The National League MVP Race Is Wide Open

Two weeks ago, Fernando Tatis Jr. had what looked to be an insurmountable National League WAR-lead. Here’s what our NL position player leaderboard looked like before action got underway on Monday, September 7:

NL Position Player WAR Leaders on September 7
Name PA HR wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Fernando Tatis Jr. 195 15 181 2.5 22.8 3.5 3.3
Mike Yastrzemski 185 8 164 1 16.3 0.9 2.3
Ian Happ 163 12 181 0.6 17.5 -1.2 2.3
Mookie Betts 173 13 171 1.7 17.5 -0.5 2.3
Trea Turner 179 9 172 0.1 16.6 0.5 2.1
Manny Machado 190 12 142 -0.4 9.7 2.7 1.9
Trevor Story 180 9 127 3.5 9.8 3 1.9
Michael Conforto 179 7 174 -0.6 16.5 -2.1 1.8
Freddie Freeman 175 7 166 0.2 15.1 -1.3 1.8
Trent Grisham 187 8 124 -0.4 5.4 5.4 1.7
Corey Seager 154 11 169 -1.2 12.3 -1.5 1.6
Paul Goldschmidt 134 4 168 0.5 12.2 -1.6 1.6
Jake Cronenworth 135 4 150 0.2 8.9 1.9 1.5
Jesse Winker 139 10 166 0.2 11.9 -2.7 1.5

With just three weeks left to go in the regular season, Tatis had a one-win lead. Two weeks later, that lead is gone:

NL Position Player WAR Leaders (Through 9/19)
Name PA HR wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Fernando Tatis Jr. 234 15 149 2.1 16.8 4.1 2.9
Freddie Freeman 231 11 184 0.5 25.3 -1.8 2.9
Manny Machado 229 16 161 -1.1 16.7 3.2 2.8
Mookie Betts 226 16 159 2.2 19.2 -0.7 2.6
Trevor Story 221 11 130 3.9 12.4 3.6 2.3
Mike Yastrzemski 210 9 153 0.7 14.9 1 2.3
Trea Turner 226 9 151 1.1 15.8 0.6 2.2
Ronald Acuña Jr. 171 13 166 1.1 15.7 1.9 2.1
Michael Conforto 227 9 164 -0.5 18 -2.6 2.1
Trent Grisham 226 9 119 -0.2 5.4 6.5 2
Paul Goldschmidt 195 6 152 0.6 13.6 -2.3 1.9
Ian Happ 205 12 143 0.4 11.7 -1.5 1.9
Wil Myers 195 13 157 1.3 15.5 -4 1.8
Corey Seager 202 13 155 -1.6 12.7 -2 1.8
Kole Calhoun 204 15 132 0.3 8.6 1.7 1.7
J.T. Realmuto 171 11 135 2.2 9.8 2.9 1.7

What Freddie Freeman has accomplished in the last two weeks has been incredible:

NL Position Player WAR Leaders 9/4-9/20
Name PA wRC+ WAR
Freddie Freeman 58 256 1.3
Kole Calhoun 43 239 1
Brian Anderson 58 204 0.9
Manny Machado 43 227 0.8
Jeff McNeil 47 230 0.8
Chris Taylor 50 202 0.8
Miguel Rojas 55 172 0.8
Alec Bohm 60 180 0.7
Jurickson Profar 38 193 0.7
Travis d’Arnaud 54 182 0.7

Freeman’s last two weeks would rank 25th for the entire season. If you are wondering if he’s ever done anything like this before, the answer is yes; he’s done it twice:

In 2016 and 2017, Freeman had a couple of stretches that were even better than what he’s done of late. With a career 139 wRC+, Freeman regularly has two-week spans with a wRC+ over 200. He understandably struggled to start the season after having to recover from COVID-19 before things got going. On August 6, Freeman, had an 87 wRC+; he has been fire ever since. Looking solely at WAR at this point in the season, we see Tatis and Freeman on top, with Manny Machado and Mookie Betts close behind. Just three-tenths of a win separate the top four; for MVP purposes, that’s pretty close to deadlock. And Freeman wasn’t the only MVP candidate to start the season slowly. While the leaderboard looks pretty even at the moment, it’s helpful to see how the players got there. We’ll take things two weeks at a time. Here’s where the candidates stood entering play on August 6:

NL MVP Candidates on August 6
Name PA wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Fernando Tatis Jr. 60 176 1.1 6.9 1.1 1
Mookie Betts 49 137 0.5 2.8 -0.2 0.4
Manny Machado 59 73 0.2 -1.9 0.8 0.1
Freddie Freeman 52 87 0.1 -0.8 -0.4 0

Because the 2020 season is so short, those two weeks represent about one-fifth of the season. Here is what the group looked like over the two weeks following August 6:

NL MVP Candidates 8/6-8/19
Name PA wRC+ EV BsR Off Def WAR
Fernando Tatis Jr. 57 212 95.3 0.7 8.8 1 1.2
Mookie Betts 59 200 89.4 0.5 8.1 -0.2 1
Freddie Freeman 51 205 93.7 0.1 7 -0.4 0.8
Manny Machado 55 133 90.5 -0.7 1.6 0.8 0.4

At this point in the season, Tatis had been nearly two wins ahead of his teammate. While Tatis still paced the group, Betts and Freeman were very close to him and were barely distinguishable at the plate from the early frontrunner. Now, here’s the end of August and early part of September:

NL MVP Candidates 8/20-9/2
Name PA wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Manny Machado 53 258 0 10.7 0.7 1.3
Freddie Freeman 50 189 0.1 5.8 -0.4 0.6
Mookie Betts 51 157 0.6 4.3 -0.2 0.6
Fernando Tatis Jr. 55 134 0.5 2.8 1 0.6

Did you miss the part of the season when Machado was just as good as Freeman has been over the last two weeks and was better than Tatis was to start the year? Machado did win back-to-back NL Player of the Week awards so it isn’t as if he went unnoticed, but his slow start meant that he was still nearly a win behind his teammate, and might account for your surprise at just how impressive he’s been.

Now we get to Freeman’s hot streak; we’ll go just a few days beyond two weeks to bring us up-to-date:

NL MVP Candidates 9/3-9/20
Name PA wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Freddie Freeman 75 242 0.3 13.9 -0.6 1.5
Manny Machado 62 180 -0.5 5.9 0.9 0.9
Mookie Betts 67 141 0.5 4 -0.2 0.6
Fernando Tatis Jr. 62 80 -0.2 -1.7 1.1 0.2

That’s how we ended up here, with four players within a few runs of each other. While another week could provide some separation, voters may very well end up going a bit deeper, basing their decision on other factors. Here’s a quick glance at how those decisions might be made.

Mookie Betts

  • For those who value consistency, Betts hasn’t had a down period like any of the other main candidates. His worst stretch came at the beginning of the season and he still put up a 137 wRC+. He’s been excellent all season long.
  • Betts also has the advantage when it comes to results. His Win Probability Added is 2.39 this season, which is best among the candidates and second in the NL to Mike Yastrzemski.
  • For those who favor the best player on the best team, Betts takes the cake.

Fernando Tatis Jr.

  • For those who value Statcast numbers, Tatis is the king. He appears to have been considerably unlucky — though his 149 wRC+ is the worst among the four candidates, his .433 xwOBA is about 50 points higher than his actual wOBA this season. While Tatis is still behind Freeman in xwOBA (Freeman boasts a .464), all the other candidates have a wOBA relatively close to their expected number via Statcast. Given that Tatis’ WAR is in line with the other candidates, only a little bad luck has kept him from being further ahead.
  • The all-around crown is debatable this season, with Machado also providing good defense, but Tatis is the only candidate above average with the bat, on the bases, and on defense. He’s played a decent shortstop this season, cutting down on the throwing errors that plagued him last year.

Freddie Freeman

  • For those who value how a player finishes, there isn’t going to be a better candidate than Freeman — he’s been crushing the ball over the last few weeks.
  • On offense, Freeman has been the best hitter in the NL this season. His 185 wRC+ tops the league, he’s got more walks than strikeouts, and his .346/.464/.634 line tops the league in average and OBP with his slugging behind only that of Juan Soto, who has played 15 fewer games.

Manny Machado

  • I’ll be honest, Machado is in a really tough spot. He’s finishing strong, but not as strong as Freeman. He’s a very good all-around player, but he’s probably behind his teammate in that regard. He rates well in the traditional offensive categories, but outside of homers, he’s behind Freeman. Machado has arguably been the best player in the NL this season, but in a dead heat, it’s difficult to find factors to put him over the top. If Machado is going to win, he’s going to have to crush it for one more week.

I don’t envy the voters who will have a very difficult decision to make. It can be hard to separate candidates over the course of a 162-game season, but 60 games provides even more ambiguity. There’s still 10% of the season left to play — maybe that makes a difference, but the backslide by Tatis over the past few weeks has turned what looked to be a landslide into a real race.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Normally, with five games left I would think this is a totally reasonable question to settle today. But since those 5 games represent approximately 1/12th of the season you could see one guy pull away if they are particularly good (like how Freeman has been playing) or fall back if they keep playing like they have (like how Tatis has been playing).

The more interesting story (which I assume Craig will release a story about tomorrow morning) is the AL race, where Shane Bieber has been awesome (but is a pitcher), Anthony Rendon and Mike Trout are turning in great years (for a non-contender), and where voters who want to reward the White Sox for being a great team have two contenders to split the vote (Tim Anderson and Abreu).

emh1969
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emh1969

There’s an excellent chance that Cleveland skips Bieber’s last start since it’s scheduled for the last day of the regular season. Which will obviously hurt him his overall WAR.

stever20
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stever20

There is absolutely no chance he starts again after tomorrow- with game 1 of the playoffs on Tuesday.

SucramRenrut
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SucramRenrut

Also Voit carrying the Yankees while Judge and Stanton were out. I feel like their recent hot-streak could get Voit some votes assuming he leads the league in homers.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Voit has been awfully good, but he’s not really a household name. Not that it should matter, but if you don’t have a strong statistical case and you’re not a household name, that’s hard. Jose Abreu’s not that far off on homers and way better batting average / OBP, plus he’s better known.

But I think you are right, that could split even more votes off. This will be a weird award.

carter
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carter

JRam is currently leading the AL in WAR. With only 60 games , we could see some massive WAR swings this week. While I don’t think that is what voters vote on entirely, it isn’t unrealistic that someone who isn’t even being mentioned for the award jumps into the lead. Iirc people have gotten 1 WAR in a game before ( or super close, like 0.8) so someone could have a 3 hr game and take over the league WAR lead.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

And JRam homered tonight…only made one out in 4 PAs. Anderson and Abreu weren’t horrible but also weren’t lights out, either. It’s wild that a single game or two might put him over the top.

Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

Voit isn’t even the best player on his own team. He isn’t even the best hitter on his own team. If any player has “carried” the Yankees, it’s LeMahieu.

LenFuego
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LenFuego

Yeah, Voit’s 21 HRs have barely helped at all.

Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

Did I say that? No I didn’t, learn how to read.