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Phillies Nuggets with Tim Kelly

Better numbers, not team success, should decide MVP race between Bryce Harper, Juan Soto

Even as her husband was introduced as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies in March of 2019, Kayla Harper couldn’t help but talk about how impressed she was with Juan Soto, in the few months that her husband, Bryce, was teammates with him in Washington.

More than two years later, Harper finds himself in a battle with his former teammate for the National League MVP as the 2021 season winds down.

Really, this battle came out of nowhere. At the outset of the month, San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. was probably still the favorite to win the award. However, late-season surges from both Harper and Soto, among other things, have helped push them past Tatis.

For Harper, National League MVP buzz really began in early August, as he got off to a hot start to the second half and the Phillies surged. What turned out to be season-ending injuries from Jacob deGrom and Ronald Acuña Jr. certainly opened the door as well.

But if you thought that Harper was a late entrant to the discussion, Soto has really emerged in the waning weeks of the season. As recently as Aug. 9 — when Harper had the second-best odds to win the award — Bet Online had Soto with 25/1 odds to win the National League MVP, behind Harper and four others.

And yet, Soto has hit .439 with a 1.367 OPS in September, putting him in a dead heat with Harper as voters get prepared to put their pencils down:

What, if anything will separate Harper and Soto during the final week of the regular season?

It is true that MVPs tend to be narrative-based awards, and if Harper leads the Phillies back to the postseason for the first time since 2011, there’s a good chance he’ll win the senior circuit’s top honor.

That said, with the Phillies slated to open up a crucial series in Atlanta Tuesday, Baseball Reference currently estimates that Harper’s squad has just a 10% chance to reach the playoffs. That may work in his favor if the Phillies ultimately buck those odds, but it’s more likely than not right now that the team will miss the postseason.

And the discussion will really get interesting if Harper and Soto both end up missing the postseason. From here, team success should play a minuscule factor in MVP voting, but it undoubtedly will, right or wrong, if Harper is the only one that advances to the postseason. However, if the Phillies finish, let’s say, 84-78 but miss the playoffs, it would seem especially silly to factor team success into an individual award.

Certainly, there will still be voters that give an edge to Harper even if the Phillies miss the playoffs because his team was still in the race, as opposed to Soto’s Nationals who will enter Monday’s game in Colorado with a 64-92 record.

Will Bryce Harper or Juan Soto will the NL MVP? (Cody Glenn, Tony Quinn/ Icon Sportswire)

That said, why should Soto be penalized for what’s gone on around him? Even in the best-case scenario, the Nationals appeared to be fringe playoff contender at the beginning of the season. What’s transpired is that former World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg has made just five starts, Patrick Corbin has a 5.92 ERA and the team traded both Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers before the trade deadline. Of course the Nationals are terrible, and if anything, that makes what Soto has done since the All-Star Break — he has a .371/.544/.690 slash line in the second half of the season — that much more impressive.

None of that is meant to say that Soto has secured the MVP award, but simply that arguments made in Harper’s favor should be done so in good faith. Of course you can be on a terrible team and still provide tremendous value. Shohei Ohtani is likely to win the American League MVP — and deserves to do so — despite the Los Angeles Angels being 74-82. Granted, the season that Ohtani is having is unprecedented, but the argument that you can’t be the most valuable individual player in the league just because the team around you isn’t performing is a bad one.

Truthfully, there’s not much to separate Harper and Soto. They are among the league leaders in virtually every category offensively. One area you could point to is that Harper has -6 defensive runs saved in right field, as opposed to two defensive runs saved by Soto in right field. But while we’d like to see more of an emphasis placed on defense — both in awards voting and across the sport in general — it’s unlikely to tip the scales here. Whether Harper or Soto has the better closing argument offensively — ideally, independent of their team’s success — is probably what, in a just world, will decide who the 2021 National League MVP is.


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