Checking In on the MVP Races
There seemed to be a Twitter kerfuffle on Sunday — a kerfuffle being the lowest level of heat on Twitter — about the American League MVP award. Bob Nightengale put up a tweet about … well, let’s just show it:
Now, no offense to Bob, but I literally have no idea who he was aiming this Tweet at. One, Barry Bonds WAS named MVP virtually every year he played — Bonds won SEVEN MVP AWARDs. Did Bob just forget that?
But more to the point: As far as I know, nobody is arguing for anybody BUT Judge as American League MVP. Nobody. For the traditional fans, Judge is the obvious choice — he is the runaway league leader in homers, RBIs, runs scored and total bases. For fans of stats like WAR, he’s the runaway leader in both Baseball-Reference WAR and FanGraphs WAR — even if you add Shohei Ohtani’s batting WAR to his pitching WAR, Judge has him beat by like a win and a half.
I mean, sure, fans will be fans, and there will be a few parochial enough to argue that Jose Ramirez is more important to Cleveland than Judge is to New York or that Ohtani is such a unique player that he should win the MVP every year or some such thing. But that’s a tiny, tiny minority.
Everybody understands Aaron Judge is having a historic season, and he’s going to win the American League MVP, and he probably will win it unanimously.
So what’s the point of that tweet? Oh, right, it was meant to rile up baseball fans over the tired and banal argument that valuable and best mean two different things. Sportswriters have been going to that well for more than 100 years because it just works. What you learn pretty early on in a sportswriting career is that there are certain things you can write that will ALWAYS get people going.
Write that Pete Rose should or shouldn’t go to the Hall of Fame.
Write that college athletes should or shouldn’t get paid.
Write anything at all about Tim Tebow.
Write that Tom Brady is or isn’t the greatest quarterback ever.
Write that Michael is better than LeBron or, if you want more reaction, that LeBron is better than Michael.
Write anything at all about Serena Williams.
Write that the words valuable and best mean two different things.
This is just the start; I’m sure you could come up with dozens and dozens of these. And look, I’ve fallen into all of these myself; these are irresistible conversations for most sports fans. The trouble with this latest iteration of the valuable vs. best argument is that it’s not in play in the American League this year; Judge is the MVP by all standards, no matter where you come down on it. There is no statistical argument I’m aware of that stays Ohtani is better than Judge this year. It’s like arguing with ghosts.
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Now, if you want to have an MVP argument — hop on over to the National League.
As of right now, the oddsmakers have St. Louis’ Paul Goldschmidt as the heavy favorite to win most valuable player — and why not? He’s leading the National League in batting, slugging and OPS. He’s having his best season in a spectacular career, and if he finishes this off and wins the MVP, I’d say the Hall of Fame watch is ON.
Yes, Goldschmidt would still need a couple more great seasons. and he turns 35 in September. But if he stays healthy and consistent, he’ll finish the season with something like 58 or 59 bWAR. He’s basically been playing at six-plus WAR level the last three seasons (counting the COVID year), and if he can just stay there for a little longer, 70 WAR is going to happen and 75-80 WAR is not out of the question.
That’s first-ballot Hall of Fame.
Thing is, I’m not even sure Paul Goldschmidt is the most valuable (or best) player on his own team. Nolan Arenado is having another sensational year (assuming health, he’s DEFINITELY going to the Hall of Fame). At last check, he’s hitting .297/.364/.559 and playing some of the best defense of his career — this from a guy who has won the Gold Glove every single one of his nine years in the big leagues.
Both versions of WAR at the moment have Arenado worth SLIGHTLY more than Goldschmidt. I wouldn’t put a lot of stock into the decimal-point difference, but it’s clearly not easy to choose between them.
There are others who are currently behind Goldschmidt and Arenado, but with a hot six weeks — I could see Atlanta’s Austin Riley, San Diego’s Manny Machado or, obviously, Los Angeles’ Mookie Betts make a run at the MVP.
I’ll give you two more names, one obvious, one not so much.
The obvious one is Juan Soto. The Padres are an absolute mess after the Fernando Tatis Jr. fiasco, and everybody will remember how badly they collapsed a year ago. But Soto is otherworldly. Since joining the Padres on Aug. 3, he’s hitting .350/.480/.550 and you get the sense he’s only just getting used to his new digs. He absolutely could put up a scorching six weeks and place himself squarely in the middle of the MVP conversation.
Let’s pause on Soto for a moment. There seems to have been some backlash from a couple of brilliant readers because I (among others) call Soto “Ted Williams reincarnated.” They point out that his numbers pale in comparison with the young Williams. Heck, Williams hit .400 when he was 22. He won the Triple Crown at 23. Soto hasn’t done anything like that.
And that’s true — if you want to compare apples to apples, which I don’t think you can. We’ve been over this ground plenty, but the young Ted Williams played in a segregated league with only eight teams. Let’s be honest, American League pitching in 1941 was Bob Feller and a whole bunch of guys named Johnny. I mean that literally: The four pitchers Williams faced most that year were Feller, Johnny Gorsica, Johnny Rigney and Johnny Niggeling.* Combined, he faced those four pitchers EIGHTY-THREE TIMES and hit .467 with 11 home runs. He also hit .714 off a nearly finished Lefty Gomez.
*He also faced Johnny Allen, Johnny Murphy and Johnny Humphries — and hit .455 against them.
Different times. This isn’t to downplay Williams’ greatness — it’s just to say that $100 in 1941 is worth $1,950 dollars today, and if you could put Ted Williams in today’s game, I feel sure he’d be the best hitter in baseball but he wouldn’t hit .400 or anything close. He wouldn’t strike out 27 times in a season. I could see the argument that he’d hit for a higher average and more power, but I think Soto’s .322/.471/.572 the last two seasons looks an awful lot like what you might expect from the Splendid Splinter, and while his average and power numbers are down this year, he’s proven in the past to be a monster in August and September. I’m just saying don’t rule out Soto in the MVP race.
Hey, if you feel like it, I’d love if you’d share this post with your friends!
The other darkhorse MVP candidate for me: Francisco Lindor.
Lindor’s numbers right now — .269/.347/.458 with 20 homers — do not look to be at the level of the other candidates. The oddsmakers have teammate Pete Alonso as a more serious MVP candidate, and Jeff McNeil is having a good year too.
But, Lindor has a couple of things going for him.
One, he’s a shortstop and a terrific one.
Two, he’s been crushing it lately — for the last month or so, he’s hitting .358/.441/.569 with 24 runs and 22 RBIs in 29 games. And, for those fans of the word valuable, the Mets have gone 22-7 over that stretch.
Lindor is one of the most special players in baseball. It was easy to forget that last year when he hit .230 and lost his cool. But when right, he’s a Top 5 pick for me because of all the things he does and the joyous way he does them. We are now entering nervous time for the Mets — it’s mid-August, they have the second-best record in baseball, and as Seth Meyers said the other day, “What could possibly go wrong?”
If Lindor can play the next six weeks like he has been and prop up the Mets and help them win a division title, I think he’s in the MVP picture. And if he is, THEN we can have the most valuable vs. best argument for the 1,493,532nd time. At least then it would make sense.
Ohtani is ahead of Judge in WAR if you remove the -1.2 reduction he gets in defense for being a pitcher. Joe himself has argued that this part of the WAR calculation is flawed in his article about Keith Hernandez. I would argue that leading in overall WAR is a relevant statistical argument in favour of Ohtani as MVP.
I love how Joe casually drops "write anything about Serena". Sorry, but writing about Serena really doesn't get any reaction from anybody, maybe a bit from the same tiny tiny minority that doesn't think Judge should be the MVP, but just like there are topics that will get a reaction from fans, we must believe that:
"She's black so she must be hated so we must promp her up!"