If I were writing a column about the National League MVP Award race a month ago, I would have just typed "Bryce Harper should win it," maybe tossed in a few Harper stats and a line about his hair, then moved on. I could have used the rest of my day to catch up on errands or take my dog for a walk. Thing is, I don't even have a dog, so I would have had time to pick out and purchase a dog and taken him for a walk. That's how much free time I would have had.
But those were simpler times, friends.
Is the NL MVP Award race as matter-of-fact as it once was? Glad you asked.
Harper, even in a current bout with glute tightness, is still awesome. Just check out his line Thursday in the Nationals' 15-1 win over the Braves: no at-bats, no hits, four runs, an RBI and four walks. It's the first time since 1914 that a hitter has drawn at least four walks and scored four runs and driven in a run without a hit or an at-bat.
His hair is still awesome. But his Nationals team is just not that awesome. Washington might go down as one of the most disappointing teams of the Wild Card era, and the fact of the matter is that the Baseball Writers' Association of America has not usually taken a shine to guys from non-playoff teams in the MVP Award vote.
So let's check in on the NL MVP Award situation and see if anybody's gaining on Harper, shall we?
For starters, here's our baseline, aka Harper's numbers and where they rank in the NL:
.331 average (first)
.464 on-base percentage (first)
.627 slugging percentage (first)
31 homers (third)
31 doubles (seventh)
63 extra-base hits (third)
104 walks (second)
79 RBIs (eighth)
96 runs (first)
267 total bases (third)
10.46 runs created per 27 outs (first)
8.0 WAR (first)
Yeah … that's going to be hard to top.
But here, in no particular order, is the rest of the field:
Paul Goldschmidt, D-backs
All summer, the prevailing line of thought has been that Goldy is the one guy pushing Harper on the MVP Award front, but his team performance will ultimately hold him back. Well, here we are in early September, and Goldschmidt's D-backs only have a record three games worse than the Nats. Neither club appears likely to reach October.
Trouble is, Goldschmidt only has an edge on Harper in one key category, and it's very much debatable how "key" that category (RBIs) should be. RBIs are ultimately a product of opportunity, and Goldschmidt, who has 97 RBIs, has had 45 more opportunities (i.e. plate appearances) than Harper with runners in scoring position.
Credit where it's due, though: Goldy has been an absolute monster in those situations. He has a .341/.500/.643 slash line with RISP.
I just don't think the difference in RBIs is enough to put Goldy ahead of Harper right now.
Jason Heyward, Cardinals
You'd think the team on pace for north of 100 wins would have a clear-cut MVP Award candidate, but that's the beauty of these Cards. They haven't had one truly extraordinary season. They've been terrific from top to bottom (and, with all the injuries, beyond the bottom). I'm sure Heyward (who I've listed only because he's the club's WAR leader) or Matt Carpenter or Michael Wacha or John Lackey will get some down-ballot love, but, really, there's no clear representative for St. Louis in this race.
Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
The Buccos, on the other hand, do have a "face" to represent them well, and it's a former NL MVP Award winner, at that.
Alas, McCutchen's abnormally poor April, when he was beset by lower body issues, marred what has otherwise been a typically brilliant season (.303/.404/.517 slash line, with 20 homers, 33 doubles, three triples and 85 RBIs). And Cutch doesn't outpace Harper in any major category. His primary MVP Award argument rests in his team's success, but his individual numbers aren't close enough to those of Harper to consider that a tiebreaker.
Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
Here's an interesting case, because we know voters have been swept up in storylines in the past, and the Cubs' story has been one of the best in baseball this season. There are so many excellent young players in that Cubs lineup, but Rizzo's the rock. His extra-base output -- 27 homers, 30 doubles, three triples -- is comparable to that of Harper, and Rizzo plays above-average defense (even tip-toeing on the tarp to make one memorable catch this year).
Again, though, the argument here rests more on storyline than stats. To me, that's not enough.
Joey Votto, Reds
Per FanGraphs, Votto, the 2010 NL MVP Award winner, is the only guy in the NL who sees a lower percentage of strikes (54.8) than Harper (57.1). And neither guy is prone to chase all those outside pitches. Votto (116) is the only guy who has drawn more walks than Harper.
Votto's had a big bounceback year after knee troubles forced him to miss 100 games last year, but his first half wasn't anything extraordinary. It wasn't even special enough to earn him an All-Star nod in his "hometown" of Cincinnati. His second half, however, has been astounding (.399/.576/.748 slash line, with 12 homers, 14 doubles and 59 walks).
Alas, the league-leading walk total is Votto's only edge on Harper, and Votto plays on one of the worst teams in baseball.
Nolan Arenado, Rockies
Along with dazzling defense at the hot corner, Arenado sits atop the league in two Triple Crown categories -- homers (33, tied with teammate Carlos Gonzalez) and RBIs (100). That will resonate with some voters, but his team's position and his home park will be held against him.
Buster Posey, Giants
Not sure how it's possible for a three-time World Series winner and former NL MVP Award winner to be under the radar, but, yes, Posey has been under the radar this year. Between his offensive output (.325/.381/.476 slash line, with 16 homers) and defensive prowess (he's thrown out 39.3 percent of opposing runners attempting to steal), he's having one of the all-time great seasons for a catcher.
But when Posey won this award in 2012, he led the league in WAR, his OPS was second, and he played for a division winner. This year, Posey doesn't have any of those things going for him.
Curtis Granderson, Mets
The Mets are another likely division winner with no clear MVP Award case. Granderson (23 homers, 59 RBIs) has had a nice season, but not an MVP season. In fact, if the Mets have an MVP, it's probably Yoenis Cespedes, who, of course, only arrived on July 31.
Zack Greinke, Dodgers
This is the one guy I think could potentially steal this trophy from Harper. You might hate the idea of pitchers winning the MVP Award, but it happened for a Dodgers hurler last year, and could again.
Greinke's season might not be quite as outlandish as Kershaw's was last year, because Greinke doesn't have overpowering strikeout stuff. But it's still pretty darn outlandish. Greinke has a Major League-best 1.59 ERA through 27 starts in 186 2/3 innings. His ERA+ (235) is off the charts, as is his 0.846 WHIP. Since the mound was lowered in 1969, only two guys have posted a lower WHIP, and they're both in the Hall of Fame -- Pedro Martinez (0.74 in 2000) and Greg Maddux (0.81 in 1995).
And yes, Greinke is doing it for a likely division winner.
So … should Greinke win this award if these stats hold true down the stretch?
Personally, I have no problem with pitchers winning the MVP. But I think it has to be in a year in which no hitters truly distinguish themselves from the pack. Harper has distinguished himself in nearly every facet of the game. That he's done it for a team that has otherwise disappointed should not be held against him.
As things stand, Bryce Harper should win it. Now excuse me while I find a dog to walk.