When news broke that Christian Yelich — one of two front-runners for the National League MVP Award this season — had sustained a fractured kneecap that would keep him out for the remainder of the season, most assumed Cody Bellinger to be a lock to earn the hardware.
After a season-long battle between two of the game’s best young players, it appeared as if simply by remaining upright that Bellinger would waltz to the award. And yet, here’s the thing: baseball people like narratives. They like suspense.
And in a season in which the division titles have given them almost nothing in either category, it appears as if the MVP race will have to satisfy their desires —- which isn’t great news for Bellinger supporters.
There’s been a groundswell of support for Yelich to repeat as NL MVP, but he isn’t alone, either.
If it’s not going to be Yelich and there’s a need for suspense, what about the Washington Nationals’ Anthony Rendon?
So what’s the deal? Is MVP wrapped up or not?
To be sure, Bellinger remains a heavy favorite. The good news is that while the media loves suspense, they love narratives more —- and while Rendon’s numbers are just as good as Bellinger’s, the fact that he hasn’t been a part of the conversation for months and months is unfortunately (for him) a problem.
But putting all this aside, the key for Bellinger is simple: finish strong. What Bellinger has going for him (besides the narrative), is that as long as his offensive numbers remain in the same realm as the other guys, his defensive numbers should easily propel him to MVP.
It also doesn’t hurt to be the best player on one of the best teams.
Bellinger currently ranks second in WAR (according to Fangraphs) — 0.4 behind Yelich, and 0.4 ahead of Rendon. Bellinger ranks third with 44 home runs, ninth in batting average (.300), fifth in on-base percentage (.402), second in slugging (.623) and second in wRC+ (159).
Again, the differentiator here is that Bellinger has been arguably the most valuable defensive player at one of the premium defensive positions.
One statistic that tries to capture defensive value is UZR/150, which puts a run value to defense and attempts to quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through their fielding prowess (or lack thereof).
The number is used to explain how many runs better or worse a player has been compared to average. Bellinger has the highest mark in baseball this year (15.5) when everyone is scaled to an average number of attempts.
Rendon is 18th (3.4), and Yelich is 36th (0.8). One big reason for this is that Bellinger’s 10 outfield assists (tied fourth) and his .991 fielding percentage — all while playing a handful of different positions for the Dodgers.
The point of all this is to say: don’t panic. Barring a collapse of epic proportions, Bellinger should be hoisting the MVP trophy at some point.
However, he’ll need to see some sort of uptick over his recent play if he doesn’t want to make folks sweat it out. In the month of September, he’s hitting .239 with just four home runs.
It isn’t quite a collapse, but it’s not exactly a vote of confidence, either.