The National League MVP Race Is Wide Openon September 21, 2020 at 1:00 pm

The National League MVP Race Is Wide Open

Two weeks ago, Fernando Tatis Jr. had what looked to be an insurmountable National League WAR-lead. Here’s what our NL position player leaderboard looked like before action got underway on Monday, September 7:

With just three weeks left to go in the regular season, Tatis had a one-win lead. Two weeks later, that lead is gone:

What Freddie Freeman has accomplished in the last two weeks has been incredible:

Freeman’s last two weeks would rank 25th for the entire season. If you are wondering if he’s ever done anything like this before, the answer is yes; he’s done it twice:

In 2016 and 2017, Freeman had a couple of stretches that were even better than what he’s done of late. With a career 139 wRC+, Freeman regularly has two-week spans with a wRC+ over 200. He understandably struggled to start the season after having to recover from COVID-19 before things got going. On August 6, Freeman, had an 87 wRC+; he has been fire ever since. Looking solely at WAR at this point in the season, we see Tatis and Freeman on top, with Manny Machado and Mookie Betts close behind. Just three-tenths of a win separate the top four; for MVP purposes, that’s pretty close to deadlock. And Freeman wasn’t the only MVP candidate to start the season slowly. While the leaderboard looks pretty even at the moment, it’s helpful to see how the players got there. We’ll take things two weeks at a time. Here’s where the candidates stood entering play on August 6:

Because the 2020 season is so short, those two weeks represent about one-fifth of the season. Here is what the group looked like over the two weeks following August 6:

At this point in the season, Tatis had been nearly two wins ahead of his teammate. While Tatis still paced the group, Betts and Freeman were very close to him and were barely distinguishable at the plate from the early frontrunner. Now, here’s the end of August and early part of September:

Did you miss the part of the season when Machado was just as good as Freeman has been over the last two weeks and was better than Tatis was to start the year? Machado did win back-to-back NL Player of the Week awards so it isn’t as if he went unnoticed, but his slow start meant that he was still nearly a win behind his teammate, and might account for your surprise at just how impressive he’s been.

Now we get to Freeman’s hot streak; we’ll go just a few days beyond two weeks to bring us up-to-date:

That’s how we ended up here, with four players within a few runs of each other. While another week could provide some separation, voters may very well end up going a bit deeper, basing their decision on other factors. Here’s a quick glance at how those decisions might be made.

Mookie Betts

  • For those who value consistency, Betts hasn’t had a down period like any of the other main candidates. His worst stretch came at the beginning of the season and he still put up a 137 wRC+. He’s been excellent all season long.
  • Betts also has the advantage when it comes to results. His Win Probability Added is 2.39 this season, which is best among the candidates and second in the NL to Mike Yastrzemski.
  • For those who favor the best player on the best team, Betts takes the cake.

Fernando Tatis Jr.

  • For those who value Statcast numbers, Tatis is the king. He appears to have been considerably unlucky — though his 149 wRC+ is the worst among the four candidates, his .433 xwOBA is about 50 points higher than his actual wOBA this season. While Tatis is still behind Freeman in xwOBA (Freeman boasts a .464), all the other candidates have a wOBA relatively close to their expected number via Statcast. Given that Tatis’ WAR is in line with the other candidates, only a little bad luck has kept him from being further ahead.
  • The all-around crown is debatable this season, with Machado also providing good defense, but Tatis is the only candidate above average with the bat, on the bases, and on defense. He’s played a decent shortstop this season, cutting down on the throwing errors that plagued him last year.

Freddie Freeman

  • For those who value how a player finishes, there isn’t going to be a better candidate than Freeman — he’s been crushing the ball over the last few weeks.
  • On offense, Freeman has been the best hitter in the NL this season. His 185 wRC+ tops the league, he’s got more walks than strikeouts, and his .346/.464/.634 line tops the league in average and OBP with his slugging behind only that of Juan Soto, who has played 15 fewer games.

Manny Machado

  • I’ll be honest, Machado is in a really tough spot. He’s finishing strong, but not as strong as Freeman. He’s a very good all-around player, but he’s probably behind his teammate in that regard. He rates well in the traditional offensive categories, but outside of homers, he’s behind Freeman. Machado has arguably been the best player in the NL this season, but in a dead heat, it’s difficult to find factors to put him over the top. If Machado is going to win, he’s going to have to crush it for one more week.

I don’t envy the voters who will have a very difficult decision to make. It can be hard to separate candidates over the course of a 162-game season, but 60 games provides even more ambiguity. There’s still 10% of the season left to play — maybe that makes a difference, but the backslide by Tatis over the past few weeks has turned what looked to be a landslide into a real race.

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