By now the baseball world is well aware that the National League Most Valuable Player race has essentially come down to two NL Central first basemen currently chasing the Triple Crown.
Barring a huge slump on either of their parts or a huge surge by another candidate—crazier things have happened, and Adrian Gonzalez looms in the shadows—the NL MVP is going to go to one of these two players.
So how close is the race between them? Shockingly close.
They are in a statistical dead heat.
There is currently a three-way tie for the NL lead in runs scored between Votto, teammate Brandon Phillips, and Pujols.
Votto has scored his 90 runs in 118 games, or six fewer than Pujols and Phillips, which means he's scoring at a slightly faster rate, but we don't look at "rate" at the end of the season.
These guys are dead even.
There is another three-way for the league lead in hits, but it is between Pujols, Phillips, and the Braves' Martin Prado at 151.
Votto, again, has played fewer games, and that is reflected in his batting average (which is higher than Pujols, Phillips, and Prado), and he trails those three by eight hits. Votto also trails Carlos Gonzalez (147) and Ryan Braun (144).
By the way, should we be talking about Phillips as an MVP candidate?
Neither Pujols nor Votto is amongst the league leaders in doubles this season; Pujols ranks 16th in the NL with 30 doubles, while Votto is tied for 39th with 24 doubles.
Of course, no one is hitting home runs the way these two guys are either, so they'll survive.
Doubles represents perhaps the largest gap between Pujols and Votto in the offensive statistics, which is really incredible.
Rarely has an MVP race come down to who had more doubles.
Pujols has three more home runs than Votto in six more games, which is a valid and respectable lead.
Here's a fun statistic: Each player has come upon his home runs honestly, as Pujols has 17 home runs at home and 17 on the road, while Votto has 15 home runs at home and 16 on the road.
Pujols' lead, of course, is a recent phenomenon, as he has hit 10 home runs in August to Votto's four.
On the face of it, Pujols has a three-RBI lead, a lead that quite nearly falls within the margin of error. But let's take a closer look:
Pujols leads the home run race by three, and he leads the RBI race by three. That means, take away the home runs (i.e. the RBI that was each batter driving himself in), and each player has 59 RBI.
Wow. This is a deadlock.
(I am not, by the way, giving the RBI category to Votto by using his picture here; I was just tired of using Pujols pictures.)
How deadlocked are these guys? They are both power-hitting first basemen, neither known for his speed nor called upon to steal bases.
Yet they are in a statistical dead heat in stolen bases as well, separated by one caught stealing. Each has attempted 15 steals, and Pujols has been successful one more time.
Even though Pujols leads this category by seven bases on balls, I am going to give this one to Votto, and I'll tell you why:
Of Pujols' 78 bases on balls, 31 of them have been intentional. Yes, the intimidation and fear that opposing pitchers have when they face you is part of your value as a player, but it is also a reflection of how much intimidation and fear opposing pitchers do not have of the hitters around you.
Votto has been intentionally walked only four times this season, which means that when each player is taking a base on balls on merit, i.e. by virtue of being selective at the plate, Votto leads Pujols 67 to 47.
Don't worry; no MVP race has come down to whether we should include intentional walks in our math.
It is part of what makes Albert so great: You're not going to strike him out consistently.
Of 77 players in the National League who currently qualify for the batting title, only 10 have fewer strikeouts than Pujols. Of those players, only Placido Polanco and Jeff Keppinger are hitting over .270.
Votto's 99 strikeouts are perfectly respectable and only rank 26th in the NL, but Pujols is the strikeout master.
(We'll leave the "are strikeouts actually that bad from a value perspective" conversation for another time.)
Votto is currently your league leader, Pujols is currently second, and Carlos Gonzalez is third with a .320 average.
Whichever player leads the NL in average this season will win what we call a "Batting Title," and possibly a Triple Crown, while the player that finishes second wins nothing.
I only make this point because I want to point out the fact that while leading the league in batting average is a big deal for the history books, really the difference between .326 and .321 is, at this point, within the margin of error.
For example, if Votto goes 0-for-4 in his next game and Pujols goes 3-for-5, they'll both be hitting .324.
Maybe this is a good rule of thumb: If you have two guys whose batting averages could be even after a five at-bat game, they are within the margin of error.
Okay, these two numbers really are the same. I mean, six points of OPS is absolutely meaningless, as demonstrated by the fact that Pujols and Votto are currently tied in OPS+ at 171.
As for the components of OPS, Votto leads Pujols in OBP .423 to .415, while Pujols leads Votto in slugging, .605 to .603; those numbers just don't get closer.
Pujols and Votto are one-two in this category as well, and only Carlos Gonzalez (261) also has more than 250.
Twenty-one total bases over a season is nothing to sneeze your nose at, but given that Pujols has played six more games than Votto, we are once again in the margin of error.
The "grounded into double plays" statistic is probably the counterpart to the strikeouts statistic; Pujols leads Votto by a healthy margin–and Votto's total is actually very good for a power-hitting first baseman–but the value, or lack thereof, of the double play is difficult to determine without reference to the players around Pujols or Votto.
Who knows? Maybe if Pujols struck out more, he'd hit into fewer double plays.
Vice versa for Votto.
This is a not-insubstantial difference.
For WAR purposes, 5.6 and 4.9 are very different numbers.
It appears as though a slight gap opens up between these players once defense is brought into the fold.
Runs created is an outmoded statistic, but I wanted to make reference to it to demonstrate, once again, just how similarly these two guys are playing.
Of course, when you look to RC per game–10.0 vs. 8.9 in favor of Votto–the difference isn't as slight.
Worth noting, though, that no other player has topped 100 yet this season in the NL.
Three batting runs (3.7 to be precise) appears at first to be a significant difference.
Nevertheless, consider the following:
Pujols and Votto are once again one-two in these categories. Of all the other National League hitters, only Adrian Gonzalez has topped 40 this season, and after him only Prince Fielder has topped 30.
Considering the company that is around them, or rather not around them, 3.7 batting runs becomes a pretty small difference.
This is looking like an awfully close race, and frankly, with these players locked in a veritable tie based upon their overall statistics, team record may prove to be the most important statistic of all.
The voters may well decide that, as between these incredibly similarly matched first basemen, perhaps the team that eventually wins the NL Central will have had the more valuable player.
But until that time, this race remains—much like the 2000 Presidential Election—too close to call.