Will Prolonged DH Stint Hurt Harper’s Odds Of Repeating As MVP?

Too hurt to contribute outside batter’s box, Phillies slugger is still among favorites
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Sam Panayotovich thought for sure David Ortiz had won at least one American League Most Valuable Player award during his Hall of Fame career. Granted, Panayotovich’s role as a sports betting analyst with NESN undoubtedly has him thinking about the Red Sox more often than most of his peers, but assuming “Big Papi’s” 541 homers with Boston — 54 of them coming in 2006 alone — would have led to such lofty recognition can hardly be counted as faulty logic.

Remember Justin Morneau? You’d be forgiven if you don’t. The former Twins slugger notched 30 homers and 131 RBIs in 2006 — both inferior to Ortiz’s league-leading totals in those categories. (Ortiz also led the AL in walks and total bases.) But at the end of the season, it was Morneau, not Ortiz, who was voted AL MVP.

Why? Simple: Morneau put on a first baseman’s mitt once an inning, while the contributions of Ortiz, a designated hitter, came solely with a batting helmet on.

Last season, the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani became the first DH in Major League history to win an MVP award. But Ohtani was no mere DH; he pulled double duty as an ace starting pitcher, posting a 9-2 record with 156 strikeouts alongside 46 home runs, 100 RBIs, and 26 stolen bases.

The 2021 National League MVP was Philadelphia right fielder Bryce Harper, who continues to put up stellar offensive numbers for the Phillies this season. But because of a nagging injury to his ulnar collateral ligament, Harper has spent the vast majority of this season in the role of designated hitter, now a permanent fixture on the Senior Circuit.

There’s a decent chance Harper will return to the outfield at some point this season. And with Kyle Scwharber forced to patrol left field in the absence of Harper, an above-average outfielder, the 36-32 Phillies, who are in contention for a playoff berth, undoubtedly would like to see one of their marquee free-agent acquisitions strapped to the bench every other half inning.

For now, however, Harper is the Phillies’ everyday DH. And if history’s any indication, every game he’s penciled into the lineup at that position will diminish his odds — currently ranging from +800 to +1000 at Pennsylvania’s legal online sportsbooks — of winning a third MVP award.

Offense vs. defense

With the designated hitter no longer limited to the American League, it’s fair to wonder how equitable — and durable — MVP voters’ anti-DH bias will prove to be.

“It becomes more normalized as it goes on,” Caesars baseball analyst Eric Biggio (no relation to Craig) told Penn Bets, before echoing the prevailing sentiment. “But if somebody’s an exceptional or above-average fielder, 100 percent I would put more votes in that category. Mookie Betts — awesome fielder, excellent hitter. To me, as a voter, I would weigh that in consideration versus Harper, who’s just DH-ing.” (Betts had the second-shortest odds to win the award before going on the injured list over the weekend with a cracked rib and is now +1000 at Betfred and most other books.)

“I think voters really take defense into consideration,” said Betfred analyst Cooper Hays. “The last MVP to play the most as DH before Shohei was [fellow Angel] Don Baylor in 1979. He played 65 games” — hardly a majority — “at DH.”

But Panayotovich, while acknowledging that baseball voters tend to hold fast to tradition in a sport known for its stubbornness, considers the MVP to be “an offensive-driven award.”

Looking at the current American League MVP favorites, he observed, “Aaron Judge is not a good fielder. He’s not favored because of his glove or his arm. Neither are Jose Ramirez or Rafael Devers.”

Race ‘more wide open than it looks’

Panayotovich also gives full-time designated hitters credit for doing something a lot of players can’t.

“It’s very tough to impact a team three or four times,” he said. “It’s a mental side of the game that’s not very easy to do. It’s hard for a lot of people to handle that because the pressure weighs on you every instance you get. You’re not catching a fly ball, you’re not making a throw to second — you’re just batting.”

As for Harper, Panayotovich said, “If he hits 40 home runs and drives in 100 runs, I don’t care if he plays the field or not. [The Phillies] lost [Manager Joe] Girardi, they’ve been pretty white-hot since, and he’s been a big catalyst. You can’t tell me he’s not a candidate because he doesn’t play the field. This is potentially a buy-low spot on a guy who’s proven he can close and is not affected by pressure. Can Pete Alonso (from +550 at Betfred to +1000 at FOX Bet) hang? Can Paul Goldschmidt (the favorite, as short as +175) hang? Can Manny Machado (as high as 6/1) hang?”

“I think the NL MVP race is a lot more wide open than it looks odds-wise,” added longtime bookmaker and sports betting podcaster Dave Sharapan. “Remember, this time last year, Harper was at 50/1 and the Phillies were terrible early. Do the Phillies have an urge or need to put him back in the field if he’s having this success as a DH? He makes them a better team defensively. I think the oddsmakers know that as well, and kind of have to get ahead of it and keep his number down. 

“He probably still gets bets in this market because he’s such a face of the team and Philly has turned their season around. It feels like they’re gonna be a postseason team. To win the MVP, you have to pretty much be in the postseason.”

Martinez the measuring stick

With the exception of Betts, all of the top contenders for the National League MVP award have DH’d at least six times this season. And with the recent Hall of Fame inductions of Ortiz, Edgar Martinez, and Harold Baines lending credence to Biggio’s point about normalization, one wonders whether MVP voters’ anti-DH bias will soften over time.

“I think that’s a great discussion,” said Sharapan. “You see how hard it is to get the baseball thinking to change just in general. I think, yes, everything’s moving at a faster speed in our lives. The more we see it, it becomes accepted, and the more it becomes part of the game. 

“Edgar Martinez was always the measuring stick. He should have always been in the MVP discussion and he never really was because he was a DH. Some of the best players in the game are DH-ing — maybe not full time, but maybe they will, to save their bodies.”

Photo: Brad Mills/USA TODAY

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