In the minds of many, there was no NL MVP favorite until Christian Yelich propelled the Brew Crew to the postseason in September. Will Yelich’s late surge earn him the prestigious award or will it go to teammate Lorenzo Cain, starter Jacob deGrom, or division rival Javier Báez?
Perhaps the voters opt for one of these four great players. Then again, is it possible electorate prefers one of several other superb performers in the Senior Circuit?
Ronald Acuña Jr, OF — Braves
The Stats: 26 HR; 16 SB; .293/.366/.552 slash; 4.1 bWAR; 143 wRC+
The Skinny: Despite being a rookie, Acuña may receive votes after a wonderful freshman season. The 20-year-old didn’t debut until April 25 and missed most of June with a knee injury. But the Venezuelan made his presence known after becoming the Braves’ full-time leadoff hitter in the second half of the season.
Acuña paced MLB leadoff hitters with the most home runs and highest OPS and wRC+ after the All-Star game. Overall, he finished in the top-10 among all NL hitters with 450-plus plate appearances in batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, and wRC+.
The Bottom Line: Although a rookie has won the MVP award in the past, Acuña will not. The only position player to win an MVP with fewer than 120 games in a no-strike year was Hall of Famer George Brett (117) in 1980. Also, there’s no guarantee he wins ROY with Nationals’ phenom Juan Soto challenging Acuña for the honor.
Matt Carpenter, INF — Cardinals
The Stats: 42 doubles; 36 HR; .257/.374/.523 slash; 4.9 bWAR; 138 wRC+
The Skinny: Carpenter started the season very poorly with an anemic .140/.286/.272 slash line with just three home runs through May 15. As you can see, the left-handed hitter reversed course spearheading the Cardinals’ second-half resurgence.
Because of his sluggish start, Carpenters’ overall numbers don’t stack up well against his MVP competition. The Texas Christian University product finished the season tied with Christian Yelich for third most home runs in the NL. However, he didn’t finish top-5 in any other category other than wRC+.
The Bottom Line: The fact the Red Birds fell short shouldn’t be a strike against Carpenter’s MVP candidacy. If it weren’t for the eight-year veteran, his club would’ve finished far out of contention. Instead, St. Louis remained in the hunt until the very end.
Nolan Arenado, 3B — Rockies
The Stats: 38 doubles; 38 HR; .297/.374/.561 slash; 5.6 bWAR; 132 wRC+
The Skinny: Arenado finished fourth in MVP voting last year and he’ll receive consideration once again after another great season. The 27-year-old led the NL in home runs and was top-5 in slugging percentage and OPS.
As with any position player who calls Coors Field home, there will be skepticism about their stat line. Arenado’s 131 park-adjusted OPS (OPS+) ranks tenth in the NL. But it’s likely a segment of voters won’t overlook the glaring differences between his home and road production numbers.
Coors: 330 PA; 23 HR; .347/.424/.681
Road: 343 PA; 15 HR; .248/.325/.447
Considered one of the best defensive third basemen in MLB, Arenado already has five Gold Gloves and a Platinum Glove, although some advanced metrics were down on him this season. That said, the eyeball test says the six-year veteran is still an elite-level glove at the hot corner.
The Bottom Line: Perhaps it’s unfair to hold Arenado’s home/away numbers against him. After all, most major leaguers do better at the home field. But the reality is the four-time All-Star is facing an uphill battle due to his extreme splits.
Paul Goldschmidt, 1B — Diamondbacks
The Stats: 33 HR; .290/.389/.533 slash; 5.4 bWAR; 144 wRC+
The Skinny: Much like Carpenter, Goldschmidt started horribly. But the Texas State University alum also made a dramatic turnaround salvaging his season.
On May 31, Goldschmidt’s .204 batting average ranked number-106 among 112 big league hitters with 200-plus plate appearances. From that point on, the three-time Silver Slugger winner hit .330 — fourth best in MLB behind Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, and Christian Yelich.
The Bottom Line: Goldschmidt finished the top-3 in MVP voting last year and in 2013 and 2015. It’s unlikely he’ll fare as well this year due to effect his early struggles had on his season totals. While it shouldn’t matter, the fact the D-Backs faded late in the season won’t help the six-time All-Star with the electorate either.
Lorenzo Cain, CF — Brewers
The Stats: 25 doubles; 30 SB; .308/.395/.417 slash; 6.9 bWAR; 124 wRC+
The Skinny: Cain’s signing may have been the best free agent pickup of last offseason. Milwaukee drafted the nine-year veteran in 2004, but dealt him to the Royals in 2010. Boy, are they glad they got him back.
According to bWAR, Cain was the second most valuable position player in the NL behind Yelich. He was also top-5 in batting average and stolen bases. Moreover, the 32-year-old’s 20 defensive runs saved (DRS) were tops among MLB center fielders and the second most by any NL position player.
The Bottom Line: This year was Cain’s best since 2015 with Kansas City when he was a top-3 vote getter in the AL MVP race. Whether the two-time All-Star finishes that high in 2018 is hard to tell. The fact Yelich is one of the front-runners probably hurts his chances. Then again, the Brew Crew wouldn’t have won the NL Central without Cain.
Freddie Freeman, 1B — Braves
The Stats: 44 doubles; 10 SB; 23 HR; .309/.388/.505 slash; 6.1 bWAR; 137 wRC+
The Skinny: Freeman defies the stereotype of a first baseman having to be a big bopper; something some old-schoolers expect from the position. Still, the 29-year-old has been one of the most consistent and productive players in the NL.
Freeman recorded the most hits and doubles in the NL this year. Not only that, the California native had the league’s fourth best bWAR and batting average and earned his first All-Star selection. He also appeared in all 162 Braves games and had the most DRS of any NL first baseman.
The Bottom Line: Freeman deserves recognition for another outstanding season and helping Atlanta reach the postseason for the first time since 2013. Having said that, he’s now sharing the spotlight with young stars Acuña and Ozzie Albies, plus veteran Nick Markakis. It’s possible the success of his teammates will partially obscure the great season he put together for the Braves.
Javier Báez, INF — Cubs
The Stats: 34 HR; 21 SB; .290/.326/.554 slash; 6.3 bWAR; 131 wRC+
The Skinny: Báez was the best player on a very talented Cubs roster. The 25-year-old finished third in the NL in bWAR and notched double-digit totals in doubles, home runs, and stolen bases.
Unlike some candidates we’ve discussed thus far, Báez was very consistent at the plate with near-identical splits in each half of the season. One aspect of his offensive game that’s received scrutiny is his pedestrian OBP, which was just eight points above league-average. This is attributable to his aggressive approach in the batter’s box and low walk rate.
In the field, Báez proved to be a versatile performer with elite defensive skills. The Puerto Rico native was primarily a second baseman (75 starts), although he started 18 times at third base and 52 games at shortstop.
The Bottom Line: The charismatic Báez appears destined to be a finalist. But he will have to overcome history with his relatively low OBP. Hall of Famer Andre Dawson (.328 in 1987) and Zoilo Versallesis (.319 in 1965) are the only position players to win an MVP with an OBP under .330 in the last 55 years.
Jacob deGrom, SP — Mets
The Stats: 217 IP; 1.70 ERA; 1.99 FIP; 216 ERA+; 0.912 WHIP; 9.6 bWAR
The Skinny: Being a pitcher is a strike against any MVP candidacy. Being a pitcher on a bad team is even worse. That’s where deGrom finds himself. Still, the former Stetson University Hatter will receive consideration for some voters. He was that good this year.
Those who use conventional statistics may initially be dismayed deGrom is even in the MVP conversation with just 10 wins this year. But they may be willing to give a closer look to the 30-year-old’s stat line once they see his ERA. Since the mound was lowered after the 1968 season, two pitchers have a better ERA in a full 162-game season than the Mets’ ace did in 2018: Dwight Gooden (1.53 in 1985) and Zack Greinke (1.66 in 2015).
Using the advanced metrics that make the eyes of seam-heads grow wide, deGrom was impressive too. The Cy Young Award favorite led the league in FIP, ERA+, xwOBA, and WPA.
The Bottom Line: Since the beginning of the Cy Young Award in 1956, five pitchers have won the MVP award — Denny McLain and Bob Gibson in 1968, Roger Clemens (1986), Dennis Eckersley (1992), Justin Verlander (2011), and Clayton Kershaw (2014). It is unlikely deGrom joins this elite group this year, especially with a certain outfielder from the Brewers carrying his club into the postseason in September.
Christian Yelich, OF — Brewers
The Stats: 22 SB; 36 HR; .326/.402/.598; 7.6 bWAR; 166 wRC+
The Skinny: Not only did Brewers GM David Stearns hit pay dirt by bringing Cain back to Milwaukee, he acquired Yelich via trade from the rebuilding Marlins. That’s good, right?
The answer is yes. Yelich led the league in in batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, bWAR, and wRC+. Moreover, he fell two home runs and one RBI short of winning the Triple Crown.
The Bottom Line: What may help Yelich’s candidacy most will be his late-season heroics. From August 15 until the end of the season, the 26-year-old slashed .368/.473/.813 with an MLB leading 18 home runs. More importantly, the Brewers had the best record (28-13) in the NL during that span. It’s hard to argue with those results.