Who's the National League MVP? Brandon Crawford may be most deserving despite Harper, Soto, Tatis' numbers

The first rule about MVP voting is there are no rules.

This is particularly important to keep in mind as the 2021 season winds down and no fewer than nine outstanding candidates for National League Most Valuable Player lurk in the minds of voters and the palpitating hearts of fans coast-to-coast.

Simply, voters – and fans, for that matter – should never establish absolutes regarding MVP candidates or voting methodology. Every season has its own DNA, and the course it takes may produce a clear-cut winner from a championship team who earns almost unanimous support.

Or, it could end up looking a lot like 2021.

Debates over traditional statistics vs. advanced metrics vs. the ever-finicky intangibles are destined to live forever, and that’s fine. Rarely is there a truly singular “right answer” when it comes to awards, despite what the smart and the toxic might suggest.

And it’s far easier to arrive at a good outcome when the parameters are as loose as possible.

Should MVPs come from a playoff team? That’s preferable, and a worthy tiebreaker, but far from mandatory.

Fernando Tatis Jr. and Juan Soto greet before a game at Nationals Park.
Fernando Tatis Jr. and Juan Soto greet before a game at Nationals Park.

Can a player on a last-place team win MVP? You hate to see it, but sometimes, singular dominance on a terrible team falls in a year playoff clubs spread their production around quite evenly.

Should MVPs carry a significant portion of the production load for their team? It doesn’t hurt, but players also shouldn’t be punished because there’s a decent Robin to their Batman.

And so what of the NL in 2021, when multiple players are performing at unprecedented levels, clubs are lobbying the media with the fervor of pharmaceutical companies and the top five players in one of the best catch-all stats – on base plus slugging – are slated to miss the playoffs?

We won't say there’s one truly correct answer – though there is one player who can satisfy almost everyone’s criteria.

Bonds Brothers

A hearty salute to Bryce Harper and Juan Soto, former teammates now separated by a couple hours’ drive on I-95.

In 2021, both found themselves deserted in emaciated lineups, yet managed to perform at absurdly high levels.

Soto saw six players in the Washington Nationals’ projected Opening Day lineup traded, released or demoted over the course of the season, leaving him to fend for himself on a last-place team. So Soto, at 22, dug in and did his best Barry Bonds impersonation – taking his walks and punishing seemingly every pitch he got to hit.

His 140 walks entering the final weekend were 30 more than any player, and his .467 on-base percentage also led the majors, 40 points ahead of Harper and the best mark in baseball since Chipper Jones’ .470 clip in 2008. While he leads the majors in all forms of WAR and expected weighted on-base average, his traditional stats are also stellar, despite a dearth of protection.

His .318 batting average is second only to former teammate Trea Turner. He’s scored 110 runs, hit 29 homers. And is batting .400 - .400! – with runners in scoring position.

Harper, meanwhile, had slugged 34 home runs but driven in just 82 – a damning indictment of a Phillies lineup whose .727 OPS was middle-of-the-pack despite Harper’s .305/.427/.607 slash line. Even with their many flaws, the Phillies stayed in the playoff hunt until Thursday, their best offensive hope almost always Harper scoring himself with an upper-deck rocket.

If you believe MVPs should be selected in isolation, and not punished for factors outside their control, by all means, pencil either of these gentlemen in. There have been worse MVPs whose seasons did not extend beyond 162 games.

Brandon Crawford celebrates a solo homer against the Diamondbacks.
Brandon Crawford celebrates a solo homer against the Diamondbacks.

Left Coast, best choice

First, a tip of the cap to several more players whose 2021s were most definitely MVP caliber, and whose names could credibly appear on the one line of anyone’s ballot.

To Austin Riley, for leading the NL in total bases, your 105 RBI, your wildly improved defense and posting 157 times for an Atlanta Braves club that could’ve – probably should’ve – folded when their best player and best pitcher suffered season-ending injuries.

To Trea Turner, for your 6.1 WAR, your likely NL batting title, your 25 home runs and 32 stolen bases and for turbo-boosting not one, but two teams as the country learned how good you are.

To Joey Votto, for carrying the Reds during a second half in which you led the NL with 24 homers, produced an overall .946 OPS and, at 38, likely crossed the threshold to Cooperstown. Paul Goldschmidt? We see your 6.2 WAR, we stand with you, but we can’t quite vote for you.

Now, where were we?

Ah, yes, MVP. Most analyses of this race – and betting odds – assume a three-player look: Harper, Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr., the dynamic San Diego Padres shortstop. Yet our choice is another shortstop in Tatis’ own division.

Any discussion of the San Francisco Giants’ 106 wins – and they’ve needed every one of them to fend off Turner’s 104-win Dodgers – is often accompanied by a simple question: How are they doing it?

Invariably, the answer is some combination of president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi’s brilliance, the startling contributions of bit players like LaMonte Wade Jr. and Darin Ruf, and the revival of championship holdovers Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford.

Crawford, you say?

Yes, Crawford.

At 34, the two-time World Series champion is having his greatest season, slamming a career-best 24 home runs while once again playing Gold Glove-caliber shortstop. Now, you might look at Crawford’s 24 homers and .904 OPS entering Friday and stack it against Tatis’ 42 and .979 and say, no contest.

But let’s look closer.

First off is defense, where Crawford has been steady and often spectacular, and Tatis, too often, erratic.

While a left shoulder injury compelled the Padres to shift Tatis to the outfield for a spell, his stint at shortstop, despite several highlight reel plays, hurt the Padres. Tatis ranks 14th in Fangraphs’ overall defensive rating among the 15 NL shortstops who played at least 750 innings there this season. While errors are not the best barometer of fielding acumen, Crawford has committed nine in 1,137 innings at short, Tatis 21 in 819 innings.

Adjusted for the average distribution of balls in play by FanGraphs’ error runs rating, Crawford rates a 2.7, Tatis -3.8. UZR/150? Crawford 2.2, Tatis minus-12.2. Defensive runs saved? Crawford 4 (tied for fourth among NL shortstops), Tatis minus-7.

It’s easy to forget Tatis has played just 239 career games at shortstop. There is still plenty of time, given good health, for Tatis to develop into a terrific shortstop. For now, though, he occasionally struggles to slow the game down, and at other times forces things that aren’t there.

Those impetuous moments can certainly hurt a team.

Tatis owns a 9% edge in Baseball Reference’s version of WAR (6.6-6.0), with a larger gap in FanGraphs’ version (6.2-5.3). Is that gap big enough to justify giving an edge to arguably the best player on one of the NL’s most disappointing clubs over the best player on what likely will be the winningest team in the NL since 1986?

Bryce Harper celebrates a home run against the Mets.
Bryce Harper celebrates a home run against the Mets.

Value city

So, what of Crawford vs. Harper and Soto?

If you insist there’s just one proper response here, hey, good for you. Take Soto and Harper’s MLB-best .429 and .427 xwOBA, throw a dart at Soto’s 7.3 WAR or Harper’s 1.033 OPS and call it a day. We won’t judge.

We will, though, make the case for a shortstop skilled enough to combine a .300 batting average and .900 OPS with Gold Glove caliber defense at the game’s most important position for the game’s most dominant team. For a player whose .351 average since July 1 is the best in the major leagues, on a team fending off a super team by going 35-13 as the Dodgers went 36-11.

How did the Giants do it?

There’s a lot of value in that answer.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NL MVP race: Brandon Crawford over Bryce Harper and Fernando Tatis?