Can Kershaw and Kemp Take Home the Hardware?


It’s no secret that 2011 hasn’t given us Dodger fans a whole lot to be proud of.

The McCourts have made Al Davis look like the model of stability, resourcefulness and class. Ned Colletti continues to make other GMs look like geniuses. The team sits at 4 games under .500, hopes of a postseason berth practically gone. Even the little Dutch boy using all his fingers and toes couldn’t plug all the holes in this roster.

And yet we continue to watch. Even in the dog days of a summer lost, we hope, we care, we cheer. Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp have made it so. At 23 and 26 years old respectively, they are the reasons Dodger fans look wistfully at the present and approach the future with guarded optimism. Despite the ineptitude that has surrounded them this year, the pair could take home the two most coveted individual awards in baseball: the Cy Young and the MVP.

We’re at that point in the season where players, coaches, and media types begin whittling down their list of candidates and serious contenders emerge. Kemp and Kershaw’s names are right there in the thick of it. But what chances do they have? How do their stats measure up against their competition? And can we even guess how the media is going to vote? Maybe we can’t predict for sure, but we can certainly guess. And, as always, we turn to the data to point us there.

Let’s start with Clayton Kershaw’s chances to win the Cy Young.

I started by looking at the historical data over the past 20 years in both the AL and the NL. Where did previous Cy Young winners rank in the key pitching categories in comparison to other pitchers in the year that they won? If they fell out of the top 10 in any marjor category, for the sake of time and ease of graphical viewing, I ranked them as 11, even if they ranked lower. The key categories were ERA, win percentage (or save percentage for relievers), strikeouts (SO), walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP), innings pitched (IP), Wins Above Replacement (WAR), complete games (CG), ERA+ (ERA adjusted for park factors), and the pitcher’s team’s overall record.

**NERD ALERT** Fellow fans of advanced metrics may notice that key stats like FIP, xFIP, fWAR, BABIP, HR/FB ratio, and other nerdy favorites are conspicuously missing. Keep in mind, I’m not trying to say who DERSERVES the Cy Young. I’m only trying to predict who the VOTERS think deserves the Cy Young, and most voters don’t seem to consider those kinds of stats.

Anyway, here’s how my research looks graphically in reverse chronological order (2010 to 1991).

(Click on the picture to make it larger)

We see that although voters have gone horribly wrong in some instances (what the heck happened with the AL Cy Young voting in 1992-1993??), they’ve generally gotten it right in most cases. 28 out of the 40 winning pitchers ranked #1 in WAR, and 31/40 ranked either #1 or #2.  We also see that there’s been a slight shift over the past 5 years in which statistics are most important to voters. More on that later.

Perhaps the most important dots to follow are the red circles and the blue squares with + sign. The red circles represent the pitcher’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and the blue squares represent their average rankings in all the aformentioned categories. Here’s how it looks when ordered by average ranking.

Using this same format, how then does Kershaw stack up against his current competition?

At first glance, it looks like a two horse race between Halladay and Kershaw, which isn’t much of a surprise. Coming out slightly ahead is Halladay as Kershaw’s team record drags him down.

But wait! What about those stats that have become more important over the past 5 years? Glad you asked!

I took the average ranking of the Cy Young winners in each of the categories and found that the pitcher’s team record, the pitcher’s win/loss record, and number of strikeouts have become less important over the past 5 years, while WAR, innings pitched, ERA, ERA+, and WHIP have become more important.

(In case you were interested, the scale is 0-10 on level of importance. I subtracted the average ranking in each category from 10. For example, the average WAR ranking of Cy Young winners from 2006-2010 was 1.1, so 10-1.1 = 8.9)

What then, do our comparisons look like with this new information in mind. Eliminating team record, win percentage, and strikeouts, the rankings now look like this…

Here, Kershaw takes the lead ever so slightly. He and Halladay are the only two pitchers ranked in the top 3 in all the major categories that voters most strongly consider. Unless Lee matches his August with an equally dominant September, I think it’s a tossup between Halladay and Kershaw. On the more anecdotal side, Halladay may sway voters in that he is older and voters may feel Kershaw has plenty of time to win many awards. Working in Kershaw’s favor is that “voter fatigue” may keep Halladay from gaining votes and that voters may actually view Kershaw’s 17-5 record as more impressive, considering his team is under .500. I truly believe it will come down to who has a better September, but, based on history, Kershaw has a very legitimate shot at taking home the hardware. I think he’s got to be considered the slight favorite right now, even though I think Halladay might be slightly more deserving.

My estimate: 55% chance to win

What then of Matt Kemp?

Again, let’s look at it historically, using batting average (BA), home runs (HR), runs batted in (RBI), stolen bases (SB), runs scored, adjusted on base plus slugging percentage (OPS+), offensive wins above average (oWAR), overall wins above average (WAR), and team record.

Um, yeah… so voters haven’t been quite as accurate with their MVP voting. Only 15/40 times did the player ranked #1 in wins above replacement win the vote. Only 19/40 times did the player ranked #1 or #2 in WAR win the MVP. On 5 different occasions, the winner of the MVP did not even place in the top 10 in WAR! And it hasn’t gotten much better. As recently as 2006 (Justin Morneau), an MVP winner did not place in the top 10 in WAR.

Here are the MVP winners sorted by average rank in the key categories (most deserving candidates first).

What do our current MVP candidates look like using the same criteria and format?

Kemp has a pretty clear edge over the rest of the candidates. Besides team record (which is, of course, out of his control), he’s in the top 4 in every major category. In fact, his average ranking in the major categories – including team record – would be 3.0, which would put him in some very rarified air. Only 6 players since 1991 have ranked that high, and if you exclude team record, he would have the highest average rank (2.25) in the last 20 years! But alas, there’s this:

For one, it’s clear the voters barely even look at stolen bases. Kemp leads all contenders in that category. Second, voters seem to value team record FAR more heavily in the MVP voting than they do in the Cy Young voting. Ruh roh. Kemp’s vice-like grip on the #1 spot is slipping away. The most heavily weighted factors are, in order, team record (at #1, really media? Really?!),  oWAR, WAR, OPS+, and RBI. If we look at it under that lens, Matt Kemp’s position looks a lot more shaky…

Considering that voters seem to heavily consider team record, I would say Matt’s chances are much worse than they should be. Truth be told, Kemp should win this thing in a landslide, but I think people are loathe to vote for a Cy Young AND an MVP from the same team, especially a losing team, and will therefore cast their vote for Kershaw (where team record seems to be less important) over Kemp, despite Kemp being the more deserving of the two. Still, he’s got a shot. Votto isn’t having a huge enough season to win it two years in a row, I don’t think. Although Prince Fielder may steal some of his thunder, in the end, my money is on Ryan Braun to take it, while Kemp places 2nd or 3rd.

My estimate: 30% chance to win

Chances they both win it? Pretty close to 0%.

In sum, both Dodgers would be deserving of the award this year, despite the team record. Hey, it’s not their fault Uribe, Loney, Furcal, Navarro, et al. were atrocious. And although I believe Kemp is more deserving of the MVP than Kershaw is of winning the Cy Young, I believe Kershaw has a better shot.

Hey, at least one thing has to go the Dodgers way this season, right?

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