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2021 Down Ballot Battles: AL MVP

AL MVPAL Cy YoungAL Rookie of the Year
NL MVPNL Cy YoungNL Rookie of the Year

Introduction

When people talk about award races at the end of every MLB season, they tend to focus on the top few candidates, specifically who should win. That’s more than understandable, as that [the winner] is the most important thing in a race. Yet ballots aren’t cast with just the top name listed. No, instead awards are decided on a points system where up to ten candidates are ranked, and more points are given for a higher place vote. With this being the case, more than the top candidates should be debated. That’s why I’m here.

I have, in my many spreadsheets, award races. Using an amalgam of stats from different sources, I then calculated my personalized version of WAR (hsWAR) for far too many candidates for each award. When voting for today’s award, AL MVP, the BBWAA voters place 10 names on their ballot. To that end, I will list the top ten candidates by hsWAR, as well as every subsequent candidate within the margin of error (1.00 hsWAR) of the 10th place finisher. I’ll enumerate my final ballot decisions at the end of this article, but not before discussion of the down ballot names.


The Candidates

RankNamehsWAR
1Shohei Ohtani8.83
2Cedric Mullins II7.18
3Carlos Correa6.82
4José Ramírez6.56
5Vladimir Guerrero Jr.6.53
6Marcus Semien6.37
7Nicky Lopez5.84
8Jose Altuve5.72
9Aaron Judge5.66
10Kyle Tucker5.60
11Gerrit Cole5.46
12Bo Bichette5.42
13Mike Zunino5.38
14Robbie Ray5.25
15Brandon Lowe5.22
16Matt Olson5.11
17Nathan Eovaldi4.82
18Tim Anderson4.71
19Carlos Rodón4.68

The Favorite

Despite what some of the talking heads on ESPN and MLB Network say, Ohtani is winning MVP. He’s more than a win and a half clear of the field here. Even if it was close, the historic element of his season would set him apart. Ohtani is first on every sane ballot.

The Contenders

Vlad, Correa, Mullins, Semien, and JRam would provide for an interesting race were it not the year of Ohtani. As it stands, they’re all extremely likely to appear on every ballot. The order isn’t all that important. They’re all solid, mid-ballot MVP candidates.

The Pitchers

I am certainly not squeamish when it comes to putting pitchers on my MVP ballots; last year Shane Bieber was my AL MVP, and I’ll list likely 4 aces on my NL ballot this year. The four pitchers I listed as candidates above, however, aren’t compelling to me for one reason. Observe:

NamefWARRA9-WARWPAMean
Cole1314711.3
Ray3121014.3
Eovaldi8275630.3
Rodón1972918.3
Numbers in the table represent AL rank using that statistic

Cole aside, how strong each pitcher’s candidacy is depends heavily on which version of WAR a person prefers. This eliminates Ray, Eovaldi, and Rodón in my mind, as I believe an MVP candidate should be consistently strong across the board. Cole, meanwhile, does fit the consistency criteria, but he wasn’t even definitively the best pitcher in the league. That’s up for argument, taking him out of the MVP argument.

The Rest

Nine candidates remain for spots 7-10 on the AL MVP ballot. The difference between the best and worst of them is a mere 1.13 hsWAR; all of them are truly in play for these four slots. In fact, using the 1.00 margin of error rule I established earlier, all that is determined is that Tim Anderson cannot rank above Nicky Lopez or Jose Altuve. Everything else is still up in the air.

This brings me to a few opinions I have. When I am deciding between nearly identical position-player MVP candidacies I rely largely on four things, roughly in descending order of importance:

  1. Batting: Though I of course used advanced defensive metrics, I admit they are far less precise than the offensive ones. For this reason, I give preference to the better hitter among very close candidates.
  2. Position: Two players who hit at about the same level need to be differentiated somehow. In this case, the one who plays the more important position on the defensive spectrum is given preference. I should note, however, that I only really apply this to the extreme ends of the spectrum. I don’t really differentiate between a third baseman and a corner outfielder, for instance.
  3. Volume: This might sound backwards, but among players with similar overall value, hitting, and position, I give preference to the one who played less. This is due to the fact that more of their value must come from being above average rather than replacement, since they were worth less replacement value, and thus outplayed the other candidate on a rate basis.
  4. Context: I really don’t like using context; it’s not really within a player’s control if they were in big moments or not. But, if all else fails, I’ll turn to WPA to break ties.

With at what I’m looking being stated, I will now present the remaining nine candidates with these four things in mind.

NameBattingPositionPAWPA
Lopez1.86.45651.26
Altuve22.22.16782.02
Judge38.5-6.86334.66
Tucker33.0-6.25671.91
Bichette18.35.46902.36
Zunino15.17.43750.64
Lowe27.21.16153.50
Olson37.3-11.96733.12
Anderson12.05.45511.82
All values are on a scale of runs above average

I’m not here to tell anyone how they should vote for awards, so I’m not going to discuss the nitty-gritty of why I’d rank one candidate over the other. What I will say are broad takeaways from the above table. Judge looks like the best candidate of these nine. Opposite him, Lopez and Anderson appear as the weakest in this group, due to large portions of their value coming from the softer metrics (base running and defense). Bichette played very well, but with a massive number of plate appearances; Zunino is the inverse, but he’s a catcher. Catchers are the one place where I ignore my own rules. I don’t care about WAR consistency for catchers, and do lean into more nebulous values like framing and positional runs. The other player with whom other factors must be considered is Lowe, who played 4 different positions in 2021, getting starts at 3 of them, a value that WAR models cannot quantify. As for the as yet unmentioned Altuve, Tucker, and Olson, all of them are kind of standard down-ballot MVP guys, mostly meaning good hitters for good teams.

The Decision

As I already said, I’m not here to convince people that they have to vote for certain candidates in a certain order. I wanted instead, to lay out who the candidates not just for the top of the ballot, but for the ninth and tenth spots were too. Ergo, I haven’t said anything about how I’d rank them personally. I won’t say it either. But I do want to have a little fun. So, using the logic and arguments I’ve laid out above, here’s my ballot. I won’t defend or explain it any further than the broad logic I’ve already said. But here it is:

  1. Shohei Ohtani, Angels, P/DH
  2. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays, 1B
  3. Cedric Mullins II, Orioles, CF
  4. Carlos Correa, Astros, SS
  5. José Ramírez, Guardians, 3B
  6. Marcus Semien, Blue Jays, 2B
  7. Aaron Judge, Yankees, RF
  8. Kyle Tucker, Astros, RF
  9. Jose Altuve, Astros, 2B
  10. Matt Olson, A’s, 1B

Sean Huff

Sean is a psychology major and mathematics minor in his senior year at Fordham College at Rose Hill. He is a lifelong baseball fan with a nominal affinity for the Phillies. You can follow him on Twitter at @srhkthew2 for occasional comments on baseball and assorted esoterica.

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