Though Philadelphia Phillies fans certainly would have preferred to celebrate a different achievement this November — one that Austin Riley celebrated alongside his Atlanta Braves — they can at least root for Bryce Harper to put a Band Aid on the bullet wound that was the sting of the 2021 season.
That Band Aid would, of course, come in the form of a National League MVP award. Harper unsurprisingly cleared the first hurdle on Monday in being named a finalist, joined by Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres and Juan Soto of the divisional-rival Washington Nationals.
Now comes the harder part: winning it.
It should be noted that whether that happened or not is already set in stone. Voting took place at the end of the regular season — which was the end of the 2021 season for each of the three finalists — and the victor will be announced Nov. 18.
Until then, all we can do is speculate. Here’s the case for each of Soto, Tatis and Harper’s claims at the most coveted individual award in the sport.
A wise man (Brad Pitt) once asked: Does he get on base? If “he” had referred to Nationals superstar Juan Soto, the answer would have been a resounding “yes.”
Soto’s staggering .465 on-base percentage was the highest mark of any player in a season since *checks notes* … well, Juan Soto, last year (.490!). But excluding seasons where average-based stats are inflated due to pandemic-shortened schedules, Soto’s mark hasn’t been topped since Joey Votto’s .474 clip in 2012.
Naturally, Soto also led the league in walks, with 145 — a 45-walk lead over Harper at No. 2 in the NL, and light years ahead of Tatis’ 62. It’s conceivable that Soto’s relatively low slugging percentage of .534 suffered as a result: It’s hard to do serious damage when pitchers are nibbling the way they do against Soto.
Still, as arguably the best pure hitter in the game, Soto still found a way to put his bat to use. His .313 average (for what it’s worth) was second in the NL, behind only partial-teammate Trea Turner. Soto’s bat-to-ball skills helped give him a significant edge in strikeouts — or, rather, the lack thereof. With Harper above 22% and Tatis at 28%, Soto struck out just 14.2% of the time, almost unheard of for a slugger in today’s game.
Soto also led NL position players in bWAR (Baseball Reference’s version of WAR) at 7.0, compared to Tatis’ 6.5 and Harper’s 5.9. And, his fWAR (Fangraphs’ version) tied Harper at 6.6 for tops among the trio, with Tatis at 6.1. Part of that is due to his durability: A year after 13 missed games undoubtedly cost him the MVP, he missed only 11 in a season nearly three times as long. His 151 games led the trio.
Last but not least — actually, probably indeed least — Soto has the advantage on defense, as his three defensive runs saved made him the only finalist above water in that regard. Harper’s finished at -6 and Tatis’ at -7, so the difference isn’t exactly splitting hairs.
Fernando Tatis Jr.
If Fernando Tatis Jr. wins MVP, the reasoning is simple: Voters dig the long ball. His 42 home runs led the National League, and he did so despite trailing the three finalists in at bats. And, he did it playing half his games at the notoriously pitchers’ friend Petco Park, where he hit 18 of those homers.
Tatis was also extremely clutch. He led the three finalists in OPS in “late and close” situations (seventh inning or later, batting team tied, up one or with the tying run on deck). His 1.583 OPS with two outs and runners in scoring position led the finalists by a wide margin. By extension — any RBI fans still out there? If so, Tatis is your guy.
But perhaps more persuasive of a counting stat is stolen bases, of which Tatis amassed 25 — compared to Harper’s 13 and Soto’s nine. He was only caught stealing four times — just once more than Harper despite the far higher numbers of attempts, and three times fewer than Soto. He got on base at a lower rate than Soto and Harper, but it’s reasonable to say he wreaked more havoc once there than did the others.
Tatis’ batting average (.282) was considerably lower than either of the other candidates, so the fact that his slugging percentage was nonetheless just four ticks behind Harper’s for first in the NL is a testament to his power, a tool certainly not unappreciated in today’s game. If he winds up defying the odds and winning NL MVP, those big flies will be the main reason why.
Harper led the National League in slugging and in weighted runs created plus. His on-base percentage was second to Soto, but — and Phillies fans can thank Nick Pivetta’s season-ending strikeout of Soto for this — Harper was the only player in the senior circuit to post an OPS above 1.000 on the year. His mark of 1.044 led baseball, topping Soto’s .999 and Tatis’ .975 by comfortable margins.
For everything Soto’s absurd second half was — and it was truly absurd, with a 1.164 OPS — Harper’s was even better, at 1.188. Harper hit .338 and slugged a ridiculous .713 in the latter half of the season. While earlier in the calendar, it seemed as though a relatively low home run total could be the main obstacle in the way of Harper’s MVP case (he trailed Tatis by 13 homers at the All-Star Break), he ended up bashing 20 in the second half, which tied for the second most in the NL and helped him finish the year just seven back of Tatis.
Harper was the only player in the National League who posted a .300/.400/.600 slash line on the season. He was the only MLB player to post a .300/.400/.700 second-half slash line since Ryan Howard in 2006. Howard won MVP that year.
Harper did a little bit of everything in 2021. He led the NL in doubles and extra-base hits, with 42 and 78, respectively. For the batting average holdouts, Harper ranked third in that category. He was second in on-base percentage. Yes, Soto is indeed the only player above him in both of those categories, but the slugging discrepancy — a full 81 points — will be tough for Soto to overcome.
Let’s get a little more analytical. Weighted on-base average? Harper led it. Expected weighted on-base average? Harper led it. OPS+? Diddo. Win probability added? Yep. RBIs? Trick question — who cares?
Harper’s barrage of a second half is why we’re even discussing a non-All-Star’s MVP candidacy, but his best case is simply that he was the best overall hitter in Major League Baseball this year. His OPS and wRC+, two of the most popular stats in determining overall offensive production (and, personally, my two favorite), back that up.
The pick: Bryce Harper
Perhaps that last statement, as well as the lengths of the sections on behalf of each finalist, give my pick away. So be it. Harper should be the 2021 National League MVP.
Nowhere in this article have I mentioned team success. Not that it matters anyway, but none of the three finalists made the playoffs, and while Harper’s second half is the reason why the Phillies had a fighting chance late, that’s only because a poor NL East produced a division champion with just 88 wins (which is ironic in hindsight).
Phillies Nation’s Tim Kelly rightfully wrote in late September that the MVP race — which probably boils down to Soto vs. Harper — should come down to individual numbers and not team success. He’s right. And the numbers are why Harper is the MVP. Harper was the best hitter in the National League this season — not across the board, but in the most meaningful categories, and in enough to outweigh the gap in defense, which myself and most others value far less than offense anyway.
Soto had another tremendous season; Tatis had a great one. But Harper was the cream of the crop. The race is close, but it’s not that close. One finalist is simply more deserving than the rest, and he plays his home games in Philadelphia.
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