We have but three weeks left in this Major League Baseball season. Many sports fans are focusing on football at this point, but it's the best time of the year to grasp onto meaningful baseball. Though we might, individual award races can be exciting and the National League MVP is still very much up for grabs ... for two guys. There's always the chance someone goes crazy and enters the fray, too. Let's take a look at the race:
The two front-runners
Cody Bellinger right now has an 8.3 to 7.1 WAR lead on Christian Yelich, thanks in part to how amazing he's been on defense in right field, where he'd previously barely seen any time. He's got a shot to set the Dodgers' franchise record in home runs while getting on base at a .410 clip. He also steals bases and plays on the best team in the league. That's a formula to win MVP. He definitely has competition, but right now I think he's the one to beat.
Yelich has proven the naysayers (I'll admit I was one) wrong that the last two months of last season were a fluky hot streak. He really is this good. He leads the NL in on-base percentage at .429 and the majors with a .674 slugging. The 30 stolen bases show he's a threat with his legs, too. Where Yelich lags behind Bellinger is defense. Advanced metrics show he's a sub-par defender in right and his team right now would miss the playoffs. Still, this is very much a neck-and-neck race with three weeks to go. Yelich would be the first back-to-back MVP since Albert Pujols in 2008-09. Other NL back-to-back winners: Barry Bonds (four in a row and two in a row), Dale Murphy, Mike Schmidt, Joe Morgan and Ernie Banks.
The one to watch
After a brutal 19-31 start, the Nationals appear playoff-bound and Anthony Rendon has been an absolute beast his in walk year. He leads the majors in hitting and the NL in doubles (again). He's also the clutch candidate. His situational hitting is off the charts. He's slashing .356/.454/.664 with runners in scoring position and .364/.514/.800 with RISP and two out. In "late and close" situations, he's hitting .355/.452/.661. If we look at what baseball-reference.com deems "high leverage," Rendon is slashing .407/.458/.837 with 10 homers in 86 at-bats. Good lord.
Also in the mix
You might not have noticed, but the Diamondbacks are only 1 1/2 games out of playoff spot. Ketel Marte has been their heart and soul while racking up the stats. In addition to what you see above, he's also leading the NL in hits, has 31 doubles, nine triples, a .599 slugging percentage, 149 OPS+ and 6.7 WAR that tops even Rendon.
The 40-40 Club (40 homers and steals) includes just Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano. The 21-year-old Acuna has a shot to get there as well. He leads the league in steals and runs. He has a shot to get to 100 RBI as a leadoff man.
The perpetually underrated Freddie Freeman is again doing this thing. He leads the majors in RBI, plays excellent defense at first base and .
Josh Donaldson had a lost season in 2018 and had to take a one-year deal in free agency. He's sixth in the NL among position players in WAR while getting on base at a .384 clip and slugging .542. He also rates out as an excellent defender at an important position.
Take note of the Rendon snippet and realize Juan Soto has also made a huge impact on a relentless Nationals' offense,. He's over .400 OBP with a slugging approaching .600 while in double digits in steals.
Pete Alonso already has the Mets franchise record in home runs and he's got his eyes on the rookie record of 52. If he gets there and the Mets make what's now an unlikely push for a wild card spot, Alonso will get a strong look here.
Others for down-ballot consideration
Every contender needs a candidate and Realmuto fits the bill for the Phillies. He's been a steady presence behind the plate for a very inconsistent Phillies' season.
Unfortunately, he's likely to fall off here as he misses the rest of the regular season with a fractured thumb, but Javier Baez looked an awful lot like the 2018 MVP runner-up for much of the season.
Max Muncy is also hurt, but he's coming back. He ranks seventh among NL position players in WAR.
My annual plea for Mike Trout is that baseball is unlike other sports in that while it is a team sport, it's a series of individual matchups. A player can only bat once every nine spots, so the tired trope that he can't be valuable if his team is bad is complete nonsense. The best players are the most valuable. As such, both Story and Arenado deserve mention despite their team being awful.
In addition to that sparkling batting average, Jeff McNeil has only struck out 66 times in 500 plate appearances. The art of contact hitting is lost for many these days, but he's excellent here.
Josh Bell has grown into a star this season and should be the Pirates' centerpiece moving forward. Things to watch: There hasn't been a 40-homer Pirates player since 1973 (Willie Stargell) and the franchise record for RBI is 131. No Pirates player has gotten to 125 since 1971 (Stargell).
Max Scherzer missed time due to injury, so he's not a huge threat here, but he does lead NL pitchers in WAR, FIP and ERA+. He was strong Sunday against one of the best offenses in baseball and a late push isn't out of the question here.
The Cardinals are likely to win the NL Central, but none of their position players show up much on leaderboards. They've gotta have someone, right? Jack Flaherty's overall numbers are good to great, but man, he's been ridiculous for a while. In his last 12 starts, Flaherty has a 0.80 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 95 strikeouts against 18 walks in 78 1/3 innings. The Cardinals have gone 8-4 in those starts. They've won five of his last six starts and he's as close to a sure thing as there is in baseball these days.