The AL MVP race is closer than you think

August 14th, 2022

Annual MVP debates always come with strong opinions and varying takes, but never before have we had to ask this question -- if one player puts up MVP-type numbers as a hitter and a pitcher, as Shohei Ohtani does every year, should he automatically win it? Does Aaron Judge’s pursuit of a home run record put him ahead in this race? gathered to debate this topic.

Alyson Footer, moderator/editor: We’re here to debate (argue?) about the definition of MVP. This debate, of course, is nothing new, but there’s an entirely new wrinkle that has been added in modern times, because of Shohei Ohtani.

He pitches and he hits, and he does both at an elite level. The question is -- can you really give the MVP to anyone BUT him, considering he’s the only one who can do what he does? Is it fair to penalize Aaron Judge because he doesn’t pitch?

Mike Petriello, analyst, stats and research: It's very fair to penalize Aaron Judge because he doesn't pitch. Pitching is hard! Ohtani is very good at it! And he's also an elite hitter. I feel like maybe we're bored by that now, but we shouldn't be? It is still wildly insane.

Footer: Right, but can we really just give Ohtani the MVP every year of his career just because he does two things well?

Sarah Langs, analyst/researcher: If Ohtani weren’t still doing both at an elite level, this is a different discussion.

Petriello: Well. Yes. The lukewarm answer here is it's perfectly reasonable to say either of these two could or should be MVP. I won't exclude Ohtani because his team is bad. I won't exclude Judge because he doesn't pitch. I have my preference, but both have very good cases.

Anthony Castrovince, reporter/columnist: On the one hand, to vote anybody other than Ohtani for MVP is to normalize Ohtani’s truly unique skillset. I don’t wish to normalize it one bit. Ohtani is a freak of nature, and, while his offense isn’t quite what it was last year, his pitching is much better. For me, only something truly outlandish/historic/what have you can overtake the total value Ohtani has provided a terrible Angels team. But as of now, Judge has provided that.

Langs: He’s a better pitcher than last year … and he’s top five in barrel rate. Judge has a great case, too -- and this is different than 2021 since that had the novelty.

Footer: We all have our definition of what MVP means. I tend to lean toward this barometer -- if you take this person out of the lineup, what happens to his team? (I do think MVP should be awarded to a hitter; pitchers have their own award.) And while I think there are exceptions, for the most part, I'm pretty unmoved by a great player on a non-contending team. I think Judge has more value because his team is a contender, and if you take him out of that lineup, I can see things going sideways a little bit for the Yankees.

Petriello: Over his last 21 games, Judge has 14 homers. He has a 1.614 OPS. It is the third-best 21-game streak since Barry Bonds retired ... the Yankees are 9-12.

Footer: I don't believe Judge is the only reason why the Yankees are good, but if you take him out of the lineup during that 9-12 stretch, maybe they're 4-17? That matters, no?

Petriello: It does not matter to me. I accept it matters to many. If the 2015-22 Angels have proven ANYTHING, it's that baseball is a team sport. Individuals can't win baseball games.

Castrovince: I'm not a fan of just sorting the WAR leaderboard and filling in an MVP ballot off that. However, I will point out that FanGraphs' total WAR leaderboard (pitching plus hitting, which is only worth looking at because of Ohtani) has Judge at 7.3 and Ohtani at 5.9. So by that measure, it's not especially close.

Petriello: I think that's a better argument for Judge than anything about what their team records are. Let me know when Ohtani gets Gerrit Cole and Nestor Cortes and Clay Holmes on his pitching staff, anyway.

Langs: I don’t think the team plays in -- but that WAR argument certainly favors Judge.

Castrovince: I would say Judge, at this moment, has a 99.99 percent chance of winning the MVP (and not just because his jersey No. is 99). Were I to vote for the MVP today, I would have to go with Judge at a time when he appears to be headed for the AL home run record. He’s clearly the best offensive player in the league. (That he happens to be playing for one of the best teams in the league is a nice bonus.) So I don’t have an issue with “snubbing” Ohtani.

Petriello: Actually, I'll work with you on that. A Judge win would not be an Ohtani snub. Because like I said before -- there's clear arguments for either one.

Castrovince: Fair. Snub might be the wrong word, but I don't want to lose sight of the amazing thing Ohtani is doing. He is the definition of valuable.

Petriello: (Yordan Alvarez truthers have entered the chat.)

Castrovince: Alvarez hasn't been at the same level since the injury. To me, it's Judge vs. Ohtani at the moment. But we do have seven weeks to go ...

Footer: Let's say Ohtani puts up similar numbers for the next four years. Will it take another player having a Judge-type season (threatening home run record) to win MVP? What if he just has a more normal great season -- 50 homers, leads the league in OPS, etc. Will that be enough?

Petriello: This is only a conversation because Judge is having an all-time great season, which might end up with breaking a hallowed record, and -- let's be honest here -- plays for the Yankees. If it was just a guy having a pretty good year, the kind of good year you see every year? It's all Ohtani.

Castrovince: Right, Mike. And I think the context of what Judge is doing when he’s doing it is important to keep in mind. While the league-wide home run rate is higher today than it was when Roger Maris set what still stands as the AL record in 1961, it’s significantly lower than it was just a year ago and also lower than it was when Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001. We think of the modern game as being home run-oriented, but it’s fascinating that Judge is doing what he’s doing when the league-wide homer rate is the lowest it’s been since 2015. Weird timing that augments his MVP case, in my opinion.

Langs: I think every year Ohtani does this, it will be more normalized -- fair or not. If he hadn’t done what he did last year, this conversation right now is different. But I agree with Mike -- the new "tie goes to the runner" is "MVP to Ohtani" -- aside from a Yankee/record-breaker/etc. Presuming he continues to be like this.

Petriello: Now, when Ohtani's on the Dodgers or Padres next year, this all looks a lot different. (Sorry. I'm so sorry.)

Castrovince: Nah, Ohtani will still be in the AL MVP conversation when he's on the Mariners.

Petriello: If anything, we should give Ohtani extra credit for bringing his A-game every night when you look at *gestures wildly at the wreckage of the LAA season.* People like to say there's no pressure, not like there is in a pennant race. I could not disagree more. I bet it's way easier to get yourself excited and motivated in front of 40,000 fans each night, knowing you're playing for something, than for a continually disappointing team that does not matter.

Footer: If the season ended today who is your MVP vote? Go! Me: Judge.

Petriello: I think Judge, in part because of one aspect we haven't even brought up yet, which is that he was actually forced into playing center field -- a 6-foot-7 center fielder!! -- for weeks at a time, and he actually handled it quite well. I think that's really cool. Anyway, Judge by an eyelash here, but I could see that changing by the first week of October.

Langs: I think I would vote for Judge because of the record. Because even though it’s just a league record, when people look back and see that he set an American League record and a record for a hallowed franchise like the Yankees … the idea that he might not have won MVP that year would probably look silly.

But I’m still too impressed with Ohtani to not feel that it should at LEAST be close.

Castrovince: Judge is the MVP right now.