MVP 'an impossible choice': Ohtani vs. Vlad

June 17th, 2021

The American League MVP race is shaping up to be something fierce, even if, at this point, only two players are realistic front-runners. If the trends that we’ve seen so far hold up for the next few months, the battle will come down to Angels two-way player and Blue Jays phenom , who, if not for Ohtani, would be a favorite to not only win MVP, but win it unanimously.

Ahead of Ohtani’s 10th start of the season Thursday night against the Tigers in MLB’s Game of the Week Live on YouTube, a group of reporters gathered to discuss who may have the advantage.

Alyson Footer, editor/moderator: This might be the most interesting MVP race we’ve ever had, because we have one who is having the kind of year that would scream “MVP,” even this early in the season, and he may not win it, because the other guy is not only doing close to that, but is also pitching like an All-Star, too.

Is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. really going to be the runner-up in this race because of Shohei Ohtani?

Mark Feinsand, executive reporter: I hate this debate so much, because it goes against everything I have ever thought about MVP voting.

I have voted for MVP several times, and I have never voted for a player from a team that was not at least on the fringe of the postseason race. The Angels are playing better of late, which could make this point moot, but what Ohtani is doing this season is so extraordinary, I don’t know how he’s not the clear front-runner.

Sarah Langs, reporter/producer: This truly feels like an impossible question right now. I’ve been thinking about this for the last few days, and I can’t begin to decide. Part of me figures it’ll be clearer by September … but who knows? Ohtani is doing things we have pretty much never seen -- he’s past Babe Ruth in so many of the historical notes now.

And then Vlad is the youngest player to be leading in the Triple Crown categories this late into a season since Al Kaline in 1955. What an amazing thing for us and for baseball … and an impossible choice.

Rhett Bollinger, Angels beat reporter: As of this moment, it does appear to be the case because Shohei Ohtani is doing things we haven't seen in more than 100 years and not since Babe Ruth. Guerrero is having an otherworldly season offensively, but it's hard to top what Ohtani is doing both at the plate and on the mound. I don't put much stock into wherever the Angels finish in the standings. It's not his fault the Angels have struggled to put together a competent pitching staff around him. We've seen Mike Trout win MVP Awards with the Angels out of contention in both 2016 and 2019.

Feinsand: Vlad Jr. is leading the AL in home runs, RBIs, hits, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+ and total bases. How is it possible that I think I would vote for Ohtani right now?

But when you talk about a player with 18 home runs, 46 RBIs, a .954 OPS in 62 games … who also has a 2.85 ERA in nine starts with 68 strikeouts in 47 1/3 innings … it’s just remarkable. 

Oh, and the Angels have become an interesting team, even with Mike Trout out of the lineup.

Keegan Matheson, Blue Jays beat reporter: This will be fascinating even from a voting standpoint. Guerrero vs. Ohtani isn't your average debate, and balancing Ohtani's value as a pitcher is the tipping point here. Guerrero has been the better hitter -- better than anyone -- but the gap between these two as hitters is probably enough for Ohtani to make up for with his pitching.

I also wonder how we project this through August and September. Who are we betting on to sustain this, Guerrero or Ohtani? I'd lean toward Guerrero, just given how rare Ohtani's season is, but if Ohtani keeps this up, it's difficult to argue against him -- even with Guerrero having an all-time offensive season. 

Footer: That's a good point, Keegan. If Ohtani is still doing this in the part of the season when players find it challenging just to do one thing well -- hitting or pitching, then I think it would be hard to vote for anyone else.

Feinsand: If Ohtani’s numbers are within shouting distance of Vlad Jr.’s and he has 140 innings of sub-3.00 ERA, that’s going to be tough to beat.

Langs: I really wonder about that, Keegan. If these both continue, I think it goes to Ohtani. If Ohtani falls off on either side of the ball, though, I think it goes to Vlad.

Bollinger: Agreed. The biggest question remains Ohtani's health and his ability to do this over the course of a full season. He's been playing essentially every day for the first time in his career and has to prove he can sustain this over the long haul.

Footer: What if Ohtani falls off on the pitching side but puts up numbers comparable to Vlad on the hitting side -- or even surpasses Vlad in a few categories? 

Feinsand: If their numbers are close, then Ohtani’s pitching should push him past Vlad.

Bollinger: I think if the offensive numbers are even close, Ohtani will get the nod.

Matheson: There's some fun with East Coast vs. West Coast here, too. I wish more fans on the East Coast were watching Ohtani's 10 p.m. ET starts. Fans from New York and Boston and … Toronto isn't the East Coast of Canada, that's Nova Scotia, but I digress. This is great for baseball.

I'm also not closing the door on Guerrero getting some high-leverage looks late in games, given the state of the Blue Jays' bullpen.

Feinsand: One caveat: What if the Blue Jays make a big run and wind up winning the AL East? That could sway some voters to vote for Vlad. I know some voters don’t consider the standings, but there are plenty that do.

Matheson: Agreed, Mark. If the Blue Jays make a run in August and September, it's not going to be boring. This team looks bad when they lose, but when they win, it's must-see TV. If Guerrero is out in front carrying this roster to a playoff spot, it's going to be difficult to ignore that. It definitely matters.

Langs: This is amazing for baseball, and I do think both of these guys have been appointment viewing. The Ohtani fervor is incredible. And people love Vlad. As they should!

Feinsand: I think it’s amazing that we’re not even considering anybody else. Matt Olson? Xander Bogaerts? Great seasons, but they’ll have to settle for the fight for third place as of right now.

Bollinger: Ohtani's starts have become events wherever he plays. It's incredible to see the pitcher batting second, especially with American League rules with the DH. That first start where he threw 101 mph and homered in his first at-bat against the White Sox was amazing. And his next one comes on Thursday at Re-Opening Day at Angel Stadium against the Tigers in front of what's expected to be close to a sold-out crowd.

Feinsand: The Blue Jays visit Anaheim for four games from Aug. 10-12. How great will it be to see Ohtani pitching to Vlad?!?

Footer: Must-see viewing!

Feinsand: The most exciting part of this conversation to me is that Vlad is 22 and Ohtani is 26. We get to watch these guys be awesome for so many more years.

Bollinger: Now that will be fun! And you can't forget the tie to the Angels. Vladimir Sr. remains a huge fan favorite among Angels fans, and they lament the fact they didn't sign Vlad Jr.

Footer: For those of us who don't watch Vlad every day -- what went into the transformation this year that took him to the next level?

Matheson: His body. Guerrero got fatigued in his first couple of seasons, and by his own admission was simply out of shape. His posture would dip, his hands would dip and he'd beat balls into the ground. That snowballed on him and he wasn't playing with that same infectious personality. He took control of his career last winter and grabbed on with both hands. These are the "routines" the Blue Jays talked about for so long when he was in the Minor Leagues. The moment he got his body right, everything else fell right into place.

Langs: Vlad’s transformation has been incredible, hitting the ball in the air more, like we all wanted to see him do, with how hard he hits it. And his plate discipline has been incredible, which continues to be one of my favorite things, given his family name. Head, shoulders, knees and toes worked for Sr., but Vlad Jr. owns the zone and knows when and when not to swing in a way unlike most others in the league this year. Both of these guys are so much fun! As Mark said, so young! And they show such wonderful energy and emotion on the field. How funny Ohtani seems to be comes through on TV, even. And the Blue Jays’ team energy is undeniable, too.

Footer: Rhett, tell us something about Ohtani we don’t know. How has his preparation enabled him to sustain what he’s doing? How does his manager, Joe Maddon, handle his workload?

Bollinger: Ohtani worked hard this offseason, including making a trip to Driveline in Seattle to improve his mechanics both on the mound and at the plate, as he had a forgettable 2020 season. He made just two starts on the mound before suffering an elbow/forearm injury and struggled offensively. But this year, Ohtani came into camp with renewed confidence and has looked like an even better version of the two-way star that we saw win the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year Award.

In the past, Ohtani had been held out of the lineup the day before, the day of and the day after his start to give him rest. But this season, he's been the designated hitter in nearly every game, including in several of his starts. He has as much raw power as anybody in the game, and while his velocity on the mound has dipped a bit as the season has gone along, his command has become much better.

Footer: Let's end this with a simple question -- if the season ended today, is your AL MVP vote going to Ohtani? 

Feinsand: Yes. He’s a marvel to watch whether he’s hitting or pitching. You can’t take your eyes off of him. I would feel awful not voting Vlad first, but he would be my No. 2. 

Matheson: Today, yes … but I think it's likelier that Guerrero eventually overtakes Ohtani than Ohtani separates himself from Vlad. 

[Insert photoshopped image of me sitting on a fence] 

Bollinger: If it ended today, the answer would be yes. It's not a landslide by any means. Guerrero is putting up MVP-caliber numbers. But Ohtani has become a must-watch star who seems to be breaking new records every day. In a lot of ways, he doesn't get enough attention for what he's doing. A player isn't supposed to be able to pitch and hit like this. 

Langs: We are watching something we have never seen before. Babe Ruth wasn’t throwing 100 mph and hitting 115.8 mph homers. It’s just too hard to pick against that, but … putting Vlad No. 2 would be so, so difficult. The last player to win a Triple Crown as a hitter and not win MVP was Ted Williams in 1947 (lost by one vote point, tied for the second-closest MVP vote ever!) … so I guess that would be wonderful company for Vlad, at least.

But my biggest takeaway here is how incredible this will be to play out. And absolutely, this is if it ended today … and who knows what this could be in a week, or by September.

Feinsand: Seriously, I am now more excited for that August series than anything else coming up.