The Baseball Writers’ Association of America revealed its final award winners on Thursday, when Cody Bellinger and Mike Trout were named their league’s Most Valuable Players. The announcement followed those from earlier this week when the Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year and Cy Young honors were handed out.
As a refresher, winners are determined through a vote of eligible BBWAA members, all of whom are required to submit their ballots prior to the postseason. Each local chapter chooses two members to vote for an award, which results in there being 30 ballots cast for AL candidates and another 30 for NL ones.
Here were the top 3 finishers in both leagues:
Voter: Mark Bowman, beat reporter
BBWAA Chapter: Atlanta
Ballot: Christian Yelich – Cody Bellinger – Anthony Rendon – Ketel Marte – Freddie Freeman
I really could have gone either way with Yelich or Bellinger, who both finished with a 7.8 fWAR. Maybe Bellinger’s defensive superiority should have been the difference. But I instead chose to give the nod to Yelich because he was more productive over the season’s final four months, tallying a 4.9 fWAR, while Bellinger had a 3.5. This accounts for 60% of the season. It’s also worth noting both tallied an 0.8 fWAR in September, despite the fact Yelich suffered his season-ending injury on Sept. 10. Had this vote been tallied at the end of May, Bellinger would have been a unanimous selection. But Yelich separated himself over the next three months and then did enough in September (1.237 OPS in nine games) to maintain an edge over Bellinger.
Voter: Jordan Bastian, beat reporter
BBWAA Chapter: Chicago
Ballot: Christian Yelich – Cody Bellinger – Anthony Rendon – Ketel Marte – Ronald Acuña Jr.
In the Yelich vs. Bellinger debate, Yelich won out for me. He had the better slash line, a higher wOBA and edged Bellinger in wRC+ overall and wRC+ with runners in scoring position. While Bellinger is the superior defender, Yelich also had a large lead in baserunning (8.5 BsR vs. 1.4 BsR) and led the NL in Win Probability Added (7.86). For my entire ballot, I also factored in all three versions of WAR (FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus) and then looked at WAR per game as a guideline, or in some cases, a tiebreaker. Yelich had the advantage there, too.
It was then a debate between Rendon or Marte at Nos. 3-4, in my opinion. That was also a close call, but I gave Rendon the edge due to his performance in high-leverage and RISP situations. Rendon's 5.62 WPA trailed only Yelich and Bellinger in the NL. Marte was 14th with 3.82 WPA. Behind the top four, Acuña and Nolan Arenado looked like the best choices for the fifth and sixth slots, respectively. The combination of elite baserunning and power, plus above-average defense and a strong showing in WPA (5.16) pushed Acuña over Arenado in my book.
From here, things got really tricky. I have included pitchers on an MVP ballot in the past, but this year, I opted to go with position players only. I had around a dozen players left to consider for the final four slots on my NL MVP ballot, and honestly, I think any combination would have been defensible.
Beyond just the numbers, I felt the history tied to Pete Alonso's rookie year was worthy of giving him the seventh slot. Among the rest of the offense-heavy candidates, I liked Juan Soto (142 wRC+ and a .282/.401/.548 slash) the best. For the last two spots, I wanted to give a nod to all-around play. While Trevor Story's "clutch" numbers (WPA, wRC+ with RISP and in high-leverage situations) were not great, his overall production combined with the defensive metrics gave him the No. 9 slot. I wanted to pick a catcher at No. 10, and it was a debate between J.T. Realmuto and Yasmani Grandal. That was a hard choice, but while Grandal had the framing edge, Realmuto was slightly ahead defensively per FanGraphs.
Voter: Mark Sheldon, beat reporter
BBWAA Chapter: Cincinnati
Ballot: Christian Yelich – Cody Bellinger – Anthony Rendon – Ronald Acuña Jr. – Freddie Freeman
This was a tough one, made even more complicated by the fact that Yelich didn’t play after Sept. 10 because of a fractured right kneecap. Bellinger certainly had a marvelous season also, but in the end, Yelich was near his equal or better in many key categories I focused on and in fewer games played.
Yelich had the advantage in wRC+, OPS, OPS+, batting average and stolen bases. Bellinger has the edge in home runs, total bases and is a better defensive outfielder. It was a push when looking at WAR. I saw a lot more of Yelich in person, and he just seemed to be the last guy anyone would want to face with a game on the line. Unlike Bellinger, who had some production dips, Yelich was pretty consistent throughout the season, thus he received my first-place vote. Anybody else in my top 5, with their numbers, could have likely deserved this award in any other year.
Voter: Adam McCalvy, beat reporter
BBWAA Chapter: Milwaukee
Ballot: Christian Yelich – Cody Bellinger – Anthony Rendon – Ketel Marte – Nolan Arenado
I had to give the top spot to the player who led the National League in wRC+, wOBA, WPA and all three spots on the slash line -- batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage -- while hitting 44 homers in 130 games. Missing the final three weeks of the season is a fair ding on Yelich, but I don’t give much weight to the argument that the Brewers’ success in his absence reflects negatively on his value; that success was all about the team’s pitching down the stretch. Bellinger is the more valuable defender; Yelich has the bigger impact on the basepaths. I’m sure there is bias baked into this vote having watched Yelich’s greatness in person all season, but I don’t believe there is a “wrong” choice here for either Bellinger or Yelich in the top spot -- or Rendon, for that matter.
Down the ballot, it’s always difficult to put the players in the right order because it is a question of what constitutes value. I like wRC+ as a measure, because it helps even out ballpark effects, and I admit I lean toward offense over defense. That’s why I have Alonso and Soto in my top 10, and I reluctantly left out Grandal and Realmuto. Freeman was a difficult omission. So was Jacob deGrom.
Ballot: Anthony DiComo, beat reporter
BBWAA Chapter: New York
Ballot: Cody Bellinger – Christian Yelich – Anthony Rendon – Ketel Marte – Pete Alonso
In my mind, MVP voting is a combination of science and art. First, the science: After the final game of the season, I created a spreadsheet of any position player who finished in the Top 25 in either the FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference or Baseball Prospectus version of WAR. I added in a few more categories that are important to me, with an emphasis on offense and win probability -- OPS+, wRC+, wOBA, WPA and RE24. Then, I ranked everyone in those categories and averaged it out. The result was exactly what I expected: a top five of Yelich, Bellinger, Rendon, Marte and Alonso.
From there, it was a matter of refining and tweaking -- the art. The most significant decision pit Yelich against Bellinger. Pound for pound, Yelich was the better player, but number of games played is hugely important to me -- it’s the only quantitative criterion listed on the ballot itself. That Bellinger played in 26 more than Yelich, amassing 80 more plate appearances, drew the two roughly even in my mind. Contrary to some new-age thinking, counting stats do matter to me despite their imperfections; Bellinger had Yelich covered there, as well. That Bellinger also contributed 19 Defensive Runs Saved (to rank third in the league at any position) put him over the top for me. Conversations with players I covered this season revealed a deep respect for Bellinger.
The rest of the top five was relatively easy to rank: Rendon, Marte and Alonso in that order. Six through 10 proved tougher. I always struggle to weigh pitchers and catchers against players at other positions, and this year, I gave serious consideration to two in particular: deGrom and Grandal. In the end, deGrom did not impact enough innings to leapfrog a group of deserving position players (remember, games played is an official MVP criterion), while Grandal fell just a bit short of the Top 10, as well.
Voter: Adam Berry, beat reporter
BBWAA Chapter: Pittsburgh
Ballot: Cody Bellinger – Christian Yelich – Anthony Rendon – Ketel Marte – Nolan Arenado
I try not to overthink the meaning of “valuable” when voting for this award. The best overall player is the most valuable to his team. It doesn’t matter if his team was in the postseason race, because it’s arguably even more difficult to get up for a game when you’re 20 out. It doesn’t matter how good his teammates were or if his best stretch just happened to be the first two months of the season, as was the case with Bellinger. Over 162 games, I believe Bellinger provided more value to his team than anyone else, though Yelich and Rendon were also incredibly deserving candidates.
I do a lot of research, putting together a spreadsheet with statistical analysis of the top 15-20 position players and top 10 pitchers and stats ranging from traditional (batting average, OPS, games played, innings pitched, ERA) to more advanced (WAR, wRC+, WPA and so on) and everything in between. I also bounced ideas off as many players, coaches, scouts, analysts, front-office personnel, reporters and broadcasters as possible throughout the season, especially in late September before the ballots are due. When surveying players for their thoughts on the MVP this year, the most common response I received was some form of, “You can’t go wrong with any of the three” -- Bellinger, Yelich and Rendon -- “so good luck with that.”
There really wasn’t a wrong pick between Bellinger and Yelich, in my opinion. Yelich earned the Hank Aaron Award as the NL’s best hitter, but Bellinger’s greater volume of work and elite defense at multiple positions gave him a slight edge in terms of overall production.
Voter: T.R. Sullivan, beat reporter
BBWAA Chapter: Dallas/Ft. Worth
Ballot: Alex Bregman – Mike Trout – Marcus Semien – DJ LeMahieu – Austin Meadows
I narrowed it down to Bregman, Trout and Semien. Oakland would not have made the postseason without Semien. He had a terrific season. He ended up in third place. I went back and forth on Trout and Bregman. There is no doubt Trout had the best numbers and he’s the best player. But Bregman was close. What swayed me on Bregman is that he split time between third and shortstop. I consider that valuable. I scoff at those who say the Astros would have won without Bregman or that he was in the middle of a powerful lineup. So were Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Were they not deserving of the MVP Award?
Voter: Richard Justice, national reporter
BBWAA Chapter: Houston
Ballot: Alex Bregman – Mike Trout – DJ LeMahieu – Marcus Semien – Nelson Cruz
Bregman played 156 games for the Astros and was the only constant in a lineup that at one time did not have George Springer, José Altuve and Carlos Correa. Yuli Gurriel also missed time. Bregman played 22 more games than Trout and started 91 games at third and 59 at shortstop. With their fWAR virtually tied (8.6 to 8.5), Bregman gets huge points for playing for a winning team and for being on the field. That’s a tough sell because Trout had the advantage in OPS, wOBA and wRC+ -- all of which matter.
Voter: Rhett Bollinger, beat reporter
BBWAA Chapter: Los Angeles/Anaheim
Ballot: Mike Trout – Alex Bregman – Marcus Semien – Gerrit Cole – Justin Verlander
I voted for Most Valuable Player and looked at several statistics, with WAR as my main guideline because it incorporates both offense and defense. For offense, I looked at advanced statistics such as wRC+ and wOBA. And I also considered WPA.
Although Trout missed the final three weeks of the season he still finished with a higher WAR and WPA than Bregman while also leading him in wOBA, wRC+, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and homers among other categories. Trout wasn't on a winning team, but it certainly wasn't his fault, so that wasn't a factor for me. Filling out the rest of the ballot is always difficult, but I went with the players I felt had the best seasons regardless of their club's position in the standings.
Voter: Martin Gallegos, beat reporter
BBWAA Chapter: Oakland/San Francisco
Ballot: Mike Trout – Alex Bregman – Marcus Semien – DJ LeMahieu – Xander Bogaerts
For most of the season, the American League MVP race was expected to be one of the easier awards to forecast. Trout’s season-ending injury and impressive performances by Semien and Bregman gave both strong arguments, but in the end, I tried to simplify things: Trout is recognized by most as the greatest player we’ve seen this decade. Some might use the 28 games he missed as a detriment, but that greatest player just put up the best season of his career despite missing all that time.
A couple of the big stats I looked at in determining my vote were wRC+ and OPS+. Trout’s 180 wRC+ and 185 OPS+ both led the Majors, well ahead of Bregman and Semien.
Bregman garnered his second-place vote from me for his strong impact after the All-Star break -- he finished second in OPS (1.134), first in OBP (.463) and third in batting average (.338) over that time. One thing that separated him from Semien was the fact that Bregman had to balance positions, as he often filled in at shortstop while Correa was injured, starting 59 games at the position. Bregman did not miss a beat as he displayed Gold Glove-caliber defense at both spots and likely would have won the Gold Glove Award at third base if the magician known as Matt Chapman was not in the same league.
Having watched all 162 games of Semien’s outstanding 2019 campaign, I can say he was unquestionably Oakland’s MVP and team leader in the clubhouse. The players all followed his example, but a lot of his flashy numbers fell just below Bregman, which led to my third-place vote for the A’s shortstop. I also felt like Matt Olson, whom I gave a 10th-place vote, and Chapman, whom I gave a seventh-place vote, were huge factors into the A’s success this year, while Bregman, at times, had to hold down the lineup while stars like Correa, Springer and Altuve dealt with injuries. In the end, this second-place vote was a virtual toss-up; I just felt like Bregman had the slight edge over Semien.
Voter: Greg Johns, beat reporter
BBWAA Chapter: Seattle
Ballot: Alex Bregman – Mike Trout – Marcus Semien – Xander Bogaerts – Mookie Betts
While I strongly believe Trout is the best player in the AL, the vote is for “most valuable player for 2019,” and after much deliberation, I gave the slightest of nods to Bregman. The two were very close in most offensive statistics. Trout had slightly better “rate” stats in some cases; Bregman equaled that in overall numbers and WAR comparisons by playing more games and being on the field in an outstanding stretch run.
It’s not Trout’s fault that he got hurt in September, but value is weighed by being available to play, and in fact, the instructions to MVP voters list “value of a player to his team, that is strength of offense and defense” as the No. 1 point, with “number of games played” as the No. 2 consideration, followed by “general character, disposition, loyalty and effort.”
Bregman also played an outstanding third base and was versatile enough to play a capable shortstop after Correa was injured, which speaks to his value as well. And while Bregman plays at hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park, he had much better numbers on the road, so his offense wasn’t just a product of his home field.
On the overall picture, I weighed defensive value as well as just offensive numbers, which is why I put Semien third and included players like Chapman and Jorge Polanco over AL home run leader Jorge Soler at the bottom of my ballot in a year when many players racked up big home run totals.