Whenever it’s time to pick the Most Valuable Player of either league, voters look at the best players in the league, the ones who have performed so much better than the pack it’s impossible to ignore. Ideally, someone on the short list plays for a team headed to the postseason, you give him the trophy and move on to the next award.
Bryce Harper has been that figure in the National League all season but, now that Washington looks like it will not make the playoffs, the pick for MVP of the league has become far more complicated with four weeks left in the season. In fact, two Dodgers aces will be considered frontrunners for the award by some voters based on their mind-boggling seasons.
Offensively, no one can touch the season Harper has had on his very inconsistent team. He’s leading Major League Baseball in slugging percentage, on-base percentage, and nearly all the advanced statistics from FanGraphs WAR to runs created. He’s also leading the NL in runs scored and batting average. However, both the reigning MVP (Clayton Kershaw) and his Dodgers teammate (Zack Greinke) have posted numbers that make voters’ job difficult.
As Neil Greenberg pointed out in the Washington Post, 35 of the 41 MVPs since 1994 have played for playoff teams; the other six have been first or second in WAR as calculated by FanGraphs. At the first week of September, Harper is in that position, but Greinke and Kershaw appear to be peaking at the close of the season, as was painfully apparent to the Giants during a pivotal sweep. Both L.A. pitchers put on clinics, but Kershaw set the gold standard with 15 SO in a complete-game performance.
Kershaw’s game — which served as a knockout blow to the rival Giants’ season — will look large in voters’ minds in early October, and rightfully so. Meanwhile, Greinke is leading MLB in WAR according to Baseball Reference and has a historically low ERA.
If Greinke ends the season with an ERA below 2.00 (it stands at 1.53 on September 4) and his current loss total (3), he will join Ron Guidry and Greg Maddux as one of three pitchers since 1912 to do so, according to Elias. Historic is the only way to describe the dominance Greinke has had over opposing hitters in 2015.
Clayton Kershaw, for his part, is Harper’s main competitor in the eyes of many. For starters, he can overtake the Nationals superstar in fWAR with a few more dominant performances on the mound. Writers who were happy to award Kershaw the MVP and Cy Young in 2014 will feel quite comfortable doing it again if the lefty continues this run.
Most importantly, they will look at both Kershaw and Greinke as two absurdly dominant figures on a team that experienced many setbacks throughout the year. Harper apologists will say the Nationals would be in last place without their 22-year-old team leader, and they’d be right, but voters have almost always picked winning players on winning teams.
Say Kershaw knocks out another few of his signature performances while Greinke slumps (finally), or vice versa. Voters would have a much easier time with one Dodgers ace out of the picture. Maybe it goes the other way, with Harper leading the Nats to a late charge for the division title, no matter how unlikely. There are a few weeks left, but the chances of Harper — the best position player in baseball — getting the 2105 National League MVP are getting slimmer by the day.