In 1986, Don Mattingly batted .352 for the New York Yankees. He hit 31 home runs. He led the American League in hits, doubles, total bases, slugging percentage and OPS. He won a Gold Glove at first base.
His statistics arguably were better than they were in 1985, when he won the most-valuable-player award. He did have a gaudy 145 runs batted in 1985, but the Yankees finished in second place that year, and again in ’86.
In 1986, he did not win the MVP award. Roger Clemens did.
“It was tough for me to understand that,” Mattingly said.
Mattingly played in 162 games. Clemens pitched in 33. How valuable could Clemens possibly have been when he did not play in four out of every five games?
That is the question voters will ask themselves this year about Mattingly’s ace with the Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw. With a wave of injuries sweeping over the leading contenders among position players, Kershaw could well become the first pitcher in 46 years to win the NL MVP award.
Albert Pujols, a three-time winner of the award, said pitchers should not be considered.
“You don’t see the players win the Cy Young,” said Pujols, now the Angels’ first baseman. “The Cy Young award is the MVP for the pitchers, and the MVP should be for the best player in the league . . . unless you don’t have any players in the league who have had a decent year.
“If you have guys who have big years, and you give it to a pitcher, I don’t think that’s fair.”
Paul Goldschmidt, runner-up in the 2013 MVP vote, is having a big year, but he is out for the season because of a broken hand. Andrew McCutchen, last season’s NL MVP, is having a big year, but he has a broken rib, and his return is uncertain. Troy Tulowitzki is having a big year, but he has not played in three weeks because of a hip injury and might not return for a few more weeks.
“It’s very weird,” Kershaw said, “so many superstar position players getting hurt. It’s really a shame — arguably, the top three position players from the National League got hurt.”
Tulowitzki, McCutchen and Goldschmidt rank first, second and fourth in OPS in the NL. Giancarlo Stanton ranks third, and he leads the league in home runs and runs batted in, but he plays for the Miami Marlins. Ask Mike Trout how the voters treat a good player on a bad team.
Yasiel Puig ranks fifth in OPS. In theory — and depending on how much Tulowitzki and McCutchen can play in the final weeks of the season — that could leave the Dodgers’ best offensive player as the most formidable hurdle to Kershaw winning the MVP.
“I think you should lean toward a position player,” Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke said. “The best position player is probably more valuable than the best pitcher, at least most years.”
Yet Greinke said this about Kershaw: “If you ask me who the most valuable player on our team is, I’d say him.”
Justin Verlander won the AL MVP award three years ago, beating Jacoby Ellsbury (.321, 32 home runs, 39 stolen bases) and Jose Bautista (.302, 43 home runs).
Verlander had a 2.40 earned-run average, just ahead of Jered Weaver’s 2.41.
“Clayton’s got better numbers,” Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. “If you have a hitter neck and neck with a pitcher, I’d give it to a hitter. If you have a pitcher that is flat-out dominant, you can give it to him. From my perspective, he deserves it.”
Kershaw has a career-low 1.82 ERA, on pace to become the first pitcher to lead the major leagues in ERA for four consecutive seasons.
The statistic that could hurt him most is his win-loss record, even in this new era, where Felix Hernandez won a Cy Young Award with a 13-12 record.
The starting pitchers to win the MVP since 1956, when the Cy Young was introduced, all had glittering records: 27-7 (Don Newcombe for the 1956 Dodgers), 25-5 (Sandy Koufax for the 1963 Dodgers), 22-9 (Bob Gibson for the 1968 St. Louis Cardinals), 31-6 (Denny McLain for the 1968 Detroit Tigers), 24-8 (Vida Blue for the 1971 Oakland Athletics), 24-4 (Clemens for the ’86 Red Sox) and 24-5 (Verlander for the ’11 Tigers).
Kershaw is 13-2. He starts for the Dodgers on Sunday, with eight or nine starts remaining thereafter. He might not win 20 this season. But, if he wins Sunday, no pitcher in the majors would have more victories — even though he spotted the rest of the league a month while he was on the disabled list.
And, for all the arguments about how a pitcher cannot be all that valuable when he watches four out of every five games, consider this: Dee Gordon leads the Dodgers in plate appearances, through Friday, with 478. Kershaw has faced 483 batters. An out is an out, whether you make a handful every day or a couple dozen every five days.
Kershaw has five complete games, more than 28 of the 30 major league teams. He averages 71/3 innings per start. That leaves four outs for relievers — one if the Dodgers lose — meaning Mattingly can use his bullpen aggressively on the days before and after Kershaw starts. In that sense, Kershaw can have an impact on three of every five games.
Mattingly, who had no earthly idea why anyone would vote for a pitcher when he lost to Clemens, says now that he gets it.
“That was then,” Mattingly said. “As a manager, you see how valuable a guy like Clayton is — or Clemens, or whoever that dominant guy is.”
Kershaw insists he has not thought much about his MVP chances.
“If they think a pitcher is the best player, that’s great,” he said. “More often than not, it’s a position player, which I understand.
“Whoever is the best player. That’s my opinion. Whoever is most valuable to their team, whatever that means.”
The last time players from the same market won the MVP awards: 2002, with Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants and Miguel Tejada of the Oakland Athletics.
Trout should win this year’s AL award in a rout. By Kershaw’s definition, and by ours, he should win too.