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Now I Believe: Kershaw for MVP

I’ve been one of those hedging about whether pitchers should win a Most Valuable Player award. They’ve already got the Cy Young award, and play only every fifth day, so the MVP should be just for everyday players, I reasoned. Then I watched Clayton Kershaw today as he pitched the Dodgers to a crucial 4-2 victory over the Giants at AT&T Park. Kershaw was in command in the 110-pitch performance, and mostly shut down the heart of the Giants order. This was a high-stakes rivalry game played on the big stage. A win for the Dodgers and they grab a solid three-game division lead with 13 to play. A loss and the Giants creep to within a game.

History is on Kershaw’s side in the MVP debate. The Giants and Dodgers had their first head-to-head, down-to-the-wire pennant race 90 years ago this month, in the 1924 season. The New York Giants clinched the flag on the next-to-last day of the season, but that didn’t prevent Brooklyn 28-game winner Dazzy Vance from winning the National League MVP. Vance, who struck out 262 while posting a 2.16 ERA, won it over St. Louis second baseman Rogers Hornsby, who batted .424. That average is outstanding, but Hornsby’s Cardinals were 68-89 and finished 28.5 games out of first, so Vance was deemed most valuable. Of course, there was no Cy Young award in those days, so maybe it made the selection of Vance even easier. One more argument in Kershaw’s favor: He is now 19-3, a phenomenal record especially in this day of limited starts and few complete games.

Other thoughts:

KOUFAX TERRITORY: Comparisons are being made of Kershaw and Dodgers great Sandy Koufax, who dazzled the game in the 1960s. It’s tough to compare pitchers from the two eras because of how pitching has changed. Starters work every fifth game now, while Koufax went every fourth day, and sometimes even less if needed. He even had three saves one year.

Koufax’s last four years, from 1963-1966, were his best, until he had to retire because of an aching elbow. During that stretch, he was 97-17, with 1,228 strikeouts, 150 starts and 89 complete games. His ERA s for the four years were 1.88, 1.74, 2.04 and 1.73. In the last four years, including this still unfinished season, Kershaw is 70-26 with 928 strikeouts, 124 starts and 16 complete games. His ERAs for these years are 2.28, 2.53, 1.83 and 1.67. Kershaw has won two Cy Youngs and is a cinch for a third this year. Koufax won three Cy Youngs, as well as an MVP in 1963. He had to beat out position players such as Hank Aaron, who hit 44 homers, drove in 130 and batted .319. Koufax pitched the Dodgers to the World Series that year while Aaron’s Braves finished 15 games out. Like Kershaw, he was usually rough on the Giants, including a no-hitter in 1963.

So is Kershaw approaching the status of the legendary Hall of Famer Koufax? It might not be a fair assessment, but those numbers above regarding complete games and starts just make it difficult to elevate a pitcher from this era of pitch counts to the level of those earlier workhorses. But that doesn’t mean I’m not in awe of Kershaw. And if I had a vote I would comfortably put his name on my MVP ballot.

CLINCHER: Here’s an extra incentive for the Giants, as if they need one, while they play Arizona and San Diego this week before heading down to Los Angeles on Sept. 22. If the Dodgers have a big week, and San Francisco stumbles, the Giants could face the danger of giving Los Angeles a chance to clinch the NL West crown in front of them.

SLOPPY: Kershaw wasn’t the only problem for the Giants in today’s loss to the Dodgers. On the big stage, the Giants forgot their lines and knocked over the scenery. They made two errors on one play, which led to two runs. Those came when right fielder Hunter Pence threw off line while trying to nail Hanley Ramirez at third. Giants pitcher Yusmeiro Petit retrieved the ball, but his throw to home to try to get Ramirez was wild. Petit  had only himself to blame for the debacle, because he failed to get to the right angle in backing up third. Petit also hurt his own cause when he failed to advance a runner in a bunt attempt. In the sixth, center fielder Angel Pagan misplayed an Adrian Gonzalez shot which turned into a double, and Matt Kemp followed that with a home run.

STREAKING: It’s hard to make a case for the Dodgers folding in these final two weeks. One of the strengths of the Dodgers is that they have enough pitching and offense to avoid big losing streaks. The Dodgers have had three three-game losing streaks this year. The Giants have had two-six-game losing streaks, a four and five game losing streak, and four three-game losing streaks. The Giants and Dodgers remaining schedules seem to be a wash. The Dodgers play six against Colorado, who they’ve beaten nine times out of 13. They meet the Cubs for four games in Chicago, and maybe there will some disadvantage in having the longer road trip. The Giants play seven against the Padres. They are just  6-6 against San Diego, so it seems against the odds to think that they would suddenly start dominating them.

ROUTS: The Dodgers 17-0 embarrassment of the Giants on Saturday night was the biggest victory margin in the rivalry’s West Coast history. Perhaps the Dodgers were just finally getting around to avenging their 18-run loss, 26-8, to the Giants in 1944.

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