Handicapping the 2021 MVP and Cy Young Races

It may seem a little bit early to start talking about postseason hardware, but what’s the fun of a projection system if you’re not looking at every way to separate the best of the best? In any case, it’s not as interesting an exercise when the season ends, given that we already know what happened (though it’s way more accurate).

Naturally, voting is not going to be a simple ranking of WAR. Each award has 30 different voters, all with differing priorities and philosophical beliefs in the way of excellence. Rather than kidnapping my colleagues and subjecting them to a series of lab tests about voting, our best solution is to use past votes to infer how they’ll vote going forward.

While using a neural network is always tempting, we’re handicapped by the real scarcity of data; 30 votes per award is not a lot to work with. As I’ve worked with the models over the years, the other issue is that there does seem to be a change in how voters are voting, enough to have an effect on who is winning the awards and by how much. I’ve found that chucking out anything before 2000 improves every model and every approach I’ve tried. By and large, we’re not voting on WAR, but it and other analytics have affected the results both directly (more sabermetric-friendly writers joining the BBWAA) and indirectly (influencing existing voters). I could probably make a very accurate model for how I vote, but we’d be treading far too deep into meta territory at that point.

So, what’s new this year? One variable I’ve added to the mix is past award performance — something I wish I had checked in the past, but better later than never. Essentially, players who have received votes recently tend to do slightly better than equally excellent players who have not received votes recently.

Let’s jump right in.

Last year about this time, I wrote about Trout’s eventual decline from the obvious best player in baseball. He still hasn’t lost that status, but he’s not quite as much of a slam-dunk favorite to win the MVP award as he was in the past. Pushing 30, he’s not likely to have any new gears left, which increases the one-sidedness of his risk. He also tends to dominate statistically on a wide basis rather than having one eye-popping number for people to look at; he’s led the AL in a Triple Crown stat just once, winning the RBI title in 2014. Sure, he doesn’t play in a good home run park, and the Angels’ general incompetence limits his RBI opportunities, but if all voters were taking that into consideration, they’d probably be using different stats anyway. That doesn’t mean that Trout is terrible; only that in some stats, he’s close enough to the rest of the league that he’s vulnerable in an MVP race (and team quality does count).

I questioned whether Bichette ranking so highly made sense, but ultimately, I don’t think it’s that crazy. All the projection systems put a 30–30 season within reach, and a shortstop hasn’t done that since Jimmy Rollins in 2007. Fernando Tatis Jr. is also a 30–30 threat in 2021, but if both he and Bichette did it, does anyone think that both doing the same thing would cause people to hold Bichette in less esteem? The Blue Jays are an extremely interesting team, and should they surge to make the playoffs or even threaten the Yankees, Bichette is the favorite to be the best player on the Jays, which tends to be rewarded. (George Springer and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. just missed this list.)

I’m also intrigued by Mondesi being at the back of the top 20, though I guess it does make some kind of sense that if the Royals are actually good, he’ll have a lot to do with it. He is still just 25 and phenomenally talented, with some holes in his game that, if patched up, could have great dividends. I’m not quite at the point that I’m buying that Mondesi actually has better odds than, say, Springer, but I’m at least fascinated by the notion, as I don’t put my thumb on the scale.

Defending MVP Abreu, despite generally lackluster projections, still does well here. A guy who can lead the league in home runs and RBI and who’s on an excellent team always has a good shot.

Helping keep Trout at the top of the MVP standings is the fact that many of baseball’s phenoms are in the NL right now. The trio of Acuña, Tatis, and Soto is dangerous, especially since all have actual upside remaining. Soto isn’t Ted Williams, but young players who compare with a young Splinter and don’t cause peals of laughter from the listeners are rarer than hen’s teeth. Though he’s not a guarantee to be better than Acuña or Tatis as an overall player, his skills are refined quite efficiently into 100% pure, medical-grade hitting dominance. In short, he’s not Bryce Harper’s successor in Washington; he’s the more advanced model. If he hits .310 with 40 homers and 130 RBI and the Nats make the playoffs, I wager few voters are going to exclaim, “But his defense!”

I talked about Bichette and 30–30, but Acuña hitting 40–40 isn’t a stretch, and I maintain that 50–50 is quite possible. If that actually happened, he probably wins the MVP award even if he develops COVID-21 in a secret Cobb County lab. I’m too young to have been involved in any contemporaneous Mays-Mantle-Snider debates, but I’m looking forward to seeing Acuña fight with Tatis and Soto over the next decade.

Those three are not alone. The Dodgers are probably baseball’s best team by a slim margin on paper, and Bellinger and Betts are serious MVP candidates as well. Mookie went toe-to-toe with Trout in 2018 and was the runner-up in the NL MVP race last year. Bellinger had a down season, but he won the MVP in 2019 when he hit 47 home runs and earned a Gold Glove.

Overall, this just feels like a deeper group than the AL does. ZiPS loves Francisco Lindor, and he only finishes ninth here.

ZiPS Projection – AL Cy Young

The NL MVP pool feels deeper than the AL’s crop, but I’d argue this goes double when talking about the pitchers. I was asking myself, “Dallas Keuchel, Cy Young winner in 2021?” But going down the names, I do not see a whole lot of argument for pitchers who could push Keuchel or Maeda or Paxton (well, a theoretically healthy Paxton) off this list.

ZiPS gives Giolito a slightly better projection than Cole, but the latter will likely go deeper into games, resulting in more strikeouts and more wins. Glasnow at sixth seems aggressive, but his ceiling is still unknown, and the fact is that he struck out 14 batters per game in 2020 and has been worth four wins in 173 2/3 innings since being acquired by the Rays in 2018. He’s also spent the spring working on a couple of new pitches, which ZiPS doesn’t know about, so make sure to call me out for being a dirty liar if I claim after the season that ZiPS predicted that!

ZiPS Projection – NL Cy Young

Oh, here’s where the AL pitchers went! Slight exaggeration, but four of the 15 players on this list (Bauer, Musgrove, Morton, Gray) have recently come to the NL from the Junior Circuit, and there are more ex-AL pitchers (Carlos Carrasco, Marcus Stroman, Blake Snell) who just miss the top 15. If I combined every pitcher into a single league, the Cy Young model that I’ve developed has 15 of the top 20 overall hailing from the NL. The depth of aces is enough that where there are three closers in the top 15 for the AL in the projections, you don’t get to closers in the NL until Josh Hader at 21st and Edwin Diaz at 27th.

There are no major surprises on this list; the closest is Musgrove. But the projections like him, as do I. As I wrote about in my list of pitcher breakouts for 2021:

Musgrove was the last person cut from my 2020 list, something I greatly regret given that I put Mitch Keller there in his place. He already had a mini-breakout in his eight starts in 2020, with his strikeout rate shooting up by an absurd 50% over his career mark up until that point. The strikeouts weren’t a flukey thing, either, as his contact rate dropped by a massive amount across the board. Like Montgomery, Musgrove doesn’t bring any real amount of heat; if a healthy Jordan Hicks is a Trinidad Moruga scorpion chili pepper, Musgrove is more a poblano. His version of chiles rellenos is his curve, which he leaned on more heavily in 2020 with extremely sexy results, only allowing a single hit on the pitch all season. This is the year Musgrove completes the full breakout and ends up appearing in the All-Star Game.

A Cy Young might be a step too far, but it’s not a preposterous outcome if things play out that way.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Fredchuckdave
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Eloy going to get an MVP with 60 HRs and a 330 OBP

Jeremy
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Jeremy

This was posted at basically the last possible moment that it was possible 🙁

vslyke
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This prediction was proven wrong brutally quick 🙁

MRDXol
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MRDXol

He might, but not this year!