When it comes to the annual MLB MVP voting, one of two storylines usually plays out:
One: [Player X, usually Mike Trout] was snubbed.
Two: [Player X, ideally Mike Trout] is the winner, and he deserved it.
Most if not all MVP debates fall along those lines. Recall, if you wish, the great Trout-Miguel Cabrera clashes of years previous. It seemed the very future of baseball analysis rested on whether the game’s writers would reward the former’s total greatness instead of the latter’s superficially imposing stats. You can take a trip back to 1999, when Pedro Martinez submitted the single greatest pitching season the world has ever seen, only to lose MVP honors to Ivan Rodriguez’s solid but unspectacular year, because a handful of voters simply could not countenance the idea of a pitcher deserving the game’s top award. Or pick any year at random in which Alex Rodriguez put up spectacular numbers but was punished because his teams hadn’t figured out a way to clone him and be better.
Most Valuable Player races have, in recent years, been a constant battleground between warring ideals, thanks in large part to that middle word. “Valuable” is a subjective term and one that the BBWAA has no interest in defining. It’s in the eye of the beholder, and for a body as disparate as the BBWAA, it’s turned the most prestigious end-of-season award into a kind of grudge match over how you judge a player’s worth—and whether the stats that exist accurately capture it.
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To that end, it’s almost a relief that this year’s MVP decision can’t be cast along ideological lines. In each league, it’s simply two great players coming off terrific seasons—and in each case, it’s as difficult a choice as imaginable. Both in the American and National Leagues, the differences between Aaron Judge and Jose Altuve in the former and Joey Votto and Giancarlo Stanton in the latter are infinitesimal.
There is no wrong choice—and, conversely, no lock.
(A quick aside to mourn the MVP cases of Paul Goldschmidt and Jose Ramirez, both of whom will likely finish third in the voting. It’s crazy to think that players like Goldschmidt, the insanely productive engine of a Diamondbacks team that went from 93 losses to the playoffs, and Ramirez, who was the secret weapon of an Indians team that won 102 games, could be afterthoughts in this race. But such is the caliber of their competition—and you could argue, too, that both of them knocked out more deserving candidates in Trout and Nolan Arenado.)
Here’s the distinction that AL voters have to make. On the one side is Judge, a hulking mass of muscle who bashed 52 home runs in his first full season and already ran away with the Junior Circuit’s Rookie of the Year honors. There’s more to Judge than just power, though. His .422 on-base percentage was the third-highest among qualified hitters in all of baseball, and his 18.7% walk rate was second only to Votto. He’s a deft rightfielder, throwing his body around with balletic grace for someone who’s built like an NFL defensive end. He comes with 200 strikeouts a year attached, but that feels like a small price to pay for the combination of Edgar Martinez’s plate discipline and Barry Bonds’ power.
On the other side is Altuve, the polar opposite of Judge in size but every bit his equal offensively. He led the majors in batting average and won his second straight AL batting title. His .410 OBP was only two spots behind Judge in the majors. Like Judge, he is a strong defender, and he’s also a peerless base runner, swiping 32 bags in 38 tries (an 84% success rate). They are both the complete package.
The choice is no easier in the NL. The long underappreciated and underrated Votto put together arguably his greatest season yet, with 36 home runs, a staggering .454 on-base percentage, and a league-high 168 OPS+. He is perhaps one of the most disciplined hitters of all time, yet he still racks up hits: No one swung less at pitches outside of the strike zone, but his contact rate on those balls was seventh-best among qualified hitters. But his main competitor, Stanton, is a Howitzer in human form who finally put together the season we were all waiting for, clubbing 59 home runs and slugging .631 en route to a 165 OPS+. Only five players in baseball history have ever hit more home runs in a single season, and even with all the caveats about juiced balls, there’s no denying Stanton’s legendary power.
As far as separating factors go, there aren’t many. Advanced statistics don’t create much space between either pair: The WAR difference between Judge and Altuve (8.1 versus 8.3, respectively) and Stanton and Votto (7.6 to 7.5) is negligible. This is no Trout-Cabrera redux, where the choice is between a one-dimensional slugger and a dynamic all-around player, nor is it a referendum on the value of certain stats over others. A victory for Votto would likely be the final word on the acceptance of OBP, but it’s not as if Stanton is all power and no patience. And neither league gets the cheap out that is team record. Both AL teams made the playoffs and faced off for the pennant; both NL teams were awful aside from their MVP candidates. There are no simple storylines or easy sides to pick, no players to turn into symbols for bigger battles. There is just an impossibly difficult choice: Which of these great players was the most valuable?
In some sense, then, this is the most pure MVP race we’ve had in a while. Gone are bitter and tired debates about worth, WAR and the will to win. This is as tough a pick as any voter will ever have to make, but the weight of a statistical community or the ghosts of baseball past won’t rest on it. Instead, the MVP choice boils down to personal taste. Did you get more enjoyment out of Judge’s titanic home runs or from Altuve’s stinging line drives and blazing speed? Were you more impressed by Votto’s metronomic patience and production or Stanton’s moonshots and Statcast-breaking numbers?
There are no wrong answers to those questions, and that’s fine. When the winners are announced on Thursday night, there won’t be two tribes splitting apart to tout their candidate as the One True MVP or to spill ink on the umpteenth interpolation of the exact meaning of “valuable.” There will just be a celebration of two deserving players who put together two tremendous and memorable seasons. That may not make for much of a storyline, but after years of rancor, maybe we don’t need that.