Right at the top of the ballot distributed to members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America who are tapped to vote for the American and National League MVP awards, the rules are established by essentially saying, “There are no rules.”

“There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means,” the instructions say.

Put another way: Juan Soto should be the NL’s MVP.

I say this prematurely and — of course — at the risk of sounding like a homer. (I also say it as someone who doesn’t vote and can’t vote, because The Washington Post prohibits its writers from voting, a policy with which I agree.) This is a tight race, and the statistics presented here are all through Tuesday. If I were voting, I’d wait till Sunday to write down names on my ballot, ranked first through 10th, as two voters from each NL city will do.

That ballot, in some order, would be topped by Soto, Philadelphia right fielder Bryce Harper and San Diego shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. There’ll be jockeying down the ballot from Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Trea Turner — still just the strangest phrase to type — and teammate Max Muncy; Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman and third baseman Austin Riley; and San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford. Oh, and there are the starting pitchers, which probably should be Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler and Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes — even though I’m of the mind that even the most effective starting pitcher doesn’t impact as many innings as an everyday player.

There will be, and already is, debate about whether an MVP should come from a team that loses more than 90 games. It’s silly, because Tatis is going to miss the playoffs, and Harper right now is on the outside looking in, and if this year’s award could go only to Giants or Dodgers or Brewers or Braves, then it should be recast and renamed. Plus, we already know there is no clear-cut definition of what most valuable means. So I’m here to argue that Soto’s value — even to a sorry Washington Nationals team — is astronomical.

Start with this from Soto, because it is the most delicious appetizer, even if it’s not the most pertinent measure:

Since the all-star break, Soto’s on-base percentage is .535. It’s a number that should be stared at and marveled over. He has reached base in more than half of his plate appearances in what approaches half the season. Given that reaching base invariably helps your team — indeed, it is the base objective of any appearance in the batter’s box — that percentage is staggering. Then, add some context: According to baseball-reference.com, here are the hitters who have reached base at a higher clip in the second half of any season in history: Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth three times apiece, Ted Williams twice, and Rogers Hornsby once.

That’s not a stat that wins the MVP. But, damn, Soto’s not just 2021 good. He’s historically good.

Soto’s ability to reach base forms the foundation of both his game and his case. Through Tuesday, his .468 on-base percentage not only leads baseball, but it is 35 points higher than the closest hitter, Harper. How big of a gap is that? Well, consider that 35 points cover the span between Freeman in fourth and Oakland’s Mark Canha, tied for 33rd, and it’s enormous. Indeed, the only higher full-season OBP since 2008 was . . . Juan Soto’s .490 from 2020, posted in the truncated, 60-game season. His walk rate of 21.9 percent has been topped in this century only by Bonds. Sure, given the state of the Nats’ lineup, it’s easy to say he’s being pitched around — far easier than it is to lay off the borderline pitches Soto routinely takes every night.

Reaching base is the driver for Soto’s leads in wins above replacement — 6.6 over Harper’s 6.5 in the FanGraphs rankings, 7.1 over Tatis’s 6.5 according to Baseball-Reference. Therein lies my uneasiness in using WAR as a straight evaluation of MVPs: There’s no single way to throw offense, defense and base running into a pot and get the same stew. Not only is there great disparity between the two most prominent public lists — Harper is second at FanGraphs but seventh at Baseball-Reference — but several clubs have their own formulas, each distinct from the others. There’s too much variance for WAR to be reliable.

So let’s go to what we know. Harper leads the NL in slugging percentage (.617) and on-base-plus-slugging (1.050), a category in which Soto’s 1.013 is second, while Tatis is second in slugging and third in OPS. Yes, Turner might win the batting title, because his .325 average has surged ahead of Soto’s second-place .318 and Harper’s .311. But batting average long ago was proved to be a hollow stat, far outweighed by the importance of reaching base — however you get there — and hitting for power.

Some other raw numbers: Only Freeman has scored more than Soto’s 110 runs, with Harper at 99 and Tatis at 98. Tatis leads the league in home runs with 41, though Harper (34) and Soto (29) will post competitive totals. RBI: Tatis has 95, Soto 93, Harper 82.

Those raw numbers, they call for context, and therein lies another reason Soto, for me, edges out Harper, who at times seemed to be single-handedly lifting the Phillies. Harper’s RBI total could suggest a lack of success with runners on, a traditional evaluation of whether a player is “valuable.” But his line with men in scoring position is actually exceptional: a .326 average, .488 OBP and .545 slugging percentage for a 1.022 OPS. His RBI total is almost directly linked to the fact that his 123 plate appearances with runners in scoring position rank tied for 48th in the league.

Soto, with 157 plate appearances with men on second or third, has had more opportunity. In those instances, he’s hitting — check this out — .398, with a best-in-baseball .580 OBP while slugging .699 for a league-leading 1.279 OPS. (Tatis: a league-leading .742 slugging percentage for a second-best 1.234 OPS with runners in scoring position.)

Oh, here’s one more for Soto, maybe more a curiosity than a credential: Of the 178 major league hitters who have at least 400 plate appearances this year, guess how many walk more often than they strike out.

The answer is one: Juan Soto. Soto’s 139 walks to 87 strikeouts is good for a 1.60 ratio. Next best: Minnesota utility man Luis Arraez, whose walk-to-strikeout ratio is but 0.91. The only player in the past seven seasons who can match Soto’s combination of plate discipline and ability to put the bat on the ball was Cincinnati’s Joey Votto, who posted a 1.61 ratio in 2017. By the end of the weekend, Soto might even top that. Since Aug. 3, he has played in 53 games. He has struck out more than once just four times and has reached base more than once 34 times.

There is one other point, written right on the ballot, meant to help guide the voters, aside from saying they can consider former winners, that a voter can list two players on the same team and that “general character, disposition, loyalty and effort” are to be weighed. That is: “Number of games played.”

This point reinforces something that can be overlooked in baseball: Availability is a skill. The sport is so unrelenting, so constant, that there is real value in showing up every day and having your name in the lineup.

To that end, Soto has appeared in 147 games, Harper in 136 and Tatis in 125. That’s not to say it’s Harper’s fault that he was hit in the face — and then the wrist — by a fastball that sent him to the injured list. It’s not to say that Tatis is to blame for the shoulder issues that put him on the injured list twice.

But it is to say that Soto — despite a knee injury that sent him to the injured list for 10 games straddling April and May — has appeared more often and therefore has impacted his team more frequently. Through Tuesday, he had 55 more plate appearances than Harper and 106 more than Tatis.

At the trade deadline, the Nationals traded their present in hopes of a better future. Juan Soto is part of it all. Cast his extraordinary numbers against the barren landscape around him, and the case is clear: Soto for MVP.