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Best starts to a season by reigning MVPs

@AndrewSimonMLB and @SlangsOnSports
April 24, 2019

Many assumed that Christian Yelich was bound to cool down after a torrid second half that carried him to the 2018 National League MVP Award, and his Brewers to the NL Central title. Yelich thought differently. "A lot of people's favorite words in baseball right now are 'regression' and 'coming

Many assumed that Christian Yelich was bound to cool down after a torrid second half that carried him to the 2018 National League MVP Award, and his Brewers to the NL Central title. Yelich thought differently.

"A lot of people's favorite words in baseball right now are 'regression' and 'coming back to the mean' or whatever you want to say,” Yelich said upon reporting to Spring Training back in February

“We'll see, you know? I hope that's not the case. I don't plan on it being the case."

So far, it has not been the case -- not even close.

Even after going 0-for-8 (with four walks) over his past three games since he clubbed two home runs in a win over the Dodgers on Saturday, Yelich entered Wednesday with a slash line of .330/.441/.802. The damage included 13 home runs, 31 RBIs, as many walks as strikeouts (18 apiece), and three stolen bases. The 27-year-old has become one of 11 players in history to go deep as many as 13 times through 25 team games, and one of five to reach that number before May 1.

Yelich’s 1.244 OPS also is one of the five best ever produced to this point in a season by a reigning position player MVP. To find comparisons for what Yelich is doing, MLB.com looked at players’ first 25 games in the year after they won the award, eliminating those who missed significant time early in the season.

There were many strong contenders, including some of the 12 position players who have won back-to-back MVP Awards. Here are the top 10 through 2018:

1) Barry Bonds, LF, 2004 Giants: Bonds was a seven-time MVP -- winning four more times than anyone else in baseball history -- and he followed up four of those seasons by posting an OPS of 1.188 or higher in the first 25 games of the next year. This was the most impressive, though. The numbers boggle the mind. Bonds reached base in 69 of 98 plate appearances, batting .463/.704/1.111 with 10 home runs, 22 RBIs and a walk-to-strikeout ratio of 44-to-6. Twenty-two of those free passes were intentional, and Bonds went on to draw an absurd 120 of those as teams mostly refused to pitch to him. Despite turning 40 that July, Bonds won his fourth straight NL MVP Award.

2) Albert Pujols, 1B, 2006 Cardinals: Pujols was excellent coming off MVP honors in both 2009 and ‘10, but he was on another level in ‘06, after winning for the first time. The St. Louis slugger homered twice on Opening Day and kept right on going. His 14 big flies through 25 team games is tied for the all-time record, and he also knocked in 32 runs and drew four times as many walks (28) as strikeouts, while posting a 1.423 OPS. While Pujols finished second to Ryan Howard in the MVP race that year, he won the first of his two World Series rings.

3) Reggie Jackson, RF, 1974 A’s: The ‘73 season saw Reggie lead the AL in homers and RBIs and earn MVP honors in both the regular season and World Series, as Oakland won its second straight championship. That run extended to three in ‘74, and Jackson again played a major role. He hit .380/.450/.783 with 10 homers and 27 RBIs in the first 25 games, becoming one of three players to have three multi-homer games within his team’s first 17 contests in a season. Jackson finished with 29 homers and an AL-best 166 OPS+.

4) Yogi Berra, C, 1956 Yankees: Yogi had just won his third and final MVP Award in ‘55, and he began the next season at a blistering pace. Four hits on Opening Day represented the first of nine multi-hit efforts in the first 25 games. Berra popped 10 homers, slugged .701, and drove in 28 runs -- all while catching every day, including both ends of two doubleheaders in the span of a week from May 6-13 to close out that stretch. The Yankees started 16-9 on the way to Berra’s seventh of 10 championship rings, with the 18-time All-Star hitting 30 homers for one of two times in his career.

5) Frank Thomas, 1B, 1994 White Sox: Thomas was even better in ‘94 than the previous year, when he produced a 1.033 OPS and 41 homers. The Big Hurt ripped nine homers and drove in 24 over his first 25 games, and amazingly, his .312/.454/.677 line wasn’t even as robust as the one he had when the strike ended the season prematurely in early August. (Thomas’ 1.217 OPS that year is the second highest by a player not named Bonds in the expansion era). He ultimately won his second straight MVP Award for the first-place Sox.

6) Mike Schmidt, 3B, 1981 Phillies: Schmidt is one of the 12 position players to win back-to-back MVP awards, and he came out of the gate fast in that second year to get the repeat campaign started. After a 48-homer, 121-RBI performance in 1980 with a 1.004 OPS, he hit 10 home runs and knocked in 25 runs in his first 25 games of 1981 alone. Through those first 21 games, he had a .283/.400/.707 slash line -- and he was just getting started. In his final 77 games of the strike-shortened 1981 season, he hit .328, finishing the season with a .316 batting average, 30 batting average points higher than in his 1980 season, en route to his second straight MVP award.

7) Ivan Rodriguez, C, 2000 Rangers: As reigning MVP, Rodriguez hit two home runs on Opening Day 2010, making it clear that his 1999 season was no mirage. He totaled 10 home runs and 27 RBIs in his first 25 games that year, with a whopping .349 batting average, along with a .373 OBP and .698 slugging percentage. He seemed well on his way to a possible repeat MVP win when he fractured his thumb in July and missed the rest of the season. In 90 games played before the injury, he hit .347 with a 1.042 OPS and 27 home runs.

8) Joe Morgan, 2B, 1976 Reds: Morgan had led the Majors in walks with 132 in 1975, contributing to a Major League-leading .466 on-base percentage and .974 OPS. He had received all but two first-place votes for that season’s NL MVP award -- winning handily. His start to the 1976 season followed a very similar trend, with a .337/.482/.616 slash line and 11 steals through his first 25 games. He finished 1976 leading the Majors in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage, nabbing his second straight MVP award in the process.

9) Bryce Harper, RF, 2016 Nationals: Harper hit .330/.460/.649 in 2015 en route to his first MVP award, and got off to a characteristically good start in 2016. Through 25 games, he had nine home runs, 24 RBIs and a .271/.385/.649 slash line. But in game 31, he was walked six times in a game in Chicago, and his season took a turn. He hit .238 from that game onward and had just 14 home runs the rest of the way. He finished with a .243/.373/.441 season and the largest dropoff in WAR by a reigning MVP position player to play at least 50 games in that subsequent season.

10) Dale Murphy, LF, 1983 Braves: Murphy won the 1982 award in a season where he hit 36 home runs and drove in 109 runs. He started 1983 with a torrid stretch, posting a .345/.476/.667 slashline through 25 games with eight home runs, 24 RBIs and 21 walks -- two more than he had strikeouts (19). He finished 1983 with a higher batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage than in 1982 -- and with that, he won his second consecutive MVP award.

Honorable mentions (with key stats through 25 games)

Jimmie Foxx, 1B, 1939 Red Sox: .356/.477/.711, 17 XBH, 21 RBIs

Jason Giambi 1B, 2001 A’s: .350/.518/.663, 13 XBH, 26 BB

Joey Votto, 1B, 2011 Reds: .379/.509/.655, 13 XBH, 23 BB

Mickey Mantle, CF, 1957 Yankees: .358/.519/.642, 6 HR, 27 BB

Ted Williams, LF, 1947 Red Sox: .313/.509/.650, 7 HR, 32 BB

Mike Trout, CF, 2017 Angels: .355/.425/.710, 17 XBH, 5 SB

Harmon Killebrew, 3B, 1970 Twins: .337/.443/.686, 9 HR, 23 RBIs

Roberto Clemente, RF, 1967 Pirates: .394/.457/.625, 6 HR, 24 RBIs

Cal Ripken Jr., SS, 1984 Orioles: .323/.409/.656, 8 HR, 18 RBIs

Willie Mays, CF, 1955 Giants: .330/.407/.640, 7 HR, 17 RBIs

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Sarah Langs is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @SlangsOnSports.