Previewing the MVP Races

As we head into mid-August, there are roughly 50 games left for each team on the schedule, and we’re reaching the point of the season where we can begin to cull the list of potential candidates for the three major awards. So, today, let’s take a look at the legitimate MVP candidates in both leagues, and handicap how this might play out over the next six weeks.

American League MVP
Favorite: Mike Trout
Challenger: Josh Donaldson
Darkhorse: David Price

Trout is the best player in baseball, having another remarkable season that would likely go down as the best year of most any other player’s career. And a month ago, it seemed like he was going to run away with his second straight MVP award, with the Angels in a strong playoff position while the Yankees and Royals looked like potential division winners without a prime candidate for MVP. But since the All-Star break, Josh Donaldson has turned this thing into a race.

In 22 second-half games, Donaldson has hit .313/.420/.771, good for a 220 wRC+ and +2.0 WAR. Relative to that scorching pace, Trout’s 169 wRC+/+1.1 WAR performance — which would still project out to about an +8 WAR season over a full year — is downright slacking. And, not coincidentally, the Blue Jays have been on fire, winning 11 of 12 and giving themselves a strong chance to pass the Yankees and win the AL East.

So, now, Trout isn’t running away with this anymore, especially because the Blue Jays are now more likely to make the postseason than the Angels are. The voters have shown that they will still significantly downgrade a candidate for his team missing the playoffs, so while the Angels should be able to hang on to a Wild Card spot if they don’t win the AL West, this fight may come down to which team plays better over the remaining 50 games.

But there is a wrinkle here for Donaldson; if the Blue Jays surge continues, he may end up losing some of his base to David Price, especially if the Blue Jays just sneak into the playoffs by a game or two. At the time of the Price acquisition, the Jays were 52-51; they’re 10-1 since they added Price, and that kind of line of demarcation makes for a very easy narrative. While most voters are still going to prefer the position player to the pitcher when given a choice, I could see Price siphoning off some of Donaldson’s support based on the idea that the team didn’t really kick it into high gear until Price joined the roster.

And if the Angels miss the playoffs entirely, Price might actually have a shot at winning this thing, especially if Donaldson cools off down the stretch, or Price throws some particularly dominating outings that stick in voter’s memories. Remember, CC Sabathia finished 6th in the NL MVP voting in 2008 despite spending the first half of the year pitching in the American League; his 17 starts for the Brewers were so good that a large number of voters were willing to overlook the fact that he only threw 130 innings in the NL that year.

Price’s first two starts in Toronto have been spectacular, and if he finishes with 10 more high-level outings for the Blue Jays, there may very well be a swell of support to give the award to Price for changing the direction of Toronto’s season. If the Angels miss the playoffs, and voters are essentially left picking between a pair of Blue Jays, enough might take Price to make it interesting.

Realistically, though, it’s probably going to be Trout or Donaldson. Nelson Cruz has big offensive numbers but plays on a losing team, so he’s out. Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez are both hitting well for the Yankees, but neither are hitting as well as Trout or Donaldson and they offer less defensive value than either, and let’s be honest, the BBWAA would probably just disband before giving Alex Rodriguez the MVP award. Manny Machado is a good mid-ballot option, but it’s hard to see too many people making a case for him in the top spot, given that he’s basically having a slightly worse year than Donaldson on a worse team.

So it’s the Angels CF vs the Blue Jays 3B, with the Blue Jays new rent-an-ace hanging around as the possible spoiler. Trout still looks like the favorite, since he doesn’t have a teammate threatening to take some of his support, but if Donaldson keeps hitting and the Blue Jays keep winning, this could end up being a very close contest.

National League League MVP
Favorite: Bryce Harper
Challenger: Buster Posey
Darkhorse: Anthony Rizzo

This race looks a little bit easier to nail down; if the Nationals make the playoffs, Harper will likely win the MVP, assuming he has a reasonably productive finish to the season. Guys who hit .333/.460/.650 on playoff teams are tough to beat, and even if Harper’s wRC+ finishes in the 190 range instead of his current 202, he’s going to be the easiest pick for a lot of voters.

But if the Nationals swoon continues, Buster Posey is a not-terrible alternative. His +5.2 WAR makes it look like there’s a huge gap between Harper (who is at +6.9) and himself, but Posey deserves additional credit for his framing abilities, which aren’t captured in WAR yet. StatCorner gives Posey credit for 15 runs saved through framing, while Baseball Prospectus has him at 12 runs saved, so either way, you’re looking at adding over a win to his total if you give him full credit for the framing estimates. And at that point, Harper’s lead isn’t insurmountable.

But realistically, voters probably aren’t going to make that calculation. If the Nationals miss the playoffs, Posey is the best alternative to Harper for voters who require their candidate to come from a postseason qualifier, but barring a huge finish to the year, that’s probably his only realistic path forward. While he’s keeping up with Harper in batting average and RBIs, he’s not going to match Harper’s power numbers, and it’s unlikely that the BBWAA starts holding defense in high enough regard to pick Posey over Harper if both the Giants and Nationals make the playoffs. So it probably comes down to the team performance from the Nationals or Giants over the last two months of the season, with Harper likely to win as long as Washington doesn’t fall apart down the stretch.

Perhaps more interesting is what the dynamic might look like if the Nationals do collapse, and the Giants also fail to capture a postseason berth; in this scenario, you’d have the Dodgers, Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs, and Mets as the five playoff teams, and voters looking to pick one candidate out of a non-obvious field from that group. The Dodgers could put forth Zack Greinke, especially if he has an ERA that starts with a 1, but Greinke doesn’t have eye-popping strikeout totals, and it’s tough to vote for a pitcher as league MVP when his own rotation includes Clayton Kershaw. They could also push forward Adrian Gonzalez, but with so many other good players on the roster and a record that might be viewed as a disappointment, I don’t know how much support he’ll get, since he’d have to be a narrative candidate.

The Mets also don’t really have a traditional option, with Curtis Granderson leading their position players in WAR, and Lucas Duda not really hitting well enough as a first baseman to be a serious contender. The Cardinals are winning because a bunch of guys are having good years rather than any one player having a great year, so they don’t have anyone with MVP-type numbers, either traditional or sabermetric.

So that leaves the Cubs and Pirates, and most likely, Anthony Rizzo and Andrew McCutchen. Besides Harper, they’ve been the best hitters in the NL that are likely playoff bound — sorry, Paul Goldschmidt, but your teammates aren’t good enough for you to get real support from the voters — and both would make solid options in a year where Harper and Posey weren’t doing what they’re doing. Both have similar offensive lines, so McCutchen has an advantage as a center fielder, but his early-season knee problems have limited him more to production at the plate than his previous all-around contributions. Toss in the fact that Rizzo leads NL batters in WPA — not that voters will care about that specifically, but he’s gotten some big hits in important situations, which they’ll remember — and the bonus he’ll get for the Cubs success, and I’d bet Rizzo would slightly outpoll McCutchen at the moment.

But the scenario where both the Nationals and Giants miss the playoffs is pretty unlikely, and so, it’s probably going to come down to Harper and Posey. The gap isn’t as large as it looked like it would be after Harper’s amazing start to the year, but he’s still the clear favorite, with Posey’s case mostly resting on the Nationals potential inability to win the NL East. If they hold off the Mets, though, Harper’s very likely the pick.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Pale Hose
8 years ago

Based on nothing I do think this is the kind of year that the BBWAA would give Harper MVP regardless of the Nationals making the playoffs.

8 years ago
Reply to  Pale Hose

I agree, he could get elective back surgery today, sidelining him for the rest of the year, causing the Nationals to have a losing record the rest of the way and he’d still win the MVP. They are so ready for him to win MVP.

triple-A city
8 years ago
Reply to  durn

I think that while you’re right they’re ready to have Harper specifically as MVP, they’re much *much* more ready to have both Trout and Harper as MVPs, and crown the East-West Young Faces of Baseball for the next million years. I feel like either of them getting serious consideration helps they other out.
Not that either of them needs any help.
It’s nice when the best narrative actually matches the best players.

8 years ago
Reply to  Pale Hose

I disagree. I think maybe if the Nats weren’t supposed to be good, but if they miss the playoffs that will be a huge disappointment.

Also, if you use BR WAR Grienke is a lot closer to Harper (7.2 v. 6.6; the 6.6 assumes that BR WAR lists pitching WAR separate from pitcher’s offensive WAR, which I’m not absolutely positive is true, but Grienke has added .4 WAR as a hitter this year).

I’m also not really sure the “bigger star on the same team” thing is real. Didn’t Jeff Kent win the award while on Barry Bonds’ team? Pedroia won while Ortiz was the bigger star.

If the Nats miss the playoffs people are going to be talking about the Dodgers as odds on favorites to at least make the World Series. If Grienke is good the rest of the way, I’d say he has a good shot.

8 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

Kent had a 334/424/596 line over 159 games.
Bonds was at 306/440/688 over 143 games.
Kent had 107 more PA.
Bonds also already had 3 MVPs.
Also everybody hated Bonds.

8 years ago
Reply to  Samuel

Yep, that was more about every hating bonds.

8 years ago
Reply to  Samuel

But they didn’t hate him enough to not vote him MVL the next 4 years. I guess “hate” gives you a 1-2 WAR penalty, but if you are 2001-04 Bonds you can overcome that?

Still, that’s not my point. My point is that I don’t think the whole “having Kershaw on the same staff” is going to hurt Grienke if his ERA is a run lower than Kershaws and of course having the winz is helpful, too. Lots of guys that you might call the second banana on their team have won the MVP award in the last 20 years.

8 years ago
Reply to  Samuel

Maybe most importantly, Kent had more RBI.