"I think this is the greatest thrill of my life." That's how the legendary Hank Aaron described the award named after him when he appeared on MLB Network last December. The following month, Aaron passed away at the age of 86. And so, the prestigious Hank Aaron Award, established in 1999 and given annually to the best offensive performer in each league, takes on added significance this year.
The 2021 Hank Aaron Award winners were announced Tuesday on MLB Network, with Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. taking American League honors and Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper winning in the National League.
The announcement came just four days after Aaron’s wife, Billye, spoke at the parade commemorating the Braves -- a franchise with which Aaron spent the first 21 seasons of his career -- winning the 2021 World Series title. That capped a season in which Major League Baseball honored Aaron in a number of ways, including a commemoration at the All-Star Game at Coors Field and having the No. 44 in the outfield at Truist Park.
“It's meant a lot to the children and of course to me, that they think so highly of him,” Billye Aaron said on MLB Network. “We have always been his biggest fans, but to learn that there are a lot of other people who sincerely care about him and his accomplishments, it means a lot to all of us.”
The winners were chosen by a panel made up of Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Craig Biggio, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Pedro Martinez, Eddie Murray, John Smoltz and Robin Yount and a fan vote at MLB.com. Each Major League club nominated one player from its team to be considered, and a panel of MLB.com writers determined the seven finalists from each league.
“We are proud this award will be one of the many ways we will continue to remember Hank Aaron’s contributions and honor his excellence,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said.
Here's a closer look at this year's winners.
AL: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays
Coming off his age-22 season, Guerrero is the youngest player in MLB history to win the Hank Aaron Award. He is also the fourth Blue Jays player to bring home the honor, joining Carlos Delgado (2000), Jose Bautista (2010, 2011) and Josh Donaldson (2015).
Guerrero tied Royals catcher Salvador Perez for the Major League lead with 48 home runs and finished first in the AL in on-base percentage (.401) and slugging (.601). No MLB player had more runs scored (123) or total bases (363) than Guerrero, who appeared in all but one of Toronto's games.
"I'm very proud to work hard and have my hard work show through and win an award like this," Guerrero said, via Alanna Rizzo, on MLB Network. "Very proud and very happy."
The young slugger was a consistent force for the Blue Jays throughout the season, posting an OPS of .941 in every month but one (.786 in August), and he was unfazed by the team playing at three home parks throughout the season. He had 11 homers and a 1.418 OPS over 21 games at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla., 10 homers and a 1.180 OPS over 23 games at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, N.Y., and 10 homers and a .935 OPS at Rogers Centre in Toronto.
Guerrero edged out Perez, Cedric Mullins (Orioles), José Ramírez (Cleveland), Shohei Ohtani (Angels), Aaron Judge (Yankees) and Matt Olson (Athletics) for the Hank Aaron Award in the AL.
NL: Bryce Harper, Phillies
Previously the NL's Hank Aaron Award winner in 2015, Harper becomes the 12th player to win multiple times. Alex Rodriguez has the most Hank Aaron Awards with four, followed by Barry Bonds with three.
"It's such an honor. Being able to win this award after the passing of Hank in January -- I mean, what an incredible person he was,” Harper said. “ … Just to be able to win this award, I'm very appreciative of that and can't thank everybody that voted for me enough. Just remember Hank from this award, as well."
In the third season of the historic 13-year, $330 million deal he signed with the Phillies in March 2019, Harper led the Majors with a .615 slugging percentage and a 1.044 OPS while batting .309. The outfielder crushed 35 home runs and produced an MLB-leading 42 doubles over 141 games.
Harper did his best work down the stretch, slashing .330/.458/.736 with 19 homers, 21 doubles, 46 RBIs and 48 walks in his final 58 games to keep the Phillies in the postseason hunt until the last day of September.
"I love baseball history, I love this award, just because it shows how amazing Hank Aaron was as a person, as a player, what he did for our game, what he did for the community in Atlanta and Milwaukee, as well,” Harper said. “Just the type of person he is, so I don't want anyone to ever forget who Hank Aaron was or the people who played before us, because they were the ones who paved the way for all of us as players and we owe a lot to him as a person and a player."
Freddie Freeman (Braves), Nick Castellanos (Reds), Fernando Tatis Jr. (Padres), Brandon Crawford (Giants), Paul Goldschmidt (Cardinals) and Juan Soto (Nationals) were the other NL finalists.