I live in Connecticut, and I get the local broadcasts for the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and New York Mets. That means I watch a lot of Red Sox, Yankees and Mets on my TV while watching other games on my computer screen. It seems every time I look up at the TV this season, Mookie Betts is getting another hit or stealing a base or making a great play on defense.
He had another one of those games in Boston’s 6-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday. He went 3-for-4 with a walk, three stolen bases and two runs scored. He’s now hitting .364 and slugging .734, and he’s on pace for 48 homers, 59 doubles, 41 stolen bases and 169 runs scored. I mean, that’s a career for some players.
Earlier in the day, we ran a terrific story from Sam Miller on Mike Trout. The headline: “Mike Trout is on pace for the greatest season in MLB history.” Sam does a great job of explaining why that’s the case, as Trout’s 3.5 WAR through the Angels’ first 40 games put him on pace for 14.2 WAR, which would break Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 14.1 in 1923.
Sam wrote: “But Trout is also perfect for WAR. After all, it can be hard to feel confident about what that 14.1 WAR meant for Ruth: How could that have been better than 60 home runs? We don’t have to have any such doubts about Trout. We can see him, we can intuit him, we can break him down every day, and what almost all of us know is he’s the greatest player in the world by a mile. The most convincing thing you can say about WAR is Trout leads the league in it every year. How do you design a more perfect stat than that?”
I agree with everything in that paragraph. Here’s the one catch, though: Has Trout even been the best player in the American League this season?
Entering Wednesday, Trout did lead in Baseball-Reference WAR at 3.5. Francisco Lindor was next at 3.0, Betts at 2.9 and Jose Ramirez at 2.8. Betts will climb a little higher after Thursday’s game. Over at FanGraphs, Ramirez led at 3.1, Betts was next at 3.0, with Trout at 2.9 and Lindor at 2.8. By the time you read this Friday morning, Betts will probably lead Ramirez.
It all makes for what could be an MVP race for the ages, and that’s before factoring in Aaron Judge or even Manny Machado (who will be hamstrung by playing for a lousy team, at least until he’s traded). All of these players have established a chance at an 8.0-WAR season. We’ve had just four seasons when at least four position players in the same league achieved that level of play, via the Baseball-Reference.com tabulation:
1912 American League (5) — Tris Speaker 10.1, Shoeless Joe Jackson 9.5, Home Run Baker 9.3, Ty Cobb 9.2, Eddie Collins 8.8
1964 National League (4) — Willie Mays 11.0, Ron Santo 8.9, Dick Allen 8.8, Willie Davis 8.3 (and Frank Robinson just missed at 7.9)
1997 National League (4) — Larry Walker 9.8, Craig Biggio 9.4, Mike Piazza 8.7, Barry Bonds 8.2
Nobody remembers all those epic seasons in 2004 because that was the year Bonds broke baseball, hitting an insane .362/.609/.812 (!!!!). He collected only 24 of the 32 first-place MVP votes, however, as Beltre received six and Pujols and Rolen one apiece.
Anyway, if the AL MVP vote were held today, I think Betts beats out the guy on pace for the greatest season ever. He leads Trout in home runs, runs, RBIs and has a big lead in batting average (.364 to .290) and slugging percentage (.734 to .600) and Betts’ slight edge in FanGraphs WAR helps cancel out Trout’s lead in Baseball-Reference WAR.
You might ask why Trout leads Betts when Betts has the better offensive numbers across the board. Two things: (1) park effects (Fenway is a better hitter’s park than Angel Stadium); (2) defense (Trout has plus-6 Defensive Runs versus plus-2 for Betts and also gets a positional adjustment for playing the tougher defensive position).
So with one quarter of the season gone, I’d put the MVP standings in the AL like this:
1. Mookie Betts
2. Mike Trout
3. Francisco Lindor
4. Jose Ramirez
5. Aaron Judge
Let’s take a quick look at the other early awards races.
AL Cy Young
This is shaping up as another potential epic race given the starts of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, plus the sub-2.50 ERAs from last year’s top three: Corey Kluber, Chris Sale and Luis Severino. Charlie Morton has been dominant as well, although he hasn’t pitched the innings of the other five. Verlander is certainly the early leader with his 1.05 ERA.
AL Rookie of the Year
Is there another rookie in the league besides Shohei Ohtani? Could Ohtani enter the MVP discussion? Maybe, but I think that’s a long shot, mostly because he hasn’t played enough or pitched quite enough. His combined WAR so far is 1.3 (1.4 on FanGraphs).
This race is wide, wide open, especially with early WAR leader A.J. Pollock landing on the disabled list and some of the usual suspects off to bad starts (Paul Goldschmidt), mediocre starts (Joey Votto) or out for the season (Corey Seager).
I’d put Freddie Freeman as the early leader, as he’s mashing to a .325/.435/.567 line. Note that Tommy Pham, my surprise preseason NL MVP pick, has been outstanding with a .302/.412/.535 line. He has been hitting leadoff, so the RBI total isn’t up there, but he has been an outstanding all-around player.
The two early surprises have been Ozzie Albies and Odubel Herrera. Albies leads the NL with 15 doubles and is tied with Bryce Harper with 13 home runs. His .320 OBP isn’t what you typically see from MVP candidates, but if he keeps ripping extra-base hits at this rate, he could run into a Jimmy Rollins-type MVP-caliber season. Herrera had two more hits for the Phillies in their 6-2 victory over the Cardinals and is now hitting .361/.431/.558. Not bad for a guy who didn’t start on Opening Day.
This ranking is likely to shift throughout the season, but right now I’d go:
Three Braves in the top five. Wow.
NL Cy Young
Actually, you could probably make a good case for Max Scherzer as the MVP front-runner, as he’s 7-1 with a 1.69 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 58⅔ innings. Aaron Nola doesn’t rack up the K’s like Scherzer, but he has given the Phillies a No. 1-level starter so far with a 1.99 ERA.
4. Jacob deGrom
NL Rookie of the Year
Ronald Acuna Jr. has received most of the attention and he’s certainly the rookie with the brightest future, but the early leader could be Padres third baseman Christian Villanueva, with 10 home runs and 22 RBIs and a .516 slugging percentage, or steady-if-unspectacular Colin Moran of the Pirates, hitting .292/.382/.451. Padres lefty Joey Lucchesi also has looked good and Dodgers righty Walker Buehler is just getting going, with a 2.67 ERA through five starts.