The Race For Third Place In AL MVP Voting Is On

© Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

This morning, on your way to your local coffee shop or the train station, you probably passed two guys writhing around on the sidewalk, one screaming “Aaron Judge!” while trying to wrap up his counterpart in a figure-four leg lock; the other, attempting valiantly to squirm out of his predicament and refusing to tap out, shouting “Shohei Ohtani!”

Such is the nature of this year’s AL MVP discourse, the most spirited awards debate since the halcyon days of Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera a decade ago. And that’s appropriate — these are two of the most recognizable names in the sport, both accomplishing things we only see once every few decades, and both doing it in major markets. (I’m framing it this way on purpose in order to provoke a second argument: Is Anaheim really part of the Greater Los Angeles area, or is it something else?)

But they name three MVP finalists, not two, which leaves us a little less than two months from a hilarious television moment: Judge and Ohtani, on MLB Network, awaiting the results of this contentious election while the host runs down the credentials of some joker with no shot at all of taking home the hardware.

So who should that joker be?

Arguing over who should finish third in AL MVP voting might seem trivial, mostly because it is. If Judge and Ohtani don’t combine to sweep the first-place votes once the BBWAA reveals its ballots, it’ll be a night to remember on Twitter. But there is a value to having this debate, because when people talk about “MVP contender” that’s usually not literally what they mean. In a given season, it’s rare to have more than two or three players with a legitimate argument for the award, no matter how creatively one defines “valuable.”

The more useful shorthand is “one of the best players in the league this season,” which really means something more like top-10 than top of the podium. (It also sometimes means “This player on my favorite team is really good, please validate my feelings,” which is less scientific but also an important sentiment. For instance: Sean Murphy is currently ninth in WAR among AL position players. You go get those down-ballot MVP votes, Sean Murphy!)

So here are some of the top contenders, each with traditional numbers and advanced stats, as well as intangible or narrative arguments for and against each player’s candidacy.

Yordan Alvarez
Basic Numbers: 37 HR, .303/.407/.614, 92 R, 96 RBI
Advanced Stats: .426 wOBA, .464 xwOBA, 184 wRC+, 6.3 WAR, 5.22 WPA (all second to Judge among AL position players)

The Argument For: Alvarez leveled up in his age-25 season after signing a six-year extension, improving his walk rate from 8.4% to 14.4% and cutting his strikeouts from 24.2% to 18.5%, all while adding almost 60 points of isolated power and 26 points of average. If you want a giant who draws a ton of walks and can hit a ball through a two-inch-thick steel plate, Alvarez is the next-best thing to Judge. If you want a power hitter who doesn’t strike out much and draws an absurd number of walks, Alvarez is the next-best thing to Juan Soto. Here I will note that 16 of the past 21 players to go .300/.400/.600 have finished in the top three in MVP voting.

The Argument Against: Everyone’s still mad at the Astros for the trash can thing, which might cost him votes even though he didn’t debut in the majors until 2019, and Alvarez is a DH who grades out as a negative when he plays left field and doesn’t provide any value as a baserunner. He has also struggled on and off with a hand injury, which will keep him from reaching 45 or even 50 home runs.

Xander Bogaerts
Basic Numbers: 14 HR, 38 2B, .314/.383/.465, 83 R
Advanced Stats: .369 wOBA, 138 wRC+, 6.0 WAR, 8.6 DEF

The Argument For: Bogaerts could steal the batting title off Judge, and provides better defense at a more important position than most other MVP contenders.

The Argument Against: In a season when Judge, Ohtani, and Alvarez are dropping eye-popping counting stats, I can’t find a number for Bogaerts that jumps off the page. Being good at everything tends to be underrated versus being great at one or two things. Plus, the Red Sox were bad this year, which is not Bogaerts’ fault but makes it hard to build an intangible MVP case.

Mike Trout
Basic Numbers: 37 HR, .278/.364/.619
Advanced Stats: .412 wOBA, 172 wRC+, .393 xWOBA, 5.5 WAR

The Argument For: Oh yeah, it’s this guy again! Trout missed more than a month with a back injury that looked like it might be season-ending and is second in the AL in home runs and seventh in WAR anyway. He would be third in the AL (behind Judge and Alvarez) in wRC+, wOBA, and xwOBA if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.

The Argument Against: If we’re holding it against Bogaerts that the Sox were bad, Trout will probably pay a price for the Angels being even worse. Ohtani’s arrival, plus a few consecutive injury-plagued seasons, has pushed the affable New Jerseyan from the “new hotness” category to the “old and busted” category in the public imagination, even though he’s arguably been the third-best hitter in the AL this year. Most importantly, he just doesn’t have the playing time. He’ll probably get to 502 plate appearances by the end of the year, but that’ll still leave him close to being 150 behind Ohtani and the better part of 200 behind Judge. Even Alvarez, who has missed time himself, will end up batting somewhere around 75 times more than Trout by season’s end. It’s just too big a gap in quantity to make up.

José Ramírez
Basic Numbers: 28 HR, 42 2B (leads AL), .273/.351/.510, 117 RBI, 18 SB
Advanced Stats: .359 wOBA, 136 wRC+, 5.6 WAR

The Argument For: Ramírez turned down a trade to re-up with the Guardians and rewarded them by being the star player on a surprise division winner. He combines great all-around performance with extra-base hit totals worth hanging your hat on. He also seemingly finishes third in AL MVP voting every year, so he could end up there again just based on muscle memory.

The Argument Against: See next section.

Andrés Giménez
Basic Numbers: 17 HR, 19 SB, .303/.375/.482
Advanced Stats: .371 wOBA, 145 wRC+, 5.9 WAR, 10.2 DEF, 4.48 WPA (third in AL behind Judge and Alvarez)

The Argument For: Let’s say you wanted to vote for an undersized Guardians infielder who outhit his xwOBA: Ramírez hit for more power and had batted about 120 more times thanks to hitting higher in the order. Giménez was better at basically everything else: Better defense, higher walk rate, higher batting average, one more stolen base but a much higher success rate. The fact that Giménez’s breakout season came out of nowhere serves as a narrative case all on its own; if there were a most improved player award in baseball, he’d be a lock. He’s also personally responsible for “Cleveland won the Francisco Lindor trade” no longer being a troll argument.

The Argument Against: He has plenty of power for a middle infielder, but not much by MVP contender standards. Plus he might split the Cleveland/AL Central diehard vote, such as it is, with Ramírez.

Julio Rodríguez
Basic Numbers: 25 HR, 81 R, .280/.342/.502, 27 SB
Advanced Stats: .362 wOBA, 144 wRC+, 5.0 WAR

The Argument For: Rodríguez immediately established himself as Seattle’s franchise star while chasing the team’s first playoff berth in 21 years. He’s an exciting, aggressive player who contributes in all phases of the game, and became a household name after a standout performance in the Home Run Derby.

The Argument Against: It’s tough to make a serious run at MVP with a .342 OBP, particularly as an outfielder, and he’s currently on his second IL stint of the season. Rodríguez will likely win AL Rookie of the Year and probably be an MVP finalist at some point in his career, but this might just be a bit too early.

Jose Altuve
Basic Numbers: 26 HR, .294/.384/.516, 18 SB
Advanced Stats: .389 wOBA, 158 wRC+, 5.9 WAR, 11.0 BB%

The Argument For: After an extremely rough 2020, Altuve reinvented himself. Once a high-average, low-walk, high-stolen base hitter, he’s on pace for career highs in walks and ISO in 2022, and his wRC+ is only fractionally lower than it was in his MVP season of 2017. He’s basically an even smaller version of Ramírez now.

The Argument Against: He’s one of six Astros (along with Alvarez, Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Kyle Tucker, and Alex Bregman) to put up at least a four-win season this year. Among those players, either he or Bregman bore the greatest reputational hit from the banging scheme, which not only alienates him from certain voters, but on some level will probably always cause them to view his numbers with suspicion. Plus, I’m not sure how to make a case for him over Alvarez without wildly overstating either the impact of his baserunning or the quality of his defense this season.

Justin Verlander
Basic Numbers: 17-4, 1.82 ERA, 163 IP, 167 K
Advanced Stats: 26.9 K%, 4.3 BB%, 2.62 FIP, 5.4 WAR

The Argument For: Verlander is having a better season, in terms of run prevention and rate stats, than his MVP campaign of 2011, and has a hell of a narrative case, doing all this at age 39 while coming off Tommy John surgery and what’s basically been a two-year layoff. He’s not on par with Judge and Ohtani in terms of WAR, but he’s close enough to Alvarez and the rest of the pack to merit a mention, and it’s fun to have a pitcher in the conversation. Even after missing three starts with a calf injury, Verlander has basically thrown as many innings as Kevin Gausman.

The Argument Against: It’s not as easy for a pitcher to win MVP as it should be, but I do generally subscribe to the argument that the bar for a pitcher to make a run at the award should be higher than simply getting near the top of the WAR leaderboard. Four years ago Verlander himself said he didn’t think a 180-inning pitcher (which is about as high as he can go) should win the Cy Young. He also has to deal with some anti-Astros sentiment, though obviously not as much as the position players.

Kevin Gausman
Basic Numbers: 12-10, 3.32 ERA, 165 1/3 IP, 194 K
Advanced Stats: 28.2 K%, 3.9 BB%, 58 FIP- (leads AL), 5.4 WAR

The Argument For: Gausman’s having an all-time bad beat of a BABIP season. Going into Monday’s start, he was at .364, while Verlander is at .239 and even Dylan Cease is at .261. Before last night’s game, opponents were hitting .272 off him this year, despite an xBA of .243; that gap is the second-highest among the 91 pitchers with at least 350 balls in play this year. And despite that, he’s held down quite respectable run prevention numbers while striking out more batters and walking fewer batters than Verlander. His position atop the AL pitcher WAR leaderboard might be surprising, but it’s indicative of his pitching much more than his ERA would imply.

The Argument Against: If Gausman’s MVP case rests on his being the FIP guy, how do you square that with Ohtani and Verlander having much better results on fairly comparable underlying numbers? The more complicated a player’s MVP case, the less convincing it tends to be to the median fan.

Even with only a week or so left on the schedule, there’s still a long way to go in the race for third place in AL MVP voting. And if, say, Tucker hits seven home runs and steals five bases in the Astros’ last eight games, we could see a third-place MVP finisher who isn’t even on this list. Argue about the big two all you like, but remember there’s fun to be had all up and down the ballot.

All statistics through September 25.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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cnewty
2 months ago

Not sure I follow the Altuve part. The fact that Altuve has a WRC so close to 2017 should validate his numbers from 2017, rather than having 2017 somehow invalidate his numbers today. Dude is having another great season at 32.

JSJohnSmithAnon
2 months ago
Reply to  cnewty

If he cheated then, he could be cheating now.

cnewty
2 months ago

Well, setting aside the fact that multiple players who admitted to the cheating confirmed that Altuve did not cheat in 2017, you really think Dusty Baker came in there to concoct another cheating scheme? I mean, sure, anyone “could” be cheating, but to make that the assumption without any evidence is a bit ridiculous.

JSJohnSmithAnon
2 months ago
Reply to  cnewty

I’m explaining the logic that you didn’t follow. There were bangs during some of his ABs.He suspiciously didn’t want his teammates to tear off his jersey after a walkoff HR. His teammates cheating benefits him as well. I’m not saying he’s cheating now, but some voters might think that.

jyokley
2 months ago

Or he’s just…good at baseball?

baubo
2 months ago
Reply to  cnewty

I think the point is voters are probably never going to vote any of the 2017 Astros hitters for anything unless they are way better than everyone else for a particular award. Which makes sense, regardless of whether one thinks they deserve it or not

Joe Joemember
2 months ago
Reply to  baubo

Considering every team’s spin rates dropped when the MLB started checking for sticky stuff, it would make sense for voters to treat every player like Altuve that debuted before July 2021.

baubo
2 months ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

It might be “fair” for voters to do what you say, but it would not “make sense.” Just as voters were never ever going to vote in Clemens or Bonds for HOF while players like Big Papi, Pudge, Piazza, and Bagwell got in without much of any hassle. Baseball journalists are people with biases and we should recognize them.

Joe Joemember
2 months ago
Reply to  baubo

Why doesn’t it make sense to treat players that committed the same transgression (not reporting cheating)? I agree that baseball journalists have biases. This particular bias doesn’t make sense. The Astros were cheaters. They deserve everything to be treated as cheaters (i.e., they deserve to be treated like pitchers that used sticky stuff and their teammates)

Lanidrac
2 months ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

Except this is a yearly award, not a career honor like the Hall of Fame. What they do in 2022 has nothing to do with the cheating in 2017.

Luy
2 months ago
Reply to  baubo

I think it’s funny how commenters, who are never bashful about calling voters dummies…

Are pretty sure that there are no voters who will make the dumb choice of punishing Astros, or at least grading them (down) on a curve. And keep aggressively shooting down anyone who suggests “maybe voters will act irrationally”.

Last edited 2 months ago by Luy