The Atlanta Braves’ Freddie Freeman, who began the regular season working his way back into peak condition from a battle with COVID-19, ends it this week as one of the leading contenders for the National League’s Most Valuable Player award.
If he wins the award, he would become just the fourth Braves player to be named the league MVP since the franchise moved to Atlanta in 1966 and the first in 21 years. Dale Murphy won back-to-back MVP awards in 1982 and 1983, and Terry Pendleton and Chipper Jones won the award in 1991 and 1999, respectively.
Jones weighed in on Freeman’s candidacy over the weekend, tweeting a bunch of statistics that showed the Braves first baseman comparing favorably to other contenders. “For those of you who are on the fence or undecided as to who you would vote for,” Jones wrote, “here are some numbers through 50 games, to help u out!”
The winner will be decided by 30 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, whose ballots are due before the start of the playoffs next week. The race appears close enough that what happens this week — the final week of the shortened regular season — could tilt the voters’ decision, one way or another.
Freeman has finished in the top eight of the National League MVP voting four times in his decade in the league — fifth in 2013, sixth in 2016, fourth in 2018 and eighth last year.
The four leading contenders for the award this season appear to be, in no particular order, Freeman, Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts and two members of the San Diego Padres, shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. and third baseman Manny Machado.
Here’s a look at those four candidates (all statistics are through Sunday’s games):
Freddie Freeman, Braves
The case for: Since starting the season slowly post-COVID, hitting .190 through the Braves’ first 13 games, Freeman has been on a tear. For voters who prioritize how a player finishes the season, his performance the past two weeks — .431 batting average and 1.363 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) — demands attention. FanGraphs now ranks him in a tie with Tatis at No. 1 in the National League in WAR (wins above replacement). Freeman is tied with teammate Marcell Ozuna for the NL lead in RBIs with 48, which projects to 147 over a normal 162-game schedule, and leads the league in doubles. He ranks second in batting average (.346), on-base percentage (.464) and slugging percentage (.634), trailing in those categories only Washington’s Juan Soto, who has played 15 fewer games.
The case against: Some voters may hold it against Freeman that he ranks 16th in the league — and fourth on his team — in home runs. And some may attach more defensive value to candidates at positions other than first base.
Mookie Betts, Dodgers
The case for: In his first season in the National League after being acquired by the Dodgers from the Boston Red Sox, the 2018 American League MVP has put himself in position to possibly become the second player to win the award in both leagues. (Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was the NL MVP with Cincinnati in 1961 and the AL MVP with Baltimore in 1966.) Baseball Reference ranks Betts No. 1 in the NL this season in its version of WAR, making him the best all-around player on the league’s best team. He is tied with Machado and the Braves’ Adam Duvall for the league home-run lead with 16, which projects to 48 in 162 games.
The case against: Betts trails Freeman and, narrowly, Machado in batting average and OPS.
Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres
The case for: Until recently, the 21-year-old Tatis was the clear favorite for the award, drawing 28 of 30 first-place votes in an MLB.com poll early this month. The dynamic San Diego shortstop’s candidacy has subsequently suffered amid a September slump, but he remains the NL leader in runs scored and just one off the league lead in home runs.
The case against: Tatis is hitting .194 (12-for-62) in 17 games this month, dropping his batting average for the season to .278 and making him the only one of the four leading contenders below .300. He may no longer be the top MVP candidate on his team, which brings us to …
Manny Machado, Padres
The case for: The Padres are one of baseball’s best stories this season, posting the league’s second-best record and reaching the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, and Machado may have surpassed Tatis as the team’s top MVP candidate. Machado is tied with Betts and Duvall for the NL lead in home runs, trails only Freeman and Ozuna in RBIs and ranks seventh in OPS. Finishing strong, he has a .402 batting average and a 1.183 OPS over his past 30 games.
The case against: Although he has had a great season, Machado trails Freeman in most offensive categories except home runs.