This is going to be so tight, the loser may demand a recount.
When the National League MVP winner is announced Thursday night, it could be one of the closest votes in the history of the award. The top two candidates have a strange blend of appeal to different ends of the baseball world — the on-base specialist against the bruiser — and neither made it to the playoffs. The third option is as turn-key as a player can be. Each has an argument to win.
Cincinnati’s Joey Votto, Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton and Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt are the finalists for National League MVP. Votto finished seventh in 2016, Goldschmidt 11th. Stanton played only 119 games because of injuries that year and was not a factor. Last season, he was healthy and dominant during a year that brought back the home run.
A look at the candidacy of each:
Two things define Votto’s candidacy: consistency and reaching base. Votto is king in the era of on-base percentage love. Of the six full months he played this season, his on-base plus slugging percentage never dipped below .878. In half of those months, he was above 1.000. He hit for power (36 home runs, 34 doubles), average (.320) and walked 51 more times than he struck out.
Votto’s advanced numbers cause gasps in the saber community the same way Stanton’s massive home runs do for those in the stands. Votto led the league in walks, on-base percentage (for the sixth time in his 11-year career), OPS, OPS-plus, and intentional walks. He played every game. He was a Gold Glove finalist at first base. He was third in baseball reference’s measurement of WAR, just 0.1 behind Max Scherzer and Stanton. He is seventh in WAR, according to Fangraphs, trailing Stanton by 0.3 there.
The ancient rub is that Votto played for a last-place team. The Reds’ starting rotation was abysmal. Their bullpen was little better. Overall, they finished with 68 wins and 24 games out of first place in the NL Central. If Votto wins, he would be the first player on a last-place team to do so since Alex Rodriguez won while with the Texas Rangers in 2003. Only three players on last-place teams have won the award.
Fortunately, the baseball world has moved away from penalizing a hitter if the pitchers he plays with cannot do their job. In fact, an argument can be made that it is more difficult for a single player to be in tune each day during a putrid team season.
Votto may have an edge because of the all-around depth of his performance. But, if he does, it is likely to be extraordinarily thin.
If the award was based in appointment viewing, Stanton would be an unanimous victor.
Stanton spent the season as an exit velocity and home run hitting champion from the No. 2 spot in the Miami Marlins lineup. His 59 home runs and .631 slugging percentage led the league, as did his 132 RBIs, for what that statistic is worth.
Unlike Votto, Stanton binged during a two-month span. He hit 30 home runs in July and August combined. He was still good in the other full months — his OPS never dropped lower than .865 — and he was durable, playing 159 games.
Like Votto, Stanton was a Gold Glove finalist at his position. What was asked of him in right field is more demanding than what Votto went through at first base. That’s why Stanton had a positive defensive WAR rating of 0.4. Votto was 0.2.
Every small measure counts since these two are so close in overall assessment. Maybe the home runs were not enough for some voters. Maybe they were so eye-popping they could not be denied.
If anyone has company in consistency with Votto, it’s Goldschmidt, who has twice finished second in the MVP race. Goldschmidt tied a career high last season with 36 home runs. He’s never hit fewer than 20 in a season when he had more than 500 at-bats.
He runs well — 18 stolen bases in 25 attempts. Goldschmidt fields well — he was among the Gold Glove finalists at first base. He hits for average, power, doubles and walks often.
Goldschmidt also strikes out a lot.
What hurts him in this race is the full body of work just can’t keep up with Votto and Stanton. Goldschmidt did not lead the league in any offensive category. He did well across the board, which is his style since entering the league full-time in 2012. There is no flash, no marketing campaigns, no overexposure. It’s just Goldschmidt producing on a daily basis each season. He’s going to hit .300, be on base 40 percent of the time, steal 20 bases and hit 30 home runs. He did that again in 2017. That’s just not enough to win him the award this time around.
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