The Washington Nationals have a lot at stake in their series with the Mets that begins in about an hour before a Labor Day afternoon crowd in D.C. One of those things is the MVP candidacy of Bryce Harper.
By rights, Harper should be a virtual lock for the award. He’s got an on-base percentage of .470 and a slugging percentage of .652, both numbers that are off the charts great. He’s on his way to winning the batting title, with a ten-point lead.
He’s done it without much help in the lineup, with Yunel Escobar being the only steady contributor. Ryan Zimmerman’s provided a little bit of pop, but has done his usual time on the disabled list. Denard Span was swinging a decent bat, but he got hurt and is lost for the season.
Yet not only has Harper put up good numbers in spite of lacking any support, the offense is the reason the team is still in contention. The Nationals are third in the NL in runs scored, while ranking seventh in team ERA. Over the month of August, when they went 12-17, it was the pitching that was the reason. The staff ERA ranked 10th, while the offense helped keep the team above water, ranking fourth in that long month.
Harper has continued to hit since the All-Star break, an overall period that has not been kind to his team, as they’ve gone 23-26 since the July festivities in Cincinnati. Harper has a .481/.563 stat line since then. In the long hot month of August, his power tailed off, and he slugged .449. But the on-base percentage remained stellar at .460. And frankly, even that .449 slugging percentage is pretty good, and that’s during his slump.
Thus we have a player who has basically single-handedly carried his team into contention. The numbers bear out that offense is the reason the Nationals have something to play for and that Harper is more than just the best player on the offense—he’s close to being the only player.
If that’s not the definition of an MVP, I don’t know what is. The voters who believe that one has to make the playoffs to be truly “most valuable” miss the point. Without Harper, the Nationals might be somewhere on a par with the Brewers or the Padres.
The Washington fans would have no reason to get excited about the Mets series starting today and for the rest of September would have no sports escape from the reality show that is the Redskins. Even if Harper doesn’t drag his team to the playoffs, he’s dramatically enhanced the sports quality of life for his team’s fan base. That has to count.
I don’t write this because I’m some big Harper fan. I find him more than a little off-putting. If he comes to pieces in September, I’m willing to re-evaluate. But right now, the only credible choice for National League MVP is Bryce Harper and he needs his team to help him make the case to voters who are hung up on the playoffs-or-else.