MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Most Valuable Pitcher? Cole making a case

Former No. 1 overall pick enjoying breakout on strength of 'awareness'

Most Valuable Pitcher? Cole making a case

Like the Cy Young Award winner, there's a PWMM every year, in both leagues.

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Sometimes it is the same guy, but more often than not, it isn't. The Cy Young Award, after all, is designed to go to the best pitcher, and the best pitcher is not always going to be the Pitcher Who Matters Most.

Consider Clayton Kershaw, for example.

Without question, he's been the best pitcher in the game since 2011. But when you look back at the past four seasons, with the benefit of hindsight and context, was he ever the PWMM in the National League?

Madison Bumgarner was definitely our guy last year. Kershaw had a great chance in 2013 but lost twice to Michael Wacha in the NL Championship Series, which allows you to build a case that Adam Wainwright, maybe even Wacha, mattered more. The guy in '12 was Matt Cain, the backbone of the Giants' staff. It was Chris Carpenter in '11. He might not have been brilliant, but he was a rock for a Cardinals team that refused to blink.

The PWMM is the guy who gets his team into the postseason and, most often, who then carries it to success in October. He's one of the most impactful guys in the Major Leagues.

A great pitcher on a second-division team is always a candidate to win the Cy Young Award, but he's never a candidate for PWMM. Sorry about that, Chris Sale, Sonny Gray and Johnny Cueto (although for the latter, that could change immediately if he's traded to a strong team needing an ace, like the Blue Jays).

(And an aside -- Stop it. Billy Beane is open to just about everything, but he is not trading Gray. You can make a case that the White Sox are going nowhere until they develop some productive young hitters, but they're not going to deal Sale -- unless the Cubs offer them Kris Bryant.)

Cole earns 10th win

Gerrit Cole, the first overall pick in the 2011 Draft, goes into his start against the White Sox tonight leading the Majors with 10 wins and pacing the NL with a 1.71 ERA. He's hardly the only strong starter on the Pirates -- witness three shutouts Sunday-Tuesday without even allowing a runner to reach third base -- but their slow start would have been much worse if he wasn't on top of his game early.

Clint Hurdle's team was 5-3 in Cole's starts and 12-17 otherwise through May 16. The Pirates have won each of Cole's past five starts during a run in which they've gone 19-5, announcing themselves as a serious threat to the Cardinals' reign in the NL Central.

This is only Cole's second full season in the Major Leagues and figures to be his first with more than 22 regular-season starts, as a tender right shoulder and a strained lat caused him to have two stints on the disabled list last season.

"He had to fight back, figure some things out, work some things out,'' Hurdle said. "Those were very meaningful and gainful opportunities from my perspective. [He's got] more knowledge of the league, a better idea of reading hitters' swings. He has awareness that's showing up more now based on experience as well.''

Cole is commanding two nasty pitches -- a fastball that averages 97 mph and a slider that averages 87, according to Brooks Baseball. He throws one or the other about 90 percent of the time, mixing in the occasional changeup or slow curve.

Cole no doubt has benefited from working with experienced catchers like Francsico Cervelli, Chris Stewart and former Pirate Russell Martin. But he's his own boss.

"He has very good game awareness," Hurdle said. "You can talk to pitchers after they've pitched, a couple of days later, and they can't tell you certain things. This guy can probably tell you every pitch he threw and why. The awareness really grabs my attention, and now [he's gaining] the ability to navigate a game based on what he's got.''

Nobody is going to want to face Cole in October. That's why he's our NL PWMM.

Here's the rest of the current NL top five:

Scherzer's one-hit shutout

2. Max Scherzer, Nationals: Remember when Scherzer's $210 million contract seemed like overkill? Matt Williams' team wouldn't be so close to the NL East lead without him. The rest of Washington's rotation is limping along with a combined ERA of 4.76. Scherzer has continued the success he's had since turning the corner on his career in June 2012, and he seems built to go the distance. He was the Nats' Opening Day starter and seems set to be a No. 1 starter in October, too.

3. Zack Greinke, Dodgers: Maybe this is the year that Kershaw saves his best pitching for October. You've got to think that would be OK with Don Mattingly, as Greinke, who can opt out of his current deal after this season, is pitching like a man who wants one of those $200 million contracts. He joins Cole, Scherzer and A.J. Burnett among four NL starters with a sub-2.00 ERA. His 5-0 start played a big role in the Dodgers' early NL West lead.

Rosenthal earns the save

4. Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals: Bullpens matter, one way or another. The argument about the American League's PWMM wasn't about Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and Felix Hernandez, the runner-up. It was about who was more important, the Royals' closer (Greg Holland) or setup man (Wade Davis)? Rosenthal, who is just shy of the Major League saves lead, is throwing a lot more strikes than last season, cutting his walk rate from 5.4 to 3.0. As deep as the Cards' rotation is, even without Wainwright, he's going to keep getting a ton of chances.

5. Chase Anderson, D-backs: We'll grant you that the D-backs have a long way to go to get into serious playoff consideration. But if they happen to do it, it'll be because Anderson emerged as an ace after going to Spring Training needing to earn a rotation spot. He's piled up no-decisions, not wins, but he's in the NL's top 10 in ERA. Manager Chip Hale raves about Anderson's significance to the D-backs, and we're buying it. If he's still under consideration for PWMM a month or two from now, we'll really be impressed.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.