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MLB Roundtable: Assessing the NL MVP Race

Fernando Tatis Jr. or Bryce Harper? Max Muncy or Trea Turner? This year's NL MVP race is one of the tightest ever.

While the American League MVP award is all but guaranteed to go to Shohei Ohtani, the National League race is shaping up to be one of the tightest in MLB history. There are anywhere from 10-12 possible candidates with roughly four weeks to go in the regular season.

Will Trea Turner become the first player to be traded and win the MVP in the same season? Will any of the previous winners be named MVP for the second time? Will Fernando Tatis Jr. become the Padres' first MVP in 25 years?

We asked the Sports Illustrated baseball staff to decide who they would choose as the NL MVP if the season ended today. Here's what they had to say:

(All stats are updated through Sept. 2)

Tom Verducci

This is the craziest MVP race since the 2003 AL MVP race, when 10 players received first-place votes, with the winner (Alex Rodriguez) getting only six. There is no clear cut favorite.

Forced to pick one now—just as the most important games of the season begin—I would go with Bryce Harper of the Phillies. He leads the NL in OPS and Runs Created.

Yes, he has “only” 63 RBI, but he's hitting .306 with runners in scoring position, .296 in high leverage situations, and .305 in innings 7-9. In two measures of “clutchness,” Harper and Fernando Tatis Jr. rank 1-2 in some order: Win Probability Added (Tatis has the edge) and Situational Wins Added (Harper).

Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper (3) and San Diego Padres center fielder Fernando Tatis Jr. (right) talk during the middle of the sixth inning at Petco Park.

Bryce Harper (left) and Fernando Tatis Jr. are the leading candidates for NL MVP heading into the season's final month.

Harper fits some old-school notions about MVP (the Phillies would be lost without him and now play meaningful games down the stretch because of his contributions) as well as the newer-school notions (see the framing of his clutch hitting.) He has been on base 43 more times than Tatis. But WAR loves Tatis because he played shortstop.

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And don’t forget Trea Turner, who has more total bases than Harper and Tatis and leads the league in hits, runs and batting average. And yet Austin Riley, Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies have more total bases than all of them. And then there are Max Muncy, Brandon Crawford, Juan Soto … let’s let September play out and see who steps forward.

Stephanie Apstein

If the season ended today, it should probably be Fernando Tatís Jr., because he is the best player. But the season doesn't end today, and the contenders all have another month to make their case. That's where I think Joey Votto could be a threat. The Padres have the hardest remaining strength of schedule, with 16 games left against the Dodgers and the Giants plus four against the Braves and three against the Astros. The Reds get to play nine games against the Pirates, four against the Nationals and three against the Cubs. This gives Cincinnati a good chance to hang on for the second wild-card spot, which voters will appreciate, and it gives Votto a lot of mediocre pitchers to embarrass.

Emma Baccellieri

For most of this season, I was sure that the answer here was Fernando Tatis, Jr. But I've been reconsidering with Bryce Harper's torrid second half. Among players with at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star break, the slugger leads MLB with a 1.184 OPS—that's a 226 OPS+—which has powered his overall OPS to 1.007, also the best mark in the majors. There's still a strong case to be made for Tatis. But with the bit of time that the Padre missed on the IL, his subsequent move to the outfield and the strength of Harper's July and August, I think I have to go with him.

Will Laws

I'd go with Fernando Tatis Jr. despite his and San Diego's recent slump. Even though he's missed about a month's worth of games, the 22-year-old leads the NL in home runs (36) by six over Max Muncy and Win Probability Added (4.0) by a wide margin over second-place Bryce Harper (3.3). He needs just four home runs and six stolen bases to become the 14th member of MLB's 40/30 club. Interestingly, only two players to achieve that feat—Larry Walker in 1997 and Jose Canseco in 1988—have won the MVP. But I see it coming down to between Tatis and Harper, who leads NL position players in fWAR (5.3) by a smidge over Tatis (5.1) and Trea Turner (5.1). If either superstar can lead his team to the playoffs while the other misses out, I'd wager that would end up being the difference.

Matt Martell

The beauty of the MVP award is it encourages debate. We don't simply rely on one number, or even only numbers, to determine which player provides the most value. This year's NL race, Tom mentioned above, is particularly tight. 

That said, right now Bryce Harper has most complete case to win the award—anecdotally and statistically. The Phillies would not be in playoff contention without him, especially with how well he's played over the last two months. Harper, who previously won the award in 2015, has 26 homers, 11 of which have come in the second half. Entering play Friday, he leads the majors with a 175 OPS+, and he ranks first among NL players in fWAR (5.3). He's one of the NL's two 3/4/5 players (those with a triple slash line of .300/.400/.500 or better)—with the other being Juan Soto of the non-contending Nationals.

Other candidates to watch include Freddie Freeman, Fernando Tatis Jr., Max Muncy, Trea Turner, Joey Votto, Nick Castellanos and Brandon Crawford. Also, don't sleep on two under-the-radar candidates from the NL Central: Willy Adames and Paul Goldschmidt, neither of whom will win the award, but they still are deserving of some recognition. Adames has been Milwaukee's best and most consistent position player this year, despite playing his first 41 games with the Rays. He is hitting .291/.374/.532 with 17 home runs and 3.3 bWAR in 86 games with the Brewers, who are 61–29 since the trade. If the Cardinals somehow sneak into the playoffs via the second wild-card spot, it will be because of Goldschmidt, who is slashing .321/.389/.571 with 18 home runs in 78 games since June 1.

There are still more than four weeks to go in the season, plenty of time for any of these guys to emerge as the worthy candidate. But, as things stand in early September, Harper should be the one taking home the award.

Nick Selbe

Despite his injury struggles, Fernando Tatis Jr. has still done enough to lead a deep pack of candidates for the MVP award. He leads the National League in Win Probability Added and is tops in home runs and isolated power. Tatis was error-prone at shortstop, but his move to the outfield and ability to play through what's clearly a diminished shoulder are testaments to his team-first approach and illustrates his vast importance to a Padres team that's hanging on for dear life in the wild-card race.

Bryce Harper is having his best year since winning the 2015 MVP in his age-22 season, and he's certainly a worthy alternative to Tatis. This race is razor thin with less than a month to go, and it would be a real treat to watch these two—and the handful of other worthy candidates—raise their games as they duke it out down the home stretch.

Michael Shapiro

You can make a case for a half-dozen players in the NL MVP race, which could very well be decided over the next month. Trea Turner has a strong candidacy alongside teammate Max Muncy, while a sentimental vote could go to Joey Votto or Buster Posey. And while Fernando Tatis Jr. is likely the favorite for this award as we enter September, I’ll side with another $300 million man instead. 

Bryce Harper is quietly putting up a dominant offensive campaign as the Phillies scuffle for a playoff spot. This isn’t quite 2015 Harper, though he still leads the National League in OPS, wRC+ and fWAR. He has a better walk rate and a better strikeout rate than Tatis, and he’s getting on base at a 41.8% clip. Harper is now oddly enough somewhat of a quiet superstar, one whose production goes under appreciated amid the game’s wave of new stars. Perhaps an MVP in Philadelphia will change that narrative.

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