Baseball’s Most Valuable Player awards will be announced Thursday, with a close race expected in the American League and a definitive favorite in the National League. USA TODAY Sports’ Gabe Lacques examines the finalists and likely winners:
The case for Jose Altuve: Altuve’s AL batting title, his second in three seasons, and his 216 hits, leading the AL in that category for the third consecutive season, were no surprises. His career-best 24 home runs, .396 on-base percentage and .531 slugging? All fairly stunning.
Consequently, Altuve’s MVP stock will rise again, from 13th in 2014 to 10th last season to the top three this year. But in this group, third is likely where Altuve will finish.
Nothing against Altuve’s season, of course, and his accomplishments bear another look. Altuve finished third in the AL in WAR, behind the other two finalists and just a hair ahead of reigning MVP Josh Donaldson, who we’ll assume finished fourth in balloting.
He has increased his fly ball rate nearly every year in the major leagues, and his percentage of hard-hit balls reached 34% in 2016, a significant leap over the 23% his first full season in 2012. His percentage of fly balls that went for home runs reached 13.4%, nearly double 2015’s mark and more than three times the 4% mark in 2014. Thanks in part to a leg kick he implemented in 2015 and that, at 26, he’s nearing his physical peak, it’s possible Altuve’s power surge — and MVP viability — are here to stay.
It just won’t break for him this year, as he’s boxed out by two key factors: His own team’s third-place performance and the utter dominance of the game’s best player.
Photos: Jose Altuve in action
The case for Mookie Betts: Ability, opportunity, production — they all coalesced for Betts in 2016 as he produced, at age 23, a season that may stand up as the greatest of his career. He led the AL in total bases (359) and finished second with 9.6 WAR. His .318 average, .897 OPS, 26 stolen bases and 113 RBI all put him at least eighth in the AL. And he slammed 31 home runs.
The Red Sox won 93 games, and Betts had a significant hand in turning the AL East in their favor. Boston was in third place and 1 ½ games behind second place Baltimore when Betts produced his third multi-homer game of the season against the Orioles on Aug. 16. Baltimore spent more games in first than any East team, but Betts’ sublime line in 19 games against them — .408/.477/.816 and nine homers — had a huge impact on the race.
Yet, Betts also had plenty of help. The Red Sox placed five players — Betts, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts — in the top 30 in AL WAR. Betts had a fabulous season, but in Boston, his excellence was far from singular.
The case for Mike Trout: Same as it ever was: The greatest player in the game fights the definition of "valuable" in a quest to earn the game’s highest honor.
We won’t bore you with all of Trout’s sublime numbers, but know this: He led the AL in eight offensive categories – of both the traditional and progressive variety.
He lapped the field in some: His .441 OBP was 37 points higher than runner-up Donaldson. His 10.6 WAR was a full win better than second-place Betts. And while he played for a fourth-place team — the only knock on an otherwise open-and-shut candidacy — Trout blew away the field in Win Probability Added, his 6.5 well ahead of Donaldson’s 4.3. Betts was eighth at 3.1.
History lesson: Not since Alex Rodriguez in 2003 has an AL MVP winner come from a non-playoff team. That was A-Rod’s first MVP after three top three finishes, a track record to which Trout can relate.
Consensus: Had Donaldson not suffered a late-season hip injury, we could be looking at a back-to-back winner. Instead, it will come down to a two-man race, and Trout may benefit from finishing high on all ballots, if not atop a majority. In the end, voters’ desire for playoff purity probably gives Betts the slimmest edge – and Trout his fourth runner-up finish in five years.
The case for Kris Bryant: It’s widely expected the award is Bryant’s to lose, and why not? Playing on a team that won 103 games, Bryant led the NL in WAR (7.7), ripped 39 home runs, drove in 102 and finished fourth with a .939 OPS.
You want valuable? He did all this while toggling between third base, left field, right field and first base, giving manager Joe Maddon invaluable versatility in a year that saw expected left fielder Kyle Schwarber tear knee ligaments in the season’s first week. Heck, he even played an inning each at center field and shortstop. Despite his rapid movement, Bryant still finished in the top four among NL third basemen in assists, putouts, double plays turned and total zone runs.
The case for Daniel Murphy: Few thought the balance of power in the NL East turned when Murphy departed New York for Washington as a free agent. But his playoff power surge for the 2015 Mets continued into 2016 as Murphy, 31, emerged as one of the game’s elite all-around hitters.
He tied for the NL in OPS (.985) and his .347 average fell one point shy of a batting crown. His team-leading 25 homers provided a key boost for a 95-win Nationals squad that saw reigning MVP Bryce Harper’s homer total fall from 42 to 24. And he seemed to leave the defensive and other lapses sometimes seen in his Mets days behind at Citi Field.
The case for Corey Seager: With a Rookie of the Year award already in hand, Seager, 22, can’t be blamed for getting greedy and hoping to join Ichiro Suzuki and Fred Lynn as the lone major leaguers to claim both honors in the same year.
After all, he played an outstanding shortstop for a playoff team while producing a fantastic .308/.365/.512 slash line and a 137 OPS-plus. His 6.1 WAR ranked fourth in the NL, and his .512 slugging percentage placed him in the NL top 10.
History lesson: While the Cubs famously broke a 108-year World Series drought, they’ve fared better in the MVP category, with Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson and Sammy Sosa winning between 1984-1998. Harper won the lone MVP for both Washington baseball and the Expos/Nationals franchise last year, while a Dodgers position player hasn’t won since Kirk Gibson in 1988. Clayton Kershaw was the 2014 MVP.
Consensus: Bryant’s season checks every MVP box — from his numbers, to his selflessness, to his team’s performance along with his perception among the electorate. He should be a runaway winner — a deserving one, at that.