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Breaking Down the NL MVP Race Without Acuña, Tatis and deGrom

With Ronald Acuña Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Jacob deGrom all possibly out for the season, the National League MVP race is wide open.
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The battle for the National League MVP has turned into a war of attrition. Leading contenders Fernando Tatis Jr. and Jacob deGrom have seen their candidacies hampered by a series of injuries—with each player’s latest ailment potentially keeping them out for the rest of the season.

Tatis Jr. partially dislocated his right shoulder last week for the third time this year, with Padres manager Jayce Tingler acknowledging season-ending surgery was on the table if he didn’t show enough improvement after an initial rest period. deGrom was on pace for the best pitching season in modern history, but a forearm injury has kept him off the mound for a month and a separate elbow injury will reportedly keep him sidelined for at least another.

If those two superstars have indeed played their last inning of 2021, they’d join Ronald Acuña Jr. on the list of NL MVP contenders who’ve sadly seen their seasons cut short. And that’s to say nothing of 2019 MVP Cody Bellinger and 2018 MVP Christian Yelich, who were both effectively out of the race by Memorial Day after enduring injuries early on.

It’s a shame so many of the game’s brightest talents are off the field, but there is a silver lining. We could be headed for one of the closest MVP races in history. With less than two months remaining, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will end up taking home the award. Let’s try to sort through the leaderboards and narratives to find some sense of clarity.

zack-wheeler

We'll get the pitchers out of the way first. Zack Wheeler leads the league in bWAR (5.6) and fWAR (5.1), and is on pace to become the eighth pitcher in the last 12 seasons to compile at least 220 innings and 255 strikeouts. Three of the previous seven (Corey Kluber, 2014; Max Scherzer, 2016; Justin Verlander, 2019) won the Cy Young award, but none won MVP. As good as he's been, Wheeler doesn’t seem like the guy to break through from that group. He’s been more of a steady workhorse as the healthy leader in innings pitched rather than the type of otherworldly force it requires to capture MVP as a pitcher, ranking sixth in ERA (2.57) and fifth in strikeout rate (29.1%). Ultimately, it’d feel weird to hand MVP to any pitcher this year other than deGrom, who was head and shoulders above everyone else when healthy.

With that said, here are 10 of the position players who seem best positioned to benefit from the lengthy absences of the early favorites.

PlayerfWARbWARHRSBwRC+

Trea Turner

4.2

4.0

18

21

136

Max Muncy

4.1

4.9

22

2

158

Bryan Reynolds

3.8

4.2

18

3

144

Bryce Harper

3.7

3.0

18

12

159

Chris Taylor

3.7

3.6

17

10

139

Manny Machado

3.5

4.1

20

9

133

Nick Castellanos

3.3

2.4

18

2

150

Mookie Betts

3.3

3.8

17

7

143

Juan Soto

3.3

4.4

18

6

146

Freddie Freeman

3.1

2.7

24

6

136

One of the first things that sticks out to me is how none of these players have more home runs than Acuña (24) or Tatis (31) despite many of them having played 15 games more than the pair of irrepressible youngsters. If Tatis can quickly recover from his shoulder injury and play up to his lofty standards, he’s still the favorite to become the first Padre to win MVP since Ken Caminiti in 1996. But that seems increasingly unlikely to happen, so let’s dig in.

True contenders

Trea Turner is the only NL player who ranks in the top 10 in both the offensive and defensive components of fWAR. He’s almost on pace to join the 30-30 club, which has seen a few new additions recently with Acuña in 2019 and both José Ramírez and Mookie Betts in 2018. All three finished in the top five of MVP voting. The last player to do so before them was Mike Trout, during his 2012 campaign that yielded a Rookie of the Year award and runner-up MVP finish. So he’d be among impressive company if he does pull it off. He also became the first player in MLB history to hit for the cycle on his birthday, June 30, an extra piece of flair for his case. A low walk rate and high BABIP (.363) could hurt him down the stretch, though the latter mark isn’t too far from Turner’s career BABIP of .343, a figure propped up by his elite speed. 

trea-turner

One thing I’ve bizarrely seen framed as evidence against Turner is how no one has ever won MVP after being traded midseason. That’s more like a piece of trivia than a legitimate gripe. Turner’s an excellent hitter, baserunner and fielder, and would be a worthy choice to make history in that sense—in his first All-Star season, no less. Plus, can you imagine if Turner ends up winning MVP and Scherzer takes the Cy Young? It’s certainly possible, especially after Scherzer's fine debut in Dodger blue. Rick Sutcliffe won the NL Cy Young in 1984 after being traded from Cleveland to the Cubs, also finishing fourth in NL MVP voting. And some hardware being handed out as a result of the most exciting midseason blockbuster deal (and trade deadline) in years would be fitting. It’ll be fascinating to see how Dodgers manager Dave Roberts deploys him in the field. If he embraces Los Angeles’s emphasis on versatility and ends up putting in some time at second base and/or center field, that’d only add to his claim.

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If voting occurred today, Max Muncy would probably have the best chance of preventing his new teammate from making history. His ability to work a count can be fascinating (if you admire a good batter's eye) or frustrating (if you're rooting against the Dodgers). He’s been the best hitter on the defending World Series champions. He’s been ridiculously clutch, leading the majors with a .400 batting average (!), .538 on-base percentage (!!) and a 1.276 OPS (!!!) with runners in scoring position. And he ranks first in bWAR and second in fWAR among this select group of 10.

A detractor would point out that the 30-year-old’s performance at the plate isn’t all that different than it was in 2018, when he finished 15th in MVP voting. But the metrics say he’s improved as a fielder since then, and with a clean bill of health he should finish with about 10 more games played. The former A’s castoff would be one of the most unlikely MVPs ever.

The last player I’ll put in this section is the surprisingly under-the-radar Bryce Harper, a former polarizing wunderkind whom one could say paved the way for guys like Acuña and Tatis to be fully accepted for wearing their hearts on their sleeves. It’d make for a good story if a second-half tear from the 2015 MVP helps Philadelphia end the NL’s longest playoff drought. He’s been doing his part so far, leading the NL in wRC+ (229) and rankings second in OPS (1.278) since the All-Star break. That stretch has vaulted him up to third place in OPS on the season, behind only Acuña and Tatis. Baseball Reference’s version of WAR doesn’t rate him in MVP territory, ranking him eighth among our select group of 10. But there are few who can match Harper when he’s hot, and he's put himself in good position for a second-half surge.

Speaking of...

juan-soto

If they get hot ...

Juan Soto a slash line of .357/.500/.714 in 20 games since the All-Star break. Soto very likely would have won his first MVP last year if it weren't for the misfortune of testing positive for COVID-19 right before Washington’s season opener. If he goes on another Ruthian run, it could very well make up for his slow start to the season. But the league leader in on-base percentage (.427) would be hurt if the Nationals continue to plunge down the standings after their midseason fire sale, as seems likely.

Manny Machado ended up third in MVP voting in 2020, above Tatis, after the star third baseman stepped up down the stretch while his young teammate finished with a whimper. A similar phenomenon could happen this year if Machado carries the Padres to the NL West title, or at least gets them close, despite San Diego’s litany of injuries. He has some work to do to put himself into the top tier, as ranking second in the NL with 75 RBIs is his most notable statistical standing so far. But the narrative momentum would be hard to withstand if he’s at the forefront of the Friars’ first division title since 2006.

Reigning MVP Freddie Freeman has come on strong lately after a sustained slow start (by his standards). But he’s been an ironman for Atlanta, leading the majors with 477 plate appearances and ranking third in the NL with 204 total bases. He's held his team’s lineup together after the losses of three Silver Sluggers in Acuña, Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud. If Freeman reaches 40 home runs for the first time in his career while leading the charge on an unlikely Braves division title, he could end up as the first player to win back-to-back MVPs in the senior circuit since Albert Pujols in 2009.

Mookie Betts was merely good, not great, through the end of June. But since the calendar turned to July, he’s resembled the dynamic super star who lit up the playoffs for Los Angeles last year. A right hip injury briefly sidelined him recently, but he hasn’t missed a beat since returning while moonlighting at second base. He has four homers, four doubles and four singles in six games since the All-Star break. He also has the storyline of just missing out on the 2020 MVP, a possible point in his favor if he unleashes another two-month run similar to the one he started around this time last year.

chris-taylor

Longshots

Chris Taylor may be the best utilityman of this century, and this season has been his magnum opus. He's earned his first All-Star bid, logged a career-best 139 wRC+ and is tied with Freeman for the NL lead in runs while playing at every defensive position except first base and catcher. But he's likely to lose some playing time once Turner debuts for Los Angeles. He probably wouldn’t crack the top three of most valuable Dodgers players, so it’s difficult to imagine him as MVP despite his robust statistical profile.

Nick Castellanos boasts the highest slugging percentage (.576) of anyone in the NL besides Acuña or Tatis, and the highest win probability added (3.07) of any NL hitter besides Tatis. But the Reds slugger just missed a couple of weeks with a wrist injury and holds a one-dimensional argument as a negative in the field and on the basepaths. The 29-year-old would have to come close to replicating his awesome May (.409 BA, 1.143 OPS) to have a shout in this debate.

Bryan Reynolds has had a fantastic breakout campaign, batting over .300 with excellent sabermetrics while earning his first All-Star nod. But even in the most injury-depleted field of candidates in recent memory, the 2021 MVP will not be won by a member of the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates.

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