What would it take for a pitcher to win the National League MVP award?
Really there are two questions here: What would it take for voters to vote a starter into the award? And what would it take for a pitcher to be worth more than a position player?
First, a bit of history. Twenty-one pitchers have won the award since 1911, meaning it happens about once every 10 years. The last time it happened for a starter was 1986, when Roger Clemens won the award with a 24-4 record and 238 strike outs. Those benchmarks won’t be hit this year, but is it possible that some of the conditions will be met? Could Roy Halladay or Clayton Kershaw find themselves with two pieces of mega-hardware after the season?
Back in 1986, Clemens finished with 7.9 WAR. Among his aforementioned achievements that season, he also had a 2.48 ERA (169 ERA+) and a 0.969 WHIP. The second-place finisher, Don Mattingly, had 6.9 WAR. Even if that was enough to get Mattingly in the team picture — and his .352 batting average, 31 home runs and 113 RBI were impressive — there was one major flaw on his resume: He played for the second-place Yankees. Third-place Jim Rice managed 5.9 WAR and though he had a .324 batting average, he only hit 20 home runs. Jesse Barfield — fifth in the voting that season — had twice as many.
It’s hard to make one instance a road map, but starters have won so rarely in the modern era that one season 25 years ago gains importance, in retrospect. If there is a prescription to this, it’s clear. The commonly accepted best position player played for a team that didn’t sniff the postseason but the pitcher had a dominant year for a contender.
And that could certainly describe this year. But is there a National League pitcher this season who could be worth more than the best position player?
For the purposes of discussion, we’ll pretend that there’s a consensus that Roy Halladay is slightly ahead of Clayton Kershaw in the National League pitching pecking order.
Halladay has affected as many plate appearances as the busiest position player. He’ll face more than 900 batters this year — while someone like Matt Kemp will come to the plate about 650 times. Even if you add in Kemp’s 280+ chances in the field and give no credit for Halladay’s glove, it’s clear that a pitcher can affect enough game changes that he’d be qualified to enter the MVP race.
The Phillies’ ace has a 2.18 FIP, a figure that’s easily the best in the league. He’s saved 66 runs more than a replacement pitcher. Remarkably, because his FIP is 1.75 runs better than average, he’s probably saved around 45 runs more than an average pitcher. Even excellent pitchers are no match in a head-to-head competition with Halladay. He has also saved .24 context-neutral runs per nine innings over Kershaw.
Kemp obviously has had a great year. Even without giving him credit for anything beyond his work at the dish, his bat alone puts him in the conversation with Halladay. He’s added 50.5 runs of raw value by showing his best walk rate, upgrading his power and improving his strikeout rate.
“But,” you might say, “Kemp plays every day.” That’s reflected within the WAR framework. Because Kemp plays every day, and therefore replaces the replacement player, he gets replacement runs added to his WAR total. The replacement-player level is 20 runs per 600 plate appearances, so Kemp’s durability has added 21.6 runs to his work this year. And by improving his efficiency on the basepaths in 2011 — he’s been successful 80% of the time this year compared with 56% of the time last year — Kemp has added another couple of runs to his total.
If only Kemp were a meister with the glove, this might not even be a discussion. But in a full season, Kemp has only once been a positive in center field. This year he turned in one of his better defensive performances and was worth 4.6 runs less than the average center fielder. That’s not terrible, but it’s not great. The positional adjustment for center field is +2.5 runs, and that shaves much of his middling defense away. He still doesn’t have great range — the range component of his UZR put him as the third-worst center fielder in baseball — but he doesn’t make a ton of errors and he has a decent arm.
Add it all up and Kemp has a 7.6 WAR. Compare that total to Halladay’s 8.0 WAR and it seems like it could be possible to pick the pitcher. Kemp plays for a team that won’t make the postseason while Halladay not only has an impeccable record for a championship contender, he’s the staff ace among a staff packed with aces.
On the other hand, it’s asking a lot. Halladay only has 18 wins, and with Kershaw’s chance at 21, Halladay doesn’t own the same advantage over his pitching competitors that Clemens had in 1986. That year, the Rocket beat out Milwaukee’s Teddy Higuera for the Cy Young, and the Brewer went 20-11 with 31 fewer strikeouts.
So while it’s possible that a pitcher might actually be worth more than the best position player in baseball this year, it’s not probable that the pitcher takes home two pieces of hardware. After all, he has an award designed to reward his contributions, right?