games with a 2.78 ERA. Clemens, the ace of the staff for the pennant-winning Red Sox, was a unanimous choice for Cy Young, and beat out Don Mattingly (7.2) for MVP, though Wade Boggs (7.9) and Jesse Barfied (7.6) actually proved slightly more valuable that year.

1984: Willie Hernandez, Tigers. A fireman who threw a whopping 140 1/3 innings over 80 games, Hernandez put up a 1.92 ERA, saved 32 games and won nine. With the Tigers storming to a 35-5 start en route to 104 wins, voters wanted to shine a light on Detroit, and they judged Hernandez more worthy than either teammates Jack Morris (19-11, 3.60 ERA) or Dan Petry (18-8, 3.24 ERA). To be fair, Hernandez's 4.8 WAR outdistanced both, though it was just sixth among pitchers; Dave Stieb's 7.9 was first among pitchers and second to Cal Ripken's 9.9 overall, but both players were ignored in the voting except for token down-ballot support. Kent Hrbek (5.6) was the MVP runner-up, though he didn't even crack the top 10 in WAR.

1981: Rollie Fingers, Brewers. The strike-shortened season left voters without any of the traditional statistical plateaus or division winners to fall back upon, so they went for the reliever with the microscopic 1.04 ERA on a team that won the AL East's second-half flag. Fingers did lead the league with 28 saves, and his 4.2 WAR ranked fourth among AL pitchers (Bert Blyleven was first at 5.6). He beat out AL WAR runner-up Rickey Henderson (6.6) in a very close MVP race, with leader Dwight Evans (6.7) third, and he ran away from pitching WAR runner-up Steve McCatty (4.6) in the MVP race.

1971: Vida Blue, A's. In his first full major league season, Blue went 24-8 while leading the league in shutouts (8) and ERA (1.82) as well as strikeouts per nine (8.7) over 312 innings. Even so, his 9.0 WAR paled in comparison to that of knuckleballer Wilbur Wood's 11.7 across 334 innings. Blue beat out Oakland teammate Sal Bando (6.4 WAR) in the MVP voting, with league leader Graig Nettles (7.5) getting just a token 10th place vote. Blue also edged Mickey Lolich (8.7 WAR over a staggering 376 innings) in the Cy Young voting.

1968: Denny McLain, Tigers. In the Year of the Pitcher, McLain's 31 wins were the most since 1916. He led the league with 336 innings and 28 complete games while striking out 280 (which ranked second), and finished with a 1.96 ERA (fourth). McLain's 7.4 WAR ranked second among pitchers to Luis Tiant's 8.4, and he was fourth among all players behind Carl Yastrzemski's 10.5. McLain was nevertheless the unanimous choice for both awards.

1968: Bob Gibson, Cardinals. While McLain was setting a modern standard for victories, Gibson was doing the same for ERA; his 1.12 mark was the lowest since 1914. He went 22-9 while leading the NL with 13 shutouts and 268 strikeouts, and his 11.2 WAR topped all comers. He was a unanimous pick for the Cy Young and beat out batting champ Pete Rose (5.5 WAR) in an MVP vote that was surprisingly close.

1963: Sandy Koufax, Dodgers. Koufax won his first of three pitching Triple Crown with 25 wins, a 1.88 ERA and 306 strikeouts; he also tossed a league-leading 11 shutouts. His 10.7 WAR led all pitchers in either league , and he was a unanimous choice for the one Cy Young awarded. In the MVP voting, he beat out Dick Groat (7.1), with position player and WAR leader Willie Mays (10.6) finishing fifth.

1956: Don Newcombe, Dodgers. The first Cy Young award went to Newcombe, who led the National League with 27 wins and ranked fifth with a 3.06 ERA for the pennant-winning Dodgers. His 4.5 WAR ranked just sixth among pitchers; teammate Sal Maglie, who ranked fifth at 5.0, was the runner-up, while WAR leader Johnny Antonelli (6.4) was snubbed. Newcombe beat out Maglie for MVP, with another Dodger, position player leader Duke Snider (7.6), finishing just 10th.

Koufax and Gibson were the only two of those 10 pitchers to lead all players — not just pitchers — in their league in WAR en route to winning both awards. If things hold up as they are now, Kershaw would be a fitting choice to join them.
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