No matter how the BBWAA American League and National League Most Valuable Player Award results play out, each of this year’s six MVP finalists left an indelible mark on this season.
In the running are two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani; three young studs coming off sensational age-22 seasons in Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr.; a late-blooming veteran who just set the home run record for a second baseman in Marcus Semien; and Bryce Harper, the only finalist who has been named MVP before.
Here's a look at the case for each of the six MVP candidates before the winners are announced Thursday on MLB Network at 6 p.m. ET.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. -- 1B, Blue Jays
Guerrero put together one of the best offensive seasons in the organization’s history, launching 48 home runs with a .311 average and a 1.002 OPS. This is what the hype told us Guerrero could someday be when he debuted as baseball’s top prospect back in 2019, and while it took a couple of years, Guerrero made an emphatic statement in ’21.
The beauty of Guerrero’s season was that he barely stumbled at any point. Day in and day out, Guerrero was the best hitter on the field and had the ability to turn a game in an instant, typically with a moonshot over the left-field fence. Using his elite plate approach, Guerrero was consistently able to get himself into advantageous counts and force a pitcher to leave something over the plate. The result? Some mammoth exit-velocity numbers.
Guerrero wasn’t just a slugger, though. Thanks to a drastically improved offseason fitness program, which was at the heart of his 2021 success, Guerrero looked quicker on the bases and was very comfortable at first base. Guerrero wasn’t natural at that position when he moved there in '20, but he was suddenly making everything look like a routine play in ’21, even dropping into the splits with surprising ease.
The main attraction here is Guerrero’s bat, though, and it might just be the best in baseball. At 22, Guerrero has plenty more MVP runs in him, and he made his incredible potential a reality in ’21. -- Keegan Matheson
Shohei Ohtani -- RHP/DH, Angels
It was a season unlike any other in Major League history.
The two-way sensation had a historic year, defying the odds by excelling as both a pitcher and a hitter. And while fellow AL MVP finalists Guerrero and Marcus Semien both had impressive seasons, they couldn’t match what Ohtani did when adding up his hitting, pitching and baserunning numbers this season.
At the plate, he batted .257/.372/.592 with 46 homers, 26 doubles, eight triples, 100 RBIs, 103 runs and 26 stolen bases in 155 games. And on the mound, he made 23 starts and went 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 130 1/3 innings.
Ohtani finished the year with 9.1 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference, which was by far the highest total in the Majors. The second-best WAR total was Zack Wheeler's 7.7 WAR with the Phillies, while Semien was credited with 7.3 WAR and Guerrero with 6.8.
Ohtani did it all and became the first player in AL or NL history with at least 45 homers, 25 stolen bases and five triples in a season. And that’s not even including the fact that he was one of the best starting pitchers in the league as well. He made history by being selected to the All-Star Game as both a starting pitcher and designated hitter.
The Angels finished the season under .500, but the Halos' lack of success hasn’t seemed to hurt Ohtani's teammate Mike Trout in past MVP votes. Trout has won three AL MVP Awards, including two when on losing teams. And with Guerrero slumping late in the year and the Blue Jays missing the postseason, it’s nearly impossible to make the argument that he or Semien was more valuable than Ohtani. -- Rhett Bollinger
Marcus Semien -- 2B/SS, Blue Jays
Last offseason, the Blue Jays signed Semien to a one-year, $18 million deal to play second base, a position he hadn’t played with any regularity since 2014 with the White Sox. He finished third in AL MVP voting back in ’19 but was coming off a ’20 season that saw him hit just .223 with a .679 OPS.
The result? Semien set a record for home runs by a second baseman (45) and won a Gold Glove Award.
It took Semien a month to get his feet set, but he exploded in May, winning AL Player of the Month. The rest of the season kept rolling in the same direction, with Semien showing incredible power to his pull side while driving in 102 runs with an .873 OPS. Semien often filled in as the leadoff man, too, with George Springer on the IL several times through the season.
Defensively, it looked like Semien had spent his entire career at second base. He immediately formed a chemistry with young shortstop Bo Bichette, and his leadership was spoken of by countless Blue Jays players and executives. That’s difficult to measure with a number, but Semien left an incredible impression on the Blue Jays’ organization in just eight short months.
Semien is in tough race against his teammate, Guerrero, and Ohtani, whose brilliant, two-way season will be hard to top. He’s earned this recognition, though, with one of the best seasons we’ve ever seen from a Blue Jays infielder, and his phone will be ringing off the hook as free agency heats up this winter. -- Matheson
Bryce Harper -- OF, Phillies
Harper almost single-handedly kept the Phillies in contention in the NL East entering the final week of the season. He batted .309 with 35 home runs, one triple, and 84 RBIs while leading baseball with 42 doubles, a .615 slugging percentage, a 1.044 OPS and a 179 OPS+. He ranked second in the NL in fWAR (6.6), on-base percentage (.429) and walks (100); third in batting average and outfield assists (10); sixth in home runs and runs (101) and ninth in bWAR (5.9). He even tied for 17th in stolen bases (13). Harper is only the fourth outfielder in baseball history to have at least 100 runs, 100 walks, 40 doubles and 35 home runs in a season. Babe Ruth, Stan Musial and Barry Bonds are the others.
Harper had 49 extra-base hits and 65 walks in the second half. Since the first All-Star Game in 1933, only Jimmie Foxx and Bonds had as many extra-base hits and walks after the break.
Harper’s numbers could have looked even better, except he hit with runners in scoring position in only 18.5 percent of his plate appearances, which tied for the 148th lowest mark out of 4,605 players with 125 or more plate appearances since 2008.
Oh, and Harper also overcame getting struck in the face with a 97 mph fastball on April 28 in St. Louis. He missed only a couple games after the incident, although he landed on the injured list a couple weeks later because the ball’s deflection from his face to his left wrist caused him problems. -- Todd Zolecki
Juan Soto -- OF, Nationals
Soto earned MVP contention by posting head-turning offensive numbers in spite of being walked at a historic, league-leading rate. The slugging right fielder slashed .313/.465/.534 with a .999 OPS, 157 hits, 29 homers, 111 runs scored, 95 RBIs and 145 walks following a second-half surge. Soto and Hall of Famer Ted Williams are the only players to lead the Majors in on-base percentage twice before their age-23 seasons, and he ranked second among NL hitters in batting average, runs and OPS. He won his second straight Silver Slugger Award for his production.
“After that slow start and then just coming from the bottom and coming all the way up, it feels great,” Soto said in September.
With rare discipline at the plate, Soto tallied the most walks (145) in a season since Barry Bonds set the record mark in 2004 (232). Soto's total was the second most by a player before his 23rd birthday, trailing Williams by just two walks (1941, 147). Soto also topped all players with a 1.56 walk-to-strikeout ratio, and he was the only player to record more walks than strikeouts (93).
“Whenever they want to play, I play,” Soto said in August. “When they don’t want to play, I just take my walk.”
Fernando Tatis Jr. -- SS/OF, Padres
Tatis led the NL in homers and offensive bWAR. He was among the top three in stolen bases, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, extra-base hits, offensive win percentage and win probability added, and top 10 in just about everything else. The 22-year-old Padres shortstop has a compelling statistical case to be named NL MVP. And numbers don’t come close to defining him as a player.
Baseball offers even its star players precious few moments to make an impact. They have four or five plate appearances a night, perhaps a few defensive chances. But Tatis is a baseball Stephen Curry, Patrick Mahomes, Lionel Messi -- seemingly able to take over a game at will and one who must be accounted for at every turn.
Tatis doesn’t merely steal bases -- he demoralizes opponents by advancing on routine plays, darting home on a ball that barely escapes the home-plate circle, turning a short foul pop into a sac fly. Still hung up on numbers? There’s one for this, too. FanGraphs’ complex BsR measures baserunning, and Tatis was No. 1 in the NL there, too, at 9.3 runs above average.
Tatis had the most power. He was the top force on the bases. He plays a premium position and plays it well. (Even with 21 errors, most courtesy of a first-half throwing slump, Tatis ranked on the plus side in outs above average.) Tatis simply has a combination of skills even the exceptional Soto and Harper can’t match. -- Shaun O'Neill