It seemed like a foregone conclusion with the way things were going: Fernando Tatís Jr. was going to all but run away with the National League MVP.
Through games played on August 31, Tatís held a 0.8-win lead in fWAR over the next-closest National League player, Mike Yastrzemski. He was slashing .313/.395/.660 in 167 plate appearances, good for a 178 wRC+ that ranked sixth in the NL. Those numbers, in tandem with much-improved defense and the fact that he was leading the ever-so-fun Padres to their first postseason appearance since 2006, made him the obvious front runner. In a year where award voting could end up being much more complicated given the reduced amount of time players have to separate themselves from the pack, Tatís had done just that.
At the time, Freddie Freeman wasn’t even on the radar. He wasn’t even near the radar. Freeman was having an excellent season, sure — he was already putting up career-best offensive numbers with a 160 wRC+ into this month, but he was far from being in the conversation. Freeman produced 1.3 fWAR through August 31, which ranked as the 12th-best mark in the NL and the 23rd-best mark across the majors. More importantly, at least as far as this discussion is concerned, Tatís had more than doubled Freeman’s fWAR through the first five-odd weeks of the season.
But, to save you the suspense, Freeman has pretty much caught up to Tatís this month:
Here’s the same chart, but with a closer look at just September 1 on:
We’ve got ourselves a race, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Freeman has been blazing hot this month, slashing an obscene .426/.527/.836 with six home runs and a 248 wRC+. In that time, he’s walked in nearly 15 percent of plate appearances and has struck out in less than 7 percent. It’s only been 16 games, but he hasn’t been this hot in such a short span in more than three years. Freeman ran as high as a 285 wRC+ in August 2016 and, slightly more recently, posted a 260 wRC+ in April 2017. But, still, this recent peak stands out:
In order to compensate for the WAR difference, this marvelous offensive stretch from Freeman has quite clearly coincided with major cooling from Tatís. In 58 plate appearances in September, Tatís has slashed .184/.293/.347 with just two homers and a 77 wRC+. He’s still crushing the ball this month, with a 95.4 mph average exit velocity, but an utter lack of BABIP luck has allowed Freeman to climb all the way into the race.
But Tatís and Freeman only remain theoretically tied, suggesting that, unless something drastic happens in the final week of the regular season, we’re going to have a heated MVP discussion. There’s plenty favoring both. Tatís has seemingly taken the baseball world by storm, so you may just give him the edge in the “storyline” department, if that’s such a thing. He’s also playing a much more demanding position and has been the unquestioned leader in this race for weeks. Freeman, on the other hand, has done this much more quietly. An established veteran, his greatness has been consistent, but never eye-popping pre-2020. Since his first full season in 2011, Freeman’s wRC+ has remained in the 115 to 152 range, never quite reaching first-in-the-league territory, but rarely falling below the 85th percentile. That could be why seemingly few have recognized just how good Freeman has been this season; being a touch better than traditional Freddie Freeman effectively turns him from being the 10th-best hitter in baseball to the best hitter in baseball.
There’s a very good case to be made, however, that Freeman is actually ahead of Tatís right now. By this point, it’s clear that Freeman’s offensive numbers across the board have been better than Tatís’, but here’s a quick overview once again:
Freeman vs. Tatís, 2020
Without question, Freeman has been better than Tatís in the season-long offensive stats. Defense is what narrows the gap between the two, but it’s not as if Freeman’s defense has been bad; the positional adjustment is (rightly) having an impact here:
Freeman vs. Tatís, Defense
|Player||DRS||UZR||Outs Above Average||Positional Adjustment||Defensive Value|
|Player||DRS||UZR||Outs Above Average||Positional Adjustment||Defensive Value|
So, yes, Tatís has been better than Freeman on defense, but the gap isn’t enormous. Freeman’s been just about average at first base — maybe a bit above-average depending on the metric — while Tatís has been pretty noticeably above-average. (As an aside, that represents a significant improvement for him.)
But, going beyond the value stats, there is one more metric that I like to analyze when breaking down MVP races: win probability added. Two years ago, I actually wrote an article here, at this very site, on why I consider win probability added to be a useful metric when evaluating potential MVPs. Ignoring my poor prose — I roll my eyes at the fact that I started that piece with a dictionary definition — I still agree with my main conclusion: Win probability added is a somewhat-overlooked metric by which we can determine which players have been successful in the most important spots. That should be a consideration in the MVP race, should it not? One could even make the argument that WPA is even a more valuable tool in a 60-game season, as a way to distinguish players who have not really separated themselves in context-neutral stats like WAR. There just haven’t been enough games to see true-talent differences, since WAR can be considered roughly equal within a 0.5-win range.
Thus, let’s consider the major league fWAR vs. WPA matrix:
I’ve thrown a couple more names into the mix in the caption: Mike Yastrzemski is the purple point, Mookie Betts is in black, Freddie Freeman is in red and Fernando Tatís Jr. is in orange.
There’s actually a fairly moderate correlation between fWAR and WPA for qualified hitters, with an r-value of 0.61, but that’s totally expected: Better context-neutral players should also be better context-dependent players. Since defense is excluded from WPA (perhaps exposing one of the stat’s downfalls as pitchers gain all the credit for defensive plays), the correlation isn’t too strong with overall WAR, a stat that includes defensive value. As a result, offensively-oriented stats such as wRC+ (r = 0.68) and total offensive runs above-average (r = 0.70) have stronger correlations with WPA. The rule of thumb can basically be distilled down: Good players in context-neutral situations tend to be good players in context-dependent stats, too. Good players are good players.
However, some players do perform better in big spots in any given season, even if “clutch” is not a sticky attribute year-to-year (and thus “clutch players” might not actually exist). But, having many “clutch” moments within a season should still carry some weight, I’d argue, even if it is not necessarily predictive or a great measure of true talent. This is even more the case in an MVP race where two players are virtually equal in the value-based stats, as are Freeman and Tatís.
They do diverge in WPA. Freeman (2.38) has more than double the WPA as Tatís (1.08). Freeman has been the second-best hitter in the majors with runners on base (255 wRC+), while Tatís is 25th (178 wRC+). In medium- and high-leverage situations, Freeman (198 wRC+) also outpaces Tatís (136 wRC+) in just about the same number of opportunities: Freeman has 108 such plate appearances in these spots to Tatís’ 117.
As mentioned, this also brings the possibility of a Betts or Yastrzemski MVP back into the mix, considering they have provided more WPA than both Freeman and Tatís. A hot finish from either could catapult them above the two front-runners, as they’re not too far behind Freeman and Tatís in fWAR: Betts has produced 2.4 fWAR to date, Yastrzemski 2.3.
With all of this said, Freeman is far from a slam-dunk MVP. He’s had an excellent season, and if the season were to end today, he’d be a very deserving choice. That is not to take away from what Tatís has done; he’d be just as worthy. This is all meant to be just a little bit more recognition for an outstanding season from one of baseball’s best hitters. And if Freeman does manage to keep his September pace through the remainder of the season, he very well could secure the first MVP of his career.
Devan Fink is a sophomore at Dartmouth College and a Contributor at Beyond The Box Score. Previous work of his can be found at FanGraphs and his own personal blog, Cover Those Bases. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.