Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani?  The AL MVP debate may be more influenced by numbers

Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani? The AL MVP debate may be more influenced by numbers

New York Yankees shortstop Aaron Judge, left, and Angels shortstop Shohei Ohtani are the frontrunners for the 2022 AL MVP award.

New York Yankees shortstop Aaron Judge, left, and Angels shortstop Shohei Ohtani are the frontrunners for the 2022 AL MVP award. (Adam Hunger, Alex Gallardo/Associated Press)

As Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens began appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot, the Baseball Writers Assn. of America asked for clarification. The Hall of Fame listed “integrity, sportsmanship, character” among its six criteria for voters. In the wake of the steroid era, how did the Hall want BBWAA voters to interpret those criteria?

Hall’s board shrugged. This led to a decade of initially interesting but ultimately tiresome debates about whether the poster boys for the steroid era should be voted into the Hall of Fame.

The BBWAA did not conduct the Hall of Fame election, but it does conduct the Most Valuable Player election. These are the opening words of the MVP ballot: “There is no clear definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide.”

There is an upset in the force and his name is Shohei Ohtani.

In the Angels’ 2-1 win over the likely playoff Seattle Mariners on Saturday, Ohtani scored one run, drove in one run and allowed no runs. This is as close as you can get to winning by yourself in a game. That seems pretty valuable.

Ohtani can do that in any given start. No one else can.

Ohtani is 28. He can keep it up.

Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani delivers against the Houston Astros on Sept. 10.

Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani delivers against the Houston Astros on Sept. 10. (Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press)

That’s really the undercurrent of the Ohtani vs. Aaron Judge debate: If Ohtani wins this year, he might just win every year. Is this fair?

Perhaps the emergence of a two-way superstar should prompt the BBWAA to define “valuable” and explore whether there is a way out of what is starting to become yet another tiresome debate, intensified by Judge playing for the New York Yankees.

If the umpire was on the verge of hitting his 60th home run for the Houston Astros — a team with a better record than the Yankees — he wouldn’t be attracting the attention that comes with playing in the major league’s biggest media market. We wouldn’t be subject to the East Coast bias that produces lines as absurd as this one: “Almost no one not currently employed by the Angels or living in Orange County, California, actually believes that anyone other than Judge could be MVP”.

Does the judge lead the WAR? Fair, but not decisive. Mike Trout led in WAR a decade ago and Miguel Cabrera won MVP. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

Could Judge set the “real” single-season home run record with 62? Bud Selig turned and put his hands in his pockets when Bonds hit a home run, but Selig didn’t take them out of Bonds. Rob Manfred didn’t remove the Astros from the tainted piece of metal they won in 2017. Baseball doesn’t do retroactive punishment, and Judge should be celebrated for his own considerable merits. The actual single-season home run record is 73.

Yankees star Aaron Judge hits his 58th home run of the season against the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday.

Yankees star Aaron Judge hits his 58th home run of the season against the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday. (Kenny Yoo/Associated Press)

Did Judge lead the Yankees to dominance? The Yankees have lost 10 games of their lead in two months, with the Dodgers tying them for the best record in the majors. The Yankees don’t even have the best record in New York. That’s not Judge’s fault — any more than Ohtani’s fault for the Angels’ miserable season. Since the All-Star break, the Angels (25-30) have a better record than the Yankees (24-30).

Could The Judge Win The Triple Crown? Ten players have done it.

Could Judge hit 62 home runs? Three players have done it.

Ohtani is on the verge of hitting 30 home runs and striking out 200 batters in the same season. No one has done this. He already has 30 home runs and 10 wins in the same season. No one had done that either.

Judge has already won the Hank Aaron Award, which is given annually to the best player in each league. Judge leads the majors in home runs, runs scored, runs batted in, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. No one is within 20 houses of him.

Ohtani ranks in the top five in the league in home runs, triples, slugging percentage and OPS — and, as a pitcher, in earned run average, strikeouts and wins.

Judge had 631 plate appearances. Ohtani had 604 and has faced 593 batters — that’s 1,197 batters as either a pitcher or batter. No one comes close, and Ohtani has been elite on both sides of the ball. Given the excellence both have produced, this could arguably make Ohtani twice as valuable.

Major League Baseball has already acknowledged that Judge and Ohtani cannot be classified similarly. Ohtani is listed not as a pitcher/designated player but as a “TWP” — a two-way player, giving the Angels due leeway in roster rules and limits.

Should the BBWAA consider another ranking for Ohtani or a “one way player” award for Judge?

This assumes that the BBWAA wishes to define “valuable”. Jack O’Connell, the BBWAA’s longtime secretary-treasurer, said he could not recall any formal proposal to do so. If the BBWAA can award the MVP to pitchers — even pitchers — and players on last-place teams, O’Connell said the writers can be trusted to determine whether Ohtani or Judge is more valuable.

“That’s what makes the award so different,” O’Connell said, “the individual voter’s view of what’s valuable.”

Let’s go back to 2012, when Trout had the superior WAR and Cabrera won the MVP. Most common thought: Cabrera won MVP when he won the Triple Crown. The reality, at least from here: Cabrera batted .395 with 11 home runs and a 1.071 OPS in September, leading his Detroit Tigers to a come-from-behind division championship.

Judge this September: .491, with eight home runs and a 1.604 OPS. If he can keep this up for a few more weeks and keep the Yankees from completely collapsing, that could seal the MVP deal for him. But to suggest that there is only one worthy candidate is disrespectful to both of them.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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