In last season's All-Star Game in Cleveland, Shane Bieber won the MVP in front of the hometown crowd by simply striking out Willson Contreras, Ketel Marte and Ronald Acuna Jr. in the fifth inning. It was a small sample size, but in a game where the winning American League team didn't have any particularly outstanding hitter—none of them reached base, scored a run or drove a runner in more than once—it was a deserved honor for the only AL starter to strike out the side.
That logic also may end up applying to this year's AL MVP race. In a regular season about 37 percent as long as a normal schedule, Bieber has established himself as the best pitcher in the Junior Circuit by a wide margin. The Orange, Calif., native is a sure bet to win the Cy Young; he leads AL pitchers in fWAR (2.9) by nearly a full run over closest competitor Dylan Bundy (2.0) of the Angels.
And with just one more regular-season start to go, he's also set himself up to become the first pitcher to win MVP since Clayton Kershaw in 2014 and only the 11th pitcher to sweep both awards. Like his All-Star Game MVP, such a result would partially be owed to a no-hitter separating himself from the pack.
This is not to diminish Bieber's outstanding output. Not only does his 2.9 fWAR lead all AL pitchers; it's also tied with National Leaguers Fernando Tatís Jr. and Freddie Freeman for the highest mark in the Majors. He's set all sort of strikeouts records; his record pace of 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings is set to surpass the mark set just last season by Gerrit Cole, and he reached 100 strikeouts faster than any pitcher in MLB history.
But with just a week left in the regular season (!), it's remarkable how difficult it is to distinguish between the group of position player contenders, five of which Vegas oddsmakers give at least a 5% chance of winning the award. Each one has his warts.
Nap king Nelson Cruz has looked ageless at 40 years old, but not playing defense is an obvious drawback. Plus, he has nearly an identical slash line as he did last year, when he finished ninth in MVP voting.
Chicago White Sox star Tim Anderson is sort of like the AL version of Tatís in that he's a thrillingly athletic shortstop who represents the new age of players unafraid to flout unwritten rules. But unlike Tatís, who ranks first in Statcast's all-encompassing outs above average defensive metric, Anderson ranks 37th among shortstops.
Anderson's teammate Jose Abreu leads the league with 53 RBI and 72 hits to go along with a blistering 1.032 OPS, but draws similarly poor grades for his defense.
Home run leader Luke Voit isn't as good of an all-around hitter of all the above players and, like Abreu, plays the least important defensive position, reflecting his status of holding the longest odds of any of them.
Then, of course, there's Mike Trout. The player of his generation has been stellar this season, but it hasn't been a vintage Trout year thanks to diminished defensive metrics, just one stolen base and a more disappointing than usual Angels season.
Any of those guys—and even several more—could conceivably steal the MVP with a flashy grand finale. But with every American League postseason spot all but clinched, and division championships meaning less than ever, there probably won't be a spectacular opportunity for any guy to steal the headlines and create a narrative as compelling as Bieber's.
The former walk-on at the University of California–Santa Barbara could end up striking out hitters at a higher rate than any starting pitcher in MLB history, a perfect symbol of the three-true-outcome era. So why not have the strikeout king claim another small-sample-sized award to add to his trophy case?
- The Padres and Yankees—perhaps the two franchises that least resemble each other—clinched postseason berths on Sunday. A rematch of the 1997 World Series would be pretty fun.
- The Mets, who led MLB in batting average entering Sunday, could muster only one hit off Braves rookie Kyle Wright in his 6 1/3 innings of work. It was the best start of Wright's career and likely stuck a fork in New York's postseason hopes. Atlanta has to hope Wright can build off that in his next appearance, because its postseason rotation is still very much unsettled. The fact that Wright, with his 5.74 ERA, is even in contention for a playoff start speaks to the Braves' rotation struggles this season.
- Dan Vogelbach hit two home runs for the Brewers and drove in all five of their runs in a 5-3 win over Kansas City on Sunday, continuing the 2019 All-Star's unlikely resurgence in Milwaukee. Shipped off for peanuts by the Mariners to Toronto at the trade deadline after a miserable start to the season, Vogelbach was released by the Blue Jays after just four hitless at bats, leaving him at 5-for-57 on the year. But the beer-bellied slugger has gone 15-for-36 with three homers and 10 RBI in 11 games for Milwaukee to help the Brew Crew leap back into the postseason picture.
- Speaking of the postseason picture: Milwaukee, Cincinnati and San Francisco are all at .500 and tied for the final National League playoff spot (though the Reds are 27–27 while the Brewers and Giants are both 26–26). The Phillies are just a half-game ahead of those teams, with the Cardinals a half-game up on Philadelphia and the Marlins another half-game up on St. Louis. There will almost certainly be some final-day drama next Sunday.