Wide-open NL MVP race will test the definition of valuable

Wide-open NL MVP race will test the definition of valuable

Jacob deGrom will soon force NL Cy Young voters to decide what they think about a starter who lacks wins — and perhaps even a winning record.

AL Manager of the Year voters will have to mull if a rookie skipper whose team wins a 110-ish games (Boston’s Alex Cora) is a no-brainer or if doing much more with less as Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash and Oakland’s Bob Melvin have done is more in the spirit of this award.

AL Cy Young and AL MVP voters will face how to divvy up credit when there are multiple candidates from the same team as the Astros have with a rotation that includes Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, and the Indians have not just with starters Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber, but infielders Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor. Add the Boston duo of Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez.

Did the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani do enough pitching combined with enough hitting to outdo Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres to be AL Rookie of the Year?

Stretch-run issues still hover for nearly every major award, but the one that fascinates me involves the NL MVP race. With seven weeks left in the season there is no clear-cut front-runner, which is going to force baseball’s existential journey yet again into what the meaning of “Valuable” is.

In recent years voters have pushed away from the notion that an MVP should come from a playoff team and leaned more toward making it a Best Player award. But I think this year in the NL we are going to have an old-fashioned MVP race. Not only is there no distinct player to beat, but also the weekend began with no division leader ahead by more than two games and eight teams either in the wild-card slot or within 4¹/₂ games.

Paul GoldschmidtGetty Images

Thus, if a player distinguishes himself down the stretch and through skill and will pushes his team into the playoffs that player should win the MVP. In a scenario in which the races are so close it would be ridiculous to, for example, give the award to Cincinnati’s Eugenio Suarez even if he built significantly on his already strong stats down the stretch and wound up with the best numbers. His team has not been a factor for one second this year in a season when two-thirds of the league is still vying for a playoff spot.

To provide an idea about how close the race is, last year in his MVP campaign Giancarlo Stanton led the NL in Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs version) and the gap between what he accumulated and what 10th-place Paul Goldschmidt did was the same as the distance between this year’s leader (Matt Carpenter) and 18th place (Starling Marte). This is a proportional stat so gaps can widen with the full complement of 162 games. But for now the main candidates are separated by so little that what players do in the final few miles of the marathon with so much attention focused on them is going to carry weight.

Here are a few of the big issues:

1. What does a poor start mean?

Do you take any points away from a Carpenter for performing so poorly early as to hinder the Cardinals’ chances? Through May 15, he was hitting .140 with a .558 OPS and just three homers. He has been the best hitter in the majors since, strong enough to lead the NL in homers, on-base percentage and slugging (all stats entering the weekend).

Through May 22, Goldschmidt was hitting .198 with five homers. Conversely, Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman has not had a month with lower than an .820 OPS, but also that OPS has gone done each month of the season. Teammate Nick Markakis has not had a month lower than .831.

2. What is WAR good for?

Few know exactly what is in it, fewer yet can compute it, but WAR is used more and more by voters because it at least attempts to quantify the whole player, forming one stat based on hitting, fielding and base running into one stat.

For most of the history of awards voting Milwaukee’s Lorenzo Cain would never have been considered for MVP with just eight homers, 30 RBIs and an .808 OPS. But an all-encompassing stat such as WAR loves Cain, who excels at getting on base, being a force once he is on base and excelling on defense. The case for Washington’s Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner is a well-rounded one too.

3. How much should road splits matter?

This is really a Coors Field/Rockies question and it is one that hurts Nolan Arenado’s candidacy annually. He led the NL in home OPS (minimum 100 plate appearances) at 1.117 and teammate Trevor Story was second (1.067). Story’s differential between home and road (.320) was the most in the NL. Arenado (.270) was third (fellow Rockie Carlos Gonzalez was second).

Is elite at home and strong on the road enough to make an MVP. Story’s candidacy is boosted by being a strong defender while Arenado is among the best defensive third basemen ever.

4. Should versatility matter?

Lorenzo CainAP

It does more now than ever as teams carry fewer position players, the DL is used more often and managers are more mindful of providing days off for regulars. So that the Cubs’ Javy Baez starts with some regularity at second, short and third and tends to be defensively spectacular at all of them enhances his credentials. Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich flips to all three outfield spots and like his teammate Cain tends to be good at everything.

5. So what does a big finish mean?

I think about Bryce Harper, in particular. A strong close should help his free agency. But what if he is the biggest reason the Nationals surge from disappointment to the playoffs? He was batting .345 with an 1.165 OPS in his past 17 games. What about rookie teammate Juan Soto, who by the way has not had a month with lower than an .883 OPS since arriving in May? What about Max Scherzer? Can he pitch well enough to overcome bias against a starter winning this award? What about Atlanta’s Ozzie Albies or Milwaukee’s Travis Shaw or Philadelphia’s Rhys Hoskins?

This is the NL MVP race this year, tight at the moment, too close to call, heavily dependent on how the main candidates carry their contending teams down the stretch.

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