Most Valuable Player voting is often about the narrative that develops during the long march of the season as much as the numbers -- in some cases the narrative may be more important than the numbers. In the American League, there was really only one narrative to consider this season: Mike Trout. He was the obvious choice and the voters made him just the 18th unanimous MVP winner and the first in the AL since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997.
In the National League, there were season-long debates between Clayton Kershaw and Giancarlo Stanton and then Andrew McCutchen -- who made a late push, hitting .347 with five home runs in September as the Pirates surged into the playoffs. There were those in the analytical regions of the Internet pushing for Jonathan Lucroy, who had a terrific offensive season as a catcher for the Brewers while getting recognition as one of the best pitch framers in the business.
But, really, those other narratives never took off. Stanton had the big power numbers, but it wasn't enough to separate him from McCutchen or Lucroy as the clear top candidate among position players. Even if Stanton hadn't been hit in the face and missed the final two weeks of the season, I don't think he would've won, as no player from a losing team has won an MVP award since Alex Rodriguez in 2003. McCutchen had slightly better offensive numbers than 2013; he improved his slugging percentage from .508 to .542 -- but the Pirates weren't the same surprise story as 2013 and McCutchen's 25 home runs and 83 RBIs don't jump out.
Stanton and McCutchen were great; just not great enough. Kershaw collected 18 of the 30 first-place votes, placed second on nine other ballots and easily outdistanced the runner-up, Stanton.
It's easy to see why. Kershaw went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA. At one point, the Dodgers had won 20 of 21 games he started. He was the best pitcher in the majors in 2013 and he got better in 2014, improving his strikeout/walk ratio from 4.46 to 7.71. After his one bad outing of the season -- he gave up seven runs in 1.2 innings to Arizona on May 17 -- he posted a 1.43 ERA over his final 23 regular-season outings. That start against the D-backs was his only one all season in which he allowed more than three runs. The numbers were so juicy that even though he pitched just 198 innings in 27 starts, the voters couldn't deny him MVP honors.
The debate heading into the MVP vote was whether Kershaw could overcome the pitcher bias existent in MVP balloting; no NL pitcher had won MVP honors since Bob Gibson in 1968, and Justin Verlander's win in 2011 was the first for a starting pitcher in the AL since Roger Clemens in 1986 and just the second since 1971.
The advanced metrics tell us Kershaw was the most valuable player in the NL in 2014. He led the NL in Baseball-Reference WAR at 8.0, topping Cole Hamels (6.9), Lucroy (6.7), Stanton (6.5) and Anthony Rendon (6.5). He led in FanGraphs WAR at 7.6, topping McCutchen (6.8), Rendon (6.6), Lucroy (6.3) and Stanton (6.1).
But Kershaw didn't win because of those metrics. He won because of the narrative. He won because he went 21-3. (He actually had a higher WAR in 2013 but finished seventh in the voting as he went just 16-9.) He won because he was clearly the most dominant player in the league.
Even if he was a pitcher.
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The past two American League MVP races were hotly contested debates between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout -- well, hotly contested in cyberspace. When the voters in the Baseball Writers' Association actually got around to turning in their ballots the results weren't close at all: Cabrera received 22 of 28 first-place votes in 2012 and 23 of 30 in 2013.
Trout's obvious advantages in advanced metrics, defense and baserunning were trumped by Cabrera's Triple Crown and RBIs and the fact that Cabrera's Tigers made the playoffs and Trout's Angels didn't (although Trout's team actually won more games in 2012).
Anyway, in 2014, Cabrera didn't put up the monster offensive numbers, the Angels had the best record in the majors and Trout led the league in both runs scored and RBIs. The writers couldn't mess it up this year.
The ironic part of Trout's win -- he became the third Angels player to win after Don Baylor in 1979 and Vladimir Guerrero in 2004 -- is that by the advanced metrics that us stat guys love, Trout had his worst season:
2012: 10.8 Baseball-Reference WAR, 10.1 FanGraphs WAR
2013: 8.9 Baseball-Reference WAR, 10.5 FanGraphs WAR
2014: 7.9 Baseball-Reference WAR, 7.8 FanGraphs WAR
Now, that 7.9 WAR was still the best in the league, making Trout the obvious choice on top of his conventional numbers. The main reason for the decline in WAR was a drop in defensive and baserunning value. In 2012, he was credited with 21 defensive runs saved (which Baseball-Reference uses) while that figure has been -9 the past two seasons. He's also declined in FanGraphs' defensive metric, ultimate zone rating (-8.4 runs). His steals have dropped from 49 to 33 to 16.
Of course, Trout didn't win because of advanced metrics. The fact that Victor Martinez -- who started 116 games at designated hitter -- finished second in the voting shows the voters still place an emphasis on offensive numbers while essentially ignoring the value of things like defense, position and baserunning. Martinez had a terrific season, but he wasn't the second-best player in the AL. On the other hand, it was nice that the voters recognized the great season that Michael Brantley had by putting him third in the voting even though the Indians didn't reach the playoffs.
Otherwise, it was scattershot results in the voting, as expected. Martinez did receive 16 second-place votes, but seven different players were placed there on the ballot. Ten different players received third-place votes.
Anyway, I have the feeling this won't be Mike Trout's only MVP award.