WASHINGTON — There is plenty of drama still left in the race for the National League Cy Young, to see whether Max Scherzer can win for a third straight year, or if Jacob deGrom, despite sitting on a single-digit win total, can make history. But, given the elite performances of this year’s top NL pitchers, could one of them snag the Most Valuable Player Award?
Through the end of play on Monday, the top four pitchers in the NL all had more wins above replacement, per Baseball Reference, than the top position player: deGrom (9.5), Aaron Nola (9.3), Scherzer (9.3) and Kyle Freeland (7.9) are all well in front of Lorenzo Cain (6.9). For those not intimately familiar with general WAR rankings, the all-encompassing stat doesn’t usually tilt so heavily toward either position players or pitchers.
Not since 2014 have the top three bWAR players in a league been pitchers — the last time an NL pitcher won the MVP (Clayton Kershaw). But, we haven’t seen a season where the top four bWAR players were all pitchers since 1913, when Babe Adams (9.1), Christy Mathewson (7.1), Pete Alexander (6.2) and Slim Sallee (6.1) topped the leader board. Mathewson finished the highest among that contingent in NL MVP voting that year, coming in fourth (Walter Johnson won the AL MVP with an insane 36 wins, 1.14 ERA and 16.4 WAR).
And, we haven’t seen a gap as drastic as the 2.6 WAR currently separating deGrom and Cain in quite some time. In 1995, Greg Maddux finished 2.1 WAR better than Barry Bonds, but still just finished third in the MVP race.
Per FanGraphs through Monday, just deGrom (8.3 fWAR) and Scherzer (6.8) ranked above the highest position player, Christian Yelich (6.6). Looking back at 2014, Kershaw’s 7.6 fWAR edged out Andrew McCutchen’s (7.4), a much closer finish, which may seem to bode well for deGrom or Scherzer’s chances. But, Kershaw and the Dodgers won the NL West, and Kershaw won 21 games (with just three losses). For the more old school voting crowd that cares about both team and player wins, there were other key factors helping propel Kershaw’s MVP candidacy.
Those who remember Kershaw’s 2014 NL MVP victory may not see a pitcher winning the award as such a rarity. But, it simply doesn’t happen often, a trend that has only strengthened in recent history. Kershaw is the only NL pitcher since Maddux in 1995 to finish in the Top 5 of MVP voting. Though Justin Verlander won the AL MVP in 2011, Dallas Keuchel (5th in 2015) is the only other pitcher to sneak into the Top 5 since Pedro Martinez in 2000.
Before Kershaw, you have to go back to Bob Gibson in 1968 to find an NL MVP. Dennis Eckersley won the AL award as a reliever for the A’s in 1992, and Roger Clemens was the last AL starter other than Verlander, in 1986.
All those players share something in common as well — they pitched for playoff teams. In fact, of the 22 times a pitcher has won the MVP, his team has made the playoffs in all but two of those seasons — Hal Newhouser’s 1944 Detroit Tigers, who missed the AL pennant by a single game and Bobby Shantz, who won 24 games for a middling 1952 Philadelphia Athletics team.
All three of the top NL Cy Young contenders will miss the playoffs this year. Fair or not, some portion of the voting block still factors team success into the MVP Award (it’s why I include a playoff bonus as a component to my predictor model).
But, if there’s any hope in history, it’s in that 1952 season. Shantz and Allie Reynolds split the lead among the major statistical pitching categories. They finished 1-2 in the AL MVP vote, ahead of Mickey Mantle, who had a solid-but-unspectacular-by-his-standards year.
Though WAR wasn’t used back then, we know by retroactively applying the numbers that Shantz finished at an impressive 9.5, tops in the league and three full wins ahead of Mantle. With the absence of a standout offensive Triple Crown number performance — nobody batted above .327, hit more than 32 home runs or drove in more than 105 RBI — the door was open enough for Shantz (24-7, 2.48 ERA) to win.
Yelich appears, with a few games left, to be the biggest threat to both deGrom and Scherzer. The Brewers outfielder sits 3.1 bWAR and 1.7 fWAR below the Mets’ ace, 2.9/0.2 below the Nationals’ one (though those margins should grow after Scherzer’s dominant performance Tuesday night).
With deGrom throwing his final start Wednesday and Scherzer possibly getting the ball one more time, the full story has yet to be written. There’s even a possibility that one could win the Cy Young and the other the MVP, as the voters are not the same for each award.
However it shakes out, it could provide for one of the most competitive, complicated and fascinating awards races we’ve had in quite some time.
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