Real or Not? Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger headed for epic MVP battle

ByDavid Schoenfield via ESPN logo
Monday, June 10, 2019

One place baseball is not struggling to draw fans: Milwaukee. Before 45,375 at Miller Park on Sunday, the Milwaukee Brewers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-2 to complete a three-game sweep. One of the highlights for the Brewers: Christian Yelich hit his MLB-leading 24th home run in going 2-for-4 to raise his season line to .340/.446/.745.

In San Francisco, the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the San Francisco Giants 1-0 behind Walker Buehler's seven shutout innings and Max Muncy's home run into McCovey Cove off Madison Bumgarner. Cody Bellinger went 0-for-4, but he's still ripping the ball at a .355/.449/.693 clip, with 20 home runs.

Since hitting .400 for the last time on May 21, Bellinger has hit just .226 and has now had three hitless games in a row after not having two in a row before. Yelich has passed Bellinger in slugging percentage and OPS, and the potentially epic MVP race is back on. (To be fair, Bellinger's slump is really just these three games. He had hit safely in his previous 12 games and hit .286/.375/.571. It's only a slump because he was hitting .404 a couple weeks ago.)

Anyway, how epic could this MVP battle become? Consider their on-pace stats:

Yelich: .340/.446/.745, 59 home runs, 130 RBIs, 123 runs

Bellinger: .355/.449/.693, 49 home runs, 133 RBIs, 125 runs

More impressive, both players are on track for 10-WAR seasons if they keep hitting and defending like they've done so far. Bellinger entered Sunday with 5.6 WAR via and 4.6 on FanGraphs. Yelich entered at 4.0 on both sites and is probably at 4.2 after Sunday's game. Both the Dodgers and Brewers have played 66 games, so Bellinger is comfortably ahead of 10-WAR pace while Yelich is at 10.1 -- and the on-pace projections sell him a little short since he missed a few games and is on pace to play only 147 games.

What defines an epic MVP race? I'm not thinking of controversial MVP votes -- such as Miguel Cabrera versus Mike Trout in 2012 and 2013 -- or even close MVP votes, such as 2017, when Giancarlo Stanton edged out Joey Votto by two points. I'm thinking of races when both players had historic seasons. Stanton and Votto, for example, were amazing in 2017, but Stanton's 7.9 WAR and Votto's 7.4 (using Baseball-Reference numbers here) were pretty standard WAR totals for MVP winners.

Seasons of 10 WAR for position players are extremely rare. There have been only 15 in the past 50 seasons. What if we use the following definition for an epic MVP race: Both players have 10.0 WAR and finish 1-2 in the MVP voting. Here's what we find:

  • 2018 American League: Mookie Betts (10.9) and Trout (10.2). The really amazing aspect to these seasons is that Betts played only 136 games and Trout just 140 as both missed time. The MVP vote wasn't close, however, as Betts played on a team that won 108 games while the Angels finished under .500. Betts received 28 of the 30 first-place votes.
  • 2001 National League: Barry Bonds (11.9) and Sammy Sosa (10.3). Sosa hit .328 with 64 home runs and 160 RBIs -- and received just two first-place votes. That's because Bonds hit .328/.515/.863 with a record-breaking 73 home runs. (Randy Johnson also had 10.1 pitching WAR that season, although he finished just 11th in the MVP voting.)

That's it since the Baseball Writers' Association of America began voting on MVP winners in 1931. The only other season with two position players (retroactively, of course) credited with 10 WAR was 1948, but one was in the NL (Stan Musial) and the other in the AL (Lou Boudreau). Both won their respective MVP awards.

If we lower our standards to 9.0 WAR, we get a much bigger sample, although not many where the players finished 1-2 in the MVP voting. As an example, in 1996, Mariners teammates Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez each passed 9.0 WAR, but Juan Gonzalez won the MVP.

Here's that list of 9.0-plus WAR and 1-2 in the MVP race:

  • 2016 AL: Trout (10.5) and Betts (9.0). Trout hit .315/.441/.550 with 29 home runs and 30 steals and Betts hit .318/.363/.534 with 31 home runs, 113 RBIs, 26 steals and great defense. Trout picked up 19 first-place votes to nine for Betts.
  • 2004 NL: Bonds (10.6) and Adrian Beltre (9.6). Beltre had the best season of his career, hitting .334 with a league-leading 48 home runs. Bonds, however, hit a ridiculous .362/.609/.812 with 45 home runs. The man posted a .600 OBP. Insane. Bonds got 24 of 32 first-place to six for Beltre. Albert Pujols (8.5 WAR) and Scott Rolen (9.2) picked up one apiece.
  • 1958 NL: Ernie Banks (9.3) and Willie Mays (10.3). In this case, the player with the lower WAR won MVP honors. Banks, who hit .313/.366/.614 with 47 home runs, won even though the Cubs finished under .500. Mays hit .347/.419/.583 with 29 home runs and led the league in OPS and runs and steals. It probably came down to RBIs: Banks had 129 and Mays 96.
  • 1957 AL: Mickey Mantle (11.3) and Ted Williams (9.7). Williams hit .388/.526/.731, leading the circuit in all three triple-slash categories. But Mantle hit .365/.512/.665. The vote was controversial at the time, as batting average was still the king of stats, but the voters got it right (I mean, we're also talking about a 24-year-old center fielder versus a 38-year-old left fielder). The weird part is the first-place votes were split among five players: Mantle (6), Williams (5), Roy Sievers (4), Nellie Fox (5) and Gil McDougald (4).
  • 1949 NL: Jackie Robinson (9.6) and Musial (9.2). Musial had one of his best power seasons, hitting .338 with 36 home runs, but Robinson hit .342, drove in 124 runs, stole 37 bases and Brooklyn won the pennant.
  • 1941 AL: Joe DiMaggio (9.1) versus Williams (10.6). This not the famous 1942 vote, when Williams won the Triple Crown but lost to DiMaggio by one point, but is still one of the more controversial MVP results in history. Williams hit .406 and led the AL with 37 home runs and 135 runs. DiMaggio hit .357 with 30 home runs and had his record 56-game hitting streak. If both those events happened in 2019, which would be bigger? (The Yankees won the pennant, which was probably the tiebreaker at the time.)

That's one list of epic MVP races. Will we add Yelich and Bellinger by the end of the season?

Back to back to back to back: Tied 1-1 in the top of the eighth inning Sunday, the San Diego Padres brought in reliever Craig Stammen and the Washington Nationals made history when this happened:

The four home runs came in a span of seven pitches, all off Stammen, who had allowed five home runs in 33 innings entering the game.

"You don't want to be the one who doesn't hit one. It was pretty crazy. It doesn't happen a lot. You're just glad you're on this side and not the other side," Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon said after the game.

Indeed, it's just the ninth time a team has hit four consecutive home runs. The Nationals were actually the previous team to do it, in 2017. The eight other times:

  • Nationals, July 27, 2017, vs. Brewers (Brian Goodwin, Wilmer Difo, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman). All off Michael Blazek. In fact, after the four in a row, Daniel Murphy flew out and then Rendon hit the fifth home run of the inning off Blazek. It was Blazek's final game in the majors (although he's currently in Triple-A with the Nationals).
  • Arizona Diamondbacks, Aug. 11, 2010, vs. Brewers (Adam LaRoche, Miguel Montero, Mark Reynolds, Stephen Drew.) All off Dave Bush.
  • Chicago White Sox, Aug. 14, 2008, vs. Kansas City Royals (Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, Alexei Ramirez, Juan Uribe). Off Joel Peralta (three) and Rob Tejeda (one).
  • Boston Red Sox, April 22, 2007, vs. New York Yankees (Manny Ramirez, J.D. Drew, Mike Lowell, Jason Varitek). All off Chase Wright (who would pitch just one more game in a brief three-game MLB career).
  • Dodgers, Sept. 18, 2006, vs. Padres (Jeff Kent, J.D. Drew, Russell Martin, Marlon Anderson). Off Jon Adkins (two) and Trevor Hoffman (two). This was the famous game in which the Dodgers hit four in a row in the ninth to tie the game and then won it on Nomar Garciaparra's walk-off homer in the 10th. Also note that Drew is the only player to homer in two separate four-in-a-row streaks.
  • Minnesota Twins, May 2, 1964, vs. Oakland Athletics (Tony Oliva, Bob Allison, Jimmie Hall, Harmon Killebrew). Off Dan Pfister (three) and Vern Handrahan (one). The home runs came in the 11th inning.
  • Cleveland Indians, July 31, 1963, vs. Los Angeles Angels (Woodie Held, Pedro Ramos, Tito Francona, Larry Brown). All off Paul Foytack.
  • Milwaukee Braves, June 8, 1961, vs. Cincinnati Reds (Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Joe Adcock, Frank Thomas). Off Jim Maloney (two) and Marshall Bridges (two). The Braves are the only four-in-row team to lose the game as the Reds won 10-8.

MadBum gets a little mad: It's possible that Sunday's start for Bumgarner will be his final one against the Dodgers as a member of the Giants. The Giants play the Dodgers next Monday through Thursday, but with two off days this week, Bumgarner might not pitch again until Saturday or Sunday against Milwaukee, thus could miss the Dodgers series. Then the two teams don't play each other again until September -- by which time Bumgarner might be wearing another uniform.

If so, it was fitting that Sunday's game featured a strong start from Bumgarner -- plus a signature Bumgarner. The only run in the 1-0 game was Muncy's first-inning home run into the kayaks:

Bumgarner didn't like that Muncy enjoyed the flight of the ball a little too much and the two exchanged phone numbers as Muncy rounded the bases. Muncy offered the classic comeback after the game: "If you don't want me to watch the ball, you can get it out of the ocean."

Bumgarner is 15-13 against the Dodgers in his career, but with a 2.52 ERA. He should be better than 15-13, but the Giants have scored more than three runs just 10 times in his 34 career starts against the Dodgers. This game, however, is an indication of why Bumgarner will be in demand at the trade deadline: The belief that he can step it up in big games, as he has done in October in the past -- plus that little bit of attitude that makes him MadBum.

Encarnacion hits No. 400: Maybe the most underrated power hitter of the past decade, Edwin Encarnacion hit the 400-homer mark for the Seattle Mariners on Sunday:

Congrats to Encarnacion and his parrot. Encarnacion is up to 20 home runs and could be an interesting pickup for a team needing a designated hitter (such as the Houston Astros) or bat off the bench for an NL team. He's making $20 million this year and there is a $5 million buyout, so the Mariners would probably have to pick up some of the salary.

Or maybe the Astros don't need a DH: The Astros finally called up Yordan Alvarez, who was only hitting .343/.443/.742 at Triple-A Round Rock with 23 home runs. The big Cuban did this in his second at-bat in a 4-0 win over the Baltimore Orioles:

If Alvarez proves to be a force, adding another left-handed bat to Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick will provide more balance to the Houston lineup -- and make the Astros that much tougher.

Finally, a non-home run highlight: OK, that's a lot of home runs. Here's Rougned Odor with a straight steal of home to help remind as that baseball needs more bash and dash instead of just bash and mash:

Bryce Harper also tried a straight steal of home with Eugenio Suarez playing off the base and Sonny Gray working from a full windup, but was called out:

Harper's dash came with two strikes and two out with Rhys Hoskins batting, but if you watch the replay, the pitch actually should have been called strike three, which would have nullified the steal attempt. In fact, it appears Hoskins and home-plate ump Jordan Baker both forgot to do their jobs as Harper broke home. If Baker had called strike three as Hoskins stepped away from the pitch, Harper's run wouldn't have counted even if he had beaten the throw.

In other words: Don't try to steal home with two out and two strikes and your best hitter up. It was a pretty boneheaded play by Harper, even if it was a hustle play. Oh, the Phillies lost 4-3.

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