Shohei vs. Judge: Who is the main event?

April 18th, 2023

Most would agree that , and are the most celebrated and recognizable players in baseball today. The three will meet in the Bronx this week when the Angels and Yankees begin a three-game set on Tuesday, which prompted this roundtable – of the group, who’s the “main attraction?”

This high-profile series will take center stage throughout the week on MLB Network. On Tuesday, the MLB Tonight: Clubhouse Edition broadcast returns with organic analysis, reaction and storytelling from former players including CC Sabathia, Torii Hunter, Justin Upton and Chris Young. Writer and comedian The Kid Mero will join Off Base leading up to the game to discuss Ohtani vs. Judge. MLB Network will also broadcast Wednesday’s game via the Casamigos Tequila MLB Network Showcase with Matt Vasgersian, Tom Verducci and Jon Morosi on the mic.

Alyson Footer: Is there a clear-cut “main attraction” right now? I think because of what Ohtani and Judge have done over the past couple of years, it’s really between the first two. Is there a “favorite?”

Mike Petriello: Yes. it's Shohei Ohtani. The end.

OK, I'll expand on that. We all saw the World Baseball Classic, right? It didn't feel like after the last two years Ohtani's profile could get any higher, or more must-watch. Seeing that tourney, especially the end, changed my mind.

David Adler: By far the biggest must-must-must-watch event in baseball right now is a game when Shohei Ohtani pitches and hits. Aaron Judge can't hit his 62nd home run every week.  

Sarah Langs: I think it has to be Ohtani. No disrespect to Judge or Trout, but having seen the way he was followed in person during the WBC, it’s hard to deny Ohtani and we never should. By definition, doing things that have never been done before is on its own level.   

Mark Feinsand: OK, Mike. I hate to be the guy defending the Yankee, but didn’t Judge have a higher WAR last year than Ohtani -- even when you combined his hitting and pitching? Judge would have been deserving of the MVP even if he had finished with 60 homers and not broken the record.

Petriello: I don't totally want to rehash the MVP argument -- short version: I felt either had a very good case and it was fine that Judge won -- but that wasn't the question, right? It was the biggest attraction. Which is Ohtani. 

Feinsand: Ohtani is a unicorn, no doubt. He’s a marvel to watch. But as an occasional MVP voter, I always take the team’s success into account to some extent when I fill out my ballot. Ohtani hasn’t had much. 

Petriello: This reminds me of two years ago, when we ran a celebration of Fernando Valenzuela’s incredible rookie season, I went back and looked at how he personally juiced up attendance numbers both home and on the road. I should see if Ohtani is doing the same. I bet he is. 

Langs: He has to be!

Feinsand: If we’re going to base it on road attendance, a Yankee should probably have won the MVP for most of the past 25 years. 

Adler: I agree with you on the MVP race Mark. I'm a sucker for big round historic home run numbers. And I think watching Judge hit 62 was the biggest attraction of the 2022 season. 

So if Judge is making home run history, he's a bigger attraction than Ohtani. But Ohtani is the biggest attraction in general, every day. 

Petriello: I mean it comes down to this, right?  Judge is an incredible player doing a version of something several other guys have done. Ohtani is one-of-one. Babe Ruth isn't even the comparison anymore.

Feinsand: I hate that I am going to come off sounding like I’m anti-Ohtani. He absolutely deserved the MVP in 2021. But that doesn’t mean he should get it every year. 

Petriello: He's only won it once! 

Feinsand: Did he deserve it in any year prior to 2021? That was his breakout two-way season. So we’re saying if he’s excellent doing both in any year going forward, he should be a lock? If I remember correctly, Judge was a pretty big attraction prior to last September. 

Petriello:  Yes, I am saying that. I get that there's a point where you can have MVP fatigue for him. But this isn't like Gretzky taking it home in the NHL for much of the ‘80s. Ohtani has won it ONCE. Get back to me when he's got more wins than, like, Juan Gonzalez or Hal Newhouser. 

Feinsand: Oh by the way, we aren’t even mentioning the best player of his generation. MIKE TROUT!

Adler: Mike Trout is too good in the same way all the time. He should hit more 500-foot homers. Or learn to pitch. 

Langs: To that point, Ohtani manages to out-attraction the sure-fire Hall of Famer on his team. Think about that. 

Petriello:  What's fun about the three of them is that so far in 2023, they're each within a handful of points of their career OPS+ as hitters. They're just consistently keeping up the Very Good Hitting. Surely one of them isn't also one of the 10 best pitchers on Earth.

Feinsand: As good as Vladdy’s season was in 2021, I don’t think there was a legit case for him to win MVP over Ohtani. But last year, I thought Judge was more valuable. 

Petriello: I don't know if anyone is arguing against that. 

Feinsand: This is the frustrating part of this argument. There is no counter to “When he learns to pitch, come back and we can talk.” So Ohtani might be the most talented and impressive player in the game. Maybe ever. But that doesn’t mean he’s the best every year. 

If I’m going to buy a ticket to watch Ohtani and he’s not pitching, I’d rather see Judge. If Ohtani is pitching, count me in. 

Langs: I want to point out something that I feel I always talk about when we bring up AL MVP. We are incredibly lucky to get to watch even one of these guys, let alone all three at once.

Petriello: Yes. I mean as noted above, we're barely talking about literally Mike Trout in this. He's still Mike Trout! 

Feinsand: The truth is, Trout may very well go down as one of the 5-10 best players in history. If I’m taking my kids to see one of these guys play for the only time, I’d probably want them to see Trout. It’s like seeing Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky in their prime. You want to say that you saw them play in person. 

Adler: The day Mike Trout can strike out Shohei Ohtani to win Team USA the World Baseball Classic will be the day he's the biggest superstar in baseball. 

I'm being a little silly, of course. And I think Ohtani has a long way to go before he dethrones Mike Trout as the greatest player of the generation. Trout's a Hall of Famer already, and Ohtani's not. But people want to see things they've never seen before. Ohtani is dazzling right in front of your eyes all the time. Trout is great but it's sometimes harder to see that greatness in real time.

Feinsand: David -- what if Ohtani isn’t pitching that day? Then you’re seeing something that many people do every day. Then he’s just a DH. 

Adler: Then Judge is just as big an attraction as he is. 

Petriello: The whole point of this is that the Angels are in New York this week, and I'm considering taking my 7-year-old son to a game. I can tell you that 100% of my thought was ".. because I'd love for him to see Ohtani," even ahead of the other two. 

Feinsand: I love that I can tell my kids that I got to be in the building to watch Jordan, Gretzky and Brady play. Trout is on that level. Neither Ohtani nor Judge is. At least not yet. 

Adler: But even on days Ohtani is "only" hitting, there's still the thought in the back of your mind, "Wow, this guy who just crushed a home run off one of the best pitchers in the league is about to go out there and be one of the best pitchers in the league himself in a couple of days." 

Then again, the coolest individual baseball feat I've ever seen live is Aaron Judge hitting a home run clear over the Yankee Stadium bleachers.

Petriello: I think it's clear there's not a wrong answer here, because we're talking about three of the best to ever do it. So let's be straight about that. But if we're talking worldwide appeal, I'm not sure how there's even a question here. Ohtani is alone at the top of the heap, even on days he's not pitching. 

Langs: The media surrounding him at the WBC was a larger contingent than I have seen at some World Series games.  

Feinsand: Worldwide? Hmm. I was recently in Italy and I saw a lot of Yankees hats and Judge shirts. Not a single Angels/Ohtani item anywhere. 

I think to die-hard baseball fans, you’re 100% right. To a casual fan or non-fan, I think the Yankees name carries far more weight. More of those people know who Aaron Judge is.

Petriello: NYC is cool internationally. Anaheim -- I'm sorry, so sorry -- is not. 

Adler: Aaron Judge is the biggest superstar on the biggest global team. Shohei Ohtani is the biggest global superstar on a far less global team. 

What happens if you put Shohei Ohtani on the Yankees and Aaron Judge on the Angels? 

Feinsand: Oh, I totally agree. Judge’s team is a big part of who he is. If Judge breaks the AL home run record in an Angels uniform, it doesn’t get nearly the same attention. Those pinstripes are quite a thing.

Adler: But I will give Aaron Judge credit that he had a historic season for a historic team.

Feinsand: But global recognition isn’t as meaningful in this conversation anyway. People in Europe aren’t buying tickets to see this week’s games. And if they are, they would have bought them no matter who the Yankees were playing.

Footer: A while back, we had a roundtable debate about whether Ohtani should win the MVP every year for the simple fact that he’s a hitter AND a pitcher, something no other player can match, no matter how great of a season he has. Since then, Ohtani and Judge have each won an MVP Award. Does that change the scope of the argument? Does Judge have to break his own AL record again in order to be considered, assuming Ohtani does his normal Ohtani things?

Mark Feinsand: No. No. No.

Mike Petriello: I would say yes. If he didn't break the AL record last year, the MVP argument is much, much closer.

Feinsand: Once we see a player do something historic like Ohtani did in 2021, the awe factor wears off a little. And the fact that there wasn’t really a strong candidate to challenge him in 2021 mattered, too. If Judge had posted his 2022 season in 2021, I’d guess Ohtani wouldn’t have been unanimous -- and might not have won.

Adler: What if hitting 60 homers is "normal Judge things." Then do you ask, "does Ohtani have to have another crazy two-way season to win MVP if Aaron Judge does his normal Aaron Judge things?"

Feinsand: But if Judge’s 60 homers get the Yankees to the postseason and Ohtani’s “Ohtani things” result in another 78-win season for the Angels, then Judge is getting my vote. And you can fill in J-Rod/Mariners or Ramírez/Guardians or Vlad/Blue Jays for Judge/Yankees in that sentence and it’s the same thing.

Langs: I think it is a new argument every year and it depends on how we define normal Ohtani things. Being a top 5 pitcher in baseball and also hitting a lot of home runs is on a whole other level. If either of those lag, it is a different conversation.

Feinsand: Good point, Sarah. If Ohtani is a top-20 pitcher and a top-10 hitter, does that make him the MVP because nobody else hit and pitched? No.

Petriello: What we'll never agree on -- what many fans do not agree on -- is whether getting to the playoffs matters in the MVP conversation. I argue it does not at all, and we've seen that a lot the last few years, like with Harper, Soto, etc. Baseball's a team sport.

Otherwise, Ernie Banks should never have won MVP, right?

Feinsand: Yes, but there’s something more to be said for performing in games that matter than putting up numbers in games that don’t.

If one player is head and shoulders above everybody else in the league, I have no problem voting for that player even if his team is bad. But if it’s close, the guy on the good team gets the benefit of the doubt for me.

Adler: Neither Shohei Ohtani nor Aaron Judge nor Mike Trout -- who's won more MVPs than both of them combined, by the way -- is an automatic MVP. It all depends on what the other players do. If Ohtani hits 40 homers and has 250 strikeouts, then yeah, maybe Judge has to hit 63. If Judge hits 60 again, maybe Ohtani has to have an even better two-way season than 2021 or '22. If Trout has 15 WAR, then Judge and Ohtani don't win anything.

Adler: Judge and Ohtani and Trout are all great in their own way. The best Judge season vs. the best Ohtani season vs. the best Trout season are three very different seasons. That's why I like that the "valuable" part of MVP is so open-ended. You get to decide what kind of superstar is the best. But Ohtani is the biggest one.

Feinsand: If Ohtani finishes the season with the 0.47 ERA he has now, give him the Cy Young. And if he hits 40 homers in the process, give him the MVP.

If it was simply “Most Outstanding Player,” it would be a different argument. But as the old saying goes, “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you.” Without Judge last year, the Yankees finish fourth in the AL East.

Footer: Does market matter? Is Judge in the “main attraction” conversation if he’s not a Yankee? I think it’s a fair question, given how much attention the Yankees receive nationally. In that same vein, it’s fair to say Ohtani doesn’t get nearly enough attention for what he does on a nightly basis. If he played for a team that receives more exposure, is this even a debate between him and Judge?

Feinsand: Well, no team gets more exposure than the Yankees, so that would be tough.

Petriello: Yes, Judge is definitely in the conversation if he's not a Yankee. If he'd signed with San Diego or San Francisco, are we not talking about him anymore? I doubt that.

Feinsand: As I said earlier, if Judge was on Cleveland, Milwaukee or Atlanta, he would still be an All-Star and considered one of the best in the game, but it would be different.

Adler: If Ohtani's on the Yankees, he's the biggest superstar in the U.S. by far. He probably can't get any bigger in Japan.

Langs: I think the flip side to this is to say that it’s incredibly impressive and a testament to who he is that Ohtani has built the following he has in the U.S./MLB being on any team other than the Yankees. That isn’t a specific shot at the Angels, but really just the fact that the Yankees are in their own echelon with that kind of thing.

Feinsand: The Yankees had a huge Japanese superstar for seven seasons and he was the biggest star in Japan. Hideki Matsui didn’t pitch, of course, but he was huge. If Ohtani played on the Yankees, he would be the undisputed No. 1 attraction in the game.

Adler: But if Judge hit 62 home runs on the Angels, it wouldn't have been as big as it was with him on the Yankees. But it would've still been really, really, really big. Mark McGwire wasn't on the Yankees when he hit 70. Barry Bonds wasn't on the Yankees when he hit 73. We still talk about those seasons.

Feinsand: I think the media played a big role in Ohtani’s notoriety. We all recognized how incredible it was that he was doing what he was doing, and that was relayed to the fans time and time again.