The pair were two of the best hitters in the game and two of the best all-around players as well, leading their league in numerous offensive categories and ranking near the top at their position on the defensive side as well.
It's unusual that the winners came from the NL and AL East. Harper is the fourth player from the NL East to win since three-division alignment began in 1994 (the other two divisions have nine winners each). Donaldson is the fifth player to win from the AL East in that time (the West has 11 and the Central has six).
NL MVP: Bryce Harper
Harper is the first player in Expos/Nationals history to win the MVP award. The Elias Sports Bureau notes that Harper, who turned 23 right after the season ended, is the fourth-youngest MVP, the youngest in the NL since Johnny Bench in 1970 and the youngest to win by unanimous vote.
Harper hit .330 with a major-league leading 1.109 OPS and led the National League with 42 home runs. He was the youngest player to hit 40 home runs in a season since Juan Gonzalez in 1992. Harper also stood out on defense with nine defensive runs saved. His 97 “out of zone” catches (out of zone meaning outside the range in which a rightfielder most often turns batted balls into outs) were second-most in the majors at that position.
How he did it:One of the big differences for Harper is simply that he was healthier than he’s been in previous seasons. He played in 153 games, the first season in which he played in at least 140.
Hitting-wise, Harper’s plate coverage was the best it’s ever been. He crushed pitches on the outer-half of the plate, posting a .350 batting average and .688 slugging percentage on pitches to that location. Harper became a more patient hitter. His chase rate dropped to 26 percent, the first time in his career that it was below 30 percent.
Harper also excelled against both left and right-handed pitching. His slugging percentage against lefties was .552, 120 points better than his previous best. His 85 total bases against lefties were two more than he had in the previous two seasons combined (in 76 fewer at-bats).
Did you know? Harper’s 9.9 Wins Above Replacement is tied for the third-highest in the modern era (since 1900) among players who were 22 or younger on June 30 of that particular season (referred to as being “in their age 22 or younger season”). Mike Trout’s 10.8 WAR in 2012 and Ted Williams’ 10.6 WAR in 1941 rank 1-2. Harper is tied with Rogers Hornsby (9.9 WAR for the 1917 Cardinals at age 21).
AL MVP: Josh Donaldson
Donaldson won the award on the basis of both total performance and clutch performance.
He led the majors in Win Probability Added, a stat that values the result of every plate appearance based on how much it contributed to winning. And the sum of Donaldson’s plate appearances was the most impactful in baseball.
Donaldson led the majors in walk-off hits (4) and walk-off home runs (3). His seven walk-off home runs over the last three seasons also lead the majors (next-most by anyone is 3). Donaldson’s 34 go-ahead hits were five more than the player with the next-most (Matt Kemp). Stats aren’t kept for Win Probability Added for defense, but Donaldson would likely have rated well there, as he finished with 11 Defensive Runs Saved. Among his most impressive plays was an eighth-inning catch flying into the stands to keep a perfect game bid by Marco Estrada alive.
How he did it: Donaldson mauled pitches on the inner-half of the plate. He had the second-highest batting average (.367) and third-highest slugging percentage (.720) in baseball against pitches to that location or off the inside corner. His 106 hits against those pitches were the most in the majors.
This was a major difference for Donaldson from 2014. He increased his batting average by 95 points and slugging percentage by 155 points against those pitches.
Did you know? Donaldson is the first player to win the AL MVP in his first season with a team since Vladimir Guerrero won for the Angels in 2004. The Elias Sports Bureau notes that no player has been his league’s MVP in his first year with a team that acquired him in a trade since Willie Hernandez won the 1984 award for the Tigers. The last position player was Dick Allen for the 1972 White Sox.