NL MVP race is wide open. Let's break it down

November 16th, 2022

A version of this story originally ran on Oct. 5

Most of the end-of-season awards have already been wrapped up, but one category arguably stands out above the rest: National League Most Valuable Player. A group of reporters gathered to debate who has the edge.

Alyson Footer, editor/moderator: This a great topic, not only because there are so many great candidates who could legitimately win the NL MVP Award, but also because this is a race that carries intrigue – we don’t know HOW this will shake out. In the AL, there are two viable candidates, but I think most assume Aaron Judge is going to win it over Shohei Ohtani. Other categories may have a couple of realistic candidates, but NL MVP is the only one that’s, what, five deep? Seven deep?

Here’s our list: Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Manny Machado, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Francisco Lindor, Pete Alonso. If you absolutely had to guess who the favorite is, who are you going with?

John Denton, Cardinals beat reporter: A month ago, I would have said it was clearly Paul Goldschmidt. On Aug. 25 he was first in the NL in batting average and RBIs and second in homers by one. But he's really struggled since then, opening the door for others.

AJ Cassavell, Padres beat reporter: Yeah, the favorite in voters' eyes has probably been Goldschmidt for a while now. And he's had an unbelievable season. But I think this race is a lot closer than what the consensus was a few weeks ago.

Juan Toribio, Dodgers beat reporter: Yeah, Goldschmidt struggled a bit in September. But I still have to imagine he's the favorite to win the award. His first five months of the season were so good, and the Cardinals are a playoff team. However, I think Freeman and Machado have played their way into the conversation more than we thought even a month ago.

Denton: I still think Goldschmidt will be the pick because he had such a sizeable lead before Sept. 1. The Mets getting waxed in Atlanta will hurt the chances of Alonso and Lindor.

Anthony DiComo, Mets beat reporter: For me, it's still Goldschmidt. When I've had votes in the past, I've heavily weighted offense -- and particularly power production -- as the most important thing. I get that the race is closer than it once was, but Goldschmidt still leads by a wide margin in metrics like wRC+, wOBA, slugging and OPS. He's the MVP in my eyes.

Denton: Freddie Freeman has played with a chip on his shoulder all season and has been great. I think he deserves major consideration.

Goldschmidt has had a phenomenal season, but I actually think Nolan Arenado gets shortchanged in the "best players in the game" category. I mean he is arguably the best defensive 3B in history! Arenado isn't just a Gold Glover, he is a difference-making, game-changing third baseman. And he has 30 HRs and 100 RBIs -- outside of Coors Field, something that was very important to him.

Toribio: I actually think the guy in San Diego, Manny Machado, has made a pretty big case for himself. Where would that team be without him?

Cassavell: Lots of first basemen on here -- a position where power production is generally a given. And, oh, just a couple of the best defensive third basemen of their generation, putting up excellent numbers at the plate -- one of whom has basically carried the San Diego offense. The Padres are not a playoff team without Manny Machado.

Toribio: I always find it interesting with MVP. I don't think everyone views the award the same way. Most people view it as the best season and others take the "valuable" part of it very literally. If we're going by valuable, it's Machado for me.

Cassavell: Here's what I'll say about Manny Machado's case. He had a gruesome ankle injury in late June. The Padres were worried he might be out for months. He came back in 10 days and clearly played hurt. His numbers took a hit. Machado batted .202 in July with a .694 OPS -- easily his worst month. But he was playing hurt. Pre-Trade Deadline and without Tatis, the Padres were thin on infield options and needed every bit of that .694 OPS. Without the injury, I think Manny Machado wins MVP easily.

DiComo: If we're going by the dictionary definition of "valuable," then I could make a heck of a case for Edwin Díaz ...

Denton: It's funny you say that, Tony! I am considering him for No. 2 on my Cy Young vote.

Cassavell: Oh no! We're arguing over what "valuable" means. As someone who thinks Machado should get credit for what he meant to the Padres -- and he meant a lot -- I don't think it's fair to penalize Freeman/Goldschmidt because they had help.

Toribio: I don't think you have to penalize the guys that had help. But for me, when the gap isn't that wide, I like to give some extra points to someone that basically carried a team -- and an organization -- to the postseason.

Footer: If a player had a dominating stretch of four or five months, but was slower in April and September, as was the case with Goldschmidt, does that matter? Should a bad September derail an otherwise great MVP campaign?

Toribio: I don't think so. I think it's important to weigh the entire season. But you can make an argument that a bad September cost Fernando Tatis Jr. last season. It felt like everyone forgot how good he was for five months and voted for Harper.

DiComo: Sequencing matters, but I'm more likely to reward a guy for what he does in crunch time than I am to detract from someone for being a little inconsistent. Pretty much no hitter is consistent over six months, but Goldschmidt has actually been pretty close. His "bad" months both still included a roughly league-average OPS, so it's not as if he just completely went in the tank. He's been solid throughout.

For me, there's a clear Top 4 in Goldschmidt, Freeman, Arenado and Machado. There's a dropoff after those four. All are worthy MVPs, I just think Goldschmidt has been a half-step better than the rest, and the statistics back that up.

Denton: The whole season means a lot. Goldschmidt has still played every day, drawn walks and singles here and there. So, it's not like he still hasn't been productive. Just not otherworldly like the first five months.

In terms of the Cardinals, I think Paul Goldschmidt has been their BEST player. But Nolan Arenado -- because of his combination of defense, offense and fire -- I think he is their MOST VALUABLE.

Toribio: On my side: the case for Freddie is a bit tougher now since it looks like he's not going to win the batting title. I think that would've given him a nice boost. I will say this, though, that guy plays every single day and has been an incredible addition to a Dodgers team that has gotten even better, which is something we didn't think was possible.

Denton: Do we think the stars from the Mets, Dodgers and Cardinals will split votes and Machado will win?

Toribio: I just don't think Alonso and Lindor are going to get many -- if any -- first-place votes.

DiComo: I don't envision the Mets stars getting a ton of love high on the ballot. They are all textbook down-ballot candidates no matter how you slice it. Modern voters won't consider their metrics up to snuff. Old-school voters won't like what happened in Atlanta when it mattered most. Great seasons for Lindor and Alonso, no doubt, and I'll throw Jeff McNeil in there too -- he'll probably receive some down-ballot votes. But I'd be surprised to see any of them finish higher than fifth.

I'm probably in the camp that Alonso has been more valuable than Lindor, but I'm not squarely there. It's a fun debate. So much of Lindor's WAR value comes from his defense and baserunning, and the major systems are split on exactly how much he's added with the glove. Defensive Runs Saved, for example, is not kind to Lindor. Statcast's system, Outs Above Average, is extremely friendly to him. Lindor has also been streaky and has disappeared for portions of the season, including five strikeouts in 13 plate appearances last weekend during that key series in Atlanta.

These are quibbles, of course, for a guy who's clearly been one of the dozen most valuable players in the NL. But it's hard for me to put him above someone like Alonso, who is one of only two players in the NL with 40 homers and has been crushing pretty much all season. If Alonso weren't an all-bat type, this wouldn't be close. Lindor, Alonso and McNeil have all been super valuable as everyday players, and it's close between them. It honestly might come down to the final days of the season, but they're all legitimate down-ballot candidates in the 6-10 range for me right now. And, as I said earlier, it wouldn't surprise me one bit to see Edwin Díaz steal a few votes as well. You can make the case that he's more of an MVP candidate than a Cy Young candidate, given the ambiguity of the former award.

Footer: Do we just take Mookie for granted to the point where he gets overlooked, just because he's great all the time? Nothing to see here?

Cassavell: Yes. Absolutely. He missed a few games, so that'll hurt his case, but game-over-game, there might not be a better player in the NL this season. Man, he's so good -- and somehow underrated.

Toribio: I actually do think so too. I think even the ones that watch him every day take it for granted at times. But 35 homers, 40 doubles and elite -- and I mean ELITE -- right field defense is pretty remarkable. He makes plays on defense that nobody in the game can make out there. If he didn't crack his ribs in June, he probably finishes with 40 homers.

Denton: How about this: Is Albert Pujols deserving of an MVP vote? The Cardinals were as far back as four games before his second-half tear began.

Footer: Given you have to vote for 10 players on MVP ballots, I think we'll see Albert's name more than once.

DiComo: I want to discount the Pujols thing as sentimental hogwash, but it's not. He's been legitimately valuable. I wouldn't fault anyone for throwing some down-ballot love his way.

Denton: Most homers since Aug: 14: Albert Pujols 16, Aaron Judge 16. 'Nuff said.

Toribio: Yeah, I can see him getting a 10th place vote. And I would be totally OK with that. He's been terrific.

Cassavell: The Albert story is incredible. But if we're looking at this objectively, Albert Pujols is not one of the 10 best (or most valuable) players in the NL by any measurement. I'll say it: He shouldn't get votes.

Footer: Let’s wrap with ranking the MVP candidates. Go!

Toribio: 1. Goldschmidt 2. Machado 3. Freeman 4. Arenado 5. Betts 6. Alonso 7. Lindor

Denton: 1. Goldschmidt 2. Freeman 3. Machado 4. Arenado 5. Betts 6. Lindor 7. Alonso

Cassavell: I'll go in tiers.

Tier 1: Goldschmidt, Machado
Tier 2: Freeman, Arenado, Betts
Tier 3: Lindor, Alonso and allow me to sneak Trea Turner and Austin Riley into the discussion, I think Goldschmidt will win it. I'm happy I don't have a vote.

Denton: Yes, Austin Riley! Is it weird that the Braves might be the best team in baseball (again) and we don't have one of their players in the Top 5?

DiComo: I'm torn on Lindor. He derives quite a bit of his WAR value from defense, and the metrics are split on him. He's not in my Top 5 right now. Here's who is:

1.Goldschmidt 2. Freeman 3. Machado 4. Arenado 5. Betts

After that, it gets really cloudy for me. I'd hear a case for Austin Riley. I'd hear one for J.T. Realmuto, who hasn't been mentioned. I'm probably in the camp that Alonso has been more valuable than Lindor, but I'm not squarely there. It's a fun debate.