The NL MVP could belong to a pitcher in 2018, with three great options on the board
The position player candidates in the NL don't yield a field near as strong as in the AL
As we wrap up our week-long snapshot of where the major individual awards races stand at present, we now get to a race that could well go down to the final week. It's the National League MVP. There's a good group of position players, but not one that has players having the types of seasons some of the top American League players are having. As such, perhaps the door is open for a pitcher?
In just looking at Baseball-Reference's version of WAR, three pitchers are worth nearly two more wins than any position player. That's why we have to look hard at the pitchers, among other reasons.
The argument against pitchers winning MVP is generally something along the lines of "but he only pitches once every fifth day." True, but when he is pitching, he far and away impacts the game more than any other player. Look at plate appearances for position players versus batters faced for pitchers, for example.
It should be noted these aren't personal picks but instead an educated guess as to how the entire voting body would be thinking.
The position players
What a story Matt Carpenter winning the MVP would be. Through May 15, he was hitting .140/.286/.272 with just three home runs. Since then, he's been historically great. He's just torturing opponents, and a lot of his hits have been late and clutch, including several home runs to take the lead. The Cardinals are winning a lot of games in August, too, and have climbed back into being a legitimate contender.
On the year, Carpenter is now hitting .274/.390/.585 with 33 doubles and 33 homers. He is tied for first in WAR among position players and plays multiple infield positions.
The best-player-on-a-first-place-team formula is generally a way to get noticed in MVP discussions, so say hello to Freddie Freeman. The mark of an elite all-around batsmith? Carry a .300/.400/.500 line. Freeman is at .323/.403/.535 right now with 20 homers and 75 RBI. Now, it's probably not as big a deal as in past years, but you wonder about the elder statesmen angle when it comes to Freeman being around the likes of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna.
Again, Javier Baez is the best player on a first-place team (actually, the team with the best NL record). Baez is all over the leaderboards and currently first in RBI and total bases. An outstanding baserunner and defender, he's the most versatile player on here, making highlight-reel plays at second, short and third.
He's hitting .293/.325/.571 with 32 doubles, eight triples, 25 homers, 89 RBI, 74 runs and 19 steals. He does everything, except take walks. Still, every player doesn't have to be the so-called "Moneyball" prototype. There's room for different guys in any discussion of best players in baseball, and the Cubs wouldn't be close to where they are without Baez. He trails only Cain, Carpenter and Freeman in position player WAR.
Judging only by WAR, Nolan Arenado is having an inferior season to what he had last year (4.8, well behind his pace of 7.2 last year) and even in 2016. That doesn't make him a lesser candidate, I'm only saying that if he were having last year's season, he'd be the clubhouse leader.
Arenado is hitting .310/.394/.587 (145 OPS+) with 25 doubles, 30 homers, 84 RBI and 79 runs. He is an exceptional defender at the hot corner, too.
Inevitably, this will be brought up, so here's the Coors Field effect, for those curious.
I'm not saying it definitively should or should not be a factor, but it is.
The NL leader in WAR, Max Scherzer also leads in wins, innings, strikeouts, WHIP, hit rate, strikeout rate and strikeouts-per-walk. If voters are going to lean toward Scherzer over deGrom based upon the teams but the Nationals continue their downward spiral, might Scherzer get passed over as well? I suppose it's possible.
Scherzer is 15-5 with a 2.19 ERA (195 ERA+), 0.88 WHIP and 227 strikeouts against 36 unintentional walks in 168 2/3 innings. He has a shutout, too.
If Aaron Nola remains really close to Scherzer and deGrom while the Phillies win the NL East and, say, the Nationals finish with something like 78 wins, he might well have a chance. Wouldn't that be something? He entered the season with great promise for a breakout, but also was 24-22 with a 3.94 career ERA.
This season, the 25-year-old Nola is 13-3 with a 2.28 ERA (183 ERA+), 1.00 WHIP and 149 strikeouts against 42 unintentional walks in 154 innings. He's a big reason the Phillies are contending. Perhaps the biggest.
Jacob deGrom's hope here would be from the voting bloc that believes the most valuable player is the best player. That's because the "value" crowd would note that deGrom hasn't really played a "meaningful" game in months and the Mets are 10-14 in his starts. That's not his fault, of course, but "value" carries different meanings to different people.
DeGrom is 7-7 with a 1.81 ERA (208 ERA+), 0.97 WHIP and 195 strikeouts against 33 unintentional walks in 159 innings.
Others to watch
This past offseason, the Brewers acquired two new outfielders in Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich. It's worked out just fine, huh? Yelich has the more gaudy offensive line, hitting .309/.372/.514 (134 OPS+) with 25 doubles, four triples, 18 homers, 60 RBI and 14 steals. He's hitting just .114/.205/.200 in his last eight games, putting a dent in his candidacy here, but another hot streak could be right around the corner.
Cain's candidacy is more new-school. Sure, he's hitting .301, but his OPS+ is a modestly good 118. He has 19 doubles, a triple, nine homers, 30 RBI and 62 runs with 21 stolen bases. His case is pushed by him being at or near the top in WAR among position players all season. He's tied with Carpenter for first right now. That's driven in large part by his excellent defense and baserunning.
Like Carpenter, Paul Goldschmidt has had to overcome a dreadful start. Through May 22, he was hitting .198/.320/.355. He has gone absolutely bonkers since then and is hitting .284/.387/.533 (137 OPS+) with 25 doubles, four triples, 27 homers and 65 RBI.
Admittedly, he's a step back in the race, and it's because of the bad start. Still, if he has a hot September and the Diamondbacks take the NL West, there's a decent shot Goldschmidt wins his first MVP.
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