Checking in on the MLB MVP races: Which players have added their names to the mix through the first third of the season?

When assessing the awards races each season, usually the easiest place to start is to look at who won last year and assume the same superstars will be back in the mix atop each league. But considering the current status of each of last year’s major award winners, such an exercise isn’t so useful this time around.

AL MVP Shohei Ohtani is both no longer in the AL and currently only a DH, rather than the two-way sensation he was a year ago. NL MVP Ronald Acuña Jr. is out for the year following the second season-ending knee surgery of his career. AL Cy Young Gerrit Cole is still working his way back from an elbow injury and has missed too much time to allow for another run at the honor. NL Cy Young Blake Snell didn't sign with the Giants until mid-March and has a 9.51 ERA in six starts with his new club while dealing with multiple injuries. It's safe to say we won't be seeing any of those winners go back-to-back.

All of which is to say: Last year’s ballots aren’t as instructive as we’d like them to be. It turns out you can’t predict baseball — who knew?

With that in mind, let’s take stock of the Most Valuable Player award races and assess how the field of contenders compares to what it was on Opening Day. For this, we’ll break the contenders into three categories:

Group 1: Preseason favorites who are still very much in the mix to win the award

Group 2: Preseason favorites who have fallen to the periphery or out of the race

Group 3: New names who have entered the conversation

American League

Group 1: Preseason favorites still in contention

Aaron Judge, Yankees outfielderJuan Soto, Yankees outfielder

With Ohtani no longer in the AL, it's possible that the biggest competition for Judge in his quest to collect his second AL MVP is the guy hitting directly ahead of him in Soto. Two elite teammates vying for an MVP has become a surprisingly common dynamic atop recent ballots, with the likes of Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, Matt Olson and Acuna, and Paul Goldchmidt and Nolan Arenado, among others. Judge and Soto are the latest dynamic duo to force voters to weigh which superstar makes a bigger difference in the lineup, but right now, Judge has a fairly comfortable lead.

Bobby Witt Jr., Royals shortstop

Perhaps an even bigger threat to Judge is Witt, who has ascended in Year 3 to become one of the more breathtaking all-around players in the league. It’s not surprising that Witt has become this kind of player, but his being the driving force behind a Kansas City squad that looks like a legitimate postseason team after losing 106 games a year ago has made his season — and case for MVP — all the more compelling.

Jose Ramírez, Guardians third baseman

After finishing in the top six of AL MVP voting in five of six seasons from 2018 to 2023, Ramirez fell to 10th last year. That might have put him relatively off-the-radar entering 2024, but that was probably a mistake. Gawking at RBI totals in the year 2024 might feel silly, but I don't care how sabermetrically inclined you are: 62 RBI in 63 games is patently absurd and reflective of Ramirez's importance to Cleveland's fantastic first two months. The face of the first-place Guardians deserves a lot of love.

Group 2: Preseason favorites out of the mix

Corey Seager, Rangers shortstopMarcus Semien, Rangers second baseman

After finishing runner-up to Ohtani a year ago before a legendary run through October, Seager seemed as strong an MVP candidate as any before this season. He bounced back from a miserable April (.631 OPS) with a brilliant May (1.047 OPS), but his cold start combined with Texas' inability to get hot collectively has kept Seager toward the back of the pack among MVP hopefuls. The same could be said for Semien, who has continued his ironman ways but doesn't have the production to support a viable MVP claim.

Julio Rodriguez, Mariners outfielder

J-Rod was another preseason favorite, with many hoping he could take a Witt-like leap to full-blown MVP front-runner as Seattle’s face of the franchise. While that certainly hasn’t happened, he has slowly started to heat up lately, and he has the benefit of playing for a first-place team. His numbers certainly don’t look MVP-worthy right now, but recall how pedestrian he was over the first few months last season, before an otherworldly hot streak down the stretch catapulted him to finishing fourth on last year’s ballot. He has a ton of work to do, but a huge second half combined with Seattle’s first division title since 2001 could put J-Rod back in the mix.

Mike Trout, Angels outfielder

Even on yet another dismal Angels team, Trout appeared determined to reenter the MVP race he had become so familiar with over the first decade of his career. Alas.

Yordan Alvarez, Astros DH/OF

It’s a credit to Alvarez’s sky-high standards at the plate that his current .877 OPS and 96th percentile xwOBA can definitively be described as an “underwhelming” season for him. If Houston isn’t in the mix, neither is he.

Group 3: New faces in the race

Gunnar Henderson, Orioles shortstop

Last year, we saw Witt level up in his second season, improving his game across the board to the point that he finished seventh in AL MVP voting despite playing on a 106-loss team. The leap Henderson has taken in his sophomore campaign feels similar but is even more impressive for two reasons: 1. Henderson was even better as a rookie than Witt, making it even more remarkable that he could get this much better in Year 2; and 2. Henderson is doing it for one of the best teams in baseball. While he might not have the elite speed or ultra-flashy defense that Witt does, Henderson's overwhelming offensive production has him neck-and-neck with Witt in the MVP race, with either of the two looking like the most likely eventual winner among non-Yankees candidates.

Salvador Perez, Royals catcherAdley Rutschman, Orioles catcher

They might not have a chance at winning, but don’t let Witt’s and Henderson’s mega-breakouts overshadow what their teammates behind the plate have been doing. Rutschman is somehow living up to the outrageous hype that surrounded his development, while Perez is still one of baseball’s best backstops at age 34.

Kyle Tucker, Astros outfielder

While Tucker finished fifth on last year’s ballot, it didn’t feel like there was another level for him to climb to; he seemed destined to settle into the second tier of stars that never quite gets as much credit despite outstanding production, especially with so many higher-profile teammates surrounding him in Houston’s lineup. But Tucker has unlocked even more power in 2024 while maintaining his excellent approach, putting him on pace for a career year. That said, the Astros’ surprisingly poor record will keep him out of the forefront of MVP discussions unless they go on a serious run in the second half, with Tucker at the center of it.

Rafael Devers, Red Sox third baseman

I don’t think Devers has a chance so long as Boston stays tethered to .500, but I do think he has a great chance to net his highest-ever AL MVP finish, having never finished higher than 11th on the ballot.

MY BALLOT AS OF TUESDAY:

1. Aaron Judge2. Bobby Witt Jr.3. Gunnar Henderson4. Jose Ramirez5. Adley Rutschman

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Group 1: Preseason favorites still in contention

Mookie Betts, Dodgers shortstopShohei Ohtani, Dodgers DH

Hopes that Ohtani focusing solely on hitting amidst rehab from elbow surgery could enable a further offensive breakout appeared to be coming to fruition over the first month, though the spectacular slugger has cooled off somewhat in recent weeks. Meanwhile, Betts has continued to hit at an MVP level while playing shortstop every day for the first time as a big leaguer. That would seem to give Betts a slight edge as things stand, but as with Judge and Soto, we’ll likely be watching these two teammates jockey for position atop the ballot for the remainder of the season.

Bryce Harper, Phillies first baseman

Last season, it took Harper a little while to start looking like himself coming off elbow surgery. With him fully healthy entering 2024, it’s been no surprise to see him performing like one of the best hitters on the planet once again. Should Philadelphia finish with one of baseball’s best records and its first NL East title since 2011, expect Harper to be at or near the top of MVP ballots — where he has always belonged.

Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres outfielder

Tatis was merely very good in his return from multiple injuries and a PED suspension in 2023, but he's now looking more like the guy we saw in 2020 and 2021 who seemed on track for legitimate superstardom. With Soto no longer in the fold in San Diego and Manny Machado seemingly on the decline, Tatis can absolutely climb the MVP leaderboard if the Padres can surge to the top of the NL wild-card mess in the second half.

Group 2: Preseason favorites out of the mix

Ronald Acuña Jr., Braves outfielder

No explanation needed here, though it’s worth noting that Acuña wasn’t exactly playing at an MVP level before his season-ending knee injury. On that note …

Matt Olson, Braves first basemanAustin Riley, Braves third baseman

Atlanta's dismally disappointing offense can't be completely attributed to these two guys, but their lackluster showings relative to expectations certainly haven't helped. Olson has swung the bat better over the past month, but he's on pace for just 23 homers – not even half of the 54 he swatted a year ago. Riley appeared to be on the Kyle Tucker track, having finished seventh, sixth and seventh in NL MVP voting the past three seasons, but he has instead plummeted to a below-average batting line that is one of the most confounding of any star's across the league.

Freddie Freeman, Dodgers first baseman

I’d put Freeman in the Yordan Alvarez category in that he’s still having a great season, but it’s a tick below what we’ve seen from him in recent years. Plus, from a narrative standpoint, it’s incredibly difficult to imagine him usurping either Betts or Ohtani in MVP discussions.

Corbin Carroll, Diamondbacks outfielder

Yikes. While Henderson is taking off in the AL, the reigning NL Rookie of the Year is struggling to keep his batting average above the Mendoza Line. I expect a much better second half from the 23-year-old, but I don't foresee him adding any awards this season.

Group 3: New faces in the race

Will Smith, Dodgers catcher

Is the Dodgers’ Big 3 actually a Big 4? Smith has a case for being baseball’s best catcher, though he’ll never get the shine as long as his more famous teammates are still around. It’s honestly pretty fitting, considering that Smith will never be the first Google result of his own name. If you’re looking for a catcher with a much better chance to finish as an MVP finalist, you should probably direct your attention to …

William Contreras, Brewers catcher

Of all the great catchers in today's game, Contreras has the strongest case for being his team's best overall player. And with Milwaukee building a comfortable cushion atop the NL Central, Contreras has deservingly entered the MVP conversation.

Elly De La Cruz, Reds shortstop

He has single-handedly made Reds games must-watch over the past calendar year, but baseball’s most entertaining player has become more than just a human highlight reel in Year 2. De La Cruz has been Cincinnati’s best player, and he has no counterpart when it comes to his ambition on the basepaths. He’ll likely need to cut down on the whiffs to sustain more consistent overall production, but an MVP ceiling clearly exists here, even if he doesn’t reach it this season.

Marcell Ozuna, Braves DH

While his teammates have floundered around him, Ozuna has raked to a staggering degree. We saw him look like this for 60 games in the shortened 2020 season; can he keep it up for the remaining 100 in 2024?

Ketel Marte, Diamondbacks second baseman

The switch-hitting second baseman has certainly done his part to keep the Snakes alive amidst a difficult first half — he has been a top-10 player in MLB by fWAR — but it’d be a stretch to call him a viable MVP candidate right now.

Jurickson Profar, Padres outfielder

Speaking of top-10 in fWAR, Profar might be having one of the most astonishing breakout seasons of any player in MLB. Once the consensus top prospect in the sport, it has taken the switch-hitter from Curacao more than a decade to deliver on his star potential, but boy, are we seeing it now. A run at an MVP award might be a bit rich, but we should certainly see Profar at his first All-Star game next month.

MY BALLOT AS OF TUESDAY:

1. Mookie Betts2. Bryce Harper3. Shohei Ohtani4. William Contreras5. Fernando Tatis Jr.

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