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Examining Brandon Crawford’s MVP candidacy

Where will Crawford end up on this year’s MVP ballot?

San Diego Padres v San Francisco Giants Photo by Brandon Vallance/Getty Images

Brandon Crawford will, sadly, not be adding a third World Series ring to his jewelry box this season. But what the San Francisco Giants shortstop will be adding is, in his 11th MLB season, his highest finish in the National League MVP race.

Prior to 2021, Crawford had received MVP votes in just one other season: 2016. That year Crawford received one vote each for sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth place from the 30-judge panel, earning him the No. 12 spot on the 2016 MVP charts.

This year will be different; much different. Rather than receiving consideration to be on the ballot, Crawford will be receiving consideration for the top spot on the ballot. And while he seems unlikely to become the first Giant since Buster Posey in 2012 to take home the hardware, I’d guess he’s bound for a top-five finish.

Among position players, Crawford finished sixth in Fangraphs’ WAR and seventh in Baseball-Reference’s. And then there’s this fun little tidbit: the Giants had the best record in baseball.

The “best player on the best team” MVP equation is antiquated in any sport, but especially in baseball. Yet even so, it’s not without a little bit of merit.

Take, for example, the player closest to Crawford on the WAR leaderboards: his almost-teammate, former Giants prospect Bryan Reynolds. The centerpiece of the Andrew McCutchen trade had a sensational season for the Pirates, who finished with fewer wins (61) than all but three MLB teams, and a worse run differential (-224) than all but one.

Reynolds deserves no blame for the team’s failures, but it’s fair to weigh his accomplishments accordingly. Outside of April — by far his worst month — Reynolds never had an at-bat that mattered insofar as impacting Pittsburgh’s season; he never fielded a ball with a game on the line that might make or break the season. Is his stellar walk rate the result of opposing pitchers knowing they could walk him and face Colin Moran, rather than Posey or Brandon Belt? Not entirely, but probably in part.

None of this is to say that players on bad teams should be stricken from the MVP list. Mike Trout deserves all three of his MVP trophies, and probably three or four more. Shohei Ohtani will likely win the AL award this year, as he should.

But when a race is close, it’s worth considering the situation, and for me — and I suspect most of the people who actually get a vote — Crawford is an easy choice ahead of Reynolds.

Similarly, what do we make of Trea Turner’s candidacy? The question mark with the league’s fWAR leader is somewhat the inverse of what it is with Reynolds. Turner was good with the Washington Nationals, who struggled to the point that they traded two of their three best players rather than try to win games. Once Turner found himself in a better situation, surrounded by better hitters who forced pitchers to give him better pitches, his numbers took off, and he transcended from good to great.

Turner was third in fWAR at the All-Star break, but closer to the middle-of-the-pack candidates than the leaders. Once he moved to LA, he jumped to the top of the WAR leaderboards.

The gap between he and Crawford might be enough for Turner to finish ahead on most MVP ballots, but I suspect that his shift in performance will keep him from becoming the first MVP to be traded mid-season.

Which leaves us with three slightly more traditional candidates: Fernando Tatis Jr., Bryce Harper, and Juan Soto.

Tatis and Harper were superstars on teams who played meaningful baseball for all but the last few games or weeks of the season. Soto played for a bad team — the one Turner was traded from — but was enough better than a player like Reynolds that you can overlook the team success, or lack thereof.

And then there’s our dude Crawford. Assuming that Corbin Burnes receives no MVP love — and pitchers historically don’t unless having all-time great seasons — Crawford is far and away the best candidate who spent all year on a top team. Fans of the St. Louis Cardinals can stump for Tyler O’Neill and Paul Goldschmidt, and perhaps Freddie Freeman and Austin Riley will find their way on some ballots.

But if you want someone who was playing meaningful baseball — taking at-bats that could influence an entire season, and fielding grounders with playoff seeding implications — in April, in May, in June, in July, in August, in September, and in October, Crawford is not just the sensible pick, but perhaps the only pick.

That might seem overly invested in narrative, but even in this era of analytics, narratives are perhaps the most consistent thing we have.

Looking at Fangraphs’ leaderboard, my heart says the award should go to Harper, second only to Turner. But turn to Baseball Reference and he plummets to ninth, falling behind Crawford in the process. Can I really advocate for a defensively-challenged player on a team with a negative run differential to win the award over Crawford, when they finished with a lower WAR in half of the commonly-used metrics?

Those inconsistencies make it easier to justify a vote for Crawford, who was unquestionably one of the league’s top players; unquestionably on one of the league’s top teams; unquestionably tasked with taking some of the most important at-bats and fielding the most important position for some of the season’s most pivotal games.

If that’s how you choose to define value, I suspect you have plenty of company.