Dark horse MVP candidates for 2022

Some MVP contenders are easy picks – the superstars such as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. Other big years are a lot harder to predict – like 2021 AL finalist Marcus Semien and his 45 homers, or even MVP Shohei Ohtani’s historic season a year after he batted .190 with a 37.80 ERA.

Let’s take a look at some players you might not think of at first who could emerge as MVP candidates this year, picked out by MLB.com’s analysts.

Here are five dark-horse MVP candidates for the 2022 season.

Wander Franco – Rays
Key stat: 12% strikeout rate in 2021

Wander Franco, the youngest player in baseball last season, does not strike out. That’s the foundational skill that’s going to carry a 2022 MVP candidate. As a 20-year-old rookie, Franco struck out in only 12% of his plate appearances. He made his big league debut on June 22. Here are some notable strikeout rates from June 22 through the end of the season:

Wander Franco – 12.0%
Yuli Gurriel (AL batting champion) – 12.6%
Freddie Freeman (best hitter on the World Series champs) – 12.9%
Juan Soto (145 walks to 93 strikeouts) – 13.7%
Trea Turner (NL batting champion) – 14.2%
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB’s No. 1 prospect before Franco) – 15.1%
MLB strikeout rate – 22.6%

Then, on top of that, you add Franco’s 80-grade hit tool. In the decade that MLB Pipeline has ranked prospects, he’s one of only two players to receive that top-of-the-scale mark. Vlad Jr. is the other, and he just hit .311 with 48 homers and would be an MVP himself if not for Shohei Ohtani rewriting baseball history. Franco’s 70 games are all we need to see to imagine the Rays shortstop joining Soto, Vlad Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Ronald Acuña Jr. in the young superstar echelon this year.

Byron Buxton – Twins
Key stat: 9.6 bWAR in 187 games since 2019

Now 28 years old, Buxton has exceeded 92 games played only once in seven seasons, with 140 in 2017. Since then, MLB’s former No. 1 overall prospect has appeared in just 215 of the Twins’ 546 games (39.4%). The center fielder has played like an MVP when available, however, producing 9.6 Wins Above Replacement (according to Baseball Reference) over 187 games from 2019-21 – a pace that equates to more than 7.0 bWAR over a 140-game campaign. To put that in perspective, only five players recorded at least 7.0 bWAR in 2021: Shohei Ohtani, Zack Wheeler, Marcus Semien, Carlos Correa and Juan Soto.

Always a strong defender, the speedy Buxton has turned into a dangerous hitter as well, recording 42 homers and a .576 slugging percentage over the past three years. He finished 2021 with 19 dingers, 23 doubles and a .306 / .358 / .647 (171 OPS +) slash line in 61 games. This may be the ultimate longshot pick because of his injury history, but Buxton absolutely has the talent to win an MVP Award.

Anthony Rendon – Angels
Key stat: .949 OPS from 2017-20 (5th in MLB)

I know, I know. Back-to-back seasons with an Angels player not named Mike Trout winning an AL MVP Award? Crazy, right? Maybe not. After all, we’re talking about one of the game’s best hitters, though it may be easy to forget just how prolific Rendon was at the plate following his injury-riddled 2021 campaign. Here’s a quick reminder:

2017: 25 HR, 100 RBIs, .937 OPS
2018: 24 HR, 92 RBIs, .909 OPS
2019: 34 HR, 126 RBIs, 1,010 OPS
2020: 9 HR, 31 RBIs, .915 OPS (52 games)

Rendon’s .949 combined OPS from 2017-20 was the fifth-best in the Majors during that span, trailing only Trout, JD Martinez, Aaron Judge and Freddie Freeman. While that number dipped to .712 last season, that came in a year in which Rendon endured three trips to the IL before a right hip impingement ultimately ended his season. If he’s fully healthy, there’s no reason Rendon can return to being the same player who received a share of MVP votes each year from 2017-20 – especially hitting in the middle of a lineup that provides plenty of coverage in the form of Trout and reigning AL MVP Shohei Ohtani.

Luis Robert – White Sox
Key stat: 155 OPS +, 3.6 bWAR across 68 games in 2021

Robert has only 124 career games on his big league resume, and those 124 games have had a little of everything: a tantalizing flash out of the gate in August 2020, a severe adjustment curve that September (.409 OPS) and then a scintillating sprint to the finish after he returned from a torn hip flexor last August (1,011 OPS, 12 homers in 43 games).

So why do I see MVP hardware for Robert in Year 3? His power has been special from the start (118 mph max exit velocity, 43% career hard-hit rate). He made pitch-tracking history with how much he cut down on whiffs from 2020 to ’21. He’s shown elite defense from the jump (+10 Outs Above Average, eighth among center fielders since 2020, in spite of all the missed time). And he’ll be a key cog on a White Sox club that should have baseball’s easiest path to a division title.

We’ve already seen the five-tool potential of “La Pantera.” Why not an MVP Award that arrives ahead of schedule?

Kyle Tucker – Astros
Key stat: 147 wRC + in 2021 (4th among qualified AL hitters)

When Tucker launched four home runs in the postseason last year, a young star was emerging before the baseball world eyes. He’s just getting started – entering his age-25 season in 2022, Tucker already has 134 postseason plate appearances to his name, and all we’ve seen from him during regular-season play is significant improvement year to year.

Tucker’s first “full” season was the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, in which he played in 58 games while posting an .837 OPS with an MLB-leading six triples to go along with nine homers. In ’21, he had a breakout season, belting 30 homers with a .917 OPS to help the Astros with their fourth AL West title in five years. His 5.7 bWAR was tied with Cedric Mullins for eighth in the league, and Tucker played in only 140 games.

Everything is trending in the right direction for Tucker, who had a career-low strikeout rate (15.9%) last season, as well as a career-high walk rate (9.3%). His .307 expected batting average, based on his quality of contact, ranked him second in the AL behind only teammate Michael Brantley (.312), while his .580 expected slugging percentage was fifth in the league. Defensively, he was tied for seventh among all right fielders with +4 Outs Above Average.

Don’t be surprised if Tucker makes another leap in 2022, one that could garner him some serious MVP consideration.

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