Fernando Tatís is going to win the National League MVP Award this year. That might sound obvious, but it’s something I feel needs to be stressed, because for some reason, half of all bets on the award’s winner are going to… Philadelphia’s Bryce Harper.
Per OddsChecker, Harper has received 50 percent of all MVP bets over the past 30 days. He doesn’t have the best odds to win the award… or the second-best… or the third-best. Those belong to Tatís (-270), Max Muncy (+900), and Freddie Freeman (+950). Harper isn’t even close to those three. He currently has +1600 odds. So, why are so many people putting their money on Harper?
Well, a lot of hype has befallen Harper in that time. I even wrote a piece about how good he’s been — but like I say in that piece, Harper has not been mashing at this pace the entire season. His great end to this campaign is merely a facade, a mirage of his MVP case. Since the start of August, Harper has mashed eight homers to the tune of a 1.152 OPS. That’s pretty nuts. However, for the entire season, he still trails all three of the aforementioned people ahead in the MVP odds race in runs, home runs, and RBI. That’s two of the three branches of MLB’s Triple Crown (AVG, HR, RBI), meaning that MVP voters tend to notice those kinds of shortcomings in players. While Harper is either first or second in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging, the raw numbers are not there to warrant a serious MVP candidacy. I understand that runs and RBI are a team statistic. How are you supposed to knock people in if nobody is getting on base in front of you? I get it, but you time and time again, we’ve seen players with a lack of strong base numbers get passed on. On numerous occasions, the committee that votes on the awards has shown preference to people with big numbers rather than analytics darlings, and I can’t blame them.
Take 2012 as an example: Mike Trout was the best player in baseball by a wide margin. He was great defensively, stole nearly 50 bases on the season, and led the American League in on-base percentage and WAR. But Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown — a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since 1967. Despite Trout clearly being the superior player, Miggy was given the awards for two reasons: those raw numbers, and team success.
Team success is another big factor in how MVP voters tend to lean that the contenders themselves don’t have much control over. The 2012 NL MVP Award was given to San Francisco’s Buster Posey over Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun. Say what you will about Braun’s past PED usage, but in 2012, he was a menace at the plate. Compared to Posey, Braun may not have had a higher average, but he did have more runs, hits, home runs, RBI, stolen bases, and a higher slugging percentage and OPS… but it didn’t matter, because Posey led his team to a division title, while Braun couldn’t even lead his Brewers to the postseason.
Now go look at the current MLB standings. Every player listed ahead of Harper is either in a position to make the playoffs or are very close. The Padres don’t hold the second Wild Card spot right now, but they are in a position to take that spot with less than 40 games left in the regular season. We can sort of say the same thing about the Phillies since they are only 5.5 games out of first place in the NL East, but they are still under .500. That’s a huge hit to Harper’s MVP case. The fact that he can’t lead his team past the Braves, whose best player went down for the remainder of the season in July, just furthers the idea that Harper shouldn’t win the award. Meanwhile Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman has lifted his team to a division lead without the presence of Acuña. That boosts his odds significantly.
It would take a miracle for Harper to win the MVP award at this point. If you’re one of those people who looked at his average and slugging, saw that his odds were listed at +1600, and figured that putting money on him was a no-brainer, might I suggest instead betting on Atlanta’s Austin Riley (+5000). That’s a 50-to-1 payout. Riley leads all contenders in batting average, is second in runs batted in, is on a team set in position to reach the postseason, and has been slashing .356/.394/.586 since the beginning of August. He’s been a key part of Atlanta’s run to the top of the NL East, and while his plate discipline numbers indicate that he’s been getting rather lucky at the dish, he’s got one of the hottest bats in the National League at the right time — and luck doesn’t matter when you’ve got great stats.