MLB MVP watch: Who holds edge in Bryce Harper vs. Fernando Tatis Jr. battle?


We are now less than two weeks away from 2021 playoff baseball. There’s still plenty of jockeying to be done in the standings and we track that on a daily basis here. We’ve also been running a weekly MVP watch to check in on the race for baseball’s most-coveted individual hardware. 

Last week, we took a closer look at the AL side and how it’s possible Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. is having one of the greatest offensive seasons in history for someone who will likely not win MVP. I’m still holding strong on the belief that Shohei Ohtani takes the honor with Guerrero finishing second. I don’t expect either one at this rate to get any votes below second place. They are that far ahead of the rest of the field. 

Last week I also promised we’ve take a deep dive on the NL side in this version, so off we go.

For a bit, this looked like it was simply going to be Fernando Tatis, Jr. taking the honors with everyone else playing for second. Once he was on the injured list with his third left shoulder malady, I actually ran through who might win the award if he doesn’t come back. But he did. He might have the best case, but the Padres have totally collapsed and Tatis and Manny Machado got into a shouting match in the dugout this past weekend. Does all this matter in MVP voting? I’m not sure it should, but I have no doubt some voters will be less inclined to vote for Tatis if things continue on this path.

I still, however, believe Tatis is the leader in the clubhouse here. Let’s look at his case and those of other players who could make a push for the trophy.

Tatis

Despite having played in only 118 games, Tatis leads in home runs, is second in WAR, second in slugging, third in OPS, tied for third in runs, tied for sixth in RBI and third in steals. Some will be inclined to punish Tatis here, but the fact of the matter is that wouldn’t be the case if the Padres wins and losses were sequenced differently. He is hitting .270/.355/.533 in his last 31 games — in which the Padres have gone 10-21 — and was hitting .292/.373/.651 before that, for those curious. 

Should an individual player be punished for a team collapse? If the voters elect to go elsewhere, it’s a tough decision.   

The NL leader in OPS (1.050) is the only player in the league with an OPS in four digits. Harper is also fourth in WAR, third in average, second in on-base percentage, first in slugging, tied for third in runs, fourth in total bases, second in doubles, tied for fifth in homers, second in walks, first in OPS+, first in extra-base hits, third in times on base and leads in win probability added

If we’re worried about the team component, the Phillies are contending, but they’ve only won six of their last 14. 

As for Harper’s relatively low 80 RBI, he’s hitting .325/.474/.530 with runners in scoring position, .335/.468/.576 with men on base and .328/.523/.466 in high-leverage situations. There’s only so much one player can do. 

The Dodgers have endured a pitiful season from Cody Bellinger along with myriad important injuries, such as those to Mookie Betts and Corey Seager. And they’ve still been one of the best teams in baseball throughout the season. Muncy has been such an important piece to the offense. He’s eighth in WAR, sixth in slugging, seventh in OPS, tied for seventh in runs, tied for third in home runs and fourth in OPS+. 

To pick up right where we left off, Turner came to the Dodgers via trade when Betts was hurt. In his 41 games with the Dodgers, they have won 31. He leads the league in batting average, hits and stolen bases, making this a good, old-school case. On the new-school front, he’s third in WAR, too. He’s also tied for third in runs and seventh in total bases. 

If Turner is able to close the season hot while the Dodgers take the NL West, which would almost certainly mean they’d have the best record in baseball, I wonder if we’ll see our first-ever MVP who was traded during the season. 

For now, though, the best record in baseball belongs to the Giants. If you haven’t gotten to see much of them — first off, I offer my condolences, as they are a joy — you are missing out on Crawford’s still remarkable defense at a premium position. He’s brought a career year on offense along with it, this time around. He’s sixth in the league in WAR, ninth in average, 10th in on-base percentage and eighth in OPS+. He has 21 homers, 82 RBI and 10 steals. 

The NL hasn’t had back-to-back MVP winners since Albert Pujols in 2008-09. Could Freeman pull it off? The Braves have taken control of the NL East without the services of injured superstar Ronald Acuña, Jr. Freeman has done his part to pick up the slack, hitting a robust .341/.405/.539 since the All-Star break. The durable Freeman leads the league in games played and plate appearances. He also leads in runs scored and total bases. He’s seventh in average, fourth in OBP, eighth in OPS, second in hits and tied for ninth in homers. He is not, however, in the top 10 in WAR, OPS+ or RBI. 

Players have won the MVP from last-place teams before, even going back decades. If we are OK with this happening again, Soto has an aggressive case. He leads the league in WAR and on-base percentage. He’s second in average, seventh in slugging, second in OPS, second in OPS+, second in runs and leads in walks by 38. On a certain level, isn’t the player who has been walked 128 times, including an MLB-best 20 times intentionally, the very definition of the most valuable to his team? There’s a case to be made there. 

I’m as close to certain as I can possibly be (99 percent?) that the NL MVP is going to come from the above group of seven. There are down-ballot candidates lingering, though. 

The Cardinals? Nolan Arenado? Paul Goldschmidt? Tyler O’Neill? – If the Cardinals continue their surge, perhaps someone from this trio separates himself. Arenado still has the slick glove along with the gaudy home run and RBI totals. Goldschmidt actually leads the team in WAR and isn’t far off the NL leaders (he’s 11th). O’Neill has the best triple slash and OPS+ (he’s fifth in the NL). 

Bryan Reynolds, Pirates – He’s slumped a bit these past several weeks, but he’s still plenty worthy of getting a few top-10 votes. He’s fifth in WAR and sixth in OPS+. 

The Reds? Nick Castellanos? – Joey Votto and Jesse Winker are also prominently featured on the NL rate-stat leaderboards. They should probably stop losing to the Pirates, though. 

Will Smith and Mookie Betts, Dodgers – The Dodgers are loaded with big-name stars and both Betts and Smith are having seasons worthy of grabbing a top-10 vote or two. 

Manny Machado, Padres – Some might not have liked how it looked, but the dugout shouting match with Tatis was Machado showing veteran leadership. He’s also still playing an excellent third base and is 10th in WAR and fourth in RBI. If the Padres somehow pull themselves back into the playoff picture, Machado won’t be too far behind Tatis. 

Willy Adames, Brewers – It’s only been 88 games and the injury now prevents him from making a more serious push, but Adames needs to be mentioned. The Brewers traded for him on May 21. They were 21-23 and hitting .213/.298/.354 as a team at the time. He played the role of spark on the team’s run to the NL Central title. In his 88 games with the Brewers, he has 25 doubles, 17 homers, 51 RBI, 52 runs and a 140 OPS+. 

Austin Riley and Ozzie Albies, Braves – I believe Freeman gets the most support on this team, but both Riley and Albies have racked up some quality counting stats. Riley is second in total bases and Albies is third. Albies is third in RBI and Riley is fifth. 

Any of the pitchers? – Max Scherzer, Corbin Burnes, Walker Buehler and Zack Wheeler all have compelling cases to win the Cy Young, so I suppose any of the four could garner some MVP votes as well. 

We’ll be back next Wednesday to give one final look at both races. Stay tuned.





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