Aaron Judge leads AL MVP, but is there an argument for another Shohei Ohtani win?

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Are too many people sleeping on Shohei Ohtani for AL MVP? Are too many people talking about it? Is the answer somewhere in the middle? Let’s try to sort it out. 

First off, when it comes to the 2022 American League Most Valuable Player award, the best bet is all roads leading to Yankees slugger Aaron Judge. His chase to join the 60-home run club is incredibly fun and, frankly, carrying a lackluster, at this point, Yankees supporting offensive cast has to work in his favor. 

Entering play Thursday, Judge is hitting .301/.407/.683 (205 OPS+) with 22 doubles, 55 home runs, 118 RBI, 16 steals, 110 runs and 8.6 WAR. He leads the league in WAR, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+ (205 to 176), home runs (55 to 33), RBI, runs (110 to 82) and he’s within striking range of batting average. He also leads in walks, extra-base hits, times on base, total bases and, well, you get the idea. 

Meanwhile, the Yankees are in first place with the second-best record in the AL. In nearly every other season in baseball history, this would be a blowout. And maybe it will be. 

Is it even worth a discussion? There are probably two reasons to answer yes. One would be Judge’s historic season and two would be Angels two-way star Ohtani. 

It seems to me we could divide this up into three over-arching points and we’ll hit those below. 

I will not be taking the side of either Judge or Ohtani here. I’ll be attempting to paint a complete picture of the AL MVP discussion. Yes, I’ll be sharing opinions and taking sides on other things, just not whether I’d vote for Ohtani or Judge for 2022 AL MVP. 

Let’s rock. 

“Value” 

We’ve heard all the arguments over the years, right? There’s the “value means the best player” side and there’s the “how valuable could he be if his team is terrible?” side, essentially. 

The Angels are 60-77 and 28 games out of first in the AL West. They are 18 games out of a playoff spot. There is a mindset on the “value” front that a player like Ohtani isn’t valuable to the Angels since they aren’t going to even remotely contend for a playoff spot. Perhaps some of that sentiment is lingering from the famous line attributed to Branch Rickey in the direction of Ralph Kiner. “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you.” 

On the flip side, Judge’s Yankees will probably skate into the playoffs and he’s had the Yankees’ struggling offense on his back for about two months at this point. Take that series against the Rays last weekend. The Yankees only scored three runs: Two Judge homers and then Judge scoring on a sac fly after he doubled and advanced to third on a grounder. 

Of course, I’ve been pushing back against the idea of a player only having value if his teammates are good players for years and will continue to do so. 

This isn’t basketball, where one player can dominate the ball on offense every single possession and then can guard the best player on the other team every defensive possession. There’s simply only so much one baseball player can do. He can only bat once every nine spots in the lineup, sometimes only three times a game. Usually, it’s four times a game, hardly a large enough share of the offensive “possession” to adequately move the needle on a nightly basis for a bad team. On defense, he can only impact the play when the ball is hit in certain places. Sometimes for an outfielder like Judge, that would be zero times in a game. When it comes to pitching, a player still only impacts one side of the game and that’s only once every five games for starting pitchers — and maybe one or two innings every few games as a reliever. 

All this is to reiterate a mantra we’ve used here for years: Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team game. It’s a series of individual matchups. One player can’t actually “carry” a team. Even taking the case of Judge “carrying” the Yankees, they lost two of those three games in Tampa Bay and they are 25-31 since July 8. Was he incredibly valuable before that and then just all of a sudden lost his “value?” It would be interesting to see someone argue this was the case, considering Judge has hit .332/.474/.796 since then after hitting .282/.363/.617 before. He’s actually been a much more valuable player in the range when the Yankees have been a sub-par team than when they were winning almost every game. 

There’s nuance to every discussion here, but for me, there’s a certain simplicity or even ignorance to believing a player on a bad team can’t possibly be valuable. Again, was Judge more valuable when he was playing worse just because the Yankees’ record was better? 

My argument would be that the best player is the most valuable. Ignore the teammates. 

Believe it or not, that’s actually a point in Judge’s favor, in a way. He’s gotten much more valuable over the course of the last two months while much of the rest of his team has fallen apart. 

Ohtani’s uniqueness

All that stuff about how one player can only do so much rings true for Ohtani as well. It’s just another level. He does more than any other player. He does the whole “can only hit once every nine spots” thing in addition to being in a starting rotation. 

In the case of the latter, he’s been such a good starting pitcher that I mentioned him in our Cy Young watch. Ignoring anything he provides offensively, Ohtani has a case as a top-five AL pitcher this season. 

He’s 11-8 on a bad team. He has a 2.58 ERA, which is fifth in the AL and good for a 156 ERA+. He has a 1.04 WHIP, which is sixth. He’s struck out 181 hitters, good for fifth in the league and the rate (11.98 K/9, 33 percent) is the best in the league. The one thing that holds him back in the AL Cy Young race is probably workload, as he’s gone 136 innings. Three starters in the AL are over 170 and the top 10 are all above 155. 

Still, the reason he hasn’t worked more often is he’s busy being one of the best power hitters in baseball. We can’t consider that for Cy Young, but it matters a bunch in MVP. 

At the plate, Ohtani is hitting .267/.356/.536 (150 OPS+) with 21 doubles, six triples, 33 homers, 86 RBI, 79 runs and 11 steals. He’s fourth in slugging, fifth in OPS, fourth in OPS+, fifth in runs, third in total bases, third in triples, fourth in RBI, sixth in walks, fourth in extra-base hits, sixth in times on base and second only to Judge in home runs. 

It’s reasonable to conclude he’s a top-five hitter in the AL. After all, look at where he ranks in everything listed above. 

So you’re looking at a top-five hitter and top-five pitcher. The only other player in history who could have made such a claim is Babe Ruth and, well, there wasn’t much crossover between Babe’s full-time pitching and full-time hitting exploits. Even if there were, he was playing in a segregated league in a totally different game than we’re watching. 

Put simply, what Ohtani is doing right now is unprecedented. It is truly the greatest thing an individual has done in baseball from this perspective. 

It’s tough to put a number on that kind of history and then attempt to judge how much “value” he provides. 

The closest thing we have to a catch-all stat is WAR. Ohtani trails Judge in baseball-reference.com’s version, 8.6 to 7.9. In Fangraphs’ version, Judge has 9.1 and Ohtani has 7.9. Ohtani is penalized by Fangraphs for being a DH (the argument is that a DH provides less value to his team by not contributing on defense), but shouldn’t that be blunted by the fact that he only DHs because he’s also a pitcher? Then again, the Angels have to use a six-man rotation to accommodate Ohtani as a hitter and pitcher, so should that dock him a bit? 

Again, it’s really tough.  

If you talk to any MLB player about Ohtani, nearly to a man, they’ll say that he’s the best player in baseball and many say the best of all time. They are the ones who know how hard it is to pitch or hit in this league and Ohtani excels at both. There were guys saying it before last season and now that Ohtani has sustained it for nearly two full seasons, it’s pretty much unanimous. Seeing the reaction in person is always funny. They kind of light up while also shaking their head in disbelief. 

I think part of it is the preparation involved. They all know that being an elite starting pitcher is a full-time job while being an elite designated hitter who is also a stellar baserunner is nearly a full-time job. They all know just how much work goes into doing either at a high level. The dude does both. 

How much does that matter? How much should it matter? 

Again, there’s nuance all over the place. It certainly feels like Ohtani is due bonus points here. There’s still a limit to what he can do — you still can’t expect one hitter and one pitcher to carry an entire baseball team to the playoffs — but he’s tantamount to two players. 

Surely we can all agree there should be bonus points, but how many? Enough to overcome Judge’s season? 

Voter/fan fatigue

It’s possible that some people won’t want to admit it, but we get tired of things sometimes. 

Isn’t everyone aside from Alabama fans sick and tired of seeing them in the CFP every single year? I sure am. Once an NBA player wins back-to-back MVPs, don’t you want to see someone else win it the next year, even if it’s really close? It’s human nature. It doesn’t only apply to the sports world. If the same TV show wins an Emmy every single season, we seem to innately start to root against it. Variety is the spice of life. 

Voter fatigue has probably cost some players MVPs. Albert Pujols? Maybe. Barry Bonds? Probably. 

Ohtani just won this award last season. The Angels were 77-85 (read: Not a playoff contender). He was a worthy All-Star pitcher while winning a Silver Slugger and stealing 26 bases. All the talk about value and individual performance and history and the uniqueness of a two-way player and what value he brings to the game … we just went through all of this! 

It’s a real thing and no one could convince me it has nothing to do with the discussions this season. 

Obviously, Judge is having a much bigger year than Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. did last season and the Yankees are the number two seed in the AL while the Blue Jays barely missed the playoffs last year, so there’s a difference. It’s only a slight difference, though, and I feel like the difference in both voting and public sentiment toward Judge will be vast. Fatigue plays a role. I can’t prove it, as it’s unprovable, but I firmly believe if Ohtani was having his first two-way superstar season this year instead of last, the AL MVP debate would be much more hotly contested. 

The utopian version of this vote, for me, would be to simply decide who the best baseball player in 2022 has been. No fatigue, no worrying about the team for which each man plays, just decide: Who has been the best player? 

I don’t think it’s possible to get there, but a guy can dream. 

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