NL MVP debate: Soto, Harper or Tatis?

November 18th, 2021

This year’s National League MVP race is one of the more intriguing in recent memory, with no fewer than three candidates worthy of consideration (and several more just barely missing the cut). gathered to discuss the arguments to be made for Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto and Bryce Harper.

Alyson Footer, editor/moderator: This year’s NL MVP debate is an interesting one, given that all three of finalists are playing on teams that missed the postseason. That eliminates the argument that a player should win it based on helping his team get to October. That said, I feel like some will lean Bryce Harper, because without him, the Phillies most likely wouldn’t have been contenders this year, whereas Juan Soto played on a team that was never in it. Does any of this matter?

Jessica Camerato, Nationals beat reporter: The fact that none of the players were on contending teams really evens the playing field to look at the players' stats and base it on their individual performances, a true most valuable "player," which doesn't always happen.

AJ Cassavell, Padres beat reporter: I think whether it does matter and whether it should matter is a matter of personal preference. Should it matter how a player's team performed? That's up to the individual voter. Does it matter? I think we have some pretty strong evidence from past votes to indicate that it does.

Todd Zolecki, Phillies beat reporter: I think it matters to an extent. I look at the postseason stuff as a tiebreaker of sorts. If two or three players are close, I might give an edge to the player that was carrying the load the longest. Like I voted for Joey Votto over Giancarlo Stanton a few years ago for MVP. Neither team was in postseason contention that season. But if the Marlins were in it heading into the final weekend, I might have switched my votes and given him the edge.

Cassavell: I've always felt this whole discussion would be a lot easier if we just called it the "Best Overall Player" Award. And we might be getting something close to that, given the circumstances this year.

Camerato: "BOP" has a nice ring to it.

Footer: After crunching the numbers, the MVP debate is really based on second-half performances. Fernando Tatis Jr. is clearly the first-half winner, but injuries in the second half probably put him in third place in this race. Harper and Soto are almost neck and neck with their second-half performances. Let's start with Tatis -- he's going to end up third, correct?

Zolecki: I think Tatis might be, but then there's that infamous West Coast bias ...

Cassavell: I'll go ahead and dispute that. The Padres crashed from contention. But I have a hard time understanding why Tatis takes the fall for that. He wasn't as ridiculously dominant in the second half. BUT ... he's not responsible for the Padres' pitching woes and some of the team's decision making. He batted .278/.365./551 in the second half. He also did so while playing through a balky left shoulder. The Padres' problems certainly aren't of Tatis' making.

Camerato: That's where I think games played comes into consideration. While you certainly can't fault a player for injuries, there's a fairly significant difference between most and least games played among these three players.

Cassavell: I'll concede, that's definitely the fairest critique of Tatis' case. But he still played enough to lead the NL in homers and finish above Soto in fWAR and above Harper in bWAR.

Zolecki: Harper had a historic second half. No player has had more extra-base hits and walks following the All-Star break since Bonds in 2001. Harper had 49 extra base-hits and 65 walks. I think Harper, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx are the only four players to do that since the ASG started in 1933.

Footer: Here are the numbers:

Overall OPS: Harper 1.044, Soto .999, Tatis .975.

Post-All-Star OPS: Harper 1.188, Soto 1.164, Tatis .916

Who has the edge -- Harper or Soto?

Camerato: After a slow first half, Soto made it a goal to improve his OPS to over 1.000. His bat got hot after the Home Run Derby, but more impressively, he got his hits amid being walked at a ridiculous rate. As one example, he became just the sixth player in the last 60 years to draw 30-plus walks in back-to-back months.

Zolecki: This might circle back to the original question: If everybody is close, what does a voter look at as a tiebreaker? Of course Phillies fans will say, Harper carried his team on his back and kept them in contention heading into the final week. But I agree with AJ, you can't penalize Tatis for the Padres sliding in the second half. You can't penalize Soto for the Nationals blowing up the team and starting over.

But I think there is something to putting up those numbers when the team is playing well and fighting for something.

Cassavell: I'll chime back in here. Those numbers tell us a lot. Here's what they don't tell us: the defensive value of these guys. (I know you're rolling your eyes over Tatis and "defensive value.") Yes, Tatis has a bunch of errors. He's also pegged as basically an average defender by Statcast's Outs Above Average because of his range. Put it this way: You want value? If you have Tatis, then you need to find someone who can play right field. (And, c'mon, anyone can play right field. Tatis did it for a few weeks, just for the heck of it.) If you have Harper or Soto, then you need to find someone who can play shortstop, which is a much trickier proposition. There's a reason Tatis is valued so highly by WAR.

Footer: What I've gleaned from this conversation is eliminating Tatis from the discussion is probably a bad idea. Maybe this is sort of like the AL situation -- of course Vladimir Guerrero Jr. would win it, if not for Shohei Ohtani. Maybe Tatis would be an obvious choice, if not for the other two? Can we really put Tatis in front of either Soto or Harper?

Cassavell: I guess my biggest point on Tatis is this: Soto and Harper are both absolutely deserving candidates. They'll probably finish 1-2 in some order. They've been incredible all year, and especially down the stretch. But here's what I wonder: If Tatis had posted the exact same numbers and the Padres hadn't completely fallen off a cliff, I think we're talking about him as the favorite, and that logic doesn't totally sit right with me.

Zolecki: Yeah, but people typically seem to remember how people finish. And Harper was just ridiculous down the stretch.

Footer: More ridiculous than Soto?

Zolecki: They are right there in terms of second-half OPS, etc. But Harper put up his numbers with a banged-up lineup and so much on the line. I think it weighed on him, but he delivered.

I'm honestly stunned teams didn't intentionally walk Harper more often, especially in the second half.

Camerato: This competition is interesting because there are a lot of "what ifs" to it. To the point with Soto, I look at "what if" he was pitched to more often? He led the entire league in walks by a huge margin. What would have happened numbers-wise if that hadn't been the case?

Cassavell: That's a great point, and another area in which an MVP race is contingent on the team that's around a player. Fairly or unfairly.

Footer: Let's wrap this up by guessing how the voters will vote -- my guess is it'll be Harper, Soto, Tatis. What say you?

Zolecki: Nothing would surprise me, honestly. I think we've seen some crazy votes over the years, but if I had to bet $100 on the order I'd bet on that.

Cassavell: One of those years where it's so close that the vote might be different depending on which 30 voters are voting. I'll say Soto, Harper, Tatis.

Camerato: I agree with Todd, nothing would surprise me either. Since a postseason appearance doesn't factor in here, I'd point to this quote from Soto as to why I'd go with Soto-Harper-Tatis: “Whenever they want to play, I play. When they don’t want to play, I just take my walk.”