Yes, there’s always Mike Trout. And yes, there’s always Mookie Betts. These are two of a handful of names in baseball that are considered perennial MVP candidates. But what about the guys you didn’t see coming? We asked five MLB.com writers to each give us a pick for a dark horse MVP candidate in each league. Here’s how they made their cases:
Matt Chapman — 3B, A’s
Key number: 10 HR in 37 games last year
His defense is phenomenal. He and former high school teammate Nolan Arenado are considered the best defensive third basemen in their respective leagues. But so far, Arenado has been known to be the bigger slugger. That could change very soon with Chapman continuing to improve his power numbers as he enters his fifth Major League season. Since 2019, he’s homering once every 15.8 at-bats (Arenado is at 15.7 in case you’re wondering).
Chapman was limited to 37 games last season because he had to undergo hip surgery. But he’s expected to be fully healthy on Opening Day next week, and if the trend is his friend, he’s going to have a big year in the slugging department to add to his otherworldly defense. Given how much of his value he generates on the defensive side, adding some impressive offensive figures could definitely make him a dark horse MVP candidate in the American League. And it’ll only help his cause if the A’s continue to surprise in the AL West.
— Manny Randhawa
Luis Robert — CF, White Sox
Key number: 10 Outs Above Average in 2020, most in OF
I wanted to pick someone on the White Sox, a team expected to be a power in the AL Central this year. The first thought was Tim Anderson, but many people are picking him to win MVP this year even without any dark horse designation, so it felt like if I wanted a White Sox player for this, it had to be someone outside him or reigning AL MVP José Abreu. Who better than the five-tool budding superstar on the team? That’s what led me to Robert. As noted above, his defense last year was standout — as expected. He also had 96th-percentile speed and power.
As MLB.com’s Andrew Simon wrote recently, there’s more to Robert’s underlying power numbers from 2020 than just his 34th percentile exit velocity and 56th percentile hard-hit rate. We all know what he’s capable of raw-power wise simply from watching him, and the best example of that was his 487-foot homer in the postseason. Robert was 73rd percentile in top-half exit velocity, considering the average of only the top half of all of his batted balls, sorted by exit velocity.
There are plate discipline issues to deal with — Robert struck out more than 30% of the time in 2020 and swung at more than half of the first pitches he saw, but if he puts up a year showcasing his five-tool potential, he could be a great MVP pick. And of course, with so many worthy candidates on his team, as noted above, that is another obstacle as well.
— Sarah Langs
George Springer — OF, Blue Jays
Key number: 154 wRC+ since start of 2019 (T-7th highest in MLB)
Springer will almost certainly play a huge role if the Blue Jays really do make a run at the AL East title. Toronto’s bats are the biggest reason why it could do just that, and there’s a possibility that Springer is the perfect catalyzing addition atop the lineup. Springer has legitimately been a top-10 slugger in baseball across the last two years (that’s pretty much after the Astros’ sign-stealing hijinks occurred, if you’re scoring at home) and his signature leadoff power could have substantial ripple effects down the lineup to Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, Teoscar Hernández and on down the line. I think Springer is the perfect veteran addition at the perfect time, and an upstart Blue Jays narrative will push his MVP candidacy over the top.
— Matt Kelly
Bo Bichette — SS, Blue Jays
Key number: 138 career OPS+
It doesn’t get much more dark horse-y than Bichette, who isn’t even the first selection here from his own team (see above: Springer, George). An elite prospect not too long ago, he’s somehow gotten lost in the hoopla surrounding the Blue Jays’ lineup additions of Springer and Marcus Semien, the continued hype that follows Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and the justified adoration of rookie Alejandro Kirk. A big reason for that? While Bichette already is entering his third big league campaign at the age of 23, he actually has not played all that much in his first two years.
A late-July debut in 2019 and a right knee sprain last season have limited Bichette to just 75 career games so far. His performance when on the field, however, has been very good: .307/.347/.549 with 27 doubles, 16 homers and 44 RBIs. Consider that among all shortstops with at least 300 career plate appearances by their age-22 season in the Modern Era, Bichette’s 138 OPS+ ranks tied for fourth with Carlos Correa and Arky Vaughan. The names ahead of him? Fernando Tatis Jr. (154), Rogers Hornsby (150) and Corey Seager (139). That is quite an accomplished list, and it’s worth recognizing that Bichette’s number likely would be even higher if not for a disappointing end to 2020 after his return from the injury.
By the looks of his performance since ramping up this spring, including two opposite-field homers Wednesday, Bichette is ready to hit the ground running this season. The Blue Jays should have an impressive offense, but if they’re really going to make noise and another postseason push, it’ll be because their young shortstop puts it all together.
— Jason Catania
Shohei Ohtani — RHP/DH, Angels
Key number(s): 11.0 K per 9 IP in 2018; .843 career OPS
The AL MVP favorite is obviously Ohtani’s teammate, Mike Trout, but it’s hard not to get excited about what Ohtani has done this spring. He entered Friday hitting .571 with a 1.701 OPS and five home runs while striking out only three times. Now, clearly he’s not going to maintain those absurd numbers in the regular season, but we already know Ohtani can hit. Even with a down year last season (.190/.291/.366 slash line), he has an .843 career OPS and has 162-game averages of 30 home runs and 18 stolen bases. Those numbers are perfectly respectable on their own, but toss in the fact that both he and the Angels seem intent on getting him back on the mound this season, and Ohtani’s MVP case could be taken to another level.
A couple rough innings have ballooned Ohtani’s spring ERA to 7.88 in three starts, though he’s still racked up 14 strikeouts in just eight innings of work. More importantly, he’s touched 101.9 mph on the radar gun and finally seems healthy after missing the entire 2019 season following Tommy John surgery and being limited to just 1 2/3 innings in ‘20 before being shut down on the pitching side due to a right forearm strain. He recently batted leadoff in a game he also started on the mound, going 2-for-2 with a walk while striking out five over four innings of work against the Padres. Though off-days to accommodate his pitching schedule will likely limit his raw hitting numbers, Ohtani — if fully healthy — could put together an MVP resume unlike anything we’ve seen before.
— Paul Casella
Javier Báez — SS, Cubs
Key number: 150 XBH, 32 SB from 2018-19
Báez is the first to admit that he had a dreadful 2020 campaign. Báez, who has talked openly about the impact of playing in empty stadiums, hit .203 with a .599 OPS — 266 points lower than his .865 OPS from 2018-19 — while striking out 75 times in 59 games. With the Cubs — and many other clubs — welcoming back fans in a limited fashion, Báez and the Cubs are hoping that last year proves to be an anomaly. After all, he’s just 28 years old and he’s only two seasons removed from finishing as the NL MVP runner-up in ’18.
Báez was an All-Star for a second straight year in ’19, putting together a two-season stretch that rivaled the best in the game. Báez was one of only five players to tally 150 extra-base hits while swiping at least 30 bases from 2018-19, joining Christian Yelich, Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor and Trevor Story — not terrible company. If Báez can rediscover that All-Star form and help the Cubs make a run in the wide-open NL Central, he’ll certainly find himself in the MVP conversation once again.
— Paul Casella
Jacob deGrom — RHP, Mets
Key number: 18.7 fWAR since 2018 (third-most among all MLB players + pitchers)
Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw are this generation’s aces that broke through for league MVP Awards. Doesn’t it feel like deGrom should join them?
Queens’ hero had a legitimate case back in 2018 when he was either baseball’s second- or third-most valuable player, depending on whether you favor Baseball-Reference’s or FanGraphs’ version of WAR. And, hey, as insane as 2018 deGrom was, he wasn’t ramping it up to 102 mph in Spring Training like deGrom is now. deGrom’s three-headed monster with the fastball, slider and changeup (all of them coming in at 90-plus mph) is a singular arsenal that just seems unfair most of the time. Plus, there might be some hidden motivation with the knowledge that a third Cy Young Award would make deGrom a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame.
If you had to choose one pitcher to bust through and swipe an MVP Award, would you pick anyone else?
— Matt Kelly
Michael Conforto — OF, Mets
Key number: 134 wRC+ since 2019
Despite being a productive, homegrown former first-round Draft pick who plays in New York, Conforto somehow gets overlooked — both in the sport in general and even on his own squad. That’s partly because there’s (rightfully) been tons of love among Mets fans for Jacob deGrom (see directly above), Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil in recent years. Heck, even within the specific subset of Mets players seeking long-term extensions, Conforto has been overshadowed this spring by new teammate Francisco Lindor and possibly even Noah Syndergaard.
What might get Conforto his due finally? How about an MVP push. The 28-year-old with the sweet lefty swing has very quietly been one of the 20 best hitters in baseball since the start of 2019, the point at which he appeared to be fully recovered from the left shoulder surgery that prematurely ended his massive 2017 breakout (.939 OPS in 109 games) and hampered him at times in ’18.
Conforto, who strikes out about 24 percent of the time for his career, might not be a .322 hitter like he was in his 54 games a year ago, but could the fully healthy on-base machine approximate his .412 OBP and .515 SLG? If he does, that actually might be enough to steal some attention away from his more-hyped teammates — and possibly even garner some MVP votes.
— Jason Catania
Paul Goldschmidt — 1B, Cardinals
Key number: 37.9 fWAR since 2013, 4th-most among position players
The non-dark horse MVP pick on the Cardinals is Nolan Arenado, who has some of the best odds to win the award depending where you look. So I decided to go with another slugger on the team, Goldschmidt. Yes, he’s in that mid-30s age bracket now, at 33 on Opening Day and 34 by the end of the year. But in 2020, he turned in one of his better seasons by certain rate stats since 2015. And yes, fourth-most WAR among position players since 2013 is a long-spanning list, but what’s notable is that all three players ahead of him — Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson and Mookie Betts — have won at least one MVP Award in that span, unlike Goldschmidt. He’s been an MVP-caliber player for many years now, and has gotten votes every year since ‘15 and in all but one year since ’13, so maybe this year will finally be the year.
The underlying numbers paint a picture of a good year for Goldschmidt last year, so it wasn’t just the shortened season. He had a .285 expected batting average, .509 expected slugging percentage and was 93rd percentile in xwOBA. We already know he’s a strong defender, and if the offense continues at that level, perhaps Goldy will finally get that MVP in 2021.
— Sarah Langs
J.T. Realmuto — C, Phillies
Key number: 16.8 fWAR since 2017
Watch out for Realmuto. Since 2017, only four NL players have generated more FanGraphs WAR than his 16.8 — Christian Yelich, Anthony Rendon, Nolan Arenado and reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman. The Phillies backstop not only threw out an MLB-best 47 percent of runners attempting to steal in ’19, he had a career-high .840 OPS in the pandemic-shortened ’20 campaign.
We know Realmuto is the best all-around catcher in baseball, but the best overall player in the NL? Don’t count him out, especially if he makes a leap offensively in his eighth big league season (his career-high for homers in a season is 25).
If Realmuto is to make that jump, much will depend on how the hitters in front of him and behind him in the lineup fare. If Bryce Harper produces at an MVP level himself out of the third spot in the order, and young Alec Bohm builds off a strong rookie season in the fifth spot, it could even vault both Realmuto and Harper into MVP contention together given the opportunities it will afford Realmuto in the cleanup spot.
— Manny Randhawa