The Los Angeles Dodgers have played a better brand of baseball lately under manager Don Mattingly, so the question du jour is no longer, "Can a losing team produce the National League's Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner in the same season?''
The question should now read, "Can a .500-caliber team overcome a series of embarrassments, ownership upheaval and waning fan interest to produce the MVP and Cy Young winner in the same season?''
The candidates' names are Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, and they've done an impressive job surmounting the chaos and bringing their "A'' games to the park from Opening Day through Labor Day. Their efforts haven't been enough to keep Frank and Jamie McCourt out of the news entirely. But hey, any contribution toward that goal is a step in the right direction.
Kemp, 26, has fulfilled scouting director Logan White's early predictions of stardom while reinventing his image on the fly. He's moved beyond the knee-jerk characterizations of Matt Kemp-as-Blake Griffin's buddy, Rihanna's former boyfriend, the Oklahoma kid sidetracked by "Hollywood fever'' or the guy who drove Larry Bowa from the third base coach's box to a TV gig with his stubbornness and lack of coachability. These days, Kemp is just your basic, garden-variety, five-tool player who torments opponents in every way imaginable.
Kershaw, the seventh overall pick in the 2006 draft, has emerged as the state of Texas' next great contribution to the pitching profession. Judging from his inclusion in the Cy Young Award conversation with the likes of Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, he's crossed the barrier that distinguishes precocious from mature, and apprentice from accomplished. At age 23, he's established himself as the real deal.
"If you take those two away from this team, we're not even close to having a chance of being .500,'' said Dodgers infielder Jamey Carroll.
In the absence of riveting postseason races (until recently), baseball analysts and bloggers have spent an inordinate amount of time dissecting the various award competitions. It's more than a case of just culling through the stats and comparing apples to apples.
There's the question of whether Detroit's Justin Verlander should win the MVP even though he's contributing only once every five days. Beyond that, should Toronto right fielder Jose Bautista win the award with superior numbers while playing for a team that's spent one day within 10 games of first place since the All-Star break? And while we're at it, how should voters assess the value of Wins Above Replacement, given that mere fractions separate most of the candidates in this category?
Meanwhile, the "horse-race'' faction of the media tries to predict what impact vote-splitting have on the results, with Milwaukee teammates Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun and fellow Red Sox standouts Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia all under consideration for MVP.
Kemp and Kershaw add another element to the equation -- the hardware-seeking tag team.
As Scott Randall of ESPN Stats & Information points out, it's actually quite commonplace for teammates to capture the MVP and Cy Young Awards. There have been 18 position player-pitcher combinations to bag the two awards in the same season.
But losing teams -- or even average teams -- need not apply. Of the 18 clubs with an MVP and Cy Young winner, 17 advanced to the postseason. The only exception was the 1962 Dodgers (with MVP Maury Wills and Cy Young recipient Don Drysdale), who won 102 games but lost the pennant to San Francisco in a playoff.
Voters are generally more accepting of Cy Young winners from losing clubs. That makes perfect sense given that the award is strictly about honoring each league's best pitcher. When Steve Carlton recorded 27 of the Phillies' meager 59 victories in 1972, it merely served to strengthen his case. And Felix Hernandez benefited from the sympathy vote last year when the Mariners scored a total of 14 runs in his 12 losses. King Felix became the 15th pitcher from a losing team to capture the Cy Young.
Conversely, only four players (Cal Ripken Jr., Andre Dawson, Alex Rodriguez and Ernie Banks on two occasions) have won MVP awards while playing for losing clubs. It all reverts back to each person's definition of the term "valuable.'' Valuable in the pursuit of what? Third place?
For those who subscribe to the idea that the MVP should go to the "most outstanding'' player, it's worth noting that MLB already has a distinction to honor the best hitter in each league. It's called the Hank Aaron Award, and it's handed out each year during the World Series. The list of recipients since the award's inception in 1999 includes such luminaries as Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, A-Rod and Manny Ramirez. Last year the honor went to Bautista and Cincinnati's Joey Votto. Just because the award carries less cachet than the MVP can't obscure the fact that it exists.
But as long as that nettlesome "valuable'' word is part of the equation, the debate over MVP semantics will persist. Realistically, Braun has the inside track for National League MVP because of the Brewers' first-place status and his all-around numbers, but that can't prevent the Dodgers from lobbying strenuously in Kemp's behalf.
"When I hear most valuable player I think, 'Who is the best player?' And for me, that's Matt Kemp,'' said Dodgers first base coach Davey Lopes. "Put together the complete package -- defense, offense, power, speed, throwing out runners -- and every day he's in the lineup. It's pretty damn good.
"To me, the most valuable player award should go to the best player in the frickin' league. Maybe they should change the name of it.''
Kemp's transformation from perceived underachiever to Best Player in the Frickin' League candidate accompanied a pledge to show more focus after a disappointing 2010 season. The result: He's been a model of consistency. He ranks among the National League's top five in homers (33), runs (97), RBIs (109), batting average (.316), slugging percentage (.561) and on-base percentage (.394). Even though Kemp's defensive metrics are sketchy, he leads the NL with 11 outfield assists and leads NL position players with a WAR of 8.7.
Kemp has also appeared in a major league-leading 351 consecutive games. And in his worst month, July, he hit a respectable .274 with a .777 OPS. The consensus is that Kemp has made the Dodgers his team, even as ownership uncertainty prevents the club from locking him up to a multiyear deal as he moves closer to free agency in November 2012.
"It's the way he's communicating and the way he talks,'' Carroll said. "He has more of a presence in here to help get us ready to play. He's not sitting off in the corner. He's mixing around with everybody and really involved with this whole team. He's a lot more vocal now, and I think that's big.''
The rah-rah stuff wouldn't matter, of course, if Kemp were still running the bases haphazardly, missing cutoff men and exhausting the coaching staff's patience. But he's now a model of comportment.
"It's been unbelievable to watch,'' Kershaw said. "It's weird when he makes an out now. You expect him to catch everything out there, steal a base every time he's out there and throw guys out from the outfield. He's putting athleticism and talent together with a lot of baseball skill this year. It's always been in there.''
The Dodgers paid Kershaw $2.3 million to sign out of high school, so they had reason to believe it was just a matter of time for him, too. Kershaw took a big step forward in June 2010, when he began showing better command of his four-pitch assortment and stopped running up high pitch counts. He's throwing first-pitch strikes about 64 percent of the time -- almost 10 percent better than two years ago -- and averaging 15.0 pitches per inning compared to 17.7 in 2009. It's a lot easier for him to use his slider as a put-away pitch when hitters are down 1-2 and have to start the bat earlier out of self-preservation.
Kershaw is 18-5 with a 2.36 ERA, leads the league with 231 strikeouts and has fanned 10 or more hitters in a game seven times this season. How dominant has he been? Just ask the Giants. He's 3-0 with a 0.00 ERA against San Francisco this season, and he's working on a streak of 32 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run at AT&T Park.
In an interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com's Tony Jackson in August, former Dodger Don Newcombe compared Kershaw favorably with franchise icon Sandy Koufax. Tommy Lasorda bristled at the suggestion of the two names appearing in the same sentence, but Kershaw is off to a promising start. When Koufax was 23 years old, he had a career record of 28-27 with a 4.16 ERA.
By all accounts, Kershaw is an intriguing blend of youthful exuberance and cold-blooded intensity. When he's hanging around the clubhouse, Carroll said, he's "the next-door neighbor kid that you're meeting out in the backyard to go ride your bike with.'' Then the game begins, and he flips the switch.
Kershaw's commitment to excellence was on display during a memorable sequence of events last offseason. He married his high school sweetheart, Ellen, and they traveled to Africa on their honeymoon to work with orphans and help build a school in Zambia. The trip was a life-altering experience and a cultural awakening for Kershaw. But upon his return, he made sure to tell Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt that he had played catch every day so he wouldn't get rusty.
Last week in Washington, before Stephen Strasburg took the mound in his comeback from Tommy John surgery, Kershaw threw his regular side session amid a steady rain at Nationals Park. He emerged wetter and one step closer to his next outing.
"Everybody talks about Halladay and Lee, but I'd put his work ethic with anybody's,'' Honeycutt said. "These guys all have something that makes them different, and it's that special drive. They're not going to let anything stop them from being ready for the next outing. They won't even blow a day off.''
Ask Kershaw to dissect his big breakthrough season, and he contorts his face, fidgets and gamely soldiers on with a response out of sheer courtesy. This offseason, he'll relax for a week or so and reflect on the good things, and maybe that will include memories of Cy Young Award announcement day. But with three starts left on the schedule -- including an outing against Daniel Hudson and division-leading Arizona on Wednesday night -- who the heck has time for self-congratulations?
"As a starting pitcher, that fifth day is yours,'' Kershaw said. "No one can take that away from you. You have to own it and make people know that you're there. That's your one day. You don't get too many of them.''
Plugging away for a mediocre team every fifth day in September can be a challenge. It's a little easier for Clayton Kershaw knowing that he gets to watch Matt Kemp play the other four.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.