By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Chris Sale has dominated the American League in his first season in a Red Sox uniform. He’s the runaway favorite to win his first Cy Young Award. He even has a chance to break Pedro Martinez’s single-season franchise record of 313 strikeouts.
But what about Sale’s American League MVP chances? They may be greater than you think.
To assess a player’s MVP candidacy, especially a starting pitcher, you first have to look at his value to the Red Sox in particular. For Sale, it’s as simple as this: in games that Sale has started, the Red Sox are 15-6 (.714), a 116-win pace. In games not started by Sale, they are exactly .500 at 43-43. Essentially, without Sale the Red Sox have been a middling team, which is somewhat shocking considering their talent level.
Sale’s MVP case also extends to his dominance over every other pitcher in the AL. Entering his Tuesday start against the Indians, he’s tied for the AL lead in wins (13) and leads the league in ERA (2.37), WHIP (0.88), innings (148.1), WAR for pitchers (5.3), and of course, strikeouts (211).
The closest recent comparison for Sale as an MVP candidate is the Tigers’ Justin Verlander, who won the AL MVP in 2011. The Tigers were 25-9 in games started by Verlander that season, while they went just 70-64 (.522) in games he didn’t start. In that case, you could argue that Sale has been even more valuable to the Red Sox this season than Verlander was to the Tigers in 2011.
Assuming Sale keeps up his current pace, which is a 20-6 record with 319 strikeouts, he will garner himself some MVP votes. But there’s a big difference between Sale this year and Verlander in 2011: the competition.
In 2011, Verlander benefitted from an AL that featured plenty of strong offensive seasons but few clear MVP candidates. Every MVP-caliber position player that season either played for a non-playoff team, or played for a playoff team with a stacked lineup.
The Yankees’ Curtis Granderson couldn’t stand out in a lineup that also included Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and others. The same could be said for the Rangers’ Adrian Beltre and Ian Kinsler. The Red Sox’ “chicken & beer” fiasco pretty much doomed Jacoby Ellsbury (second place in MVP votes) in a 30-30 season. The Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera couldn’t put up commensurate power numbers to be on par with his teammate.
In 2017? Sale has much more serious competition for MVP. In fact, Yankees rookie slugger Aaron Judge may still be the frontrunner. Though Judge has cooled off a bit with a .169 average and .706 OPS since the All-Star break, he still leads the league in runs scored, home runs, walks, slugging, and OPS. Continued slumping could hurt Judge’s MVP chances, but a big performance in August and September could seal the deal for the Rookie of the Year shoo-in.
Another big AL MVP candidate is Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, who leads the league in batting average, hits, doubles, OBP, total bases, and WAR (6.2). Altuve has established himself as one of the league’s premier players, and with the Astros on top of the league he has become an MVP candidate. But he could also lose votes to his teammate George Springer, who is on pace for 42 homers and 102 RBIs.
When comparing Sale’s performance so far in 2017 to Verlander’s in 2011, Sale has arguably been more dominant and more valuable to the Red Sox than Verlander was to the Tigers. However, Judge and Altuve are 2017’s clear standouts that 2011 lacked. Judge’s value to the Yankees lineup – the next-closest home run total on the team is Brett Gardner’s 19 – could win him the award in the end.
But if Sale can keep up – or perhaps even improve – his current pace, he will have as good a case to win MVP as anyone in the league.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @Dolloff985 and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.