St. Louis Cardinals’ ace Jack Flaherty was a strong finisher and could be the first NL pitcher to finish higher in MVP voting than in Cy Young voting.
The St. Louis Cardinals will have neither an MVP nor a Cy Young winner when the votes are tallied in mid-November, but Jack Flaherty could pull off a rare feat by placing as high or higher in the former than the latter.
Nearly everyone thinks the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger will win National League MVP and the Mets’ Jacob DeGrom will repeat as the NL Cy Young Award winner, but no one’s sure how the rest of the voting will shake out.
Flaherty looks like a top-five Cy Young candidate, with numbers that rival those of DeGrom, the Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu and the Nationals’ Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. But even if the Cardinals ace lags behind those four in Cy Young voting, he might outstrip them all in the MVP race.
Does that sound illogical? Could someone be the league’s fifth-best pitcher, according to those who vote on such things, yet rank above them in perceived value? Sure. Because the Cy Young award is strictly tied to pitching prowess, whereas MVP is about the pitcher’s role in a team’s success.
You can argue that DeGrom and Co. had better overall seasons, but the Redbirds hurler is the only one of the aforementioned quintet (DeGrom, Ryu, Scherzer, Strasburg, Flaherty) who is the clear-cut best player on a playoff team. And no NL player, pitcher or otherwise, was more valuable than Flaherty (7-2, 0.91 ERA, 0.715 WHIP) in the second half of the season.
In theory, Flaherty’s hot finish won’t factor in Cy Young voting. That’s a body-of-work award that disregards fast finishers. A good comp for Flaherty is the Dodgers’ Don Sutton, who went 9-8 with a 4.74 ERA in the first half of 1976 and 12-2 with a 1.49 ERA in the second half.
Sutton won 21 games with a 3.06 ERA and was far and away the finest second-half pitcher in baseball, but NL Cy Young voters placed him behind the Padres’ Randy Jones (22-14, 2.99 second-half ERA) and the Mets’ Jerry Koosman (21-10, 3.22 second-half ERA).
But MVP polling is a whole different animal. On 40 occasions, Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) voters have thrust a Cy Young loser higher — sometimes way higher — on their MVP ballots than the CY winner.
In 2016, for instance, Boston’s Rick Porcello (22-4, 3.15 ERA) edged the Tigers’ Justin Verlander (16-9, 3.04 ERA) for the AL Cy Young Award but didn’t receive a single MVP vote. Four other pitchers did receive AL MVP points that year: Verlander, Baltimore’s Zack Britton (2-1, 0.54 ERA, 47 saves), Chicago’s Chris Sale (17-10, 3.34 ERA) and the Indians’ Corey Kluber (18-9, 3.04 ERA).
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The strangest split between Cy Young and MVP voting occurred in 1972 when Yankees reliever Sparky Lyle (9-5, 1.92, 35 saves) finished a distant seventh in pitcher-performance voting but came in third in total-value voting, ahead of all six supposedly superior pitchers. Unlike Flaherty, Lyle didn’t pitch for a playoff team or get hot at the end of the year. The 1972 Yankees finished fourth in the AL East and Lyle actually slumped (2.96 ERA, 1.336 WHIP) in the second half.
Angels reliever Donnie Moore in 1985 also finished higher in MVP (sixth) than CY (seventh) voting, as did the A’s Dennis Eckersley in 1989 (sixth in CY; fifth in MVP). The Yankees’ Goose Gossage finished third in both in 1980.
For many years, BBWAA voters were high on relievers but loathe to mark starting pitchers on MVP ballots on the grounds that “they have their own award.” But the pro-reliever, anti-starter bias appears to be kaput.
Over the last five years, starting pitchers have finished first (Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers, 2014), fifth (Dallas Keuchel, Astros, 2015), tenth (Max Scherzer, Nats, 2016), seventh (Corey Kluber, Indians, 2017), and fifth (Jacob DeGrom, Mets, 2018) in MVP voting. During that span, no relief pitcher cracked the top ten in either league.
Based on recent trends, Flaherty could finish as high as fourth in this year’s MVP balloting. Among playoff teams, the Dodgers’ Bellinger, the Brewers’ Christian Yelich, and the Nationals’ Anthony Rendon will surely garner more support (although Rendon could lose votes to teammates Scherzer and Strasburg).
The AL East-winning Braves, meanwhile, lack a clear-cut MVP candidate. Despite gaudy numbers (38 HRs, 121 RBI), Freddie Freeman has just the fifth-best WAR on the team, trailing Josh Donaldson, Mike Soroka, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies.
The Mets’ DeGrom (7.3) and the Rockies’ Trevor Story (6.4) are the only performers on non-playoff NL teams with higher WAR scores than Flaherty (5.9). While DeGrom will get some MVP consideration, Colorado’s 91-loss season will hurt Story’s vote totals.
Does it really matter if Flaherty finishes fourth, fifth or sixth in MVP voting? Maybe not. But it would certainly show some national admiration for what the 23-year-old accomplished this year.