MLB’s top honor bears little resemblance to March Madness. In fact, baseball’s MVP awards are perhaps the most diametrically opposed concept in American sports. Where the NCAA tournaments give the most far-flung Davids a puncher’s chance at taking down Goliath by putting advancement on the line every game, MLB’s best players must maintain their greatness across a 162-game slate. There’s no madness here, only the mad science of how to master a sport for six months.
That makes picking big underdogs in MVP races a little tricky. Among the 30 hitters to claim their first MVP nods since 2000, 25 had received MVP votes before, and the median newbie had previously logged a high finish in the top eight. One of those who hadn’t was Ichiro, who won MVP in his rookie season. And 13 of the first-time winners had telegraphed their ascendance by finishing first or second in an earlier Rookie of the Year vote.
So, all that to say: We know who the most likely MVPs are. Three-time winner Mike Trout (+400 at BetMGM) is second favorite in the AL, behind only his singular teammate, Shohei Ohtani (+350). If they falter, Toronto Blue Jays star Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will probably be there to bash his way to a win at age 23.
Washington Nationals wunderkind Juan Soto is a commanding favorite in the NL (+275), with rehabbing Atlanta Braves superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. (+700), defending champ Bryce Harper (+900) and former AL winner Mookie Betts (+900) hot on his heels.
If there’s going to be an MVP who comes out of left field (figuratively speaking), they’re probably already in the ballpark in some capacity. Diving deeper into the dark horses requires restraint compared to the relatively wild world of pitching. A realistic MVP winner needs to be capable of landing in the top two in on-base-plus-slugging or in a major WAR metric. And unless he is planning to win the Triple Crown or time-machine to the shortened 2020 season, he should play a somewhat demanding defensive position.
The only other historical guideline is age. Once again excepting the 2020 vote’s ode to veteran first basemen, no hitter has claimed his first MVP in his thirties since Jeff Kent in 2000.
So, which star who meets all that criteria is being overlooked? Is there anyone left that could make you look like a genius by November? We have some names.
+1300 to win NL MVP at BetMGM
The least dark horse-y of the dark horses, Turner’s case is simple: If he does what he has been doing the past two years for a full season in Los Angeles, he’ll probably win MVP.
Since the start of the shortened 2020 season, Turner is batting .350/.380/.551 with 40 homers and 44 steals. He has been a top-three player over those two seasons by major WAR metrics, and he’s about to be the starting shortstop on the best team in baseball.
Get in while you can.
+2000 to win AL MVP at BetMGM
Two fully healthy seasons, two top-five AL MVP finishes. The formula isn’t difficult to figure out for Judge. It has just proven difficult to execute for 162 games.
Entering a contract year — assuming he and the Yankees don’t work out an extension in the next two weeks — Judge is a threat to lead the league in OPS every season. Still giving cagey non-answers about his vaccination status, it looks like the mammoth outfielder will be clear to play home games at least, but Toronto could be a problem.
Still, the odds for AL MVP drop off a cliff after the Ohtani-Trout-Vlad Jr. trio of favorites. Judge is barely a dark horse, but Vegas is treating him like one.
Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
+2000 to win NL MVP at BetMGM
Ohtani did his own special trick last year, but even prior to the two-way superstar show, it hasn’t been that long since a pitcher claimed MVP honors. Clayton Kershaw pulled it off in 2014 with 198 1/3 innings of a 1.77 ERA. Now, that’s obviously remarkable, but deGrom can set his sights on that as a bar.
He fired 92 innings with a 1.08 ERA before going down with an injury in 2021. A reasonable facsimile of that performance over a full season would almost certainly merit strong MVP consideration. He’s a strong favorite for NL Cy Young, so if you’re wagering that he will be healthy, why not go for the better odds on his MVP candidacy?
Alex Bregman, Houston Astros
+4000 to win AL MVP at BetMGM
There are two enticing options among the Astros core hitters who remain. Sweet-swinging 25-year-old outfielder Kyle Tucker (+3500) figures to get more shine as he takes on a bigger role in the Houston lineup, and could still have another burst of improvement in him.
But let’s talk about Bregman. This is probably the best price you’re going to get on someone this good. I’m chalking it up to uncertainty about a wrist injury that altered his 2021 season and required offseason surgery. He’s one of only 10 active players to manage an 8-WAR season at any point, and he’s younger than all of the other members of that club except Cody Bellinger.
The last time a healthy Bregman played a full season, he led MLB in WAR by Baseball-Reference’s measure and tied with Mike Trout in the FanGraphs version. He narrowly lost the AL MVP award to Trout, garnering 13 first-place votes. He’ll be 28 all year, and the wrist should be healed up.
As an added bonus, the Astros are nearly a lock to be a prominent postseason contender.
Tyler O’Neill, St. Louis Cardinals
+4000 to win NL MVP at BetMGM
The most obscure name here is a corner outfielder in St. Louis entering prime breakout territory age-wise — 26 now and entering his age-27 season. In reality, he broke out last season, logging baseball’s 11th-best OPS. As established, one basic way to target MVPs is to spot players who could feasibly lead the league in OPS, WAR or both. If you’re looking for still growing players within range of that OPS mark, O’Neill is the most appealing option.
Built like a squished down caricature of Mike Trout, O’Neill is a 5-foot-11 tangle of muscles that has sprouted other muscles.
By leaning into an aggressive power approach last season, he put up a name-making .286/.352/.560 line.
The 31.3% strikeout rate will jump out at you, but it might be an acceptable cost of doing business for a guy whose exit velocities rank among the game’s elite. He’s also got a decent Trout caricature going in another way: Despite the muscled up frame, he’s fast! And good at defense! He stole 15 bases in 2021 and has now won two straight Gold Gloves. What you’re taking a shot on with O’Neill is that just a bit more control of the strike zone leads to one more charge up the leaderboards into MVP territory.