Major League Baseball is aiming for a 60-game 2020 MLB season as training camps begin in ballparks across the country this week. If they do play, that means we’ll have pennant races and a postseason and MVP awards to hand out.
I thought it would be fun to go over the past decade and see who the 60-game MVPs might have been. In many cases, the actual MVP was at least in the running, but there were several MVPs who would have been well out of consideration through 60 games. Here’s what the past decade tells us and what it could mean for some of the big names to watch this year.
National League — Cody Bellinger: .376/.462/.733, 20 HRs, 52 RBIs, 50 R
Actual MVP: Bellinger
Bellinger rode that hot start to MVP honors, even though his OPS fell from 1.124 in the first half to .917 in the second half. If Christian Yelich, who had been toe-to-toe with Bellinger for most of the season, doesn’t get injured in mid-September, the final vote would have been very interesting. Instead, Bellinger took 19 of the 30 first-place votes, with Yelich receiving 10.
American League — George Springer: .308/.389/.643, 17 HRs, 43 RBIs, 41 R
Actual MVP: Mike Trout
It was a crowded race after 60 games, with the surprising Joey Gallo and Austin Meadows ranking 1-2 in OPS, just ahead of Trout and Springer. Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco also would have received support as he was hitting .339/.404/.590. I’ll go with Springer, even though he injured his hamstring on May 19 and missed a month, so he put up those numbers in just 47 games. He wasn’t quite as dominant when he returned, but still finished with 39 home runs.
Trout won his third MVP award in a close vote over Alex Bregman, who actually topped Trout in WAR, 9.1 to 8.2. Bregman tore it up in the second half, hitting .338/.463/.671. Historically, the fact that his Astros made the playoffs while the Angels didn’t would have pushed him over the top, but voters might have factored in that Houston already had a huge lead in the AL West before Bregman really turned it up.
NL — Nolan Arenado: .327/.421/.580, 12 HRs, 36 RBIs, 39 R
Actual MVP: Christian Yelich
There was no clear-cut guy here, but Arenado led in OPS and ranked in the top 10 in homers and RBIs. Yelich was on nobody’s radar after 60 games, hitting a fine .298/.373/.473, which ranked 16th in the NL. Yelich had one of the great stretch runs in history, hitting a Ted Williams-esque .372/.452/.770 over his final 66 games, with 25 home runs and 67 RBIs. He received 29 of 30 first-place votes — Jacob deGrom got the other — while Arenado finished third behind Javier Baez.
AL — Mookie Betts: .359/.437/.750, 17 HRs, 37 RBIs, 52 R
Actual MVP: Betts
Betts didn’t slow down all that much, finishing with a league-leading .346 average and .640 slugging percentage while also topping the AL with 129 runs (in just 136 games) and 10.6 WAR. Trout had one of his best seasons with 10.2 WAR, but Betts earned 28 first-place votes.
NL — Bryce Harper: .323/.423/.626, 15 HRs, 46 RBIs, 48 R
Actual MVP: Giancarlo Stanton
Harper’s top 60-game rival was actually Nationals teammate Ryan Zimmerman, who led in batting average (.365), slugging (.697), OPS (Harper was second) and who was tied with Reds teammates Joey Votto and Scott Schebler (!) with 17 home runs. Zimmerman might have won as a good comeback story (he hit .218 in 2016), but Harper’s similar numbers and defense probably give him the edge.
Anyway, Harper might still have been the favorite when he injured his knee in August and missed 43 games. Meanwhile, Stanton got red hot and hit 30 home runs in July and August on his way to 59, and even though the Marlins and Reds both finished under .500, Stanton edged Votto by two points in the closest NL vote ever.
AL — Aaron Judge: .344/.450/.718, 21 HRs, 47 RBIs, 54 R
Actual MVP: Jose Altuve
Trout had a slim edge in OPS so it would have been a close vote, but Judge had more home runs, more RBIs and more runs and had the “Where did he come from?” subplot in his favor. Altuve remained in Judge’s rearview mirror, hitting .326/.395/.515. Trout got injured and played just 114 games, so it ended up a much-discussed two-man race between Judge and Altuve, made even more entertaining by the physical differences between the two.
In the end, Judge led in WAR, 7.9 to 7.6, so it appeared a statistical toss-up as both the Yankees and Astros made the playoffs, but Altuve surprisingly won in a landslide with 27 first-place votes. Judge hit just .230 in July and .185 in August and that seemed to work against him, even though he rebounded with 15 home runs in September to finish with 52. Considering the Yankees entered the month battling for a wild card and held on, that might have helped in some years, but not in 2017.
NL — Daniel Murphy: .374/.413/.617, 11 HRs, 39 RBIs, 37 R
Actual MVP: Kris Bryant
Murphy had signed with the Nationals as a free agent and his hot start made him the early favorite over Arenado, who led the league with 18 home runs and 51 RBIs. Bryant was right behind Arenado at 15 and 45 and he ended up winning over Murphy, who finished .347 with 25 home runs and 104 RBIs. It was the right call as Bryant had a sizable edge in WAR (7.3 to 4.5) thanks to a much better all-around game.
AL — David Ortiz: .340/.424/.725, 16 HRs, 55 RBIs, 28 R
Actual MVP: Mike Trout
Ortiz would have one of the greatest final seasons in MLB history, hitting .315 with 38 home runs at age 40 and leading the league in slugging percentage (.620), OPS (1.021), doubles (48) and RBIs (127). He finished sixth in the MVP voting as his status as a designated hitter worked against him, but could he have been the 60-game MVP? I think so. His 1.149 OPS led by a huge margin — teammate Jackie Bradley Jr. was second at .972 and Trout third at .963. Maybe one of those two would have edged past him given their defense in center field, although Bradley didn’t have Ortiz’s counting stats (seven home runs, 32 runs, 40 RBIs). In the end, Trout beat out Mookie Betts, with 19 first-place votes to nine for Betts. Ortiz received one first-place vote.
NL — Bryce Harper: .328/.464/.707, 20 HRs, 47 RBIs, 45 R
Actual MVP: Harper
Harper often gets off to a hot start, but this wasn’t one of those years. He really heated up in May, when during one 19-game stretch he hit .460 with 13 home runs and 28 RBIs. His biggest MVP rival at the 60-game mark was Paul Goldschmidt, who was hitting .352/.472/.662 with 17 home runs and 49 RBIs. Goldschmidt did finish second in the final voting, but it was a distant second as Harper was the unanimous winner at just 22 years old.
AL — Mike Trout: .292/.376/.571, 17 HRs, 36 RBIs, 45 R
Actual MVP: Josh Donaldson
The leaderboards were pretty bunched up at 60 games, with Nelson Cruz and Miguel Cabrera ranking 1-2 in OPS, followed by Donaldson and Trout. None of their teams were in a playoff position at the time, however, so the 60-game MVP would have been a toss-up. Donaldson ended up pushing past Trout when the Blue Jays surged in August and Donaldson hit 11 home runs and drove in 35 runs in the month. He ended up with 23 first-place votes to seven for Trout, although Trout had a sizable advantage in WAR (9.6 to 7.1). This was a case where narrative helped Donaldson, as he had come over to Toronto in an offseason trade. The Angels missed the playoff by one win and that cost Trout.
NL — Troy Tulowitzki: .358/.453/.689, 16 HRs, 41 RBIs, 49 R
Actual MVP: Clayton Kershaw
This would have been a fun vote between Tulo and Giancarlo Stanton, who was hitting .314/.407/.614 with 17 home runs and 53 RBIs. Tulowitzki’s defense at shortstop probably gives him the edge. Unfortunately, this was the last flash of greatness we saw from him. He injured his hip running out a ground ball in July and had season-ending surgery. Stanton tailed off and finished at .288 with 37 home runs, his season ending 17 games early when he was hit in the face by a pitch. He still led the NL in home runs and slugging.
That allowed Kershaw, who finished 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA in just 27 starts, to slip in and claim MVP honors, the first NL pitcher to win since Bob Gibson in 1968. He did lead the league in WAR by a comfortable margin (no NL position player was over 6.5) and received 18 of the 30 first-place votes. Stanton finished second. Kershaw would have been a nonfactor in the 60-game MVP voting as he had missed April with an injury and was just 4-2 with a 3.32 ERA (he went 17-1 with a 1.34 ERA the rest of the way).
AL — Jose Bautista: .318/.446/.561, 14 HRs, 43 RBIs, 46 R
Actual MVP: Mike Trout
This one was wide open. Nelson Cruz of the Orioles led in home runs (21), RBIs (55) and OPS (1.025), but Bautista was right behind him in OPS and had more defensive value. Trout, Donaldson and Miguel Cabrera would have been strong candidates. The Blue Jays, however, had the second-best record behind the A’s and that would have helped Bautista.
Trout ended up winning in a unanimous vote over Victor Martinez — even though with 7.7 WAR it so far ranks as the second-worst season of his career. It helped that this was the only playoff appearance for the Angels in Trout’s career, but that’s how good he is: Even in a “down” year he was the best player in the league.
NL — Paul Goldschmidt: .333/.413/.603, 14 HRs, 54 RBIs, 42 R
Actual MVP: Andrew McCutchen
This is fun: Your National League home run leader through 60 games was … Domonic Brown. He would make the All-Star team that year and yet be out of the majors in two years. Goldschmidt, meanwhile, led in RBIs and trailed only two Rockies players in OPS. The Diamondbacks led the NL West.
McCutchen was way down the list of MVP candidates at this point, ranking just 27th in OPS, hitting .284 with seven home runs and 30 RBIs. He hit .337 the rest of the way and finished at .317/.404/.508 with 21 home runs and 84 RBIs, not especially strong MVP numbers on the surface, but he did rank sixth in OPS and first in WAR as the Pirates made the playoffs, so he was the easy choice over Goldschmidt and Yadier Molina.
AL — Miguel Cabrera: .368/.450/.649, 17 HRs, 67 RBIs, 48 R
Actual MVP: Cabrera
This was the second Cabrera-Trout MVP debate, but early it was a race between Cabrera, then playing third base, and Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, both off to scorching starts. You see Cabrera’s numbers above; Davis hit .357/.435/.732 with 20 home runs and 52 RBIs through Baltimore’s first 60 games. I give Cabrera the MVP edge for his RBI-per-game standard plus playing the tougher defensive position.
Davis hit 17 more home runs in his next 36 games heading into the All-Star break, putting him on a season pace of 62 and making him the talk of baseball. As Davis slowed down, however, Trout heated up, batting .359/.488/.612 in July and August, and the Cabrera-Trout race was on again. Cabrera finished at .348/.442/.636 with 44 home runs and 137 RBIs; Trout ended up at .323/.432/.557 with 27 home runs and 97 RBIs and superior defense and baserunning. Trout led in WAR, 8.9 to 7.5, but the Tigers won the AL Central and the Angels finished under .500. Cabrera won easily, with 23 first-place votes to five for Trout. Davis finished third after hitting 53 home runs.
NL — Joey Votto: .357/.479/.643, 11 HRs, 41 RBIs, 39 R
Actual MVP: Buster Posey
This would have been a wide-open race, but I’ll go with Votto, who led the league with a 1.121 OPS, with only David Wright and Carlos Gonzalez also over 1.000. He also had 26 doubles, putting him on a record pace of 70. Carlos Beltran of the Cardinals had good power numbers, leading with 17 home runs and ranking third with 45 RBIs. The best MVP candidate among catchers would not have been Posey, but Phillies backstop Carlos Ruiz, who was hitting .353/.403/.569.
Votto’s MVP candidacy ended when he hurt his knee in July and missed nearly two months. Posey then had a huge second half, hitting .385 with 14 home runs and 60 RBIs on his way to winning the batting crown with a .336 mark and driving in 103 runs as the Giants won the NL West (the most recent year the Dodgers did not win the division). He led the league in WAR and collected 27 first-place votes to easily outpoint Ryan Braun.
AL — Josh Hamilton: .338/.395/.699, 22 HRs, 59 RBIs, 42 R
Actual MVP: Miguel Cabrera
Cabrera became the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski, Trout had one of the great rookie seasons of all time, and WAR entered the public discussion for the first time, but through two months it was Hamilton who ruled the baseball world. He looked like the potential Triple Crown winner, leading in home runs and RBIs and ranking second to Paul Konerko in batting average.
Hamilton couldn’t keep it going, however — and, in fact, would never be the same ballplayer again after that hot start. Cabrera found his home run stroke. After hitting 16 home runs the first three months, he clocked 28 over the final three. He finished with a .330 average, 44 home runs and 139 RBIs. Trout, after not playing his first game until April 28, hit .326 with 30 home runs while leading the league in steals (49), runs (129) and OPS+ (168).
It was an MVP debate for the ages, old school versus new school, weighing the value of a superior all-around player against a Triple Crown winner. Cabrera’s Tigers also made the playoffs while Trout’s Angels didn’t — although the Angels actually won one more game. Trout had a decisive edge in WAR, 10.5 to 7.1. He was the better player. Cabrera won MVP honors and the final vote wasn’t close, with Cabrera getting 22 first-place votes to six for Trout.
NL — Matt Kemp: .323/.406/.591, 16 HRs, 48 RBIs, 38 R
Actual MVP: Ryan Braun
Other candidates would have included Votto, Braun, Lance Berkman and Jay Bruce, but Kemp ranked second in home runs and RBIs, third in OPS, and fifth in average and steals. It ended up a two-man race between Kemp and Braun, with nearly identical numbers:
Braun: .332/.397/.597, 33 HRs, 111 RBIs, 109 R, 33 SB, 7.7 WAR
Kemp: .324/.399/.586, 39 HRs, 126 RBIs, 115 R, 40 SB, 8.0 WAR
Braun got 20 first-place votes to 10 for Kemp, the decisive factor being Milwaukee’s first-place finish — the franchise’s first in nearly 30 years — while the Dodgers finished out of the playoffs. In December, it was revealed Braun had been told a month before winning MVP honors that he had tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug. Braun initially successfully appealed his suspension in 2012, but eventually was suspended for the final 65 games of the 2013 season.
AL — Jose Bautista: .346/.496/.730, 20 HRs, 41 RBIs, 47 R
Actual MVP: Justin Verlander
The Blue Jays were just 30-30 through 60 games, but Bautista’s dominant start would have made him the favorite over Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who was hitting .340 and led with 51 RBIs. Bautista led in home runs even though he had missed 10 games and held decisive advantages in OBP (59 points) and slugging (120 points) over everyone else.
Verlander? He was just 6-3 with a 3.04 ERA through 60 games. He went 18-2 with a 2.01 ERA over his final 21 stars, however, to finish 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA — leading in wins, ERA, strikeouts and innings. Call it the pitching quadruple crown if you will. He beat out Jacoby Ellsbury and Bautista in a split vote — six players received first-place votes — to become the first starting pitcher to capture MVP honors since Roger Clemens in 1986.
NL — Scott Rolen: .304/.368/.613, 14 HRs, 42 RBIs, 35 R
Actual MVP: Joey Votto
The Reds were the surprise first-place team after 60 games — they had suffered nine consecutive losing seasons — and Rolen was a feel-good comeback story after battling injuries off and on for several seasons. He led in slugging percentage and ranked among the league leaders in home runs (second) and RBIs (seventh, three behind the leader).
The Reds did hold on to first place, but Rolen followed a 17-homer first half with just three in the second half and Votto soared to the MVP award after leading in OBP and slugging while hitting 37 home runs. Albert Pujols put up pretty much identical numbers and had a slight edge in WAR, but with the Reds beating out the Cardinals, Votto captured all but one first-place vote.
AL — Robinson Cano: .376/.419/.616, 12 HRs, 46 RBIs, 45 R
Actual MVP: Josh Hamilton
Four players had a 1.000-plus OPS, with Justin Morneau leading at 1.139, but Cano’s defense gives him the edge. Evan Longoria would have been a strong candidate, while Cabrera was right behind Morneau in OPS and tied with Vladimir Guerrero with 53 RBIs. Hamilton was a solid .307/.353/.558, but hit .454 in June, .418 in July and .356 in August, showcasing how amazing he was when locked in. Even though he played just five games in September, Hamilton easily beat out Cabrera after finishing at .359/.411/.633 with 32 home runs and 100 RBIs. Hamilton did lead in WAR, ahead of Longoria (sixth in the voting) and Cano (third). Bautista and his 54 home runs finished fourth.
Are there any lessons to draw from this history in looking ahead to the top MVP candidates for 2020? One thing that stands out is that most of the MVP winners over the past decade would have at least been strong MVP candidates after 60 games (although I have just four of the eventual winners as the 60-game MVP as well). The 60-game equivalent in 2020 would be 22 games, so a hot 22-game start could vault some surprise players into MVP contention — and it’s a lot easier to get hot for 22 games than 60, so if any season will honor an out-of-the-blue MVP it will be this season.
As far as candidates, it makes sense to look at players who traditionally have hot/cold starts, but this season is so unique that I would be reluctant to apply any of those numbers. But a few notes for what it’s worth:
— Alex Bregman’s worst month in his career has been April, with a .765 OPS, more than 100 points lower than any other month. He tore it up in August and September of last year, hitting .372/.486/.750. Was he just feasting on thinned-out pitching staffs?
— Bryce Harper has traditionally been a hot starter, with a 1.025 career OPS in April — more than 100 points higher than any other month. If his usual hot April start translates to a hot late July/August start, that makes him a strong MVP candidate.
— Mike Trout is Mr. Consistency. He’s great in every month. Given that voters have started going away from the “He must play for a postseason team” mandate, Trout should be the preseason MVP favorite in the AL. (Not that the Angels can’t make the playoffs!)
— If you’re buying second-half numbers in 2019 as an indicator for 2020, some players to watch include Ketel Marte (1.081 OPS), Marcus Semien (1.018 OPS), Jorge Soler (1.076 OPS) and Yordan Alvarez (1.044 OPS). Of course, Soler and Alvarez are basically DHs so are long-shot MVP winners even if they put up huge offensive numbers.
— Freddie Freeman seems to always end up with about the same season, but he’s had some impressive hot streaks in his career. Last year, he had a 1.065 OPS with nine home runs and 33 RBIs in June and 11 home runs in August. Keep in mind that his final totals — he still hit a career-high 38 home runs — were dragged down when he played through a sore elbow in September. He could easily have two monster months. Obviously, teammate Ronald Acuna Jr. is a strong MVP candidate as well, but Freeman might be the choice from the Braves.
— Anthony Rendon led the NL in RBIs last year and will have a ton of opportunities hitting behind Trout. MVP winners in their first season with a new team in recent years include Christian Yelich (2018) and Josh Donaldson (2015), so there’s some precedent there. Add Mookie Betts here as well. He could join Frank Robinson as the only players to win MVP honors in both leagues.
— Juan Soto is my pick in the NL. He was a little all over the map last year, with two huge months (1.131 OPS in August and 1.127 in May), but he also hit .221 in September and .248 in April. With experience should come more consistency, and I think his October performance was just a prelude to him taking his game to the next level.