We always knew that the award races in a 60 game season would be wild. Plenty of columns were written in the run up to the season about the statistical possibilities that a 60 game season throws up, from a .400 hitter to a run at the ERA record.
We didn’t know which players exactly would be challenging our conceptions about the limits of baseball performance but we felt pretty confident that someone would. The 2020 MVP race is really just a wild 100m sprint.
But, now at the midway stage of the campaign for most teams, the initial excitement at Charlie Blackmon‘s run at .500 has subsided and the names floating to the top of the MLB leaderboards are broadly speaking the kind of excellent players we expect to see.
In the National League, a particularly fun battle seems to be emerging in the sprint for MVP. In fact, this four-horse race has a little something for everyone, and regardless of your views on the legitimacy of a 60 game season (btw, it’s legitimate, please dry your eyes and remove your asterisks) it’s one that should be great fun to track over the next five weeks. Let’s take a look at our candidates.
THE PERENNIAL SUPERSTAR ON A BLOCKBUSTER TEAM
Please come down to the stage Mookie Betts.
Somewhere between the Red Sox disappointing 2019 campaign, the drama over his February trade to the Dodgers and the Coronavirus-enforced delay to the 2020 regular season, I forgot how good Mookie Betts is at baseball.
An obscene talent who provides value in every aspect of the sport, Betts has quietly and efficiently been the best player on the best team in the Majors. It doesn’t matter whether you look at traditional stats (.300 AVG, 11 homers, 5 steals) or advanced metrics (174 WRC+, .364 ISO, league-leading 2.4 bWAR) or just watch this guy play baseball. This guy is unbelievably good.
Plus, you know, there’s the fact that he now plays for the Dodgers, on one of baseball’s most absurdly talented rosters as they look set to canter to an eighth consecutive division title. He’s the best player on the best team in baseball, and he’s going to take some beating.
THE GENERATIONAL YOUNGSTER BREAKING OUT
Don’t be shy Fernando Tatis Jr. This one is for you.
To even call it a breakout is an insult to his spectacular 2019 campaign, where only a back injury cost us one of the great Rookie of the Year races of recent memory. But for as good as the original was, the sequel is looking even better so far.
To bring up stats feels superfluous for a player like Tatis Jr – his highlight reel through just 30 games this season is staggering. Tape measure home runs, sensational defensive plays and stolen bases that defy our understanding of how the human body can contort itself. But let’s mention some stats anyway! He’s slugging .678. He’s hit 12 home runs and stolen 6 bases. He’s playing premium defence at the most challenging position in baseball. He’s 21 years old. 21!
Above anything else, Fernando Tatis Jr.is fun. He is everything that Major League Baseball wants, and everything that it so desperately needs. He is a generational talent, ready to dominate the sport for a decade and beyond. An MVP award in 2020 wouldn’t just be impressive it would be scary. Because for as good as this guy is right now, you get the sense that the best is still to come.
THE ‘SURELY HE CAN’T KEEP THIS UP’ DARK HORSE
Bring it in, Mike Yastrzemski.
In 2019, Yaz was a feel good story. To make it to the Majors at all after seven hard years of graft in the Minors was an achievement, and to be a productive outfielder among the chaos at San Francisco was straight up impressive. For a dude who must have spent his entire adult life uttering the phrase “Yeah, he’s my granddad”, for Mike Yastrzemski to hit a home run at Fenway must have felt like a moment of pure catharsis. He’d made it.
But then 2020 happened. Yaz isn’t just a solid regular this season, he’s a bonafide slugger. A 184 WRC+, a .336 ISO mark and perhaps most impressively a 17.3% walk rate that way outstrips his previous best. With two strikes, he has been the best hitter in Major League history. Where we expected regression, Yaz has instead gone out and improved the aspects of his game that weren’t to his liking last season. Just watch him stay back and destroy this near-perfect two-strike changeup:
Now look, it’s 30 games. We know full well that any remotely competent hitter can put together a torrid 30-game stretch and whilst Yaz’s underlying numbers support his impressive breakout, we’re probably not looking at a perennial MVP candidate. But come on. The 30-year old journeyman grandson of a Hall of Famer is putting up a stratospheric offensive season on his way to one of the biggest surprise MVP awards of our lifetimes? How can you not be romantic about baseball?
THE VIDEO GAME NUMBERS BUT WILL HE QUALIFY?
Oh, you made it after all, Juan Soto!
Let’s be clear here, Juan Soto has played 18 games. He’s had 76 plate appearances. Even in a season shortened to the point of absurdity, you’re going to need to do something special if you’re going to miss 1/5 of your team’s games and win the MVP award.
But have you seen Juan Soto’s numbers! His triple-slash line is .400/.487/.815. His WRC+ is 236. He’s walking as much as he strikes out. These are Bondsian numbers. By the way – he’s 21 years old! His combination of plate discipline, contact skills and power is incomprehensible for a player of his age, his approach and ability make him – genuinely – the best hitter in the game right now in my opinion. These are staggering numbers, pure fiction in any world but the world where Juan Soto exists.
But yes, he’s played 18 games this season. At best, he’ll be able to feature in 52 by season’s end, assuming the Nationals don’t give him a single day off which would be just dumb enough that they might actually try it. It’s going to take one of the most unbelievable 50-game stretches if he’s going to vault himself into MVP contention. But have you seen Juan Soto play baseball?
So, there we have it. Four players enjoying sensational seasons, all with their own fascinating narrative to follow as we enter the home stretch. Regardless of your views on the way that MLB has handled the 2020 season (narrator: not great), it’s hard to argue that the actual baseball has been anything other than pure box office.
We are privileged to be watching baseball at a time when the ability of the participants is greater than at any previous time in history. The athletes taking to the field every night are the best that this sport has ever seen, the human body taken to limits of physical capacity that we previously thought impossible.
Even the worst baseball player you can name is a better sportsman that you can possibly fathom. I truly believe this. Which makes the achievements of the four gentlemen listed above even more impressive, short sample size or not. Only one of them will end up winning that MVP award, but my god will he have earned it.