1. Nolan Arenado, Rockies
2. Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
3. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
4. Joey Votto, Reds
5. Bryce Harper, Nationals
6. Charlie Blackmon, Rockies
7. Cody Bellinger, Dodgers
8. Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
9. Anthony Rendon, Nationals
10. Kris Bryant, Cubs
In a very deep class, and one in which as many as a half dozen may get first-place votes, there is not one “right” answer. Let’s start from the bottom why some great candidates probably won’t win.
Bryant: Not enough clutch hitting. He hit .241 with runners in scoring position, including .212 with two outs.
Rendon: By the time Harper, his teammate, was hurt, the division was salted away (Washington was up by 14 ½ games) and Harper was the presumptive MVP.
Rizzo: Relatively quiet September (one homer, 12 RBI).
Bellinger: Could have easily squeezed teammate Justin Turner in here.
Blackmon: Outstanding numbers (most total bases ever by a leadoff hitter), but they were driven by huge home/road splits. How huge? Blackmon’s home OPS (1.243) is the 15th greatest of all time, and the greatest since Larry Walker in 2001 (in Colorado), which was the greatest since … Larry Walker in 1999 (in Colorado).
Blackmon’s road OPS (.784) ranked 101st this year, below guys like Jose Reyes, Denard Span and Tucker Barnhart. Coors Field was so friendly to him that his batting average on balls in play was 72 points higher at home.
Harper: He would have been MVP, carrying the Nationals to a big lead, but because the owners and players haven’t gotten around to making bases safer (too hard and too slick), he was felled by an accidental workplace injury.
Votto: The Reds fell to last place way back on June 13, and stayed there ever since. That’s not his fault, but context matters in baseball. It’s why we care more about pennant race games, even though wins in September count the same as wins in April. It’s why every player goes to spring training thinking about winning the World Series—to play with something on the line. Votto didn’t have a consequential plate appearance for more than half the season. Hank Aaron Award to Votto as the best hitter? Great. Players’ Choice Award for player of the year? Fantastic. Just not MVP, not when we have a slew of candidates who took at-bats with consequences down the stretch.
Stanton: He kept the Marlins relevant for five months and is making a run at the first 60-homer season since 1961 that can’t be connected to PEDs. He leads the league in slugging and adjusted OPS. Alas, his shot at winning the award withered with a .224 September, his inability to hit relief pitching (.206 with .407 slugging) and lukewarm numbers with runners in scoring position (.250, with more strikeouts than hits).
Now we’re left with the best of the best, Goldschmidt and Arenado. Goldschmidt took more plate appearances with runners in scoring position than anybody else in baseball (199). But he did hit .374 in those spots. He’s the first player in six years with 120 RBI and 18 stolen bases—and only the fifth first baseman with that combination.
Arenado (35, 126) and Goldschmidt (36, 120) have nearly identical home run and RBI totals. Goldschmidt has more runs and a better adjusted OPS. Arenado has more hits and total bases. It’s very close.
How to decide? Arenado gets the edge because he was much better in September as each team tried to nail down a playoff spot (by OPS, .975-.663), is one of the game’s top defensive infielders, and as good as Goldschmidt was in the clutch, Arenado was even better. He hit .388 with RISP, second only to Daniel Murphy, with an MLB-best 1.266 OPS in those spots, the highest such number since Miguel Cabrera in 2013 (1.311). That is phenomenal.
Oh, yes, there is this, too: this Rockie actually hit more home runs on the road than at home. His road OPS was a respectable .883, 17th best in the league.