In 2020, the world as we know it changed forever due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Things like hope, peace, and joy became precious commodities as the entire planet shut itself down. Pastimes, including baseball, became secondary to people’s health and well-being. For a time, MLB fans wondered if they would even get a season. Fortunately for them, different safeguards were enacted and a 60-game schedule was put into place. The schedule, to be absolutely frank, was weird, and some of the statistics were even weirder. However, that didn’t stop the 2020 MVP race from being a hotly contested one in both leagues.
Some of the WAR numbers we’ll use in our examination today seem laughable. For instance, the American League leader only managed a 3.2. But, we have to take the shortened schedule and the lack of preparation into account. After all, there was no spring training, and the lack of normalcy certainly played a major role in things. So, it’s no surprise when the entirety of one league’s top 10 WAR metrics are separated by one point and the other by less than that. This is shaping up to be our most interesting and exciting journey yet.
2020 MVP Race: American League
The American League, as previously stated, had 10 of their top WAR numbers separated by one point. Still, though, Shane Bieber managed to take home the top spot. He was followed closely by DJ LeMahieu and Jose Abreu. These will be the three examinees here today, though LeMahieu and Abreu technically had the same WAR. They defeated such names as Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jose Ramirez, Tim Anderson, and Gerrit Cole. Since everything was so close, some of their stats might seem a bit bloated. However, they are what they are, and we’re here to determine if Abreu, the actual MVP, truly deserved it.
It’s rare for the real-life MVP to begin these snippets. However, in the AL’s 2020 MVP race, that’s the case. Abreu had an excellent season for the Chicago White Sox. He slashed .317/.370/.617 with an OPS of .987 and an OPS+ of 148. His 76 runs scored and 60 RBI both paced the league, and he played in all 60 games. He led the league in total bases (148) and finished in the top five in wOBA (.411) and wRC+ (164) among players with at least 200 plate appearances. Though Abreu has never played Gold Glove-caliber defense, 2020 was the only time in his career that he’s posted a dWAR in the positive. All in all, Abreu has a pretty staunch MVP case. We’ll see if it holds up.
In 2020, DJ LeMahieu was known for one thing: precise hitting. The New York Yankees infielder had made a career out of hitting well in Colorado before 2019. Then, New York came calling and LeMahieu responded in droves. The COVID-shortened season of 2020 proved even more beneficial. LeMahieu won the league’s batting title with a whopping .364 average. He won his second Silver Slugger and finished third in MVP voting. His 1.011 OPS, 178 OPS+, and .421 on-base percentage also paced the AL. He played solid defense, though his metrics were down a bit from his days in Colorado. However, he did more than enough with the bat to earn a spot in the AL’s 2020 MVP race.
Bieber, ace of the Cleveland Indians, didn’t just win the WAR title in the AL in 2020. He also took home an ERA title and the coveted Cy Young Award. But that’s not all that supports his candidacy in the 2020 MVP race. He struck out 122 batters in only 77 1/3 innings. That translates to a strikeout rate of over 41%, and he averaged a league-best 14.2 K/9. He posted an ERA+ of 273 and only gave up seven homers all season. True, a counterargument could be made that some of his numbers are skewed due to the shortness of the season. However, any pitcher that has a stretch of 12 starts that are this good deserves special recognition, no matter the season’s length.
The MVP should be…
White Sox fans look away, because the MVP should have been Bieber. Despite the season’s lack of scheduled substance, Bieber played an important role in a season that was, for all intents and purposes, the most bizarre of all time. Not only that, but he was pitching, which meant he couldn’t showcase his best every single night. He had to be in peak condition every single time he started. Playoff hopes counted on it and, though the Indians were defeated in the Wild Card Series, he still played a massive role in helping them get there. That’s why he’s the rightful 2020 AL MVP.
2020 MVP Race: National League
Unlike their counterparts in the Junior Circuit, the 2020 MVP race in the NL was all about big, booming pieces of lumber. Manny Machado, Freddie Freeman, and Mookie Betts all finished in the top three in WAR voting. So, they’ll be put under our proverbial knife here today. However, much like the American League, the National League also experienced a tightness of statistical parity. The entirety of the WAR metrics are separated by a mere eight-tenths of a point. Unfortunately for guys like Trevor Bauer, Max Fried, and Zack Wheeler, this lands them just a tick outside the top three. So, let’s dive in and see what the podium had to offer.
We begin with a San Diego Padres slugger who, in retrospect, had quite a rough first year with the team in 2019. Though that season may have been a bit underwhelming, Machado more than made up for it in 2020. He hit .304 with 16 homers and 68 hits while playing in all 60 games. Furthermore, he scored 44 runs and drove in 47. Though he didn’t lead the league in any category, his consistency across the board plants him firmly in the 2020 MVP race. We’ll see if he can usurp the real-life winner.
In 2020, the Atlanta Braves went to their first NLCS since 1999. Despite not achieving the ultimate goal, the team still experienced a lot of success. Freeman was at the core of all this and his numbers helped him to his first MVP award. He slashed .341/.462/.640 with a staggering OPS of 1.102. His 51 runs scored and 23 doubles both paced the league. Not only that, but he was extremely balanced at the plate. He walked 45 times and only struck out 37 times, leading to a 17.2% walk rate. All of these numbers are truly MVP-worthy, yet there is still one player that ranks above him in terms of WAR. So, we’ll see if Freeman can keep his trophy, or if he can be outdone.
“What Freddie Freeman achieved this year, what he survived will always be remembered as the defining story of baseball in 2020.”@JeremySchaap on @FreddieFreeman5‘s MVP-caliber season. @Braves pic.twitter.com/q3BUSZRbTH
— Outside the Lines (@OTLonESPN) October 14, 2020
This year, the notable MVP battle down the stretch has been between Betts and Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. Three years ago, the teams were the same, only Betts was battling Freeman. Betts definitely had a legitimate case in the 2020 MVP race. He hit .292 with 16 homers and 39 RBI while playing in 55 of the 60 games. In terms of overall production, he cranked out 64 hits and scored 47 runs. Though not quite as patient at the plate as Freeman, Betts still managed a walk rate of nearly 10%. Top that off with Gold Glove-winning defense and the Los Angeles Dodgers star was very much deserving of being in the conversation.
The MVP should be…
This one’s fairly obvious. Despite being mere shavings behind Betts in the WAR department, Freeman torched everything else. That’s why he was named MVP and that’s why he’s keeping it here. His power and precision with the bat were impressive enough. However, what truly puts it over the top for this writer is his absolute patience. Granted, the season was short, but we’ll probably never see another campaign where one hitter has such a positive disparity between walks and strikeouts. Freeman’s excellent defense at first base puts the perfect bow on this excellent package.
Photo Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports