Is Fernando Tatis Jr. Still NL MVP Front-Runner and More MLB Award Questions

Zachary D. RymerAugust 18, 2021

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - AUGUST 15: Fernando Tatis Jr #23 of the San Diego Padres is congratulated by teammates after hitting a solo home run against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the third inning of the MLB game at Chase Field on August 15, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Ralph Freso/Getty Images

A cloud of uncertainty came over this year's National League MVP race when, on July 31, the San Diego Padres placed superstar shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. on the injured list after he aggravated a bothersome left shoulder injury.

That marked the second time that the 22-year-old's shoulder had landed him on the IL, and Padres manager Jayce Tingler even warned that this one came with the possibility of season-ending surgery. Though Tatis was able to avoid that fate, still more uncertainty came around when San Diego revealed plans to move him to the outfield upon his return.

The Padres officially made good on those plans when they activated Tatis and started him in right field Sunday. Days later, the whole thing is still in the experimental phase.

Offensively, though, Tatis has had little trouble picking up where he left off. He's 6-for-13 with three home runs since his return, with four of those hits and two of those homers coming Sunday opposite the Arizona Diamondbacks:

With that performance, Tatis reasserted himself as the main driver of a Padres season that's seen them go 67-55 to gain possession of the National League's second wild-card spot.

Otherwise, whether Tatis has reclaimed his status as the man to beat for the NL MVP is perhaps the best question that can be asked with regard to Major League Baseball's four major award races.

Is the NL MVP Race Back in Tatis' Hands?

If one wants to win an MVP, it's a good idea to lead one's league in wins above replacement.

At least for now, that's where Tatis actually comes up short. According to Baseball Reference, he barely leads NL position players (5.5 to 5.4) over Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Max Muncy. Moreover, both are looking up at a pair of pitchers: Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Zack Wheeler (5.9) and Cincinnati Reds left-hander Wade Miley (5.7). 

What doesn't bode well for those two is that only 11 pitchers have ever won an MVP. Those victories have typically been a case of a hurler enjoying an epic season amid a dearth of similarly epic offensive seasons, which isn't how the 2021 NL MVP race is shaping up.

Muncy, for example, is the only player in the NL with an on-base percentage over .400 and as many as 26 home runs. Just as he has been the main cog in the Dodgers offense all year, similar praise can be heaped on Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper, who's having his best season since his MVP-winning 2015 campaign with a .989 OPS and 22 home runs.

But if all this sounds like lip service, that's because it is lip service.

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - AUGUST 15: Fernando Tatis Jr #23 of the San Diego Padres runs to first base after hitting a solo home run against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the fifth inning of the MLB game at Chase Field on August 15, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. It was Tatis' second homer of the game. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Tatis may not lead the National League in overall WAR, but he does lead in offensive WAR (6.2) and in win probability added (3.855). The latter points to how Tatis has held firm with at least a .981 OPS in low-, medium- and high-leverage situations, while the former points to how he's basically a once-in-a-generation offensive force.

Tatis has comfortable leads over his National League peers in slugging (.677) and OPS (1.053) and his 34 homers and 23 stolen bases have him on track to become the first player since Chuck Klein in 1932 to lead his league in both those departments.

The narrative aspect of Tatis' MVP campaign is likewise too strong to be ignored.

Considering that his left shoulder has forced him onto the IL twice and necessitated a mechanical change, it's no small thing that he's continued to excel offensively. And simply by being willing to move from shortstop to right field, he aided the Padres by opening up everyday opportunities for All-Stars Jake Cronenworth and Adam Frazier.

Ultimately, Tatis' MVP case will only fall apart if his health fails him again. But if his shoulders continue to bear the team's weight, his path to the NL MVP will remain about as straight as it looks right now.

How Safe is Shohei Ohtani in the AL MVP Race?

Meanwhile in the AL MVP race, it's still Shohei Ohtani all alone at the top.

The Los Angeles Angels star is the overall MLB leader with 7.5 rWAR, and that number is split nearly evenly between 4.1 rWAR as a hitter and 3.4 rWAR as a pitcher. Which is to say that, yeah, his impression of Babe Ruth Bullet Rogan really is that good.

With 39 home runs to his name, Ohtani leads the majors and has already demolished the single-season record by a Japan-born player. Pitching-wise, his 2.93 ERA works out to a 160 ERA+, which places him ahead of Wheeler among pitchers who've made at least 17 starts.

There's plenty more to say about the season Ohtani is having, but the gist is that he's having the best two-way season of any player in the history of either the American League or the National League. Or, if you prefer the simpler distinction: arguably the best season ever.

"To me, it's not even close," Angels manager Joe Maddon told reporters in reference to Ohtani's MVP case in July. "When people talk about it being close—it's not. It's not. What he's doing is so unique. It's just so different compared to anybody else right now."

The cracks are there, though. Ohtani has hit only six home runs while striking out in a whopping 36.3 percent of his plate appearances in 31 games since the All-Star break. Between this and the ho-hum reality of the Angels being a non-contender, the door is open a crack for a challenger to swipe the AL MVP from under Ohtani's nose.

Among that lot, Toronto Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. still has the best shot. He's Ohtani's closest pursuer in home runs with 35, and he's also a .316 hitter with AL-best marks for on-base percentage (.413) and OPS (1.024). Strictly as far as offense goes, he's the most valuable hitter in the American League.

Even if Ohtani continues to cool, though, Guerrero will need a hot stretch to boost his MVP credentials. He's been cool in his own right to the tune of a .745 OPS over his last 25 games, in which time the Blue Jays have remained stuck in fourth place in the AL East.

If Guerrero gets hot and pushes Toronto over the hump and into October, his numbers and narrative could be too great for MVP voters to ignore. But if he falls short, the AL MVP race will likely be as firmly in Ohtani's hands as it is now.

Who Wants the AL and NL Cy Young Awards?

Once he finished May with a 1.78 ERA and a 97-to-9 strikeout to walk ratio, it seemed like New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole was going to waltz his way to his first AL Cy Young Award.

Then came the sticky-stuff ban in June and a handful of lost starts in July and August after he tested positive for COVID-19. Both things have tripped up his Cy Young candidacy, as he's made only 11 starts and pitched to a 4.41 ERA since June 3.

With Cole out of the way, the most balanced case for the AL Cy Young belongs to Chicago White Sox right-hander Lance Lynn. His 2.60 expected ERA is a hair behind teammate Carlos Rodon for the AL lead among starters, and his portfolio is certainly further bolstered by the best actual ERA (2.26) and ERA+ (190) in the Junior Circuit. 

If Lynn's case has a weakness, it's that he's only 22nd in the AL with 119.2 innings pitched. Much closer to the top of that list is Blue Jays lefty Robbie Ray, who's pitched to a 2.88 ERA over 137.1 innings. He's also hot with a 2.32 ERA and 107 strikeouts in his last 14 starts, so his case for the AL Cy Young is trending up.

With regard to Oakland A's righty Chris Bassitt, he was certainly working on a Cy Young-caliber season with a 3.22 ERA over his first 151 innings. But after he took a 100 mph line drive off his face Tuesday, his health and well-being loom a lot larger than his numbers.

Over on the National League side, Miley doesn't quite measure up to Wheeler as a Cy Young candidate even though the two are barely separated by rWAR.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 08: Pitcher Zack Wheeler #45 of the Philadelphia Phillies delivers a pitch against the New York Mets during the first inning of a game at Citizens Bank Park on August 8, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

With a 2.56 ERA over 162 innings, Wheeler has Miley beat by 28 points and 29 innings, respectively. The former New York Met's innings indeed lead all of MLB, as do his 187 strikeouts. His 2.73 xERA, meanwhile, ranks fifth among starters.

Wheeler has, however, been relatively hittable of late in allowing at least four earned runs in four of his last seven starts. So now more than ever, he ought to be checking over his shoulder for Walker Buehler.

The Dodgers right-hander has always had ace-level stuff, and this season has seen him harness it to its full capacity. His 2.09 ERA is the lowest of any qualified pitcher, and he's achieved that number while pitching more innings (154.2) than anyone not named Wheeler.

Also, don't overlook the three Milwaukee Brewers aces immediately behind Buehler on the ERA charts: Corbin Burnes (2.13), Brandon Woodruff (2.18) and Freddy Peralta (2.26). They also check in at first, seventh and second in xERA, positions which stem from stellar peripherals that could sway the voting if Wheeler and Buehler falter down the stretch.

The bottom line is that while each of the four major awards races has favorites, none is anything even close to settled. With six weeks still to play in the 2021 season, that age-old adage rings true.

It's not how you start, but how you finish.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, StatheadFanGraphs and Baseball Savant and are current through play on Tuesday, Aug. 17.