Aaron Judge vs. Shohei Ohtani: Why it’s difficult to decide the AL MVP

Either Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani is going to win the American League MVP Award, and there is no close third.

The award’s fate is in the hands of 30 voters — two representatives from each American League city — who wrote up and sent their ballots Wednesday. The winner will be announced next month.

It’s almost impossible to decide who should win.

Judge broke Roger Maris’ American League record for the most home runs in a single season, hitting his 62nd homer Tuesday night. Considering Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s links to PED use when they accomplished the feat, many argue Judge is the true all-time leader.

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Oh, and he also was in the Triple Crown race until the last game of the season while leading the majors in on-base percentage (.427), slugging percentage (.686), RBI (131), runs scored (133), total bases (391) and OPS+ (211). His 111 walks were tops in the American League, while his .311 batting average ranked second, five points behind Luis Arraez of Minnesota.

But Ohtani is still a unicorn. Not only is he the “Japanese Babe Ruth,” he is doing things Ruth never even came close to accomplishing.

This season, Ohtani became the first player to ever qualify for MLB’s hitting and pitching leader boards.

That’s unbelievable itself, and he’s elite at both.

His 2.33 ERA was the sixth-lowest in all of baseball, while his 11.9 K/9 was the best mark in the majors.

He also had a slash line of .273/.356/.519 with 34 homers and 95 RBI.

Ohtani had a higher OPS than Mookie Betts, Pete Alonso and Juan Soto and a lower ERA than Max Fried, 2020 AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber and defending NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes.

The voting is going to come down to who the 30 voters think is more impressive, and arguments can easily be made for both players. 

Of course, the term “most valuable” has a different definition. Nowadays, there are plenty in the camp of if Ohtani is going to do both well, he should be the MVP every year. But is that the “most valuable player?”

Or is it the best player on the best team? Is it the player with the highest WAR? Is it the player with simply the best raw numbers? It seems like it changes every year.

It is rare for an MVP award to go to a player on a bad team. But a player’s value doesn’t increase or decrease based on a team’s skill or lack of it.

Sure, without Aaron Judge, the Yankees probably don’t make the postseason. The Angels didn’t make the postseason. But what else could Ohtani have done? He certainly did his job … or jobs. Blame the other 24 guys on the Angels not named Mike Trout. This isn’t basketball, where one player can be solely responsible for a team’s long-term success. No player has more impact on a game than Ohtani when he’s on the bump. 

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Case in point: On July 15, the Yankees owned baseball’s best record at 62-28. Judge was putting up great numbers, hitting .274 with a .950 OPS. But it was a far cry from what he ended up with.

From Aug. 2 to Sept. 3, the Yankees went 9-20, despite Judge hitting .283 with a 1.063 OPS. He put up better numbers, yet the Yankees were the worst team in the league in that stretch. For context, from June 18 to July 15, Judge slashed .179/.264/.411, yet the Yankees went 13-12. Not great, but they survived. How?

Well, the Yankees had the best rotation and bullpen in baseball, Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Trevino were All-Stars, Anthony Rizzo and Gleyber Torres arguably were robbed of All-Star berths and Matt Carpenter became the best player of all time. But, in August, Torres was one of the worst players in baseball, while Stanton, Rizzo, Carpenter, DJ LeMahieu and others were hurt, forcing a Triple-A lineup behind Judge.

Now, let’s take a look at the Angels, who primarily had Trout and Ohtani batting in the top three all year. The Angels’ 4-9 hitters had baseball’s worst combined OPS (.609) and second-worst average (.213) on the season.

Sure, the Angels won only 73 games. But without Ohtani and Trout, they would be lucky to win 60. Again, being on a bad team does not decrease value.

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In the same breath, if Judge weren’t in the lineup, how many games do the Yankees win in August instead of their measly eight? Who knows? But if you think it should go to the “best player on the best team,” ask yourself who would be the MVP if Judge and Ohtani swapped teams.

Voters should vote for who they think is, well, the most valuable player, not the best player on the best team. In that case, maybe Houston’s Yordan Alvarez, Jose Altuve or Justin Verlander should get consideration. Not the guy with the highest WAR – Judge, who had a higher WAR in 2017 but lost to Altuve – the best player on the best team that year.

But what is more valuable?

There’s no wrong answer.

Keep in mind they can tie. They can split 15 first-place votes. That would be the first time two players shared an MVP award since Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez in 1979.. 

It’s going to come down to what 30 people think is more impressive and valuable: arguably the best clean offensive season in the history of baseball, or a season on the mound and at the plate that has never been done and likely will never be replicated.

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