The 2018 MLB season could result in one of the tighter MVP races in recent years. In the AL, you have a clear top three with a couple guys on the fringes that could make a run if things break right. And in the NL there is no clear-cut leader.
The MVP race always does and should start with Mike Trout. He has been the best player in baseball for the majority of his career. If you weren’t aware of that Bryce Harper told everyone at the All Star Game. He already has two MVP awards, and honestly he should have at least three. (I will argue to the end that he should have won the MVP over Miguel Caberera and his Triple Crown in 2012). This year, no matter where you look he is at the top of the WAR leader board. He is at 6.8, according to Fangraphs. Usually the MVP gets at least to a WAR of 8, so Trout is right there. He is putting together another classic Trout season with 26 homeruns, 54 RBIs and 19 stolen bases all while batting over .300.
This season Trout has some serious competition for the MVP; Jose Ramirez and Mookie Betts. According to Fangraphs, Ramirez is actually tied with Trout in WAR and Betts is just .4 behind him. One thing that both of those guys have going for them that Trout doesn’t is that they both play for teams that will be playing in October.
Ramirez could challenge for the league lead in home runs, he has 30 to go along with 73 RBIs and has added 20 steals. He is hitting just a tick under .300 and playing solid defense at the hot corner. Ramirez has the lowest batting average on balls in play, by far, among the three top candidates, so if that goes up then he could take over the top spot in the MVP race. His ISO sits at the top of the three at .329.
Betts is trying to run away and hide with the AL batting title, sitting at .351. His BABIP is .352 so he could be in line for some regression if that starts to come down. He also leads the other two contenders in wOBA, wRC+ and slugging percentage. You factor in his 24 homeruns, 52 RBIs and 18 steals and most seasons you have a clear MVP favorite, but this is not a normal season.
You can also factor in some voter fatigue. Some writers may be looking to find someone else to give the trophy to besides Trout. You don’t see it as much in the MLB but it has happened a couple times in the NBA.
A dark horse candidate could be Betts’ teammate, JD Martinez. He has absolutely crushed the ball in his first year in Boston. Martinez leads the AL in both homeruns and RBIs. He sits in third in batting average, trailing Betts by 27 points in that category. A few years ago Martinez would not only be firmly in the conversation but possibly the favorite. The fact he is essentially a DH at this point and is rated as a poor fielder when he does take the field, is not helping his candidacy. His Fangraphs WAR sits at 3.9, so roughly half of what you expect from an MVP and well behind the other three. Barring an historic second half and possibly a run at the triple crown, which could leave some voters feeling nostalgic for that achievement, I would not expect Martinez to finish above fourth in the final voting.
I would expect the award to go to Betts when all is said and done. Of the three top guys the Red Sox should finish with the best record and with Trout, Ramirez and Betts being so close together in so many statistical categories, I would not be surprised to see the voters put some stock in how the team fared. Betting against Trout in these situations is always hard, and usually not a smart, but this year I am.
Now the NL MVP race is interesting for an entirely different reason, there is no upper echelon group of players to pick from. It is a wide open race. Sticking with Fangraphs WAR, there are six players within 1 of each other and the top one is a pitcher for a last place team.
Jacob DeGrom is having an outstanding season. He is the bright light in this Mets season. A 1.71 ERA is absolutely ridiculous and he is just slightly under 11 strikeouts per nine innings. He is your current WAR leader in the NL sitting at 4.9. While he is having a great season, and I do expect him to take home the Cy Young if he keeps this up, I can’t see the voters giving the MVP trophy to a pitcher on a last place team.
Aaron Nola and Max Scherzer are having very similar seasons. They have ERAs of 2.42 and 2.43 respectively and with 12 and 13 wins respectively. The difference is really in strikeout rates. Scherzer strikesout more than 12 per nine innings and Nola is just a tick over 9 per. I don’t see either of these guys taking home the trophy if DeGrom doesn’t, but going off of the value they add to their teams they are in the same group as some of the batters.
Now to the guys who make their living at the plate. Matt Carpenter, Nolan Arenado and Freddie Freeman top the NL in WAR for position players. Not to dismiss Carpenter’s year, but the other two play for contenders and when all things are essentially equal voters tend to skew toward the people who play for those teams, which leaves Arenado and Freeman, the two who I believe the race comes down to.
The perception of how much playing at Coors helps hitters could hurt Arenado some but he is batting over 300 with 25 homeruns and 73 RBIs. He is tied for the league lead in homeruns and third in RBIs, all while playing his usual stellar defense at third base.
Freeman is tied for second in batting average at .318 with 17 homeruns and 66 RBIs. His BABIP is sitting at a very high .365, which is if that comes back to the median some his average could really drop with it.
Lorenzo Cain is one guy to watch out for down the stretch. He has missed quite a few games this season but is still on the fringe of the MVP conversation. He has played great defense for the Brewers while batting just under .300. He has eight homeruns, 52 runs, 28 RBIs and 18 steals.
Picking today my money would be on Arenado taking home the MVP trophy for the NL, but with so many players so close together it could be a tight race down the stretch just like many of playoff races.
AL MVP-Mookie Betts
NL MVP-Nolan Arenado
All stats current through July 25.
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