When it comes to the MVP race, roughly two players in each league have broken from the pack by the time October rolls around. I, of course, am considering the spread of wins above replacement each player generates over the course of a season. One win is the rough margin of error in considering WAR values, and more often than not, one or two players are at the top of the leaderboard with more than one win separating them from everybody else. (In recent history, Mike Trout has just left everyone in the dust, but that’s neither here nor there.)
The choice for a league’s MVP becomes very clear as a result.
Well, there’s not such a consensus in the National League this year. While Trout, Chris Sale and Jose Altuve are the only true contenders left in the American League, the senior circuit has as many as six players within one win of each other. Averaging out all three publicly-available WAR models together, you come up with this leaderboard of viable NL MVP candidates:
- Giancarlo Stanton: 6.9 WAR
- Charlie Blackmon: 6.6 WAR
- Joey Votto: 6.5 WAR
- Paul Goldschmidt: 6.1 WAR
- Nolan Arenado: 6.0 WAR
- Anthony Rendon: 6.0 WAR
That’s a remarkable list, and for it to run six names deep speaks volumes for the parity of elite talent in the NL this season. So how do you choose who’s top dog? Lucky for us, each offers something a bit different. For the first time in a few years, taste should play a factor in deciding the MVP.
- POWER FOR DAYS: Giancarlo Stanton.
Stanton’s value is obvious. In a home run happy sport, Stanton may become the first hitter to smack 60 dingers since 2001. He leads the majors in homers by a margin of 13. His .362 isolated power percentage is the highest in baseball among qualifiers, and second only to J.D. Martinez among players with at least 200 plate appearances. His 159 wRC+ this year is second in the NL only to Joey Votto. He’s made his power all the deadlier by greatly improving his plate discipline, too. Stanton is carrying the lowest strikeout rate and the highest contact rate of his career. His walk rate is the highest since 2014. He plays a mean right field for such a mammoth human, too.
- GLOVE-FIRST HEROICS: Anthony Rendon, Nolan Arenado
I’m grouping both of these guys together because they are leather-slick third basemen who can also hit like crazy. Arenado makes more highlight reels with his bat and glove, but it’s Rendon who’s had the better offensive year. His 142 wRC+ beats Arenado’s mark by 12 points. He walks more and strikes out less, too. Arenado has a bit more power, but chalk that up to the Coors effect. And depending on which defensive metrics you check, Rendon may have been the better defender.
The thing driving both candidacies, however, does come down to defense. That’s the most difficult component of a player’s profile to properly measure, and Ultimate Zone Rating, Defensive Runs Saved and Fielding Runs Above Average often disagree. Both Rendon and Arenado don’t have the offensive makeup of Stanton, Votto or Goldschmidt, so it’s more difficult to be convinced that they should come out on top here.
- STEADY EDDIES: Charlie Blackmon, Paul Goldschmidt
Both of these guys do it all. Goldschmidt is a plus defender and baserunner for his position, and while Blackmon is nothing special in center, he does manage to be the rare Rockies hitter who can hit well on the road. Meanwhile, his 187 wRC+ at home is too ridiculous to blame Coors. Blackmon has been one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball for several years, and this year, he’s undisputed. Goldschmidt’s 153 wRC+ is the fourth time he’s topped 150 in the past five seasons. Nothing more to see here, folks; just consistent greatness from one of the most consistently great players of the decade.
- THE ALL-AROUND HITTER: Joey Votto
Blackmon and Goldschmidt are currently sporting on-base percentages above .400. Neither can touch Votto’s .448. He’s walking at a 19 percent clip and striking out just above 11 percent of the time. Let that sink in. Not too many guys can walk at elite levels and keep their rates above their strikeout rates, but Votto is obliterating the differential. And lest we think that he’s little more than a silly 0-for-0 with five walks kind of guy, bear in mind that the greatest strike zone maestro of his generation has also knocked 34 balls over the fence and has run a .265 isolated power percentage. His 163 wRC+ is tops in the NL this season. Ditto his .426 Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA). If you want to crown a batting champion at year’s end, it is on Votto’s head that the crown must rest.
So who ya got? Do you like mashers who tear the covers off of baseballs? Do you like slick defenders who are also potent offensive weapons? Do you like the steady hands who show up and do everything exceptionally well? Or do you like the best hitter, period? It’s all a matter of taste. For me, Stanton has been the most fun player all season, and he just edges the competition in total value. Fifty-four home runs, 29 doubles and 75 walks in 610 plate appearances while only striking out at a league average rate and playing a solid right field will do that for you. But in truth, any of these six guys would be difficult to dispute as the NL’s most valuable player. Like many a Picasso portrait, it’s all open to interpretation.
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