Juan Soto may have had his best year in the majors in 2021. Was it good enough to win National League MVP? We’ll see…
He might only be 22 years old, but it already feels like a near-certainty that at some point in his soon-to-be illustrious baseball career, Juan Soto will win a Most Valuable Player award.
Soto continues to amaze those who not only follow the Washington Nationals, but everyone with even a passing interest in the sport, as he joins some list that usually involves one or more of Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Mel Ott, and various other baseball royalties on a nightly basis.
The 2021 campaign may have been Soto’s best season yet in the majors. He finished the year with a dominant .313/.465/.534 slash line to go with 29 home runs, 95 RBIs, and a 163 wRC+.
He may have had better rate stats in 2020, but to do what he did in a 162-game season is notable.
Was it enough to win his first MVP award though? Let’s dive into the numbers and find out.
Entering the last couple of weeks of the season, it looked as though it was pretty much a three-horse race between Soto, his former teammate Bryce Harper, and Fernando Tatís, Jr., but with a strong final week, another former teammate of Soto’s, Trea Turner, may have a say too.
We’ve broken down the numbers of those four candidates into four categories: Core offensive numbers, advanced offensive numbers, defensive numbers, and Wins Above Replacement.
Over the last few years, it feels like MVP voters have moved away from a lot of these statistics when casting their votes, but some of these are still important to the race.
With both Soto and Turner sitting at .322 with just a week of games remaining, it looked like there was a tight race for the batting title brewing. Or there was until Soto slumped in the final week while Turner surged and claimed the title by hitting .328 to Soto’s .313.
In truth though, the batting title doesn’t mean as much when it comes to the MVP as it used to, with more value now placed in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, or OPS, to judge a player’s contribution at the plate at a high level.
In those categories, it’s pretty clear who came out on top as Soto flirted with Barry Bonds-esque on-base numbers while Harper seemingly had an extra-base hit every other night and slugged more than his competitors despite ceding the home run crown to Tatís.
The other thing of note from this group of stats, for those who want volume, is Tatís trailing the other three in games played after two separate stints on the Injured List due to shoulder issues.
In truth, all this tells us is that it’s a pretty close race. Turner collected the most hits, Soto got on-base at a historic rate, Tatís was the best home run and RBI hitter, and Harper was seemingly the most well-rounded, even if some of the counting stats are lacking a little.
So what do some of the more modern advanced statistics tell us about their production…
Well, that’s rather a lot of the bold in Harper’s row, which paints a much better picture for us.
As comes with the territory of a historically good season in terms of plate discipline, Soto has by far and away the best strikeout and walk rates of the four candidates, especially when these two metrics are becoming more and more important to hitters lately.
However, when we come to some of the advanced pure hitting metrics, it’s all Harper.
Weighted on-base average (wOBA) attempts to essentially be a catch-all metric that combines and weights getting on-base and how many bases were achieved as opposed to OPS that treats one OBP point the same as one SLG point, which isn’t representative of their value.
As you can see, even with Soto’s superior on-base ability, Harper’s ability to consistently hit for extra bases gives him the edge, while Tatís and Turner lag behind again.
And while wOBA uses their results, xwOBA translates a player’s exit velocity and launch angle on every ball the player puts in play into an expected weighted on-base average in an effort to see if a player is getting good luck on balls in play or if they’re earning their wOBA.
While that closes the gap a bit, suggesting Harper has had a bit of good luck and Soto had a bit of bad luck, based on exit velocity and launch angle, Harper has still been better at the plate.
One thing that wOBA doesn’t take into account though is Park Factor. So, those who play in more hitter-friendly environments, such as Citizens Bank Park and Nationals Park, get a boost compared to less hitter-friendly parks, like Petco Park and Dodger Stadium.
That’s where OPS+ and wRC+ come in as a catch-all metric to help give a park-neutral figure while also normalizing it so that 100 in these given stats represents the league average.
Once again though, Harper still comes out as the clear-cut most productive hitter of the group.
Hitting well is fine, but for those who want to read more into the “valuable” part of the Most Valuable Player Award, how much did those hits really end up mattering for those hitters?
WPA, Win Probability Added, is a statistic that takes each of a players’ plate appearances and looks at how each of them affected the team’s win probability, both positive and negatively.
The one downside of this metric is that if a player ends up in more high-leverage spots than another, it can skew the figures through no fault of their own. WPA/LI attempts to take that out of the equation by removing the Leverage Index factor from the equation.
Even in our final two advanced metrics, Harper leads the way again in both WPA and WPA/LI, as well as leading the entire National League too, which would seem to help combat the narrative that Harper wasn’t clutch because of his lack of RBIs, just that he lacked the opportunities to drive in more runs in because of the hitters in front of him.
The MVP Award isn’t just about offense though, it also takes into account what players can do on the other side of the ball with their glove.
Unlike offensive metrics, defensive metrics can be more volatile.
In a sense, that plays out in some of the defensive figures above, with a wide range of values for all of the players, despite all of them trying to quantify the same thing, just in different ways.
The most basic of which is fielding percentage, looking at how many plays they successfully made as opposed to errors.
Naturally, the outfielders sport a higher fielding percentage due to the tendency for fewer errors in the outfield with infielders effectively needing to make two actions on most of their plays, the fielding of the ball and the throw, rather than outfielders who only need to catch the ball on most of their plays — plus are less likely to get to balls in play in general, and you can’t make an error if you can’t get to the ball.
The rest of the metrics above all take into account, in some fashion, the probability of a fielder making each play, therefore calculating the level of difficulty of a given play and giving more value to making more difficult plays than routine plays.
As Nationals fans would probably expect, Turner ranks highly among the more advanced fielding metrics.
The shortstop appeared to take a step forward in the field this season before the trade to Los Angeles where he shifted to play primarily second base.
Perhaps a little surprising given his reputation early on in his career is that Soto could make a case to be the second-best fielder of the group, leading the four in Statcast’s OOA and a clear second in Defensive Runs Saved.
That’s not exactly a clear-cut conclusion though as the other two metrics come down to thin margins.
In short, if MVP voters were to give anyone an edge on defense, it would be Turner. And while Soto had a solid defensive year, trying to separate the rest is about as clear as mud.
How does all of that add up? Wins Above Replacement has become more and more common within the sport as a good way to account for everything a player brings to the table.
No WAR calculation is perfect though, as evidenced by the fact there are multiple WAR calculations, with the two most prominent being Baseball-Reference’s WAR (bWAR) and FanGraphs’ WAR (fWAR) which give us two differing values for all four of our candidates.
Those two calculations throw up two very different lists, with fWAR ranking the four players Turner-Harper-Soto-Tatís, while bWAR put them in the order Soto-Tatís-Turner-Harper.
FanGraphs gives Turner the highest WAR with his defense and baserunning making up for his lack of offense compared to both Harper and Soto while also knocking Tatís pretty significantly for both his error-prone defense and lack of games compared to the others.
Meanwhile, Baseball-Reference gives Soto the nod with more emphasis on offensive production than FanGraphs but dings Harper, who was better offensively, noticeably for his defense.
Therein lies the primary issue if voters were to simply just recite one of the WAR leaderboards for their MVP vote. Each WAR calculation values different areas of the game differently, which may not be how the voters themselves value a certain area of the game.
For those voters who significantly value a player’s offensive production, Harper is the clear-cut choice, as the statistics show he was the best hitter in the National League this season.
For others, did they feel as though Soto was that much better on defense and on the bases than Harper to give the 22-year-old the MVP Award? Or would a voter have valued Turner’s superior defense at a premium position and baserunning enough to give him the nod atop their ballot?
That’s the decision MVP voters have already had to make as they handed in their ballots before the postseason began, with the results to be announced in mid-November.
One thing’s for certain, this race appears to be one of the tougher ones to call in recent years…