CLEVELAND (92.3 the Fan) – Two starting pitchers have won a regular season MVP award since Vida Blue in 1971. Two pitchers could be vying for the American League MVP in 2017.
Those pitchers, Clayton Kershaw in 2014 and Justin Verlander in 2011, each had ridiculous seasons statistically, yet Chris Sale and Corey Kluber are having campaigns this season that figure somewhere in the middle.
Among the four seasons mentioned, Kershaw’s ERA (1.77), FIP (1.81), xFIP (2.09) and fWAR (7.6) are tops in all categories. But Sale and Kluber’s numbers both factor in as better than Verlander’s for the vast majority.
After missing a full month of the season to date, Kluber’s 5.3 fWAR still trails Verlander’s 6.4 mark in 2011, though the Indians righty still has about six more starts in him if he stays healthy, meaning he will most likely surpass Verlander.
Kluber has the advantage in FIP numbers at 2.56/2.51 entering Thursday, compared to the Tigers ace’s 2.99/3.10 marks. To his credit, Verlander’s 2.40 ERA is better than Kluber’s 2.65 mark to this point, but that statistic has logically been devalued in recent times.
Sale has better marks than 2017 Kluber and 2011 Verlander in the important categories of FIP/xFIP at 2.04/2.67 and a 7.4 WAR entering Thursday, making him far and away the front-runner for the Cy Young at least.
Indians Manager Terry Francona seems to feel as if a good starting pitcher could trump any one position player.
“I’m sure the Red Sox feel that way about Chris Sale, like kinda how we feel about Kluber, like regardless of who’s pitching for the other team, you feel like you have a chance to win that game,” he said. “And there’s not a lot of those guys out there.”
The debate has raged on for years over whether or not there is legitimacy to a pitcher winning the MVP, with banter over how someone who plays every five days can logically be more valuable to someone on the field each day.
But while that argument makes sense in a shallow sense, consider that in 2017, Sale has faced 684 hitters to this point. That is over 100 more batters faced than AL MVP candidates Jose Altuve (539), Aaron Judge (529) and Mike Trout (368) have plate appearances. Kluber, despite missing a month of the season with a back issue, has faced 587 hitters.
By that logic, you would have to factor in defensive performance of all candidates. Chris Sale rates second among the five players considered here with 2 defensive runs saved, trailing only Judge at 8. Altuve carries 0 DRS, while Kluber (-2) and Trout (-3) bring up the rear.
Defensive fWAR is not available to pitchers, but both Altuve (-1.1) and Trout (-1.4) carry negative value defensively, while Judge comes in at an uninspiring 2.0.
Sale’s total fWAR is still higher than all three. Kluber’s 5.3 mark barely trails Trout (5.6), who also missed an extended period, with Altuve and Judge pulling ahead at 6.0 and 6.1.
If any pitcher is going to win the MVP, it would be Sale, especially seeing as he has been available all season. Kluber could logically surpass Sale in all numbers besides WAR, making the Cy Young a realistic possibility. It’s the latter number that would prevent him from stealing the MVP from the three position players.
What may matter the most come time to vote after the season is if Sale’s Red Sox overtake Altuve’s Astros in the win column. In Verlander’s MVP season, the Tigers won 95 games, and the Dodgers won 94 when Kershaw took the award. Boston is on pace to win 93.8 games this season.
But by the standards set by voters in 2011, both Sale and Kluber’s 2017 would have been more deserving than Verlander of the award. Sale even would have had a chance at the AL award the year Kershaw won.
As of now, the Cy Young is not particularly close with Sale pulling ahead every fifth day, but the fact that Kluber could realistically finish second in the Cy Young the year he could factor into the MVP debate says a lot.
Had he made the four starts he missed, he might have been first in both.