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The muddled and thrilling AL MVP race, graphed

It’s been an exciting year of MVP candidates seizing the lead, falling back, and generally making a mess of the race. Let’s visualize the twists and turns.

Baltimore Orioles v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

It’s been a fruitful season for enjoyable conversations about the AL MVP. I mean that genuinely! A lot of the time, come awards season, we’re treated to the same, horrible, rehashed arguments about stats versus grit, and it’s downright miserable. This year has been different, as the multitude of viable candidates for top honors in the AL have raised a number of interesting questions about what we value in a player, and how. How much do you penalize a player for missing part of the season? How much do you reward someone who puts up an absolutely insane pace when they do take the field? Is greatness better spent early in the year, saved until late, or spread out equally? Once you accept that the MVP is entirely meaningless, you can enjoy the conversation around it for what it is: an extended debate about aesthetics. That’s not such a bad thing.

The other reason this season’s MVP conversation has been interesting is that it’s truly been a season’s worth of conversation, not just a couple weeks. There have been several players who looked to have an unshakeable grip on the award, and there’s still nearly two months left in the season.

With that in mind, I wanted to track how the race has progressed thus far. WAR doesn’t track perfectly with how MVP voters perceive players, but it’s probably the best proxy available. I used FanGraphs’ WAR to calculate a day-by-day total for each of the players who I think has reasonably been a frontrunner at some point this year: Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, José Altuve, and Chris Sale. The resulting graph tells a story that hasn’t ended yet. Let’s break it down, shall we? (The following dates weren’t picked for any specific reason, just to create some narrative cohesion.)

April 26

Trout, 1.2 WAR; Judge: 0.7 WAR; Altuve, 0.7 WAR; Sale, 1.6 WAR

Going into this season, and really any season in the recent past or foreseeable future, Trout was the favorite to win AL MVP. In the first few weeks of 2017, he quickly demonstrated why. He jumped out of the gate in April, racking up 1.2 WAR in just under 100 PAs. That’s a pace that’s not even particularly noteworthy for Trout; instead, it’s the consistency and reliability of the 26-year-old superstar that makes him special.

Judge was still just a pleasant surprise, maybe inciting a bit of Rookie of the Year chatter; Altuve wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary for him. Sale was off to a great start to his Boston career, coming off of an eight-inning, 13-K effort against the Blue Jays. We have such a deeply ingrained bias against pitchers as MVP candidates that it takes more than a few excellent outings for a starter to force his way into the conversation. Get used to seeing Sale chugging along at the top of the chart without having much said about him as an MVP candidate; this won’t be the last time.

May 20

Trout: 2.8 WAR; Judge: 2.4 WAR; Altuve: 1.5 WAR; Sale: 3.2 WAR

A little less than a month later, Trout has continued his usual outstanding performance, but now we see Judge really kicking into high gear. There’s a particularly steep bit of his WAR curve in late April/early May; that’s a stretch of six games in which he had 11 hits and eight walks in 29 PAs, with six of those hits clearing the fence as home runs. Again, I don’t think anyone considered him an MVP frontrunner yet, but he had displayed the requisite talent. Note how far back Altuve looks at this point; he wasn’t having a bad season or anything, just not the kind of season that establishes oneself as even a potential MVP candidate.

Sale continues to crush all who oppose him.

May 29

Trout: 3.5 WAR; Judge: 2.8 WAR; Altuve: 1.8 WAR; Sale: 3.4 WAR

And now we see why Trout is always, always, always the safe bet for MVP. Judge has continued to hit — his wRC+ through May 29 was a stunning 189 — but Trout has kicked his performance into another gear, raising his own wRC+ to a flabbergasting 210. This is one of the earliest dates on which Trout passes Sale for the AL lead in WAR across both pitchers and hitters. It’s also the day he goes on the DL; the game against the Marlins on May 28th is the last that Trout will play for over six weeks.

June 28

Trout: 3.5 WAR; Judge: 5.2 WAR; Altuve: 3.3 WAR; Sale: 5.0 WAR

It was that injury, combined with another incredible spurt from Judge, that really made this race exciting. On June 28, Trout still has two weeks remaining in his DL stint, and Judge has gone absolutely hog-wild since the last graph, hitting for a 221 wRC+ and snagging 2.4 WAR in just 30 days and 132 PAs. This represents his peak, the biggest gap he opened up between himself and Trout/Altuve. Sale has had some starts better than others, but has kept his pace fairly steady at a setting of “relentless,” making it all the more impressive that Judge (briefly) snuck ahead of him.

July 29

Trout: 4.0 WAR; Judge: 5.7 WAR; Altuve: 5.5 WAR; Sale: 7.0 WAR

The thirty days between the previous graph and this one were the Month of Altuve. After looking like a non-factor in this race for the majority of the season, he turned on the afterburners in July, cutting through 107 PAs with a 239 wRC+. Of course, he had given everyone else such a big head start that his outstanding performance wouldn’t have mattered much if not for Judge’s own sputtering. It’s easy to blame the Derby, but Judge’s WAR accumulation leveled off about a week prior to the All-Star Break; after his torrid pace over the first three months of the season, he gained just 0.5 WAR in the 30 days prior to this graph.

And I sound like a broken record at this point, but that illustrates why Chris Sale deserves so much credit for this season. Each of the position player frontrunners have had some kind of hiccup over the course of 2017, whether via injury or simple underperformance, while Sale has just leapt upward every five days. And he shouldn’t be docked credit for his position, either; it’s not as if we think of pitchers as models of consistency and health. At this point, at the end of July, he’s at 7.0 WAR, already enough to make him a totally reasonable MVP in any number of seasons. This was the point when I started to think of him as a real frontrunner, though I’m not sure that’s an opinion shared widely.

Also noteworthy: Trout is off the disabled list. Boy, that’s a big ol’ gap between him and Altuve/Judge. There’s no way he could close it, right?

August 11

Trout: 5.1 WAR; Judge: 5.8 WAR; Altuve: 5.9 WAR; Sale: 7.5 WAR

And this is where things stand today, with just less than two months to play in the season. If there’s one lesson from this exercise, it’s this: don’t bet against Trout. In the month of August, he’s had a 276 wRC+. He has done more for the Angels lineup over that time than Altuve and Judge combined, and not by a small margin. That’s how you accumulate a full win in less than two weeks.

And we should acknowledge another reason Trout’s 2017 is remarkable: when he’s been healthy, he’s been good, almost without exception. After his insane July, Altuve has joined Judge on the six-WAR plateau, and unless one (or both) of them regain their form from earlier in the season, Trout is going to catch them in a matter of days.

But. I know I just said not to bet against Trout, but I think there’s one person in the AL that Trout isn’t going to catch. Look at Chris Sale’s curve. Look at the consistency with which he has mowed down opponents. Every time he takes a step back, Sale takes four or five steps forward. He lost a tenth of a WAR after getting knocked around in his August 1 start against the Indians, but followed that up with an eight-inning, two-hit, thirteen-K obliteration of the Rays that added six-tenths of a WAR. Sale can be delayed, but he can’t be stopped. Unless the lanky lefty gets hurt — and I understand that’s a real possibility — he seems almost certain to finish the season with the most WAR in the AL, across both pitchers and hitters.

So why is this still being talked about as a three-horse race?

I don’t know. Show Sale some dang respect, Buster. We can talk all we want about how the MVP usually goes to position players, but a) there’s precedent for it going to an outstanding pitcher, and b) who cares, it should go to whoever we want it to go to, and you really should want it to go to Chris Sale!

It’s barely mid-August, and we’ve already had a fantastic MVP race. I could’ve included others in this chart, but we should be thankful that we’ve already had four deserving frontrunners, all of whom are still in the race. As you could probably tell, my heart is with Sale, but an insane close to the season from Trout could be enough to tear me away. And while that’s where my loyalties lie, Judge has the novelty, and Altuve the momentum; any of them could win it.

The MVP race doesn’t matter, even more than everything having to do with a sport played in pajamas doesn’t matter. But it can be fun, when it’s close, and when it generates some good conversations. This year’s MVP race has been fun, and I can’t imagine any way the next seven weeks won’t be fun too.

Henry Druschel is the co-Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.