Jacob deGrom and the MVP Precedent

Historically speaking, pitchers don’t win MVP awards — or don’t win them often, at least. There are exceptions to the rule, but the honor historically has been reserved for a league’s top position player. The logic among voters generally follows a couple recognizable lines of reasoning. Pitchers don’t play every day, some voters argue. They have the Cy Young all to themselves, say others. Whatever the justification, the record reveals a preference for position players over pitchers. Consider: since reliever Dennis Eckersley won the American League MVP in 1992, only Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander have been recognized as their respective league’s most valuable player.

It’s possible that some voters aren’t using entirely sound logic to arrive at their conclusions. Even if they’re employing the wrong process, however, they’re still usually arriving at the correct result: pitchers simply aren’t the best players in their leagues all that often. Position players make an impact at the plate and on defense. They just have more opportunities to create value. Their roles give them a competitive advantage.

Or, they usually provide a competitive advantage. This season, however, that hasn’t been the case. This season, the best player in the National League is likely a pitcher. While a lot of obstacles stand between Jacob deGrom and an MVP award, he deserves consideration — and there’s a really good argument he deserves to win.

Before we get to the more compelling arguments in favor of deGrom’s MVP candidacy, it makes sense to entertain the less compelling ones, too. First among them is the Mets, who have been poor this year. While voters are explicitly told that the MVP needn’t come from a playoff team, voters have typically evaluated a player’s performance in the context of his team’s performance, the logic presumably being that the player in question has been an asset in the most important situations. While the Mets are heading for a high draft pick now, it would be unfair to say that deGrom hasn’t been pitching in meaningful games. Thanks to their strong start, the Mets’ postseason hopes were remained alive into mid-June. Even if you wanted to assess deGrom some sort of penalty for playing for a bad team — let’s say you discount his second-half WAR by 50% — he would still lead the National League by that measure. It’s also worth noting that deGrom leads all National League pitchers in win probability added. In the games he’s pitched, in other words, he has been incredibly helpful to the cause of potentially winning a game, even if the end result has been disappointing.

Ultimately, there will be voters who are dogmatic in their views on which players are eligible for the MVP award. To those who contend, for example, that pitchers oughtn’t win it or that it should go to a member of a playoff team, I have little to say other than the rules and ballot history suggest otherwise. For those who are prepared to entertain the possibility of such a thing, however, then Jacob deGrom has a really good case.

At the moment, Jacob deGrom’s 8.3 WAR and 8.6 RA9/WAR (that is, WAR calculated with runs allowed and not FIP) lead the National League. If he finishes the season first by both measures, he would become only the second pitcher to do so since 2001. The only other pitcher to lead the league in WAR and RA9/WAR in the last 18 seasons — or 36, really, if you include both leagues — is Kershaw back in 2014 when he won MVP. Going back to 1967, when Cy Youngs were first awarded in both leagues, there have been 29 seasons out of 104 where a pitcher has been the league leader in WAR as we calculate it here at FanGraphs. It’s been slightly more common for a pitcher to lead the league in RA9/WAR, occurring 44 times. Only 18 times has a pitched topped the league in both WAR and RA9/WAR. In 15 of those 18 seasons, the pitcher won the Cy Young.

Pitchers Leading the League in WAR and RA9/WAR
Year Player League WAR RA9/WAR Cy Young
1968 Bob Gibson NL 9.1 14.0 1
1969 Bob Gibson NL 9.8 12.1 NA
1970 Bob Gibson NL 11.3 9.3 1
1972 Steve Carlton NL 11.6 13.5 1
1972 Gaylord Perry AL 8.2 12.0 1
1973 Bert Blyleven AL 10.8 9.7 7
1978 Phil Niekro NL 9.1 8.1 6
1978 Ron Guidry AL 9.1 11.5 1
1985 Dwight Gooden NL 9.7 13.6 1
1986 Mike Scott NL 8.4 9.2 1
1995 Greg Maddux NL 7.9 11.0 1
1995 Randy Johnson AL 9.5 8.7 1
1997 Roger Clemens AL 10.8 12.6 1
1998 Roger Clemens AL 8.2 8.5 1
1999 Randy Johnson NL 9.0 10.3 1
1999 Pedro Martinez AL 11.6 9.9 1
2000 Randy Johnson NL 9.6 8.5 1
2014 Clayton Kershaw NL 8.1 8.3 1
2018 Jacob deGrom NL 8.3 8.6 ?
Since 1967.
Data comes from our combined leaderboards, which contains pitcher batting value, too.

In 1969, Bob Gibson produced a great follow-up to the 1.12 ERA he’d posted in 1968, recording a lower ERA and 40 more innings than eventual winner Tom Seaver, but the Mets hurler was near-unanimous — Phil Neikro garnered one vote — in an era where voters selected just once candidate and Seaver had 25 pitcher wins. Blyleven and Niekro suffered from mediocre win-loss records, which likely hurt their candidacies. The last 10 pitchers to lead both in WAR and RA9/WAR won the Cy Young*. That bodes well for deGrom this season.

*While the point is obvious, I should still probably point out that voters could not rely on these figures at the time because they didn’t exist.

Here’s how those same pitchers fared in MVP voting.

Pitchers Leading the League in WAR and RA9/WAR
Year Player League WAR RA9/WAR Cy Young MVP
1968 Bob Gibson NL 9.1 14.0 1 1
2014 Clayton Kershaw NL 8.1 8.3 1 1
1978 Ron Guidry AL 9.1 11.5 1 2
1999 Pedro Martinez AL 11.6 9.9 1 2
1995 Greg Maddux NL 7.9 11.0 1 3
1970 Bob Gibson NL 11.3 9.3 1 4
1985 Dwight Gooden NL 9.7 13.6 1 4
1972 Steve Carlton NL 11.6 13.5 1 5
1972 Gaylord Perry AL 8.2 12.0 1 6
1995 Randy Johnson AL 9.5 8.7 1 6
1986 Mike Scott NL 8.4 9.2 1 10
1997 Roger Clemens AL 10.8 12.6 1 10
1998 Roger Clemens AL 8.2 8.5 1 11
1999 Randy Johnson NL 9.0 10.3 1 15
1978 Phil Niekro NL 9.1 8.1 6 17
2000 Randy Johnson NL 9.6 8.5 1 17
1973 Bert Blyleven AL 10.8 9.7 7 26
1969 Bob Gibson NL 9.8 12.1 NA 30
2018 Jacob deGrom NL 8.3 8.6 ? ?
Since 1967.
Data comes from our combined leaderboards, which contains pitcher batting value, too.

It’s worth noting that most of the players with top-five finishes played on postseason teams. Gibson’s Cardinals in 1970 finished 10 games below .500, Carlton’s Phillies finished in last place, and Gooden’s Mets missed the playoffs (but did win 98 games). Potentially aiding deGrom’s case this year is a lack of a clear frontrunner for MVP, as he’s more than two wins clear of Christian Yelich, the top position player at the moment. Here’s how the competition for the above pitchers looked in terms of a top position player with the gap column showing the difference between the pitcher’s WAR and the top position player.

Pitchers Leading the League in WAR and RA9/WAR
Year Player League MVP Top Position Player WAR Position Player Gap RA9WAR Position Player Gap
1968 Bob Gibson NL 1 7.1 2.0 6.9
2014 Clayton Kershaw NL 1 7.4 0.7 0.9
1978 Ron Guidry AL 2 7.7 1.4 3.8
1999 Pedro Martinez AL 2 7.5 4.1 2.4
1995 Greg Maddux NL 3 7.7 0.2 3.3
1970 Bob Gibson NL 4 8.2 3.1 1.1
1985 Dwight Gooden NL 4 7.8 1.9 5.8
1972 Steve Carlton NL 5 9.2 2.4 4.3
1972 Gaylord Perry AL 6 8.0 0.2 4.0
1995 Randy Johnson AL 6 8.2 1.3 0.5
1986 Mike Scott NL 10 6.2 2.2 3.0
1997 Roger Clemens AL 10 9.0 1.8 3.6
1998 Roger Clemens AL 11 7.9 0.3 0.6
1999 Randy Johnson NL 15 7.8 1.2 2.5
1978 Phil Niekro NL 17 6.8 2.3 1.3
2000 Randy Johnson NL 17 8.3 1.3 0.2
1973 Bert Blyleven AL 26 7.8 3.0 1.9
1969 Bob Gibson NL 30 7.9 1.9 3.2
2018 Jacob deGrom NL ? 6.0 2.3 2.6
Since 1967.
Data comes from our combined leaderboards, which contains pitcher batting value, too.

None of the five pitchers with top-three MVP finishes contended against a position player with an eight-win season. If there’s anything to differentiate the players who finished high in the MVP voting versus those who didn’t, it is the RA9/WAR. The top half of the table above has roughly double the difference of the bottom half. deGrom doesn’t quite have the difference of some of the better finishers, but the only player of recent vintage is Kershaw, and he was barely ahead of Andrew McCutchen. I’d also mention that Pedro Martinez had the most first-place votes in 1999, but Ivan Rodriguez managed to edge him out with a better overall performance among voters. There isn’t a direct analog above, but the closest case is probably Bob Gibson’s — and he had to contend with a great season from Johnny Bench.

While Yelich, Nolan Arenado, Javier Baez, Matt Carpenter, Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt, and others are having very good seasons, deGrom has been the best performer in the National League this year. If voters are looking for the league’s best player, they need to vote for a pitcher on a losing team with single-digit pitcher wins. It’s unusual, but this season presents an unusual set of circumstances, and those circumstances align with Jacob deGrom deserving MVP.

We hoped you liked reading Jacob deGrom and the MVP Precedent by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

newest oldest most voted
deb81162
Member
deb81162

I love deGrom and have him in multiple leagues. But in this man’s eyes, it’s down to Baez & Yelich. I have Baez in 1st and Yelich 2nd

fordhamflash
Member
fordhamflash

It’s Yelich for me, then Carpenter. Baez is excellent, but I have a hard time with the idea of a player with a .329 OBP being the most valuable player in the league

JMag043
Member
JMag043

It should be Yelich in the NL 100%.

He’s getting dinged by notoriously unreliable defensive metrics, when he has exhibited some amazing outfield defense this year. He has a 154 wRC+…if he was even a +0 right fielder on FG, he would be over 7 WAR.

brooksie
Member
Member
brooksie

Completely agree. Yelich is a plus defender and is unfairly getting dinged by suspect defensive metrics. He should be MVP this year unless he falls apart the last nine games.

tung_twista
Member
tung_twista

Yelich has +1 UZR, +2 outs above average and +0.2 UZR.
When three different methods basically say the same thing, then I’d buy it.

WP41
Member
WP41

How do you explain Yelich being dinged defensively this year? I’m not saying you’re wrong, but its an easier argument to follow if there’s an objective explanation for it.

Famous Mortimer
Member

I think the publicly available metrics are largely bunk (the adjustment made to them this year indicates they’re very much a work in progress). Plus, we have that “it takes three years to normalise” thing going on, and are judging someone on a year’s worth of figures.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

Downvotes for you, sir!