Anthony Rendon’s MVP case is gaining momentum but running out of time
By Dave Sheinin
Sep 21, 2019 | 5:00 AM
There are many things about which Anthony Rendon does not care, but high on that list is a silly, convenient narrative. And so, the Washington Nationals’ spotlight-averse third baseman, if he were in an expansive mood, might admit he was casually amused by the arrival in July of “Yeli vs. Belli.”
The implication of the MLB-produced commercial that debuted the week before the All-Star Game - featuring sluggers Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers and Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers trading cartoonish blasts in a “H-O-R-S-E”-style game of “M-V-P” - was clear:
The remainder of the 2019 season would be little more than a head-to-head contest between those two great — and mass-marketable — players for the National League Most Valuable Player award. No other candidates need apply — and certainly not any who, if asked, might politely decline to appear in such a self-indulgent exercise as that commercial.
But over these past two months, the Yeli-vs.-Belli narrative has been compromised by some unforeseen circumstances, and also by Anthony Rendon.
First, Bellinger, while still hitting at an elite level, suffered a midsummer drop-off in performance, losing more than 100 points of OPS (on-base plus slugging) since early July (or 200 points since late May). Then, on Sept. 9, Yelich, who by that point appeared to have seized the clear lead in the MVP race, saw his season come to an end by a broken kneecap.
Now, with little more than a week left in the regular season, the NL MVP race is a fascinating, ever-shifting calculus equation that includes at least Rendon, who has played himself into consideration with a blistering second half, if not Arizona’s Ketel Marte as well. And it’s possible the winner ultimately could be decided by how well Bellinger and his closest pursuers perform in the season’s final days.
You could still build a strong statistical case for either Yelich or Bellinger.
The former entered the weekend still leading the league by a wide margin in OPS (1.100) and many advanced stats — but his odometer is stuck on 130 games played, which would be the fewest by an MVP winner (not counting pitchers) since Barry Bonds in 2003.
The latter has numbers just a notch below those of Yelich, but has the added attribute of having been, at least statistically, one of the top defensive players in the game this season, while shifting between right field, first base and (more recently) center field.
Rendon, meantime, entered the weekend leading the NL in old-school stats such as batting average (. 330) and RBIs (119), and has also put up better numbers across the board in the second half than either Yelich or Bellinger — all while playing his typical, elite-level defense at third.
But these days, MVP races are largely about one stat: WAR. Wins above replacement is a catchall stat designed to distill a player’s overall value into one handy number that, by adjusting for factors such as ballpark effects and era, can compare players from different leagues or even decades.
For better or worse, MVP voting has become little more than an accounting of WAR — a stat that, after all, purports to answer empirically the same question (which player has the most value?) that voters are tasked with deciding. The last six MVP awards, three in each league, have gone to the position player who led his league in WAR. (All WAR figures cited here are from Baseball-Reference.com; Fangraphs.com also calculates its own version of WAR, which differs slightly.)
To that end, here was the NL’s WAR leader board entering this weekend: 1. Bellinger, 8.6; 2. Yelich, 7.1; 3. Marte, 6.9; 4. Rendon, 6.5
But here’s where things get interesting, if also a bit convoluted: A sizable chunk of Bellinger’s lead in WAR is the result of the way the metrics evaluate his defense. (Using offensive WAR alone, Rendon, at 6.4 entering Friday, ranked ahead of Bellinger [6.3] — though still behind Yelich [7.3] and Marte [6.6]).
A stat called defensive runs saved above average, which purports to quantify a player’s defensive value based on plays made, ranked Bellinger — at 24 runs saved entering the weekend — as the best defensive player in the NL, at any position. (Rendon, for what it’s worth, ranked 198th, with two defensive runs saved above average — which should shock anyone who watches him play stellar defense on a nightly basis.)
How can Rendon, who plays a more difficult position, lose so much defensive “value” when measured against Bellinger, who has spent the bulk of this season at right field and first base — especially when both are considered at the very least above-average, and at best elite? Good question.
The metrics behind WAR account for the differing values of each position and adjust accordingly, with a full-time third baseman earning roughly one win more than a player who splits time between right field and first base. But that only makes Bellinger’s lead over Rendon all the more baffling.
The answer could be in the way the metrics rate a player’s defense in comparison to his peers at the same position. Thus, a superior right fielder/first baseman — two positions where teams typically stash their worst fielders — could grade better than a great third baseman, especially in a season in which there are four NL third basemen (Miami’s Brian Anderson, Atlanta’s Josh Donaldson, St. Louis’s Tommy Edman and Colorado’s Nolan Arenado) who ranked in the top 50 of defensive runs saved above average entering Friday.
Ultimately, those issues will have to be sorted out by the voters, and to that end there are signs the MVP race is tightening. In MLB.com’s most recent monthly poll of its own reporters — not the same as the group that will vote for the official award, but likely with some overlap — Rendon earned his first first-place votes of the season, five of them out of a total of 38 cast.
He still trailed Bellinger (22 first-place votes) and Yelich (11) by sizable margins, but the growing support for Rendon would suggest he at least has a tiny chance, with a dazzling finishing kick, to steal the award — and ruin the Yeli-vs.-Belli narrative for good.