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AL MVP debate: Judge or Ohtani?

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Aaron Judge and Shohei Ohtani are both having historic seasons. Judge is chasing down home run records and a Triple Crown. Ohtani, meanwhile, has followed up his 2021 MVP win with an even more dominant campaign. theScore MLB editors Simon Sharkey-Gotlieb and Michael Bradburn debate who should claim American League MVP honors this season:

The case for Judge

With all due respect to Ohtani, Judge is simply on a different kind of historic surge. In fact, 60 home runs is only the start of his story. Judge's overall numbers prove he's far more than just a homer hitter, and he's got something to offer staunch traditionalists and sabermetric stat-heads alike.

Old-school folks will love that he's leading all three Triple Crown categories and pushing to become just the second Triple Crown winner of the divisional era. Judge also leads the majors in runs scored, tops the AL in walks (despite 161 strikeouts) and extra-base hits, sits third in total hits, and has an outside shot at 400 total bases - a feat achieved just 10 times since World War II. He's managed to hit 60 round-trippers while not actively swinging for the fences, an especially incredible accomplishment in today's all-or-nothing offensive world.

Do you like advanced stats? Among the offensive seasons within three points of Judge's 215 OPS+ (which helps compare overall production across all eras, accounting for differences such as competition and park factors) are Babe Ruth's 1919 breakout season, Ted Williams' efforts in 1942 and 1946, Mark McGwire's 70-homer 1998 run, and two Josh Gibson Negro League campaigns. For the WAR crowd, Judge could become the first player not named Barry Bonds with an 11-fWAR season since Joe Morgan in 1975. He's also leading in all three slash-line categories, an unofficial feat sometimes known as the "slash-stat" or "advanced" Triple Crown. If the season ended today, Judge - who is slugging .703 - would become the 11th AL/NL player and first since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to win both the "traditional" and "slash" Triple Crowns in one season.

I love Ohtani. Everybody should. He's a once-in-a-lifetime baseball unicorn we'll never see again. But let's pretend for a moment that Ohtani is but a meager one-way DH who can't pitch, like every other hitter. Of course you'll take his .891 OPS and 34 homers. Heck, that's Silver Slugger-worthy. But the Cy Young-caliber pitching (and he might win it on merit) is doing the legwork for Ohtani's MVP case. If Ohtani was an everyday outfielder who didn't pitch, he simply wouldn't be in this conversation.

As Yankees manager Aaron Boone said last week: "Shohei might be having a better year (than in 2021), but Judge is having one for the ages." A sport that reveres its iconic numbers - say "56" or ".406" or "2,131" to a baseball fan and they'll just know - will soon add "2022" or "62" or however many home runs Judge finishes with to that pantheon. That's the mark of an MVP. - Sharkey-Gotlieb

The case for Ohtani

Now that Judge has officially become the first hitter since Ruth to mash 60 home runs in a season untarnished by performance-enhance drugs, let's be honest: The case for Ohtani is growing less palatable. But there are still a few reasons Ohtani could - and should - win his second consecutive AL MVP.

Judge's 215 OPS+ is impressive, but it's hardly a mark "for the ages," as Boone said. In fact, if he finishes at that number, he'll barely finish in the top 50 all time. Someone named Pete Browning - whoever that is - once posted a 223 league- and park-adjusted OPS. So, sure, Judge is beating his peers in OPS by 105 percentage points - an extremely impressive achievement. But it's by no means historic. In fact, it's not even the best in recent memory, as Juan Soto posted a 217 OPS+ in 2020. Soto didn't win MVP.

No, if you're looking for true, once-in-a-lifetime achievements, look to Ohtani, who became the first player ever to hit 30 homers and win 10 games (he's at 34 dingers with 13 wins). Not even 2021 Ohtani, who won a unanimous AL MVP, accomplished that. While Judge joined an exclusive 60-homer club comprised of legends like McGwire, Ruth, Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Roger Maris, Ohtani has formed his own club with a sign out front reading 'No non-Ohtanis allowed.'

There will be people who say WAR correctly measures Ohtani's skills as both a DH and starting pitcher simply by adding both together. That's probably technically correct, but it allows for zero discussion. The MVP debate - and the WAR debate, for that matter - should always embrace nuance. The fact is that WAR is great for what it does: It assigns an approximate, one-number value to each player to show roughly how good or bad he's been over a given period of time. It's not an exact science, as the operators of each site with a proprietary WAR model would attest.

So, this can't possibly be a referendum on WAR; we don't have the time or space. But we can highlight some of its shortcomings in this particular case:

Player Hitter WAR Pitcher WAR Total WAR
Ohtani 3.8 5.0 8.8
Judge 10.7 - 10.7

A 1.9 WAR gulf is sizeable, no doubt. But Ohtani is losing approximately 1.5 WAR on defense for only DHing. The theory behind this, from a WAR calculation perspective, is this: Because designated hitters are easier to find - any hitter can play there - then, by not providing any defensive value, they're actually worth negative defensive value. It makes some sense. But it's also somewhat ridiculous to penalize Ohtani, who could play center field at least as well as Judge has this year (roughly replacement level) but can't. Why not? Because he's a starting pitcher - one of the most grueling positions in modern sports - every sixth day. Not to mention, he's pitching at a Cy Young level.

If we ignore the defensive penalties for both players, it's a much closer race with Judge at 10.7 and Ohtani somewhere near 10.3. That's roughly a dead heat. And by consolidating an elite hitter and arguably the best starting pitcher into one roster spot, Ohtani should get credit - at least enough to compensate for the now-negligible 0.4-WAR gap between the New York Yankees slugger and the Los Angeles Angels superstar.

Then there's a hypothetical question of "if." It's not necessarily the deciding factor in the Ohtani-versus-Judge debate, but what if Ohtani hadn't won last year? Or what if 2021 was erased from everyone's collective memories? Put another way, are we already suffering from Ohtani fatigue? Because it seems so. Ohtani is doing something the sport has never seen. But because it so closely resembles what he accomplished last year, we instead want to reward the player who's doing something we haven't seen since the steroid era. That's not especially fair.

And, finally, the pedantic argument of "value." There are countless ways to define that nebulous word. One of them should certainly articulate what a particular player means to his specific team. Judge is undoubtedly a key cog for a top AL contender, but for the Angels, Ohtani has been everything. He leads the club in OBP, RBI, hits, wins, strikeouts, WHIP, and ERA while ranking second in batting average, homers, and slugging percentage. It might be Judge's award to lose, but there's no wrong answer this year as two titans of the sport make their mark. One is doing something that hasn't been done in a few decades. The other is doing something that's never been done. - Bradburn

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