Hoornstra: Shohei Ohtani-Aaron Judge AL MVP race is a battle of mythical creatures

This year’s American League Most Valuable Player race is, like any other year, a referendum on the definition of “value.” Is the best player in the league always the most valuable? Should the context of a player’s team, and their place in the standings, matter to the award?

The only opinion that matters belongs to the MVP voters, all of whom receive specific instructions that are deliberately non-specific: “There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team.”

Voters have been instructed to consider the same criteria since 1931, the first year of MVP voting:

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.

2. Number of games played.

3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.

4. Former winners are eligible.

5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

This year, the debate around Shohei Ohtani and Aaron Judge just feels different. Both are unique players having unique seasons, a unicorn pitted against a chimera. Speaking for myself and everyone else who doesn’t have a ballot, I can say with confidence: this year’s MVP debate is fun.

Let’s consider the two candidates more carefully.

A year ago, Ohtani didn’t just break records. He broke the usual parameters for debating an MVP award. The idea of a two-way player becoming “the next Babe Ruth” was so powerful, it transcended Wins Above Replacement, the Angels’ won-loss record, and any narrative Vladimir Guerrero Jr. could conjure. Why vote for the next Vladimir Guerrero when you could vote for the next Babe Ruth?

This season has been a coming-out party for Ohtani the pitcher. He’s improved on his 2021 performance in nearly every statistical category, not the least of which is his workload: 24 starts, 141 innings, and counting. He’s pitched more while lowering his ERA (2.55), his WHIP (1.064), and his walk rate (2.2 per 9 nine innings). He has raised his strikeout rate to 12.0 per nine, which leads all starting pitchers (and is topped by only a dozen relievers).

He’s doing all of this while serving as the DH for one of the AL’s weakest lineups. Ohtani is making better contact this year than he did as an MVP last year; otherwise his hitting numbers have dipped a bit. Still, as of Tuesday, his offensive WAR (per FanGraphs) was roughly on par with that of Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts and Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu. Only six AL hitters have been better.

The idea of Aaron Judge, a New York Yankee challenging Roger Maris’ 61-homer 1961 season, challenges the metaphor of Ohtani-as-Ruth in a way that few can.

Maris won the MVP award in 1961 and it’s not hard to see why. Mickey Mantle had the better season by batting average (.317 to .269), on-base percentage (.448 to .372) and slugging (.687 to .620). He amassed more bWAR (10.4 to 6.1) despite playing eight fewer games. Unfortunately for Mantle, Maris wasn’t just “the next Babe Ruth.” Measured by home runs, he was one better. No American League hitter has topped 61 home runs since.

Judge’s season is effectively combining the best of Maris and Mantle. In addition to his 57 homers, he also leads the AL in runs (116), RBIs (123) and is hitting .310 – a not-insurmountable nine points shy of the triple crown. He leads everyone in every publicly-available version of WAR: 9.0 according to Baseball Reference and Baseball Prospectus, and 9.7 according to FanGraphs. Not even Ohtani will catch him.

You can talk yourself into either candidate without going to WAR.

It’s nearly impossible to discuss Ohtani’s MVP credentials without comparing them to his 2021 performance. Not even Ruth’s 1919 season – his last and greatest attempt at full-time two-way play – is as useful a measuring stick. Clearly, Ohtani is a better pitcher now than he was a year ago. That’s not unusual for a pitcher less than four years removed from Tommy John surgery. And if you think tumbling from the second-best hitter in the AL in 2021 to seventh-best this year is a major disqualifier for Ohtani to repeat as MVP, you must be a ton of fun at parties.

Judge doesn’t need the Roger Maris comparisons, or the AL record for home runs, to build his MVP case. (Of course, these things won’t hurt him.) He is quite clearly the best all-around hitter in baseball this season, and not by a little. He’s been doing it for a team under daily pressure to win, all while getting virtually no help from his lineup mates since the All-Star break and playing a premium position (center field) at a no-worse-than-average level defensively.

If you want to use any of the three main versions of WAR as a tiebreaker, all three go to Judge. The only question I have is whether WAR is sufficient for quantifying the value of a two-way player like Ohtani. There wasn’t anybody like Ohtani when these versions of WAR were being drafted. They could not account for the roster spot he saves the Angels under the so-called “Shohei Ohtani rule,” because the rule didn’t exist until this year.

I put the question to the proprietors of Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and Baseball Reference: can your version of WAR properly evaluate a two-way player?

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Via email, Baseball Prospectus’ Harry Pavlidis estimated that the value of the roster spot Ohtani saves the Angels is worth “something on the order of 0.1 wins.” Sean Forman of Baseball Reference and David Appelman of FanGraphs did not quibble with that math. Add the WARs up, they all said. So I did.

Combining BP’s version of pitching WARP and hitting WARP leaves Ohtani 1.5 short of Judge (7.5 compared to 9.0) through Tuesday. Adjusting for two-way play won’t help Ohtani bridge that gap. The same is true for Baseball Reference’s WAR (Judge leads Ohtani, 9.0 to 8.1) and FanGraphs WAR (Judge leads, 9.7 to 8.1).

What we have, I think, is a real-life example of what should be a hypothetical scenario: how amazing would one hitter, or one pitcher, have to be over a full season to be more valuable than Shohei Ohtani at his peak?

In three weeks, we might have the answer. Judge for yourself.

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