While some say Mookie Betts is the AL MVP, others lean toward Mike Trout, and a few would make the case for David Ortiz. Meanwhile, the NL MVP chase is led by the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, but there are several Nationals hot on his heels. Dave McCullough casts his vote for Clayton Kershaw as the 2016 NL Cy Young award winner.
Unlike the MVP award, there is no helpful list of voting criteria for voters to use for the Cy Young award. Well, some of us use that criteria. Others choose to flat-out ignore the statement that the Most Valuable Player “need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.” But the point is that there is no similar statement on voting for the Cy Young. Instead, there are only instructions about how many candidates to list, how to assign points to those slots, as well as a small section on whether to keep the ballot secret, or not.
In this case, the need for ballot secrecy did not dictate the timing of this piece: rather, the race came all the way down to the wire, with each and every appearance mattering to final balloting. The 2016 NL Cy Young race was as competitive as it has ever been, with multiple players – some on the same team – deserving votes. Or, at least a good long look and think, because while there were many worthy candidates, there wasn’t much to separate them.
First, a word about Jose Fernandez. The Miami Marlins flamethrower was a candidate worthy of consideration before the tragic boating accident that took his life on September 25. However, his candidacy was decidedly second-tier before he passed away. While his K/9 (12.49), ERA (2.86), and status as one of the most electrifying and exciting players to see pitch in person all made him a name worth voting for, he was not vying for the top of my ballot down the stretch in September. That we fans have “lost” Fernandez is terrible: He will be missed. But he would not have been higher than fifth on my ballot before the tragedy and appears there only as a tribute to what might have been. Rest in peace, Jose.
The pall cast over the NY Cy Young voting by Fernandez’s death unfortunately cannot be ignored. This delightful race came down to the final weekend of the season, with the contenders jockeying for position to the very end. But, in a year without a clear, qualified frontrunner, the field allowed an un-qualified ace to sneak into the proceedings and steal the award. Clayton Kershaw has racked up three National League Cy Young awards in nine seasons – he hasn’t finished outside the top 3 since 2010. He also secured an MVP award in 2014, which is only really possible in a season where a pitcher posts such unbelievable, unforgettable statistics that the achievement cannot be ignored.
Well, he did it again this year – but the Dodgers lefty also missed 12 starts to injury, so his numbers don’t “top” the qualified lists of league leaders. However, aside from the depth of sample – and we all sorta know how great Kershaw is, right? – 2016 might have been Kershaw’s peak. And regardless of how many games he missed, when he did pitch he was better than he’s ever been – and in one aspect, better than anyone’s been, ever:
Look at that list of names. The top 5 seasons by any pitcher, ever, when measuring the fewest hits and walks allowed. Who was the best, ever, at keeping the opposition off base, and from scoring runs? You could do worse than by guessing: Greg Maddux, Walter Johnson, and Pedro Martinez. Those three are probably the three best pitchers in Major League Baseball history (in some order). Well, it’s time to add Kershaw to that list, and to the debate. Despite missing time this season, Kershaw was singularly dominant when he did take the ball: he set the record for lowest WHIP (0.72) – better than peak Big Train, peak Maddux, and peak Pedro. That’s… an accomplishment.
Kershaw’s stupendous season doesn’t stop there: had he qualified, he would have also logged the 11th-best ERA+ in a single-season, tying Christy Mathewson (who was also fair at pitching). His 1.69 ERA is lower than the 1.77 he notched in his CY-MVP year of 2014. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 15:1. He recorded 12 victories; he allowed 11 unintentional walks (all year). He posted the lowest FIP of his career. He had 172 strikeouts in 149 total innings. No matter how you look at Kershaw’s 2016, the only blemish on his resume is the total innings pitched.
Yet, there is no rule about minimum innings pitched for Cy Young consideration. Elite relievers are considered for, and given the award, for logging far fewer innings than Kershaw’s 149. True, starters are often judged on their ability to break 200 innings but there is no rule they must. If relievers are considered for the award, so must a starter who excels in a smaller amount of innings. Kershaw’s accomplishments in 149 innings are record-book worthy. While many other NL hurlers had fine seasons, pitching 200 innings or more – none of them were close to as dominant or amazing as Kershaw.
What Kershaw accomplished, in the time he was allowed to grace the mound, is nothing short of one of the top performances in baseball history. He is in the company of Walter “Big Train” Johnson, who once owned every pre-integration pitching record that matters. Kershaw is worthy of talking about being next to Greg Maddux, who specialized in the sub-100 pitch complete game so much that we now call such an accomplishment “a Maddux”. And Kershaw is in the same conversation with the pitcher who defined “peak” for pitchers and emerged from the Steroid Era with numbers that fit in the Dead Ball Era. Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet right now, and deserves the 2016 NL Cy Young, regardless of how many innings he pitched. When he did take the hill this season, he was the best, most unhittable, unscore-on-able pitcher in the game – again.