Kershaw building quite the NL MVP case

Last pitcher to win the award in Senior Circuit was Cardinals' Gibson in 1968

Kershaw building quite the NL MVP case

LOS ANGELES -- The last time a pitcher won the National League Most Valuable Player Award, the Rules Committee lowered the mound to make sure it didn't happen again.

It was 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, and Bob Gibson won the award after posting a 1.12 ERA. Seriously, 1.12.

So for Clayton Kershaw to win the NL MVP Award this year, he would be bucking serious headwinds.

The Cy Young Award started in 1956, an award that only a pitcher can win, and only one per year was presented until 1967, when it was decided to award one per league. Seven pitchers have won the American League MVP Award since Cy Young Awards were awarded in both leagues, most recently Justin Verlander in 2011.

But NL voters haven't chosen any pitcher as MVP since Gibson. The closest a pitcher has come to winning the NL MVP Award since 1968 was runner-up Tom Seaver in '69. Greg Maddux finished third in 1995, behind winner Barry Larkin and Dante Bichette.

Kershaw is 15-3 with a 1.82 ERA. He will start Wednesday in Arizona, then figures to have five more regular-season starts. Using Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as calculated by Baseball-Reference.com, Kershaw leads the league at 6.8. Runner-up Giancarlo Stanton is at 6.3. On Fangraphs.com, both players are at 5.5.

By just about every metric, Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game. But is he the most valuable player in his league?

Kershaw's NL MVP Award candidacy is all the more stunning because he spent six weeks on the disabled list after opening the season with a win in Australia. Because he missed those starts, and won so many since returning, Kershaw has a chance of joining Boston's Pedro Martinez in 1999 as the only pitchers since World War II with 20 wins in fewer than 30 starts.

Kershaw's manager, Don Mattingly, recently endorsed the lefty's NL MVP Award candidacy. Granted, Mattingly has a conflict of interest here. But he also has a 1985 AL MVP Award as a Yankees first baseman and previously had the opinion, shared by some Baseball Writers' Association of America voters, that a pitcher has no business winning an MVP Award no matter what he does.

If a hitter can't win a Cy Young Award, a pitcher shouldn't win an MVP Award, goes that thinking. And that's what Mattingly used to think, too.

"I flip-flopped from when I played, but as a manager, you just see the value of what a guy like Clayton's been able to do," Mattingly said. "I do think it needs to be one of those years where it seems like it's almost extraordinary, and it seems to be one of those years. I see the value in that guy, as opposed to when I was playing -- not that you didn't see value in pitching -- but it's a different thing."

Among the anti-pitcher arguments is that a starting pitcher contributes only once every five days. Because of that, it is more difficult for a pitcher to take on the intangible role of leadership the way a position player can.

Mattingly also now rejects that perception.

"[Kershaw], I feel like, is [a leader]," Mattingly said. "The Cardinals talk about what [Adam] Wainwright brings to the club over there and the leadership he brings. I think it's tougher for a starting pitcher because he's out there once every five days, but I think a guy like Clayton, I think there's a tremendous amount of respect for him and the way he goes about business."

Two of the nine NL pitchers with MVP Awards are former Dodgers: Don Newcombe (1956) and Sandy Koufax ('63). Newcombe, now a special advisor to Dodgers chairman Mark Walter, insists a pitcher can be an MVP "as long as he produces."

"Clayton's 15-3. That's significant production," said Newcombe. "You don't care what position he plays as long as he produces."

The man who authorized a $215 million contract for Kershaw, Dodgers president and CEO Stan Kasten, ran the Braves when Maddux finished third in the NL MVP Award voting in 1995. Kasten believes there's no reason why Kershaw shouldn't be in the NL MVP Award conversation.

"If ever there's a pitcher that should be one," said Kasten, "he's the one."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.