It’s been a rough September over here in the land of predicting MVP awards, with two of the leading candidates, one for each league, suffering injuries that could take them out of the running. We’ll have to crunch some numbers and perhaps even break out the ol’ divining rod if we’re going to figure things out. And, in case you missed them, we’ve already covered the Rookie of the Year Awards and the Cy Young Awards for each league.
As we did for the pitcher predictions, we’re going to first take a quick look at WAR to give us some initial insight into what to expect in the race for MVP. As before, we’ve got the leaders ranked by Baseball-Reference’s WAR with their corresponding Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus equivalent, along with their respective NL rankings by said WAR.
First things first, if we look over at the pitcher’s WAR (as we did in the Cy Young article), there’s not a candidate who’s so far ahead of the pack of position players that he’s likely to take home the MVP. The last pitcher to do so was Clayton Kershaw in 2014, and he was pretty far ahead of the competition, with 8.2 bWAR and the first position player, Jonathan Lucroy, clocking in at 6.6. On the contrary, by WAR, the NL hitters are a mostly stronger group than pitchers this year and that, combined with voters’ proclivity to choose hitters for the award, means we can rule all the pitchers out right off the bat.
Once we’ve done that and focus solely on position players, the immediate question is the one that’s been raging all season: Belli or Yeli? Bellinger started off 2019, shall we say, well, hitting a ridiculous .431/.508/.890 with 14 home runs through the end of April. The issue is that Bellinger’s numbers have either declined or more or less remained stagnant every month of the season and the nadir of September thus far has him hitting .273/.385/.473 for a 120 wRC+. But if we look at his most recent activity, where he’s .348/.423/.565 over the last week, it seems like he might finally be turning things around.
Yelich started off the season nearly as strong as Bellinger, hitting .353/.460/.804 in March and April, but he didn’t regress nearly as much, with his worst month coming in May, where he still posted a respectable .247/.367/.568 slashline. Yelich was also the best base runner in the league by Fangraphs’ BsR stat and as of September 10, was 5 home runs away from putting up MLB’s first ever 50 home run, 30 steal season. But on that date, he took a foul ball to the knee and is out for the rest of the season.
Beyond the anger and sadness that ensues when one of the best players in the sport goes down, there are further implications. The NL Central and the NL Wild Cards are still far from undecided, and the loss of Yelich is brutal for a team that’s currently tied for the second Wild Card with the Cubs. Had Yelich helped carry his team over the finish line into the postseason this year, that certainly would have had some narrative heft to it and now it’s far from clear whether the Brewers can hang onto a spot in such a tight race.
And when it comes to the MVP award, Yelich is definitely in a tough spot, too. After missing some time earlier in the season with a back injury, he has just 130 games to counter Bellinger’s 148 and counting. It was going to be a tough call without the injury, whether you wanted to go with Yeli’s better baserunning, as he leads the league in BsR, or Belli’s defense, as he leads NL right fielders in both UZR and DRS. But, at the end of the day, if Bellinger continues to hit like has the past week, it’s a near certainty that he’s going to take home more votes and settle the season-long debate in Yelich’s absence.
On the other hand, things have also gotten more interesting in other quarters as of late, as the debate has moved beyond just those two players now that one of them is lost for the remainder of 2019. There is certainly an interesting case to be made for at least one of the folks a little further down the list. Rendon in particular has some impressive numbers working his favor, especially those favored by more traditional voters. He leads the NL in AVG (.330) and RBIs (119). And while his home run total (34) isn’t as high as the other folks above him on the WAR leaderboard, he leads the league in doubles (43) and, thanks to that, extra base hits (80).
And, again, as was the case with Yelich, Rendon has been great since the beginning of September. He’s hitting .295/.411/.541 for a 145 wRC+ so far in September, and you could see how a hot finish for Rendon, helping his team to secure a postseason appearance, even if it’s necessarily a Wild Card spot, could be enough to sway some voters, especially the more conservative ones who see the RBIs and AVG.
If Yelich was still playing, things would be extremely difficult to parse. But, as it stands today, the safest best for MVP this year is probably Bellinger. It’s not hard to imagine the narrative shifting depending on Bellinger’s and Rendon’s (and his team’s) performances down the stretch, but Bellinger is clearly the favorite as we head into the last remaining games of 2019.
Winner: Cody Bellinger
Just like in the NL, the Junior Circuit’s MVP race is also newly up in the air due to an injury, this time to the presumptive MVP, Mike Trout. Before we get into the nitty-gritty, the leaderboard:
With all apologies to the folks that come in right behind these players, like Matt Chapman, Xander Bogaerts, Jorge Polanco and George Springer, depending on the WAR flavor you prefer, these players have all cleanly locked up the top four spots by WAR. In order, no less, no matter which flavor you prefer. And while WAR is by no means a definitive prognosticator of who will win the award (just ask Trout), Chapman, Boegarts and Springer are going to suffer from having the more-valuable Bregman, Betts, Semien on their own teams. All of these folks are going to get votes, but the award, assuming it goes to a position player, is likely going to one of the four folks above.
Speaking of players’ positions, the pitchers in the AL fare much better relative to their NL counterparts by WAR, but even if Justin Verlander (7.7 bWAR) and Mike Minor (7.8) are sitting in between Trout and Bregman, it’s close enough that the majority of voters are going to go with their clear preference for position players, given how close things are.
Apologies to Marcus Semien, who is having an MVP-caliber season but gets a sizeable value boost from his defense. Condolences to reigning MVP Betts, who is having a fantastic season that isn’t quite as ridiculous as last year’s (and is also on the IL, possibly for the rest of the year). At this juncture, this looks like a race between Trout and Bregman alone.
Trout and Bregman are one-two in OPS and wRC+, and a whole bunch of other stats. Go ahead and browsefor a minute if you want. Just a few days ago, it was announced that Trout is going to have foot surgery and miss the remainder of the season. He’d been sidelined since September 6, but even missing almost the whole month of September, Trout still has a viable case for the MVP.
Trout has made adjustments to his game every year, and, since his first full season in 2012, he’s led the league in multiple stats. A visit to his Baseball-Reference page is littered with bold fonts showing him leading the league in stolen bases in 2012, OBP in the last four seasons, OPS+ in all but two seasons and so on. But, while he’s led the league in SLG twice in the past (and does again this year), he’s never laid claim to the most home runs. This year, however, he had 45 before hitting the IL in September. That’s almost certainly enough to hold off the player currently in possession of second place, Bregman (surprise!), who has 37 home runs and only 9 games left to play.
Before Trout hit the IL, this race wasn’t even close. Trout was hitting .291/.437/.645 for a 179 wRC+ and Bregman was at .297/.415/.574 for a 162 wRC+ and 33 home runs. Had Trout kept playing like, well, Trout, the only thing standing in the way of his winning a third MVP would be voters’ reluctance to give that award out to players on teams that don’t make the postseason.
The problem is Bregman has continued to play and has hit .294/.489/.706 (209 wRC+) since Trout was sidelined. Going back to the start of August, Bregman has hit .384/.486/.742 (221 wRC+) and accumulated 3.4 fWAR in a month and a half. He’s been the best hitter in all of baseball over that time frame and has been creeping up on Trout all the while.
While Trout is clearly a generally more valuable player than any other player in baseball, something that should probably factor into our Most Valuable Player discussion. But he’s going to suffer the one-two punch of missing almost all of September and playing for a team that’s going to miss the postseason (despite the fact that he alone was worth 8 or 9 wins all by himself).
Bregman’s team is 30.5 games ahead of Trout’s in the standings, is already at 100 wins and has clinched a postseason appearance. While we can argue with the methodology and certainly argue about the Angels front office’s ability to build a team around Trout that can actually contend, I’ve got to make an actual prediction here, and I think that Bregman is going to get close enough to Trout’s totals while playing for the team to beat in the American League, so he gets my vote for getting the votes.
Winner: Alex Bregman