NEW YORK — When it comes to baseball's MVP debate, sometimes the names change from year to year more than the arguments do.
For instance, take a look at the top contenders in the National League this season.
You've got Pittsburgh center fielder Andrew McCutchen, the all-around star on a playoff team. Then there's Miami powerhouse Giancarlo Stanton, the premier slugger from a second-division club. And of course, Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, the dominant pitcher throwing his hat in the ring against everyday players.
It's made for an intriguing race that feels awfully familiar.
How to measure value in a player who fell short of the postseason? How much weight to give a starting pitcher who participates only once every five days?
“It's not the most valuable hitter award, it's Most Valuable Player, which is everybody on the roster. But I think in order to win it as a pitcher, you have to have just an unbelievable year,” Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said.
“You're playing in a fifth as many games as the hitters. It should be a very rare thing. I don't think they should get in the habit of giving that out to pitchers. It should be an exception every once in a while, when you just have no choice and that guy is clearly the MVP.”
Kershaw has a strong case. Despite missing several starts with a back injury early this season, he went 21-3 in 27 outings for the NL West champions with 239 strikeouts and a 1.77 ERA â€” the lowest in the National League since 1995.
He also became the first pitcher to lead the majors in ERA four straight seasons.
The last pitcher to win the NL MVP award was Bob Gibson in 1968. Five years before that, it was another great Dodgers lefty, Sandy Koufax.
Of course, Kershaw was brilliant last season, too, and finished seventh in the balloting. McCutchen easily beat out Arizona bopper Paul Goldschmidt after leading the Pirates to their first postseason appearance in 21 years.
Many thought it might be a close election, but Goldschmidt failed to receive even one first-place vote despite pacing the NL in home runs, RBIs, slugging percentage and OPS for a .500 team.
Over in the American League, the power hitting of Miguel Cabrera trumped Mike Trout's multi-skilled excellence the past two years as Cabrera won division titles with Detroit while Trout stayed home in October.
And back in 2011, it was pitcher Justin Verlander of the AL Central champion Tigers topping Boston outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and Toronto slugger Jose Bautista, who both missed the playoffs. In the NL, Ryan Braun reached the postseason with Milwaukee that year while runner-up Matt Kemp of the Dodgers did not.
The common theme here is that making the playoffs pays off in the MVP chase. To many voters from the Baseball Writers' Association of America, that's what defines the word valuable in Most Valuable Player.
“That's a very important part, and rightfully so,” Toronto pitcher R.A. Dickey said.
That doesn't bode well for Stanton, because the Marlins (77-85) finished fourth in the NL East. In fairness, though, they were still on the fringe of the wild-card race when he was hit in the face by a pitch Sept. 11, forcing him to miss the remainder of the season. Miami went 6-11 the rest of the way.
It was an unfortunate break, but he still ended up leading the league in homers (37) and slugging percentage (.555) while finishing second in RBIs (105).
McCutchen, meanwhile, had nearly identical stats in several major categories. His power numbers (25 homers, 83 RBIs) didn't match Stanton's, but the four-time All-Star actually had a better season at the plate than last year, when he won his first MVP award.
Despite spending 15 days on the disabled list in August with fractured rib cartilage, McCutchen led the NL in on-base percentage at .410 and OPS at .952, which was two points better than Stanton. Pittsburgh went 5-9 while he was sidelined, but took off in September on the way to a second straight wild-card berth as McCutchen posted an outstanding OPS of 1.048 during the final month.
Throw in his speed on the bases â€” 18 steals in 21 attempts â€” and defense at a premium position, and McCutchen is the pick to repeat as MVP.
But don't count out Kershaw when results are announced in November.
A look at the other big awards:
AL MVP: Widely considered the best all-around player in baseball, Trout was runner-up to Cabrera the last two seasons. But this time, Trout and the Los Angeles Angels (98-64) boast the top record in the majors, making him a heavy favorite.
“He's waited his turn, so to speak, and he's deserving,” Dickey said. “He's been deserving the last couple of years, if it weren't for the big guy over there in Detroit.”
Cabrera's teammate on the playoff-bound Tigers, Victor Martinez, actually led the league in OPS at .974. He's mainly a designated hitter, though.
Trout had 36 homers and ranked first in RBIs (111) and runs (115). His strikeouts are way up and his stolen bases are way down â€” but no matter, Dickey said: “He, to me, is just such a presence.”
NL Cy Young: Kershaw rolls to his third in four years. Tough luck for Johnny Cueto of the Reds and Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals, who both went 20-9 in Cy Young-caliber seasons.
AL Cy Young: It's a toss-up between Seattle ace Felix Hernandez, the 2010 winner, and Cleveland right-hander Corey Kluber, who virtually came out of nowhere this season.
“You have to take into consideration the ballparks they pitch in, the division they pitch in. I know I would look at a lot of those things,” Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said. “What kind of defense was played behind them? If you look at all those things, I think there's a clear-cut winner.”
Hmmm, still looks awfully close from here, Buck. Nip and tuck. Call it in the air … Kluber.
NL Rookie of the Year: Sort of slim pickings this season after a bumper crop in 2013. Make it New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom over Cincinnati speedster Billy Hamilton.
AL Rookie of the Year: Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox is the clear choice from a deep class.
NL Manager of the Year: Clint Hurdle of the Pirates could become the only back-to-back winner in either league besides Atlanta's Bobby Cox (2004-05).
AL Manager of the Year: Kudos to Ned Yost for guiding Kansas City out of a 29-year playoff drought, and Lloyd McClendon for leading the turnaround in Seattle. But the winner is Showalter, who managed the ace-less Orioles to a runaway AL East crown despite playing large chunks of the season without All-Stars Matt Wieters, Manny Machado and Chris Davis. There's a nice symmetry here: Showalter won this award 10 years ago with Texas and 20 years ago with the New York Yankees.