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2021 Down Ballot Battles: NL 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, NL 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
1Fernando Tatis Jr.7.42
2Juan Soto7.20
3Bryan Reynolds7.20
4Corbin Burnes7.05
5Trea Turner6.89
6Zack Wheeler6.87
7Brandon Crawford6.45
8Walker Buehler6.27
9Bryce Harper6.16
10Max Scherzer5.94
11Brandon Woodruff5.72
12Kevin Gausman5.55
13Paul Goldschmidt5.38
14Tyler O’Neill5.24
15Freddie Freeman5.21
16Max Muncy5.16
17Julio Urías5.09
18Charlie Morton4.97

The Big Bats

Unlike with the AL, there is no runaway favorite in this NL race. In fact, there’s no real favorite at all, with 7 candidates qualified by rule for first-place votes, and ten for the top 5. With candidates this close in overall value, the race comes down in large part to preferences for from where that value comes. My preference comes from offense, especially batting, as the stats there have lower error bars than those for defense and base running. With that in mind, here are the top ten candidates based upon pure batting alone:

NamePAwRC+xwOBABattingRange
Harper599170.42750.5045-17
Soto654163.42650.2871-9
Tatis Jr.546156.40136.9001-8
Goldschmidt679138.39432.6548-27
Reynolds646142.38232.6531-9
Freeman695135.41131.5789-33
Turner646142.35730.9911-11
Muncy592140.40630.2549-34
O’Neill537145.38829.4719-32
Jesse Winker485148.38727.41544-81
Batting is measured in runs above average

I have two main takeaways from looking at who the best hitters were. The first is that Harper, by virtue of outhitting all his competition despite having less playing time than many of them, should be ranked as high as the system will allow him to be, which is 5th. The second is that the players who were top ten in both hsWAR and Batting, namely Harper, Reynolds, Soto, Tatis Jr., and Turner, form a clear top tier among the position players.

Pitchers and The Historic Season

Using fWAR, none of the aforementioned sluggers were the league’s best player, with Burnes pacing the group at 7.5. Substitute in RA9-WAR for pitchers, and Buehler is the NL WAR leader. Clearly, the aces have an important role to play in this race. With all due respect to Buehler, Scherzer, and Wheeler, however, they’re back-half of the ballot candidates at best, lagging behind the group of 5 hitters already identified. But Burnes put up the second best FIP and FIP- since the mound was lowered. His season was legitimately historically significant. That fact alone can serve as a tie-breaker between Burnes and the hitters who produced similar value.

The Tenth Man and Beyond

So far, I’ve determined that two groups of candidates, 5 hitters and 4 starting pitchers, deserve to be on the NL MVP ballot. Well, for the mathematicians out there, this is only 9 slots filled out of 10 on the ballot. I need one more. Here are words I never thought I’d say before this season: Brandon Crawford is the obvious 10th man here. He’s in fact only reachable in hsWAR by two pitchers who didn’t even have spectacular seasons.

I’ll talk more about these pitchers; they made the hsWAR leaderboard so I should at least mention them. Yet I have a teaser – I’ll talk about them when I cover NL Cy Young. As for the position players, Goldschmidt, Freeman, and Muncy are all sluggers who didn’t quite do enough with the bat to make up for the fact that it’s the only aspect of their games. O’Neill, meanwhile, fielded and hit well, well enough to be 11th on my ballot, but his limited playing time kept him just below the other bottom-ballot names.

The Decision

Doing the AL ballot was hard, with all the candidates after the top 6 being all but interchangeable. The NL ballot was easier, also having a drop off after the first 6, but with the next group of 4 being pretty defined as well. Ranking within these two groups was still difficult, but the candidates are so close that it can be a matter of personal preference. Here’s mine:

  1. Corbin Burnes, Brewers, SP
  2. Juan Soto, Nationals, RF
  3. Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres, SS/OF
  4. Bryan Reynolds, Pirates, CF
  5. Bryce Harper, Phillies, RF
  6. Trea Turner, Nationals/Dodgers, 2B/SS
  7. Zack Wheeler, Phillies, SP
  8. Brandon Crawford, Giants, SS
  9. Max Scherzer, Nationals/Dodgers, SP
  10. Walker Buehler, Dodgers, SP

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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