Cody Bellinger, Christian Yelich Race for the NL MVP and 60 Home Runs

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 9, 2019

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - APRIL 19:  Cody Bellinger #35 of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Christian Yelich #22 of the Milwaukee Brewers stand at first base in the fifth inning at Miller Park on April 19, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

What Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were to 1998, Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich are to 2019.

They're on a quest not just for the National League MVP, but also 60 home runs.

For now, Bellinger and Yelich are taking a break to represent the Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers in the 2019 All-Star Game. Both were voted into the National League's starting lineup on the strength of uncannily similar batting numbers:

  • Bellinger.336/.432/.692 with 30 HR and 71 RBI
  • Yelich.329/.433/.707 with 31 HR and 67 RBI

Whether you look at classic OPS or the ballpark-adjusted OPS+, Bellinger and Yelich are easily the top two hitters in the National League. According to Baseball Reference, they also occupy the league's top two slots in wins above replacement.

Hence the hype for the NL MVP race as a decidedly two-horse affair. It's real. Very real, even.

Heck, Major League Baseball deemed it promo-worthy:

Given that there's a whole 'nother half of baseball to be played, it's possible that the NL MVP race will evolve into a proper multi-horse race. If either Bellinger or Yelich fades, there will be room for, say, Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer or Atlanta Braves stars Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr.

If, on the other hand, Bellinger and Yelich do keep it up, the Baseball Writers' Association of America voters will be faced with a difficult call.

The oh-so-important WAR advantage could remain squarely with Bellinger. His 6.6 rWAR easily trumps Yelich's 4.9 rWAR, and the gap between the two is only slightly smaller (5.7 to 5.0) at FanGraphs.

The MVP race isn't necessarily the "highest WAR" race, however, and Yelich will have two avenues to what would be his second straight MVP even if Bellinger does finish with more WAR.

One will be the narrative route, which is already in play. Whereas Bellinger, 23, has merely been the top contributor to the Dodgers' NL-best 60-32 record, nobody has done nearly as much as Yelich, 27, to keep the Brewers alive at 47-44. That dichotomy may well persist to the end of the year.

The other route involves voters potentially downplaying Bellinger's defensive advantage in right field in favor of better offensive numbers on Yelich's part. As it is, he already has Bellinger beat in OPS and home runs, and also significantly (19 to eight) in stolen bases.

It wouldn't necessarily clinch the award, but Yelich becoming the first player to 60 homers since Barry Bonds swatted 73 in 2001 would also help his MVP case. 

Unless, of course, Bellinger gets there first.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

To clarify, neither Bellinger nor Yelich is on pace to hit 60 homers as things stand now.

The All-Star break figuratively marks the halfway point of the season, but in actuality more than half the season is already in the bag. So despite the fact both are halfway to the 60-homer mark, ESPN puts Yelich on pace for 55 and Bellinger on pace for 53.

Plus, history is working against the two sluggers. Before Bellinger, Yelich and New York Mets slugger Pete Alonso (who at least deserves a shout-out) got there this season, there were 40 instances of a hitter going into the All-Star break with at least 30 homers. Only five—Roger Maris in 1961, Mark McGwire in 1998, Sammy Sosa in 1998 and 1999 and Bonds in 2001—resulted in 60-homer seasons.

Still, there's room for some optimistic imagining.

This is as good a year as any for it, as 2019 has been by far the most homer-happy season (1.37 per game) in MLB history. The honor formerly belonged to 2017. The splits of that season indicate that the home run rate won't take a turn for the worse until September.

In the meantime, Bellinger and Yelich just need to keep doing their thing. Or, at least, avoid regression from their respective "things."

Yelich may be especially in danger of that, as he has a larger gap (60 points) between his actual slugging percentage and his expected slugging percentage than Bellinger (12 points). Two related stories are that Yelich isn't as prolific as Bellinger at avoiding strikeouts or keeping the ball off the ground

But what Yelich lacks in volume, he makes up for in efficiency. He hits fly balls at nearly the same rate (38.2 percent) as Bellinger (40.3 percent), and he tends to hit his with more exit velocity:

  • Yelich: 97.8 mph
  • Bellinger96.0 mph

This has been Yelich's slugging M.O. his whole career, but especially since last year's All-Star break. He's up to 56 homers since then, and that's over only 147 games.

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 11: Christian Yelich #22 of the Milwaukee Brewers hits a home run in the third inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on June 11, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Tim Warner/Getty Images

The big key for Yelich's pursuit of 60 home runs will be his health. He's played in only 82 of Milwaukee's 91 games because of various aches and pains, and a nagging back issue caused him to duck out of Monday's Home Run Derby.

Bellinger, meanwhile, will have to break his pattern of diminishing returns since he caught fire with a 1.397 OPS and 14 homers in March and April. There's otherwise little to gripe about with regard to his approach to slugging, as racking up well-hit fly balls is indeed good for the ol' home run tally.

Bellinger also has a sneaky advantage over Yelich in the pursuit of 60. Dodger Stadium has a reputation for being unkind to fly balls, but fly balls are actually overachieving there even more than they are at Miller Park, which is known as a bandbox.

The CliffsNotes version of all this is that neither Bellinger's nor Yelich's offensive excellence is necessarily untenable. They operate in different ways, yet it's no accident that their results are so similar.

At the least, this should ensure that they keep the NL MVP race between themselves. With enough good fortune, one or both might also snap baseball's nearly two-decade streak of not having a player with 60 homers.

May the best slugger win.


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.


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