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Most Valuable Player: Does Guerrero Jr. stand a chance against Ohtani?

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The youth movement in baseball is real, and if you need evidence look no further than this year’s MVP race.

Half of the six finalists finished this season as 22-year-olds, proving that experience isn’t everything. The other half includes a two-way standout, a former MVP and a position-switching, power-hitting middle infielder.

Learn about what stands out from each MVP candidate right here:

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AL MVP candidates

Shohei Ohtani — Los Angeles Angels

155 G | .257 BA | 46 HR | 100 RBI | 158 OPS+ | 5.1 fWAR

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23 GS | 130.1 IP | 3.18 ERA | 156 K | 141 ERA+ | 3.0 fWAR

As a hitter alone, Ohtani’s production might have been enough to put him in the MVP conversation. But of course, he’s much more than merely a hitter.

This season, Ohtani turned in a two-way, Babe-Ruthian performance unlike anything seen by this generation or the last. That resulted in him accruing the highest WAR by both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs’ measurements.

He’s in select company as a hitter, one of seven with 400-plus plate appearances and a 150 OPS+ or better, and as a pitcher, one of 17 with 100-plus innings and a 140 ERA+ or better. As you might suspect, he’s the only player who accomplished both.

The 27-year-old finished just two home runs off the MLB lead, while also striking out 10.8 hitters per nine innings. Nobody is supposed to be able to do that.

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Vladimir Guerrero Jr.Toronto Blue Jays

161 G | .311 BA | 48 HR | 111 RBI | 169 OPS+ | 6.7 fWAR

It feels unfair to cast Guerrero Jr.’s first two MLB seasons as disappointments — despite the grandiose expectations — given how young he was and the fact he still produced an above-average OPS rate (109 OPS+ over 183 total games). But whew, the 22-year-old’s breakout campaign this year was quite a sight to see.

Guerrero, a former consensus top prospect in baseball, fit the billing by tying for the league-lead in home runs, leading the majors in total bases (363) and winning the Hank Aaron Award as the AL’s top hitter.

Win or lose, Guerrero is already an MVP recipient: He became the youngest All-Star Game MVP at this year’s midsummer event in Colorado.

Marcus Semien — Toronto Blue Jays

162 G | .265 BA | 45 HR | 69 RBI | 133 OPS+ | 6.6 fWAR

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Semien earned every penny — and a lot more — of his one-year, $18 million deal with the Blue Jays this season. He played in each game, won his first Silver Slugger Award and appeared in his first All-Star Game. He also posted new career highs in homers, RBIs, steals (15) and slugging percentage (.538).

Oh, and let’s not forget that he became a primary second baseman for the first time in his career, winning his first Gold Glove Award in the process. No matter how high Toronto’s expectations were for the nine-year veteran, he undoubtedly exceeded them.

Good timing by Semien to show out right before walking to free agency. In a star-studded class of middle infielders, his name is among those shining the most.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

NL MVP candidates

Bryce Harper — Philadelphia Phillies

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141 G | .309 BA | 35 HR | 84 RBI | 179 OPS+ | 6.6 fWAR

The now-two-time Hank Aaron Award winner is seeking his second MVP, after winning his first in 2015 with the Nationals. Back then, Harper was an arbitration-aged up-and-comer; now, his $330 million price tag over 13 years is the largest free-agent pact in league history.

With great direct deposits come great expectations. Considering Harper was booed by his own fans just a month into his first season in Philadelphia, it’d go a long way with the notoriously ornery fanbase for him to earn MVP honours now.

MLB’s leader in doubles (42), slugging percentage (.615) and OPS+ made sure to leave a strong impression in the stretch run, posting a 1.194 OPS from August onward.

Juan Soto — Washington Nationals

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151 G | .313 BA | 29 HR | 95 RBI | 175 OPS+ | 6.6 fWAR

Soto is a hitter beyond his years in many ways, including his level of patience that’s unrivalled by his peers. Soto was in the 100th percentile of chase rate this season, as tracked by Baseball Savant, which translated to MLB-highs in walks (145) and on-base percentage (.465).

That’s a lot of Soto Shuffling.

As disciplined and efficient as Soto was all season, he really ratcheted it up in the second half. After the all-star break, the outfielder reached safely in more than half of his plate appearances (.525 OBP). He also walked 87 times, a sum that only five other hitters cleared all season.

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Fernando Tatis Jr. — San Diego Padres

130 G | .282 BA | 42 HR | 97 RBI | 166 OPS+ | 6.1 fWAR

A shoulder injury cost Tatis 32 games, leaving baseball fans and pundits to wonder how high his NL-best home run total could’ve climbed. Still, in the at-bats he had, Tatis was the typical bat-flipping, highlight-reel-filling phenom we’ve grown accustomed to in three seasons.

His handiwork in the field was less spectacular: No shortstop with 60-plus starts had a lower fielding percentage (.940), and only Bo Bichette committed more errors (24 versus Tatis’s 21).

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As a result, Tatis was asked to experiment in the outfield for the first time as a pro, making 23 appearances between center and right. Still, to lead the league in home runs, at age 22, while balancing the learning curve of a new position and the recovery from an injury is downright impressive.





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Wisconsin fires head coach Paul Chryst

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After a 2-3 start to the season, Wisconsin fired head coach Paul Chryst on Sunday, according to reports.



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Chase Elliott passes Ryan Blaney at Talladega to advance to Round of 8

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Chase Elliott rebounded from Texas to log a victory at Talladega and lock up his spot in NASCAR’s next round. Bob Pockrass has the takeaways.



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Raptors open pre-season with win in front of playoff-worthy Edmonton crowd

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Edmonton – They like them. They really like them.

After a week spent in Western Canada – first in Victoria where the Toronto Raptors held training camp and now in Alberta where they hosted the Utah Jazz in their first exhibition game Sunday evening – it’s safe to say the enthusiasm for Canada’s lone NBA team extends well beyond the boundaries of the GTA or Southern Ontario.

This isn’t breaking news – exploding TV ratings and the proliferation of Jurassic Parks across the country during the Raptors’ championship run in 2019 made the case pretty convincing.

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But it’s still interesting to get a flavour of it in person. The crowd at the intrasquad scrimmage in Victoria was as loud and enthusiastic as possible for the type of event it was – a live practice with a bit of goodwill and community building baked in.

In Edmonton, Rogers Place was jammed to the rafters, and it seemed like everyone in the building was wearing official team merchandise. A playoff worthy ‘let’s go Raptors’ chant broke out before the ball went up and every Raptors basket from the opening tip to the final horn was greeted like it meant something.

“It is always a great reception,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse on Sunday.

“That place couldn’t have been any more full for an intrasquad game out in Victoria the other day … normally for these [Canadian exhibition] games the reception is great, the crowd is into it. It’s their one chance to see some of the home talent in their home area. They usually bring it. It’s cool because there are a lot of pre-season games you have zero energy, almost tipping toward negative energy in some of those games. We don’t have to go through that. It’s fun. … I think it’s great for basketball in Canada as well.”

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What to glean from what turned out to be a 114-82 blowout?

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Well, not all that much. Nurse had said beforehand that the game would be light on minutes for starters and heavy on opportunities for those in the middle of his rotation.

The starters turned it over a lot and looked a little rusty – Pascal Siakam was 1-of-6 in the first quarter with four giveaways all on his own. But Scottie Barnes looks like he’s ready to pick up where his rookie-of-the-year season left off as he had eight points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals in 17:31 of floor time.

Precious Achiuwa looked quick off the dribble, and calm and collected in transition, suggesting he’s not about to regress to the early-season awkwardness he started with early last season. He led all Raptors scorers in the first half with 10.

But there was little for the established players to prove. More interesting was what was going on elsewhere on the roster.

“You could sit here and say a Wednesday practice at training camp is very low stakes,” said Nurse. “But when you’re fighting for position or fighting for rotation minutes, you’ve got to play well. You’ve got to play hard, and you’ve got to play well.

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“… We’ll see what translates from practice to the game floor. It’s the same things I always say: First and foremost are you going to give great effort? Are you going to compete? Are you going to play winning basketball? Are you going to do the schemes right? Are you going to fill a role? The list is pretty long, but those would be some broad-stroke ideas that would be helpful to guys to make the team.”

Early in the second quarter Raptors fans got their first glimpse of rookie big man Christian Koloko.

The seven-footer from Cameroon made a few nice plays: finishing off a clever pass from Siakam for his first bucket and looking comfortable shooting from the baseline on another, though the ball didn’t drop. He got to the free-throw line after making an adventurous drive to the rim from the perimeter, though only made 1-of-2 shots there. His highlight was a putback dunk off an Achiuwa lay-up late in the first half that sparked the Rogers Place crowd.

More interesting was that defensively – which will be his ticket to a steady role in the NBA – he was directing traffic, communicating, and consistently engaged. He looked comfortable guarding pick-and-roll actions on the perimeter as well.

“He’s handled things very well. He falls into the category of ‘you just don’t see him making very many mistakes’,” said Nurse. “He’ll block a shot, he’ll get a tip in, he’ll move the ball, he’ll get an extra possession with an offensive rebound; those things all add up and there’s not a whole lot of takeaways from what he does or things that take away from the team.

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“So to me, he’s looked very good, very solid, a guy we can use for sure.”

The Raptors led 50-49 at the half, setting the stage for a 31-point runaway in the second half.  But by then Nurse was committed to seeing new faces and combinations. Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby were all done for the night. In their place, alongside Barnes and Gary Trent Jr., were Chris Boucher, Khem Birch, and Juancho Hernangomez. They pushed the lead to 12 before Barnes and Trent Jr. sat down in place of Malachi Flynn and Dalano Banton.

It would seem there is a path to some steady playing time for either one of Flynn or Banton, with the Raptors’ stated goal of cutting back on VanVleet’s minutes, especially since another stated goal is for Toronto to get to the rim more this season.

Flynn in particular is at a stage where he has to prove his worth as he heads into his third season. He opened some eyes in the summer as he put up some hard-to-miss stat lines in some pro-am games, including a 73-point outing in a game this July in a Seattle game hosted by Jamal Crawford.

“I just feel good,” said Flynn. “I put work in in the summer. So just going off of that. Just ready to compete and have a good year.”

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It looked like his night might be cut short when he briefly had to leave the floor after taking a hard knock to the side of the head from Jazz guard Colin Sexton. He was fine in the end and ended up chipping in eight points in the second-half route.

Banton was in good form too, as he galloped through the open court for nine points, three rebounds and two steals. The bench – even the deepest corners of it – overwhelmed the Jazz. Toronto took an 82-64 lead into the fourth quarter and was lifted to the finish line by the energy of the ‘home’ crowd whose enthusiasm never wavered.

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