The 2021 regular season has come and gone with the Nationals falling well short of expectations. Amid a 97-loss season, Washington struggled to overcome a series of injuries, coronavirus outbreaks, struggling pitchers and a lack of organizational depth. The team mailed it in early by trading several key veterans in July and shifting its focus to the future.
One of the few bright spots was the play of Juan Soto, who caught fire in the second half to vault himself into the NL MVP race despite the Nationals’ play. Just 22 years old, Soto carried over his other-worldly success from the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign and staked his claim as one of the best hitters in all of baseball.
As impressive as Soto’s season was, he has several other worthy adversaries for the award. Former Nationals teammates Trea Turner and Bryce Harper both finished the season strong while Fernando Tatís Jr. spent most of the year as the favorite to take home the honor.
Just how strong is Soto’s case? Let’s take a look at this race from every angle.
The back-of-the-baseball-card argument
MVP races nearly always come down to the numbers and that’s never been more true than the statistic-driven era MLB finds itself in today. But before diving into the sabermetrics, it’s important to first look at the traditional stats and see who passes the eye test.
Soto: 151 G, .313/.465/.534, 29 HR, 95 RBI, 111 R, 157 H, 20 2B, 2 3B, 9 SB, 145 BB, 93 SO
Harper: 141 G, .309/.429/.615, 35 HR, 84 RBI, 101 R, 151 H, 42 2B, 1 3B, 13 SB, 100 BB, 134 SO
Turner: 148 G, .328/.375/.536, 28 HR, 77 RBI, 107 R, 195 H, 34 2B, 3 3B, 32 SB, 41 BB, 110 SO
Tatís: 130 G, .282/.365/.611, 42 HR, 97 RBI, 99 R, 135 H, 31 2B, 0 3B, 25 SB, 62 BB, 153 SO
Bold indicates the player led this quartet in each particular category.
In summary, Soto was the on-base machine, Harper showcased his rare blend of power and plate discipline, Turner built his game around speed and contact and Tatís was the home run king. If all these categories were created equal, Soto and Turner would be the runaway favorites in contention for the award.
However, some statistics are better than others, which brings us to…
The WAR argument
The word “value” is in the name MVP, which makes it impossible to talk about this race without discussing the all-encompassing WAR statistic. Wins Above Replacement is an attempt to measure how valuable a player is by using both their offense and their defense to come up with one number that reflects their overall contributions.
It’s not a perfect statistic — as evidenced by the fact that there’s more than one formula for it — but it does give a sense of which players deserve to be in the running.
Soto: 6.5 fWAR (FanGraphs), 7.0 bWAR (Baseball-Reference)
Harper: 6.6 fWAR, 5.9 bWAR
Turner: 6.8 fWAR, 6.5 bWAR
Tatís: 6.3 fWAR, 6.6 bWAR
Well, that solves just about nothing. Not only is there not one player leading both types of WAR, but there’s also no player in the top two (between these four players) for each formula. FanGraphs favors Turner and Harper while Baseball-Reference pegs Soto and Tatís as the more valuable players.
It’s also important to note that a 0.1 difference in WAR or even a 0.5 difference isn’t that much and shouldn’t be used to make the case for one player over another. There are plenty of other advanced statistics that paint a better picture, for example…
The sabermetric argument
Not going to preface these numbers other than to say if the stats below look like a bunch of jargon and you want to learn more, the FanGraphs Library is a tremendous resource that breaks down each statistic and shows what the average player puts up compared to superstars.
Hint — Most of these numbers fall under the “Excellent” category.
Soto: .999 OPS, 175 OPS+, 22.2 BB%, 14.2 K%, 163 wRC+, .420 wOBA, 3 DRS, 1.3 UZR
Harper: 1.044 OPS, 179 OPS+, 16.7 BB%, 22.4 K%, 170 wRC+, .431 wOBA, -6 DRS, 1.8 UZR
Turner: .911 OPS, 146 OPS+, 6.3 BB%, 17 K%, 142 wRC+, .386 wOBA, 1 DRS, 2.4 UZR
Tatís: .975 OPS, 146 OPS+, 11.4 BB%, 28 K%, 156 wRC+, .403 wOBA, -7 DRS, -7.6 UZR
Here is where we start to see some separation.
Harper comes out on top as the best all-around hitter, taking a sizable lead in OPS and pacing the NL in both normalized statistics OPS+ and wRC+ that each take park factors into account. Soto once again shows that his plate discipline is unmatched while DRS picks him as the top fielder. Turner’s work at shortstop also gets some love from UZR.
It’s clear from these numbers that Harper and Soto were the two best hitters of the group. With speed as his best asset, Turner was always going to face long odds at winning these categories. Meanwhile, Tatís’s defensive shortcomings are blatant and he still finds himself no higher than third place in any of the above statistics.
Moving forward with just Soto and Harper, let’s put some of these numbers into context…
The situational argument
As good as a player can be over the course of a full season, what separates MVPs from other superstars is how often they come through in key situations. Below are four situations that teams rely on their best hitters to succeed in.
Runners in scoring position
Soto: 163 PA, .396/.577/.689, 1.265 OPS
Harper: 125 PA, .330/.488/.546, 1.033 OPS
Soto: 215 PA, .286/.488/.461, .949 OPS
Harper: 224 PA, .287/.424/.624, 1.048 OPS
Soto: 131 PA, .253/.450/.495, .945 OPS
Harper: 97 PA, .333/.531/.492, 1.023 OPS
Soto: 322 PA, .348/.525/.639, 1.164 OPS
Harper: 311 PA, .338/.476/.713, 1.188 OPS
When the Nationals needed runs driven in, Soto was their guy. If the Phillies were down to their last out in an inning, it was Harper coming through. Harper didn’t appear in as many high-leverage spots as Soto, but he reached base more often when he did. The second-half numbers were both historic with the edge going to Harper for the power he showed down the stretch.
But it’s not always just about the player. Sometimes, there are things out of their control that can affect an MVP race…
The competitive team argument
Let’s bring Turner and Tatís back in here for a minute.
It’s no longer a hard-set requirement in the minds of MVP voters that a player’s team must make the playoffs for him to qualify for the award. Five of the last 14 MVP winners have come from teams that missed the postseason, most recently being Mike Trout in 2019.
That’s good news for the likes of Soto, Harper and Tatís, all of whom will be watching October baseball from home this year. Turner, who was traded to the Dodgers as part of Washington’s deadline fire sale, played 96 of his 148 games this season for the eventual last-place Nationals. No player has ever won MVP after being traded midway through the year.
The Phillies and Padres were more competitive than the Nationals, though neither managed to make it very close in the end. Philadelphia finished six and a half games back of the Atlanta Braves in the NL East while the Padres ended up 11 games out of the second NL Wild Card spot. Sure, the games they were playing down the stretch still had meaning, but should that be considered in favor of Harper and Tatís when neither of their teams were winning?
If anyone, that line of thinking should benefit Turner. The Dodgers went 41-12 after Turner joined the team Aug. 6, which was easily the best record in baseball over that span. Los Angeles didn’t coast to a playoff spot, either. It came all the way down to Game 162 for the NL West title to be decided and the Dodgers ended up with a Wild Card spot.
But considering a majority of Turner’s production this season came in a Nationals uniform, the competitive team argument gives him a marginal advantage at best. It’s certainly not one that should be weighed more heavily than the players’ overall production.
So without further ado…
It’s going to be close, but the choice here looks to be Harper.
Not only do the advanced analytics point to the Phillies outfielder as the favorite, he also has the advantage of being on a team that was in the headlines a lot more than Soto’s. The Nationals’ decision to give up on the season kept much of the national attention away from Soto for most of the second half — precisely when he started heating up.
Soto was the better pure hitter than Harper and a more reliable fielder, but there was a stark difference in their power numbers. Harper beat Soto in home runs, doubles and slugging percentage, all of which helped him take the OPS crown by a whopping 45 percentage points. As historic as Soto’s on-base abilities were (his OBP was MLB’s highest since 2008), Harper managed to produce a little bit more offense.
It’s not a runaway victory and there should be first-place votes for all four of the top candidates. If any one of the Padres, Phillies or Nationals had made the playoffs, there would be a much different narrative going around. Yet none of them did, and Harper appears to have the best case to win NL MVP.