By Tyler Maher
The 2021 MLB awards were announced last week, and there weren’t too many surprises. The American League MVP Award was especially straightforward, as Shohei Ohtani captured all 30 first-place votes to win the trophy unanimously.
While Ohtani was clearly the best player in the Junior Circuit this year, if not all of baseball, the National League race was far more crowded. The top vote-getters were all extremely close in value, with nine of the top 11 finishers producing between 5.9 and 7.1 bWAR. The result was one of the more splintered MVP ballots in recent memory, as five separate players garnered first-place votes.
What made this vote extra difficult was how each player uniquely accumulated their value.
Bryce Harper was perhaps the best hitter in baseball this year, pacing MLB in doubles (42), slugging percentage (.615), and OPS (1.044). Harper also kept his Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East hunt for much of the summer before the Atlanta Braves finally lapped them down the stretch.
Juan Soto’s Washington Nationals finished last in the NL East after shipping away Max Scherzer and Trea Turner at the trade deadline, but the lack of help didn’t stop him from having a monster second half. Soto finished with an MLB-high 145 walks and .465 OBP, continuing to validate the Ted Williams comparisons he’s often received throughout his budding career.
Fernando Tatis Jr. was another tremendous young player trapped on a terrible team, as his San Diego Padres finished with a losing record after crashing and burning during the second half. The Padres’ poor finish wasted an Alex Rodriguez-esque season by their 22-year-old superstar, which included 25 steals and a league-leading 42 homers despite playing in one of the most pitching-friendly parks in baseball.
Circling back to Turner, he also authored one of the more dominant individual seasons this year despite switching teams midway through the season. In addition to leading the majors in hits (195) and batting average (.328), he also led the Senior Circuit in steals (32) and total bases (319).
What made this vote even more challenging for NL voters is that the best candidates played on non-contenders while the league’s best teams lacked players with compelling cases. The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants both won over 100 games, but neither had a true-blue MVP candidate. The Braves won their division largely on the strength of their trade deadline acquisitions, while the Milwaukee Brewers were a pitching-first club this year. The St. Louis Cardinals roared into the playoffs on the strength of their historic winning streak but also lacked a bona fide MVP candidate.
If given a vote, I’m not sure who I would’ve chosen. There were really no wrong answers this year, as choosing between candidates was essentially splitting hairs. I’m kind of surprised Harper won given that a) he’s already won before and b) he had not received any MVP votes since 2017. He also missed 21 games, which caused him to finish with “just” 35 homers and 84 RBIs. Meanwhile, the Phillies barely had a winning record this year (82-80).
That said, I’m not saying Harper was the wrong choice. He was arguably the best hitter in baseball this year, and that usually results in an MVP award. I think Soto and Tatis were probably a bit “better” this year, but I get why Harper won.
Tyler Maher is a Content Editor for The Game Day who needed a magnifying glass to review the NL MVP cases this year.