Bryce Harper for MVP? There's another Nat who can top him

AP Photo/John Minchillo

We've reached the point of getting serious when it comes to baseball's top awards. So let's take a close look at the races.


Anthony Rendon

You want a hot take? How about this. Though public perception is that Bryce Harper is the best player on the Washington Nationals, you could argue that their most valuable player is actually Rendon.

Rendon entered Wednesday as the National League leader in wins above replacement among position players (5.0). Harper ranks fourth at 4.4.

We can debate all day about how much stock we should put in WAR and whether pitchers (hello, David Schoenfield and Max Scherzer) should warrant an MVP vote. And we're probably not the first to the cause here, but let's look at Rendon in more basic terms. As one of my ESPN Stats & Information colleagues, Michael Bonzagni, wrote up in a report a few weeks ago, Rendon has played like "a man possessed" since his three-homer game against the New York Mets.

Consider this: Since April 30, he is leading the National League in two of the three slashline stats (batting average and slugging percentage) and ranks second in OBP at .342/.450/.685. His lead in slugging percentage is 71 points over Cody Bellinger. He ranks fourth in home runs (21) and third in RBIs (65).

He's a good, solid defensive player, which is important given Washington's infield. His six defensive runs saved match Wilmer Difo for the team lead. He's also six runs ahead of Harper and 22 runs better than Daniel Murphy defensively.

But here's the one hitch. Harper is great and also has public perception on his side (Westgate MVP odds: Harper 2-5 and Rendon 15-1). Harper's slashline is .327/.427/.622. He also has been their best big-moment hitter. Harper leads the majors in win probability added, which assesses the value of every plate appearance based on game situation. The gap between Harper and Rendon in this stat is massive (4.3 wins added to 1.9).

It's an interesting experience when stats conflict (and it probably speaks to the importance of incorporating win probability into WAR). But what it does in practical terms is that it potentially muddles up the vote. Which opens the door for …

The other guys

The nice thing about the NL this season is that there are so many worthy players beyond vote-splitters Rendon, Harper and Scherzer.

Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt is neck and neck in WAR with Rendon. He and the Colorado Rockies' Nolan Arenado are the most likely winners if the Nationals split the vote. Both are great gloves at their respective positions. Goldschmidt is a great all-around player who can run (rare for a first baseman). But there are plenty of great first basemen. Arenado stands out because there aren't a lot of great third basemen.

And then given the Los Angeles Dodgers' success, doesn't it seem like one of their players should be considered? I'd argue no, because though Justin Turner and Corey Seager have been terrific, the Dodgers' success is more predicated on a collection of the good than a dominance by the great (Kyle Farmer's walk-off hit on Sunday Night Baseball epitomized that).

Our pick right now? We purposely kept you in suspense. Boy, it's tough. Good thing there's still two months to decide.

1. Harper

1a. Rendon

2. Goldschmidt

3. Arenado

NL Cy Young

OK, we'll put the pick up top for this one:

1. Max Scherzer

2. Clayton Kershaw

3. Pick 'em

The only potential issue here is the severity of Scherzer's injury, because as I've previously written, he's pitching like he's telling you, "You're going to have to rip the Cy Young Award from my hands."

He has made this very easy for a team that is "eh" defensively, racking up strikeouts at a rate of 12.4 per nine innings, limiting his walks and keeping the ball in the ballpark at an acceptable rate (1.1 per nine). He has been deserving of the "best pitcher in baseball" title.

Of course, so too has Kershaw, who eliminated his long-ball issue (just one home run allowed in the five starts prior to the one in which he got injured) and got his slider to unhittable form. If Kershaw were healthy, he probably would have caught and surpassed Scherzer by now. He looked that good … until he got hurt.

The third spot on the ballot is a tough one. Arizona's Zack Greinke is probably a hair better than Jacob deGrom. Gio Gonzalez is an intriguing choice, but he walks so many hitters (3.7 per nine) that his success is highly reliant on high-wire escapes.

One dark horse: Aaron Nola has been great in an awful season for the Philadelphia Phillies. He's surging. If his next 10 starts are like his past eight -- 1.66 ERA, low walk and home run rates -- he might pass the more established guys, which we'd like, given our affinity for him this spring.


1. Jose Altuve or Aaron Judge

2. Aaron Judge or Jose Altuve

3. Mike Trout

Apologies for the indecisiveness, but this is really hard. My heart said Judge, but my brain was lured to Altuve, who is now the better offensive player at a position in which offensive players at his level come along once every (very long time).

Altuve just completed one of the best months of all time with 48 hits, 21 RBIs and 22 runs scored in 23 games. He hit .485 while striking out nine times. And he's basically the size of the kids who are the best players at the Little League World Series. He is a baseball marvel, deserving of recognition.

But Judge is still great. It's just that he's now adjusting to the fact the league is figuring him out a little bit. Just like Altuve won't hit .485 forever, Judge wasn't going to do what he was doing. But he'll likely settle in at something great.

Meanwhile, Trout is probably just going to run out of time. He's the best player in baseball, but he's not going to have enough games played to be legitimately deserving. If it were a 200-game season, he'd be our pick.

AL Cy Young

1. Chris Sale

2. Corey Kluber

3. Um …

This very much feels like the easiest of the choices. Sale has been supremely dominant pitching with the Boston Red Sox, which isn't exactly Tampa Bay (see: David Price). There is massive pressure there, and Sale has thrived in it as others have not. He's also the best pitcher by the numbers, leading the American League in strikeouts, WHIP and FIP, and was the ERA leader until getting roughed up on Tuesday.

If you add an evaluation for "pressure-cooker atmosphere" for every pitcher -- as you would have to do, to be fair -- the gap widens. Kluber is a highly worthy second-place candidate, as his pressure comes from trying to get a team back to the World Series (where he thrived). He hasn't been Sale, but he has been very close in five fewer starts.

The third spot is a wild card. There are reasons to like the Toronto Blue Jays' Marcus Stroman (2.17 ERA in past seven starts) and Luis Severino, another good pressure-cooker choice, given he has a 2.98 ERA for the New York Yankees.

Let's close with one more dark horse: the Seattle Mariners' James Paxton, known as "The Big Maple," has been "the best lefty you don't know," according to my colleagues Jonathan Costa and Riley Foreman, who ran through the numbers recently. Their best note: Paxton was the third left-handed pitcher to go 6-0 with a sub-2.00 ERA and 40 K's in a single month within the past 30 years, joining Kershaw and Randy Johnson.

And after Sale's little blip against the Cleveland Indians, Paxton now leads the AL in ERA. He was top-three in ERA, opponents' batting average and WHIP in the league for July. And he's ever evolving. He had 32 strikeouts with his breaking ball in July, twice as many as he had in June.

As Paxton evolves, so too do these races. Check back in a month for our next analysis.