Would Triple Crown = MVP for Vlad Jr.?

September 18th, 2021

The American League MVP Award race is unlike any we’ve seen before: One candidate may win the Triple Crown and still come in second place; the other is doing something so unprecedented that it seems ludicrous to think anyone can unseat him as the favorite. A group of MLB.com experts gathered to discuss: If wins the AL Triple Crown, does that automatically justify him winning MVP? Or is two-way player the clear-cut choice for MVP?

Alyson Footer, editor/moderator: Because of what Shohei Ohtani is doing, how much does this complicate what Vlad Guerrero Jr. has done this year? What if Vlad Jr. winds up one RBI shy of the Triple Crown? Can he only be MVP if he nails all three categories?

Mark Feinsand, executive reporter: Nailing all three categories is not a requirement by any means. I think getting the Blue Jays to the postseason would be bigger for Vlad’s case than winning the Triple Crown.

David Adler, researcher/reporter: I wish all MVP races were like this. Two really great players being great in two really different ways. It's just a great race.

Mike Petriello, analyst: Agree with David. Let's clarify which AL MVP argument we're having, though. This isn't the "does it matter that the Jays are good and the Angels are not" argument. (It doesn't.) This isn't the "does it matter that Vlad is finishing red hot and Ohtani has been a little cooler" argument. (Not really.) This is very specifically only the "does it change anything if Vlad wins the Triple Crown?" argument, right? And that one's easy: No. It changes nothing.

Footer: So, Mike, you believe Ohtani is MVP even if Vlad Jr. wins the Triple Crown?

Petriello: 100% yes. The Triple Crown is kind of cool -- not that batting average and RBIs are really cool stats these days -- but it's rare, not unprecedented. Ten players have done it 12 times since 1920. However you define Ohtani's greatness, there sure aren't 10 guys who have done that 12 times.

Feinsand: As a former MVP voter, I will argue with Mike about whether it matters that the Jays are good. When two MVP candidates are having exceptional seasons, the team success has to play into it to some extent. I’m not saying that the Jays making the playoffs should make Vlad a lock over Ohtani, but it should be part of his case.

Ohtani’s season is so unique, it might not matter what Vlad does, though.

That said, forget just the classic Triple Crown. Vlad leads the AL in runs scored, hits, on-base, slugging (and therefore, of course, OPS), OPS+ and total bases. He’s having one of the great seasons in recent memory.

Petriello: I think that's a great point, Mark. Vlad's having a great season. Whether he finishes first in homers or second in homers won't change that view for me at all. I guess it's academic, anyway, since Vlad's not likely to make up a nine RBIs deficit on Salvador Perez, the MVP of the Midwest.

And: While I'm trying to stick to the "Triple Crown stats" discussion, if we're really talking all-around offensive performance ... well, Ohtani does have 23 steals. Vlad has four. That's not nothing.

Feinsand: Ohtani also leads the league in times caught stealing. Just saying.

Adler: I'm actually very pro-Triple Crown. I think for MVP in particular, big memorable feats should matter. As in, when we look back on the season in 10 years, which player will we be talking about? The season of BLANK. With a Triple Crown, that's almost always Vlad Jr. ... Except Ohtani's season is the only one like it in MLB history. So, it's gonna be Ohtani.

Feinsand: The idea that Vlad can only win the MVP if he wins the Triple Crown seems silly to me. If he finishes a few RBIs behind Perez, that doesn’t diminish his incredible year. Especially if he leads Toronto back to the postseason.

Petriello: I find this whole discussion kind of tricky, really, because I don't value batting average and generally ignore it, but also, it's no fun to be the "Triple-Crowns-are-lame-and-ignore-them" buzzkill, but also if you're really valuing batting average, then DJ LeMahieu and Myles Straw are having better seasons than Shohei Ohtani, and what are we really doing here?

Feinsand: Wait, Mike. Come on. Nobody is arguing that batting average is the be-all, end-all. I don’t think LeMahieu or Straw would say they’re having better seasons than Ohtani, do you? Now you’re just being difficult.

Petriello: Be-all, end-all? No. But if the Triple Crown guarantees an MVP win ... then you're putting immense value on BA, no? 

Feinsand: No, it can’t be the exhaustive reason for him to win the MVP. But when you factor in what he’s doing in those categories -- plus the others I mentioned -- and the fact that it may very well result in a return to October for the Jays, that has to put him in the legitimate conversation.

Hey, Greg Maddux had a specific type of game named after him. No reason not to call every two-way player from here on out a “Shohei.”

Adler: A two-way season where you hit 40 homers and strike out 100 batters. Ohtani gets the Double Halo.

But say Vlad wins it. He has one of the most exclusive single-season name-brand achievements in baseball. All that really shows us is we should come up with a name for whatever Ohtani is doing.

Feinsand: Vlad’s season will have mattered more to his team than any other player in the league. That’s the most valuable player.

Footer: And we should note there is precedent for Triple Crown winners not winning MVP. Ted Williams is one example. I think it's somewhat ironic (and cool?) that there is still something to debate even without Mike Trout being the one who would prevent a Triple Crown winner from winning MVP.

Adler: I think the Triple Crown is more just an indicator that the player had a really memorable season. It can't be the exhaustive reason why he wins MVP.

Petriello: There you go. I like that.

Footer: So Mark, to be clear, if Vlad wins the Triple Crown and the Jays get into the postseason, that, for you, could/should push him ahead of Ohtani? But if the Jays don't get to the postseason, you'd probably lean Ohtani?

Feinsand: The Triple Crown itself wouldn’t push me to vote for Vlad. But when you look at his all-around season -- leading the league in all three slash line categories, plus homers, runs, etc. -- I think he warrants a strong look. Then you factor in Toronto’s success, and I think it puts him in a tight race with Ohtani.

What Ohtani is doing this season is ridiculous. I have absolutely no issue with him winning the MVP Award. I’m just saying that dismissing Vlad is crazy, given the season he’s having.

I’ve always been a guy who likes his MVP to come from a contender. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t vote for a guy on a losing team, as we all know that team isn’t bad because of Ohtani. But performing well in meaningful games certainly gives a player a boost in my eyes.

Petriello: I really hope Vlad wins five MVPs before he's done. He's unbelievable. He's going to end up in Cooperstown someday. It just feels like we -- not us, the royal baseball we -- are trying so hard to talk ourselves out of Ohtani. Are we fatigued by his greatness? He's literally doing things we have never, ever seen before. He'd be a lot closer to the playoffs if his lousy team had Marcus Semien and Robbie Ray and so on. Let's not overthink this: It is difficult to provide more value on a baseball field than Ohtani has.

How about this: There's a better argument that Vlad isn't the most valuable player on his own team than that he is the most valuable player in the American League.

Feinsand: Oh stop. You can’t convince me that Robbie Ray is more valuable to the Jays than Vlad. Feel free to try.

Petriello: I mostly meant the 40-homer, strong-fielding middle infielder [Marcus Semien], Mark.

Adler: I think if Vlad wins (which normally on the face of it he's deserving of just based on his stat line), we'll look back on 2021 later on and say, "Wait, how in the world did Ohtani NOT win MVP?"

Footer: Has anyone in our group actually decided how they would lean if they had an AL MVP vote?

Petriello: 1. Ohtani; 2. Vlad; 3. Semien


Adler: I think I'm all-in on Ohtani with my imaginary vote.

Feinsand: I do not know how I would vote, which is why I am kind of happy that I have NL Manager of the Year Award and not AL MVP. I think this is a brutal race to decide. Ohtani has seemed like a lock for months, but Vlad is certainly making things interesting.

Mike, do you think having Vlad hitting 1-2 spots behind him all season has helped Semien see better pitches? Because I do.

Petriello: I haven't looked into that specifically, but lineup protection almost never works out in the way people think it does, and we saw Semien doing this with the A's in 2019, too. So ... maybe? But I doubt it's that big of an effect.

Footer: What's the barometer for what Ohtani is doing for the future? Let's say he puts up dominant offensive numbers and pretty good pitching numbers in the next couple of years. Is he just going to win MVP every year because he can do two things? Should a great offensive player be left out every year because he can't pitch?

Feinsand: Amen, Alyson! We’re all going gaga over Ohtani (and rightfully so, to some extent) because he’s doing something we have never seen before.

Petriello: If he does this every year? Sure. just rename it the Most Ohtani Player Award.

Footer: What if it's not quite to this level, but still really good?

Adler: That's a good question. I've been thinking about that. I think just being a two-way player is not enough. But being the superstar-level two-way player Ohtani is this year IS enough. I suppose it's also possible that in a different year he has a season like this and someone else has a Barry Bonds season. Then New Bonds can win. But this is the Year of Ohtani.

Feinsand: My endorsement of Vlad as the potential MVP is not an indictment of Ohtani. It’s just a nod to the incredible season Vlad is having. One that I believe should not automatically be dismissed because he doesn’t pitch, too.

Vlad is basically having a Bonds-like season, though, isn’t he?

Adler: Vlad is having a Bonds Lite season.

Feinsand: His stat line on Baseball Reference is awfully bold.

One more number stands out to me: 145. That’s the number of games Vlad has played this season. Toronto has played 146. That just doesn’t happen much these days.

Petriello: Very cool. But also Ohtani has 142. So I'm not sure that's a differentiator.

Feinsand: 112 of those have been as a DH, which lessens the durability argument a bit.

Adler: I feel like Ohtani has been impressively durable, too, though. I didn't think he could so consistently be in the lineup while also pitching. Especially since that was a whole big storyline for him before this year -- his days-off routine and whatnot. He's certainly exceeded expectations in that regard.

Feinsand: As I said, I am absolutely OK with Ohtani winning MVP. I might have even voted for him. But the dismissal of Vlad as a threat to him seems nonsensical to me.

Petriello: Vlad is great, we should all treasure him ... and the only thing the last few weeks have changed is that Ohtani will win "easily" instead of "unanimously."