The American League MVP award probably was decided in August. That's when the Toronto Blue Jays began their run to the playoffs, and that's when Josh Donaldson kept delivering big hit after big hit. He hit .324/.408/.724 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs in 27 games. Seven of his home runs that month came when the score was tied. Another put the Jays ahead when they'd been behind. The Jays went 21-6 in the month, soaring from under .500 in late July to 93 wins and the AL East title.
Mike Trout, meanwhile, had his one bad month of the season, hitting .218 with one home run as the Los Angeles Angels went 10-19 and stumbled out of the playoff race. A hot September by Trout -- .315, eight home runs -- wasn't enough as the Angels fell one win short of the playoffs.
Of course, I could be overthinking this. The MVP voters love a good storyline and that's what Donaldson provided. I thought the two were close enough in value that Donaldson's big August and the Jays making the playoffs served as worthy tiebreakers. But that storyline. He came over from the A's in a stunning offseason deal. Hitting in the middle of the best lineup in baseball, he led the AL in both runs and RBIs. The Blue Jays made the playoffs for the first time since 1993. So while Donaldson finished second to Trout in WAR among AL position players for the third consecutive season, he ended up the easy MVP winner, with 23 of the 30 first-place votes.
☔️☔️☔️☔️☔️ @BringerOfRain20 🙌🏽🙌🏽🙌🏽 the best of the best!!! Without a doubt!!!!— Jose Bautista (@JoeyBats19) November 19, 2015
Trout easily could have four MVP awards in his first four full seasons. He's now finished second three times and it's no coincidence that the one year he won was the season the Angels made the playoffs. He just needs to get better teammates.
Both guys were great with runners on base, even if Donaldson ended up with 33 more RBIs. Trout hit .352/.508/.693 with runners in scoring position; Donaldson hit .353/.440/.618. He just had more runners on base for him and that might have given him the award.
(By the way, the one funny down-ballot vote: One voter put Nelson Cruz second and Trout third, and if you think Nelson Cruz was the better player than Mike Trout in 2015 then ... well, I don't know what to say.)
Over in the National League, it may feel as if Bryce Harper's winning the MVP award was preordained from the time the Washington Nationals made him the first overall pick in 2010 and he made the All-Star team in 2012 as a 19-year-old rookie.
Sure, Ken Griffey Jr. reached the majors as a teenager and went on to win an MVP and will enter the Hall of Fame next summer. Alex Rodriguez was 18 in his debut, a star at 20, and became a three-time MVP. But then there is Cesar Cedeno, who reached the majors at 19, was a star at 20 and an MVP candidate at 21. He never got better. Ruben Sierra hit 30 home runs at age 21, was second in the MVP voting when he was 23, and never got better.
In baseball, however, nothing is guaranteed. Because of injuries, Harper had played only 118 games in 2013 and 100 games in 2014. He hit only 33 home runs combined over the two seasons. Nobody was picking Harper as the MVP entering the 2015 season, even though the Nationals were the heavy favorites to win the NL East.
Harper's turnaround might have started in the division series loss last October to the Giants, when he hit three home runs in four games. In the ninth inning of Game 4, Harper faced Santiago Casilla with two outs and nobody on, the Nationals down 3-2, their season one out from ending. Harper fell behind two strikes, Casilla threw him five curveballs in a row and Harper eventually coaxed a seven-pitch walk. The light bulb had gone on: Don't chase, wait for your pitch, then crush the ball.
In 2013-14, Harper hit .218/.272/.366 against curveballs, sliders and changeups. He could blister a fastball, but the off-speed stuff was getting him out, as it does with so many young players. He learned overnight. In 2015, he hit .295/.376/.567 against curveballs, sliders and changeups. Oh, and if you tried to sneak a fastball past him? He hit .352 and slugged .700. It was all about patience and pitch recognition.
Once the three finalists were announced -- Paul Goldschmidt finished second and Joey Votto third -- it was a foregone conclusion Harper would win, since none of the three had appeared in the playoffs. Harper clearly had the numbers over the two first basemen. So the only surprise was Harper ended up winning unanimously, the youngest unanimous winner ever. He became the first MVP on a nonplayoff team since Albert Pujols in 2008. I had figured that somebody on a playoff team -- Anthony Rizzo or Andrew McCutchen or even pitchers Jake Arrieta or Zack Greinke -- would get a first-place vote or two.
While Harper had the big advantage in WAR thanks to hitting .330/.460/.649 and leading the NL in home runs, runs, OBP and slugging, there was a case against him. He didn't hit well in "late and close" situations with a .226/.393/.488 line. He didn't hit well against the Mets, with a .254 average and eight RBIs in 18 games, while much of his damage came against the awful Braves, Marlins and Phillies (21 of his 42 home runs in only 54 games). Rizzo would have been the clutch candidate of choice, leading the league in win probability added, but he finished fourth in the voting with only three second-place votes.
In the end, the voters simply recognized the best hitter in the majors in 2015 as the league's MVP. It probably won't be the last time Harper wins.