Unless your team wins the World Series, there are few days on the calendar sadder than the day the last out settles into a player’s glove and baseball slips into hibernation. Among the few reprieves from the long, dark winter are big-ticket free agent signings, Hall of Fame voting season, and award season.
Before those dark days befall us, I’d like to jump ahead to award season by sharing the ballots I would gladly submit to any authority interested in my opinion. I’ll start with the MVP awards because they’re not as interesting as the Cy Young awards. If you’ve been here before, you probably know which guys will find their names at the top of my ballots. I’ll list my top ten in each league.
10. Buster Posey, Giants – I’m a believer in WAR as a starting point for MVP discussions, and between the two versions of WAR, it often permeates the entire conversation. After all, what is value if not the sum of a player’s offensive and defensive contributions to his team’s success? The one place I’m willing to veer furthest off the WAR course is with catcher evaluation. Catching is a different job with a different degree of difficulty, and anyone who can do it well and also provide offensive value is among the league’s most valuable players. Posey had a pedestrian year with the bat, at least by his standards, hitting .288/.362/.454 with 14 home runs. That’s still the second best line among NL catchers, and the value he provides defensively more than makes up for the difference between his bat and that of, say, teammate Brandon Belt, another contender for this spot.
9. Dexter Fowler, Cubs – In April and May, Fowler was probably the best player in the National League. In April and May, the Cubs established themselves as the best team in baseball and a certain playoff participant. He missed some time and finished slower, but that .393 OBP looks pretty good on a guy with Fowler’s wheels and a decent glove.
8. Brandon Crawford, Giants – Defensively, there wasn’t a better player in the National League in 2016 than Crawford, at least according to Fangraphs, which gives him credit for 28 Fielding Runs Above Average, 6 better than runner-up Freddy Galvis. Crawford brought the bat to work this year too, hitting .275/.342/.430 with 12 homers and 7 stolen bases.
7. Justin Turner, Dodgers – Like Crawford, Turner excelled with the bat (27 homers, 124 wRC+) and the glove (16 FRAA). He’s quietly been among the best players on one of the best teams in baseball for the past three seasons.
6. Anthony Rizzo, Cubs – Rizzo’s offensive numbers (.292/.385/.544) were almost identical to teammate Kris Bryant’s (.292/.385/.554). Bryant’s the better fielder and the better baserunner, but Bryant certainly owes many of his league-leading 121 runs to Rizzo’s monster year.
5. Freddie Freeman, Braves- By the time Freeman started hitting, the Braves were about 80 games behind Washington and his 34 homers didn’t mean much, but his 18 second-half homers and his 177 second-half wRC+ were both second in the NL, and he led the league in WAR in September. All told, he hit .302/.400/.569 for a Braves team that had few other bright spots.
4. Daniel Murphy, Nationals- I don’t often give bonus points for team performance, but Murphy hit a lot like Freeman (.347/.390/.595 with 25 homers) for a team whose games were meaningful all season, so while both keepers of WAR prefer Freeman, I’m willing to bump Murphy ahead.
3. Nolan Arenado, Rockies- Nolan Arenado hit 41 home runs this year and plays some of the best third-base defense in baseball. It’s hard to fathom that not being enough to finish in the top two in MVP voting, but, well, Colorado, I guess. Arenado’s biggest weakness coming into this season was patience, as he’d never compiled an OBP above .330. In 2016, he walked in almost 10% of his plate appearances, jumping his OBP to .362, with a .570 slugging percentage to boot. Arenado’s advocates will tell you that he hit 16 of his homers outside of Colorado, and that he’s not a product of the ballpark, and while there’s truth to that, his .277/.340/.492 line at sub-Denver altitudes doesn’t exactly look like that of the rest of the guys in this top five, except maybe for the slick-fielding shortstop…
2. Corey Seager, Dodgers – Here’s that shortstop. The one who was born in 1994. The one who batted .308/.365/.512 with 26 home runs for the division-winning Dodgers. With great fielding and good baserunning, Fangraphs tells us his season was worth 7.5 WAR, second only to this guy…
1. Kris Bryant, Cubs – He might win the real MVP award unanimously. He probably should. .292/.395/.554. 39 homers. 8 stolen bases. Good glove, good legs, and those eyes… The 103 wins don’t hurt his case either.
10. Kyle Seager, Mariners
9. Robinson Cano, Mariners – Seattle’s 2nd- and 3rd basemen had eerily similar years, with wRC+s of 138 and 133, respectively, positive but not elite defensive numbers, and negative but not atrocious baserunning numbers. Cano (39 homers, to Seager’s 30) relies more on power to drive his offensive value, while Seager (10.2% walk rate, to Cano’s 6.6%) depends more on patience.
8. Adrian Beltre, Rangers – I’m not convinced there will ever be another year when Beltre isn’t one of the ten best players in the American League. In 2016, at age 37, he hit .300/.358/.521 with typical Beltre defense; the one great player on a surprisingly great team. His last hit was his 2,942nd; his last home run his 445th. A legend.
7. David Ortiz, Red Sox – WAR disagrees with this pick- Ortiz finished 22nd among AL position players in fWAR and 17th in rWAR. Offensively, though, Ortiz was the second-best player in baseball, his .315/.401/.620 line equating to a 163 wRC+. He hit 38 home runs and 48 doubles in his age-40 season. That’s got to be worth some bonus points, right?
6. Francisco Lindor, Indians – It’s tempting to cheat Lindor up a few spots after his postseason coming-out party, but this seems like the best spot for his regular-season exploits. He batted .301 with 15 homers, 19 stolen bases, and the best defense in the American League. And it seems he may still go up from here.
5. Manny Machado, Orioles – When Machado broke into the league, everybody knew he could play shortstop. The Orioles decided to sign JJ Hardy, presumably to keep the pressure off and let Machado hone his hitting skills, so he became the best defensive third baseman in baseball. This year, with Hardy injured, Machado played 45 games at short and was as good as just about anyone in the league before moving back to third and making breathtaking play after breathtaking play. Throw his 37 homers on top of the second-best infield defense in the AL and he’s one of the league’s five best players. If he can take 25 more walks next year, he might be the second-best.
4. Jose Altuve, Astros – Being 5’6″ has probably kept a lot of really good athletes from plying their trade professionally. It was probably a hindrance to Altuve at various times in his young life. In 2016, though, it won him the Sporting News Player of the Year Award over at least three more valuable players. Sure, he hit .338, stole 30 bases, and even hit a surprising 24 home runs. He also provided less defensive and baserunning value than any of the three names to come. I don’t mean to sell Altuve short- he’s a great player coming off a truly great season- but let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill.
3. Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays – Narratives can be a funny thing. Last year, the Blue Jays surged to the front of the American League East for the first time since it’s been a five-team league. In his first year on the team, Donaldson had a 154 wRC+, hit 41 homers, and won the MVP Award. In 2016, the Blue Jays contended for the division title all year and made the playoffs, led by Donaldson’s 155 wRC+ and 37 homers. He might not finish in the top five in MVP voting. It’s true that his defense and baserunning were down a tick this year, costing him a win above replacement, and that the Blue Jays finished second, but Donaldson was basically the same guy this year as last year.
2. Mookie Betts, Red Sox – Perhaps to a greater degree than usual, some of the game’s greatest skills are concentrated with a few players. Fangraphs tells us that Mookie Betts was the game’s most valuable baserunner in 2016, contributing 9.8 runs above average. Baseball Reference tells us he was the best fielder, at least according to his positional peers, with an incredible 32 Fielding Runs. Thanks in large part to coming to bat 730 times, Betts was also the third most valuable offensive player in the American League. If only he weren’t playing in the same league as this guy…
1. Mike Trout, Angels – There’s not much left to write about this guy. He was by far the best hitter in baseball, with a .315/.441(!)/.550 line while playing half his games in a pitchers’ park. He hit 29 homers and stole 30 bases. He’s still an above-average outfielder and added more value on the bases than any major leaguer other than Betts. There’s Mike Trout and there’s everyone else.