August just began, but people are already looking at the leaderboards to try and determine who will win the various awards that are doled out after the season. The American League MVP race seems to be between Mike Trout and Jose Ramirez, though Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor will also have a say. Chris Sale will also likely get some down-ballot MVP votes, but it’s unlikely he would win since the MVP has historically been a hitter’s award.
In 2011, then-Tigers ace Justin Verlander won the AL MVP award, becoming the first pitcher to win the award since Dennis Eckersley in 1992. Clayton Kershaw won the NL MVP Award in 2014. But otherwise, it’s been all hitters. With two MVP awards given out each year, we’ve had 50 MVPs since 1993 and only two of them have been pitchers.
The NL side of the MVP debate this year is interesting for that reason. The NL doesn’t have any Trouts, Ramirezes, Bettses, or Lindors, who are all at about 6 WAR or better at the moment, according to FanGraphs. Nolan Arenado leads NL position players with 4.5 WAR. Matt Carpenter (4.4), Freddie Freeman (4.0), and Javier Baez (4.0) are the only other position players at 4 WAR or better. But the NL does have a surfeit of incredible starting pitchers with Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Aaron Nola all clocking in with 2.35 or better ERAs.
Scherzer has won the NL Cy Young Award in each of the last two years and finished 10th in MVP voting both years. But both seasons also had some legitimate MVP-caliber seasons from Kris Bryant and Giancarlo Stanton. There is no such position player in 2018, at least right now.
WAR is a tricky stat since the formula differs significantly for pitchers. Baseball Reference’s version is based on results while FanGraphs’ version is based on FIP, an ERA retrodictor. In other words, a FIP-based WAR is a more “should’ve happened” stat, which opens up an entirely different can of worms when it comes to the MVP debate. Baseball Reference’s version, however, shows us that the NL is led by Nola (6.7), followed by deGrom (6.4), Scherzer (5.9), outfielder Lorenzo Cain (5.4), Rockies starter Kyle Freeland (4.9), and Carpenter (4.7). Four pitchers in the NL’s top-six, including the top three.
We still have two months of baseball left, so things will almost certainly change. But it will be interesting to see if the NL position player field continues to be so relatively lackluster that voters will have to give the award to a pitcher, something they have been historically loath to do.