With Injuries to Superstars, the NL MVP Race May Be Wide Open

With the trade deadline officially behind us and the home stretch of the 2021 season underway, it might just be the time to take a peek at baseball’s major award races. Now that every team is comfortably past the 100-game mark, there isn’t much time left for the candidates for full-season achievements to pad their résumés, but many of these awards are still somewhat up for grabs.

Shohei Ohtani is a pretty good bet to win AL MVP. But for the other five major award races — the ones that FanGraphs writers are asked to predict prior to the season — there still seems to be plenty of competition the rest of the way. Oddsmakers don’t currently have a favorite for either the NL Cy Young or AL Rookie of the Year awards, and give only slight edges to Lance Lynn for the AL Cy Young and Trevor Rogers for the NL Rookie of the Year awards, suggesting there are plenty of opportunities for other players to get hot and capture some end-of-season hardware.

Still, even in some of these cases, we have a pretty good idea of the collection of players who might seriously contend. In the AL Cy Young race, for example, oddsmakers think it should be one of Lynn, Gerrit Cole, or Carlos Rodón. For the NL Rookie of the Year, they see a two-man race between Rogers and Jonathan India. The NL Cy Young paints a more complicated picture given Jacob deGrom’s injury.

But let’s focus on the Senior Circuit’s biggest piece of hardware, the MVP. Similar to the race for the Cy Young, the pileup of injuries to star players has muddled this field. Ronald Acuña Jr. was scorching-hot in the first half until he went down for the year with a torn ACL just before the All-Star break. deGrom, who was on a great run of his own, probably could’ve become the third pitcher since 2010 to win an MVP. But he hasn’t pitched since July 7 and recently suffered a setback that will keep him out until at least September. As a result, Fernando Tatis Jr. seemed to be the easy answer, with his excellent offensive production more than making up for the defensive liability. But now he could face season-ending surgery if his shoulder instability does not improve soon. If Tatis has to miss the rest of the year or is simply unable to perform at the same level he has so far, it seems like the National League could be back to square one, which makes for a fascinating discussion on the potential contenders.

At this moment, the gap between Tatis and the rest of the league isn’t that big. deGrom notwithstanding, a quick look at the National League position player WAR leaderboard paints a murky picture of who might step up in the event that Tatis is out for the rest of 2021. Here’s every NL position player to produce at least 3.0 WAR, through games on August 2, and how they’ve broken down in terms of offensive and defensive value:

NL Position Players with 3.0+ WAR
Name G Off Def WAR
Fernando Tatis Jr. 88 37.6 -4.3 4.6
Ronald Acuña Jr. 82 30.3 0.6 4.3
Max Muncy 90 31.1 -0.6 4.3
Trea Turner 96 21.6 6.9 4.2
Chris Taylor 102 26.9 -3.6 3.7
Bryan Reynolds 103 25.4 -2.9 3.7
Buster Posey 69 18.5 8.4 3.6
Jake Cronenworth 106 17.2 3.9 3.6
Brandon Crawford 87 18.3 5.7 3.5
Manny Machado 100 15.5 5.2 3.4
Starling Marte 64 19.5 5.5 3.4
Justin Turner 100 21.7 -1.6 3.4
Bryce Harper 85 26.3 -4.3 3.4
Nick Castellanos 86 26.6 -5.4 3.3
Juan Soto 96 20.8 -2.0 3.2
Will Smith 86 12.3 7.6 3.1
Mookie Betts 83 19.7 -1.7 3.1
Nolan Arenado 102 10.3 5.8 3.0
Freddie Freeman 106 23.8 -9.0 3.0
J.T. Realmuto 86 10.8 7.7 3.0
Omar Narváez 82 6.4 13.4 3.0
Ozzie Albies 105 13.4 1.4 3.0

That’s a list of 22 players, but the two at the top — Tatis and Acuña — are, to varying degrees, unlikely to win the award. If Tatis comes back in 10 days totally healthy, that’s one thing, but if he doesn’t, there’s a real opportunity for someone else to win the award. Does that mean we’ll see NL MVP Max Muncy? I wouldn’t put it out of the question because even though awarding the MVP isn’t just an exercise in “let’s rank the WAR leaders,” WAR is perhaps the best place to start when evaluating the most deserving player. And Muncy’s had a very well-rounded year to boot. Cody Bellinger won the 2019 NL MVP award with a 162 wRC+, the exact figure that Muncy is rolling with right now. He wouldn’t be an undeserving candidate, but he has also dealt with injuries that have limited him to appearing in just 90 of the Dodgers’ 107 games.

The list, which is chock-full of Dodgers, provides two candidates other just below Muncy in Trea Turner and Chris Taylor. The difference between Muncy and Turner is splitting hairs, but never in baseball history has a player traded midseason ultimately gone on to win the MVP. Of course, some of that is due to the nature of baseball’s awards; it’s hard to win an MVP in either league if you’re switching leagues as a result of a midseason trade. The only parallel that’s even somewhat close to this is when Rick Sutcliffe won the NL Cy Young after being traded from Cleveland to the Cubs in 1984; he finished fourth in the NL MVP voting that year as well. Turner, who could return to action from the COVID-19 IL as soon as this weekend, has a shot to be the first. Still, it might strike some voters as odd to name this particular Dodger the MVP, given that the majority of his performance would have come in Washington.

Going down the list, there are some other interesting players who might have a shot with a really hot stretch, including Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Nick Castellanos (who is also injured at this juncture), Juan Soto, and Mookie Betts. Projections might let us better suss out which of the candidates above actually has the best shot to win the award. I dove into our Depth Chart projections to see what the end-of-year top-10 in WAR might ultimately look like. Due to some statistical ties at 4.7, it’s a list of 12:

NL Position Players’ Actual + Projected WAR
Player WAR Projected Full Season
Fernando Tatis Jr. 4.6 1.5 6.1
Max Muncy 4.3 1.5 5.8
Trea Turner 4.2 1.4 5.6
Juan Soto 3.2 2.2 5.4
Manny Machado 3.4 1.7 5.1
Mookie Betts 3.1 2.0 5.1
Bryce Harper 3.4 1.6 5.0
Bryan Reynolds 3.7 1.1 4.8
Buster Posey 3.6 1.2 4.8
Chris Taylor 3.7 1.0 4.7
Starling Marte 3.4 1.3 4.7
Justin Turner 3.4 1.3 4.7

The projections definitely help us to more effectively separate the leaderboard as it stands right now into those with legitimate chances to win the award, like Muncy, and those who might be more on the outside looking in, like Jake Cronenworth. (That’s not to say Cronenworth hasn’t had a good year, but it seems incredibly unlikely that he’ll win MVP.) And while the eventual NL WAR leader may end up surpassing their projected total as it stands right now — they are probably quite likely to, if they are going to separate themselves from the pack — if you think a 6 WAR target seems awfully low for an MVP award winner, then you’d be right. There hasn’t been a sub-6 WAR MVP since 2006, when Ryan Howard (5.9) and Justin Morneau (3.8) took home the hardware. Excluding 2020 and Clayton Kershaw’s 2014 award (he was worth 7.9 WAR that year, for what it’s worth), the average position player MVP put up 8.2 WAR from 2007 through ’19.

To further illustrate the relative weakness of this class, consider this: the only pure position player with at least 5 WAR through games on August 2 is Vladimir Guerrero Jr., at 5.4. From 2010 through ’19, baseball had, on average, five players with at least 5 WAR through games on August 2, including an average of 1.8 with at least 6 WAR by this point. The 2021 field is extremely weak by comparison:

Players with at least X WAR through August 2
Year 5 WAR 6 WAR 7 WAR
2021 1 0 0
2019 4 3 0
2018 6 4 3
2017 3 0 0
2016 5 1 0
2015 4 2 0
2014 5 1 0
2013 7 2 0
2012 5 2 0
2011 6 2 0
2010 5 1 0

It makes you wonder if a pitcher is likely to win the award this year, especially if Tatis is out, but even then, the group of potential options is deep and without a clear-cut choice. Typically, pitchers only win the MVP award when they’re far-and-away the best option — had Acuña continued his dominance and deGrom remained healthy, it may have been tough for deGrom to win, for example — but there isn’t really a choice to be had there either. Zack Wheeler is the WAR leader, but he’s not even the betting favorite to win the Cy Young award, which leaves us with more questions than it does answers.

Thus, the NL MVP field is both relatively weak and wide open. Looking back at the pre-season predictions, I went with Harper, and considering the start to his second half — he was hitting .400/.571/.680 in 70 plate appearances coming into his game last night — he might not be a bad choice from here on out. Most of our writers, however, went with Soto, who also seems like he could be very much in the running with an equally strong start to the season’s back-half: .373/.519/.780. Tatis and Acuña were also popular picks; Betts was the only other selection to warrant more than one vote (my Harper pick was a unicorn).

If Tatis stays healthy, it seems like he’s the easy favorite to capture the award, but a uniquely weak and open field may make for an interesting race down the stretch. We’ll see what happens, but this year’s NL MVP might end up constituting the worst single-season performance by an MVP since before WAR was even heavily considered in award voting. Wouldn’t it just be easier if we gave it to Vlad Jr.?

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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2 years ago

i took turner at +3990, so I’m on the trea train.
Honestly not hard to imagine the scenario where he wins it, he finally will be marketed for being a superstar, and could very well could lead the dodgers the rest of the way. at the time of the trade (before him missing several games), he was the most valuable position player on the dodgers. Not out of the question, especially with a 30/30 year.

Smiling Politely
2 years ago

All the Dodgers’ marketing money is going towards Chris Taylor this year; not being a HR guy, getting traded, and being the least well-known Turner (on his team as well as in the league) is why he’s +3990 😛

Definitely feels like it’ll go to a Dodger if they end up overtaking the Giants. Otherwise, my money would be on Posey, given the legit numbers and the Narrative (1st place team, bounce back year, white, humble, and English speaking, so, beloved by the media, offensive power at a weak position, veteran presents, etc.)

2 years ago

Giants fan here. Posey has been great, but I’m just not sure he will have played enough at season’s end to be a major factor in the voting. But it certainly is a wide open race. Knowing the way writers think, though, I could see them seriously considering Crawford if he finishes as well as he’s started.

2 years ago

I wouldn’t even say Posey is the Giant’s MVP so far. I’d give it to Crawford (Posey’s been helped a lot by BABIP, Crawford hasn’t). If we’re being cynical, they’re both white, English-speaking, and good-looking, but Posey may have the advantage because of being clean-shaven.

2 years ago

I get that you want Trea because of money, but usually when someone gets traded they do not win when they put up most their value with another team. Not that I think that is right, just traditionally what happens.