There is usually a bit of lively discussion about whether a pitcher should be able to win the Most Valuable Player. The discussion usually draws a line in the sand somewhere around the fact that pitchers already have an award for them and they shouldn’t be eligible or the fact that they don’t play every day. Voting in the past has also tended to lean towards the offensive side of things in regards to the MVP. Which, of course, means the guy with the most home runs and runs batted in. It usually takes a season lacking in an offensive standout to even get the discussion started regarding pitchers winning the MVP.
The last two pitchers to win both the Cy Young and MVP Awards was Clayton Kershaw in 2014 and Justin Verlander in 2011. Before that, Dennis Eckersley was the last in either league to pull the double off, which came in 1992. There have certainly been several instances where a serious case could have been made that a pitcher could have won the award. Let’s take a look at four of the strongest cases where this could have happened since division play began.
1972: Steve Carlton
I’m not a fan of using win totals to determine how great a season has been for a pitcher, but when you win 27 games and your team only had 59 victories for the entire year, you have to throw a bone in that guy’s direction. Now I know a lot of people are going to say, “Stop right there,” because he was on a losing team, but look at the rest of his numbers. In 41 starts, Carlton had 30 complete games and 8 shutouts. He had an ERA of 1.97 in 346.1 innings pitched with 310 strikeouts. He finished with a WAR of 12.1 and an ERA+ of 182, which if you will remember is scaled to where 100 is league average.
During a stretch from June 7 until August 17, Carlton went 15-0 while averaging nearly 8.2 innings per start. The streak finally ended when he lost to the Braves after giving up two runs over 11 innings. In games Carlton didn’t pitch during that stretch, the Phillies were just 2-22.
All of these are eye-popping numbers, some of them almost video game-like compared to today’s stats. He was certainly the runaway winner of the Cy Young Award, but then only managed to finish fifth in the MVP balloting. Granted, the NL MVP that season was Johnny Bench, who had a fantastic season and certainly got votes because he held the premium position of catcher. Bench hit .270/.379/.541 with 40 home runs and 125 runs batted in, which was good enough for 8.6 WAR. This is tied for the second highest WAR for a catcher all-time, behind Mike Piazza‘s 8.7 in 1997.
It would have been hard to argue against Bench in 1972, but it would have been hard to put Billy Williams, Willie Stargell, and Joe Morgan in front of Carlton in the MVP voting. All had fine seasons and were certainly worthy of consideration that year and in many other seasons as well, since all are in the Hall of Fame. But, I do put one thing out there that might have made things interesting. How different would the voting have been with current sabermetric stats becoming more popular?
1985: Dwight Gooden
After bursting on the scene in 1984 by winning the National League Rookie of the Year, Gooden stepped up his game another notch a season later by winning the Cy Young Award. At only 20 years of age, he went 24-4 with an ERA of 1.53, which is the lowest in the division era among qualifying starters. His 16 complete games and eight shutouts with 268 strikeouts led him to a WAR of 12.1 and a Win Probability Added of 9.93, which is second all-time by a pitcher to Lefty Grove in 1931. His ERA was second-lowest in the post-deadball era to Bob Gibson‘s 1.12 in 1968, and we all know what baseball’s reaction was after that season.
Gooden was 11-1 in the second half in 1985, and despite his young age and all the innings he’d pitched, he grew stronger once September rolled around. That month, he gave up only two earned runs in 53 innings (that’s an ERA of 0.34). He won four of his six starts, but he would have gone 6-0 with any kind of support from his offense, because he had consecutive no-decisions in which he was pulled after nine innings with the game scoreless. In Gooden’s four losses on the year, the Mets scored a total of five runs.
Gooden finished fourth in the MVP voting that season. Willie McGee led the league in batting for a pennant-winning ballclub and was certainly worthy of consideration. However, it fails the test of being an over and above offensive season and Gooden could easily have been the winner. His numbers certainly were strong enough to merit consideration ahead of the next two vote getters, Dave Parker and Pedro Guerrero.
1995: Greg Maddux
This is one of Maddux’s seasons that seemingly gets overlooked or undervalued occasionally. He went 19-2 with an ERA of 1.63 and 181 strikeouts. He also led the National League in innings pitched (209.2), complete games (10), WHIP (0.811), FIP (2.26) and ERA+ (260). His performance was a prominent reason the Atlanta Braves won the World Series in 1995.
One thing that has to be put in context here is the fact the Braves only played 144 games in 1995. The strike that ended the previous season early was not resolved in time for the 1995 season to start as scheduled. His WAR of 9.6 was certainly held down because of this. During his reign in 1995, Maddux gave up a career-low 147 hits and only eight home runs, while having a strikeout per nine inning ratio of 7.8, which was also a career high.
Barry Larkin of the Cincinnati Reds won the NL MVP in 1995. He batted .319/.394/.492 with 15 home runs and 66 runs batted in. He played very solid baseball defensively as well, but in my opinion, his numbers just aren’t at a level beyond what Maddux demonstrated that year. Maddux would finish third in MVP balloting behind runner up Dante Bichette. It seems like the voters certainly got this one wrong with one of the top pitching performances in recent times on display.
2000: Pedro Martinez
Pedro had a long and dominant streak in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but it would be hard to argue with the fact that 2000 was not only his finest, but one of the best in baseball history. He posted a 1.74 ERA with 284 strikeouts and a career best 10.1 WAR. Martinez was the best pitcher in baseball by leaps and bounds; the next lowest ERA in the AL that season was Roger Clemens’ 3.70, more than double that of Martinez. His 0.74 WHIP is the lowest in history, topping the previous record set in 1882 by Guy Hecker. Martinez also established modern records for opponent batting average (.167) and on-base percentage (.213). His ERA+ of 290 is far and away the highest of all time.
The fact that the Boston Red Sox struggled that season and did not make the postseason probably held Martinez back in the MVP voting. Jason Giambi would lay claim to the award with a great season in which he batted .333/.476/.647 with 43 home runs and 137 runs batted in. I’m sure Alex Rodriguez might disagree with the voting on his behalf as well. The voting biases were certainly working against Martinez in 2000 as he would finish fifth in the voting. It’s hard to imagine that one of the most dominant pitching performances in the division era would not merit him higher consideration for MVP.
These four cases were not instances of highway robbery by the voters. All of the winners were very worthy candidates. It just makes one wonder if any of these pitchers were properly considered because of the position they played. Each of them certainly has a case in all four years. Sabermetrics may make it easier in the future for pitchers and position players to be measured on an equal scale. Only time will tell.