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Ohtani, Judge in a MVP race for the ages

Ohtani, Judge in a MVP race for the ages

For as long as he is a high-level pitcher and hitter, Shohei Ohtani’s MVP candidacy will be a talking point year-on-year. It is just going to be a matter of how many times he will receive the award. How do you conceivably get more valuable than an All-Star caliber hitter and pitcher in the same person, because that is who Ohtani has been for the last two years.

To compete with Ohtani’s resume would require a historic season. In 2021 Vlad Guerrero Jr. got consideration after flirting with the Triple Crown (leading the league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in). In 2022 we have the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge, chasing down one of the most revered numbers in American sports: 60 home runs.

Currently sitting on 51 homers, eight more would tie him with teammate Giancarlo Stanton’s 2017 total of 59 (set when he was on the Florida Marlins), the highest single season total in the post-Barry Bonds era. Surpassing A-Rod’s 54 home runs would mean hitting more home runs than any Yankee since Roger Maris’ record setting 61 home runs in 1961, and more than any American League player since Jose Bautista launched 54 for the Blue Jays in 2010.

The Judge vs Ohtani MVP race is one for the ages and we’re entering the home straight. Most sportsbooks will only take other American League players on request, basically, it's a two horse race and Judge is odds-on favorite at -1000. 

The Bronx Bomber

The first thing to note about Judge’s season to-date is that he is performing in a context unlike any of the other previous 60-homer seasons. He’s 15 home runs ahead of Kyle Schwarber in second place, with 36. The last time there was as big a gap between first and second was in 1933, when Jimmy Foxx hit 48 and Babe Ruth hit 34 home runs. With American league-wide OPS at its lowest point since 1981, it's remarkable he has hit as well in a year where pitching is king. 

Looking at one advanced metric to analyze Judge’s season, his park-adjusted OPS+ (on base + slugging percentage) sits at 199 which would rank higher than all but four of the 60-homer seasons. Only Sosa (2001), McGwire (1998), Ruth (1927) and Bonds (2001) are higher. What Judge has accomplished this year is historic and beastly, with the chance to become even more so.

Overlooking the five asterixed years of McGwire and Sosa, Judge has an outside chance of setting a new franchise home run record (Maris’ 61) and an out-outside chance at Barry Bonds single season record of 73. Admittedly, Judge would have to stay extremely hot and not miss any time in order to clear 20+ homers in the month of September, indeed the record for home runs in a single month was set by Sammy Sosa with 20 HR’s in June 1998. Getting close to the Bonds record would cement Aaron Judge as this year's AL MVP. No question. Now there is a debate to be had if he fails to clear Roger Maris’ 61 in ‘61, and currently Judge would need to hit 11 bombs between now and October to reach 62.

Over the month of August, Judge has hit nine home runs and since the All-Star break that number is at 18 with a batting line of .326 AVG / .476 OBP / .780 SLG. Which goes to show that Judge has been scorching hot, and will need to stay that way. Over the same period the New York Yankees however have struggled to a post-All-Star 15-24 record, coming back to earth after their torrid start to the year. This isn’t to say that if the Yankees stumble to finish out the regular season Judge’s MVP chances will be reflected accordingly. Ohtani’s 2021-22 MVP season is the recent counterpoint to a teams record having a significant impact on a players MVP chances.

Where things get interesting is how we judge the Yankees narrative for the final month. It feels like Judge has the award wrapped up: he leads (currently) Ohtani in WAR, narrative and the Yankees are in first place while the Angels once again have a losing record. But what happens if Judge hitting slows? What would happen if the Angels and Ohtani finishes strong with some iconic hitting and pitching performances? What if Ohtani overtakes Judge in WAR (he sits 1.1 fWAR behind)?

If you believe in Shohei’s ability to turn it up over the next month, odds of +600 offer potential value. You will be relying on Judge to cool off and disappear slightly from baseball headlines, always a tricky prospect when considering a player from the New York media market.

The Unicorn

Shohei Ohtani is set to make his next start on the mound against the Astros on Saturday, with his next start after also coming against the Astros in Houston on September 10. Two massive pitching appearances against the best in the American League, with expectations to make five starts down the stretch, gives Ohtani the opportunity to cement his 2022-23 legacy with a strong chance of reaching the 200 strikeout milestone for the first time in his career. Ohtani’s remaining starts are an opportunity to showcase what has been a remarkable year on the mound, currently ranking third in the AL in WAR, sixth in ERA, fourth in K’s and first in K’s per nine. He has been a top-3 pitcher in the AL. Just one that can also hit 30 home runs. During his MVP 2021 season he wowed fans, analysts and players alike with an offensive year that was wholly unexpected. In 2022 for an encore, he has been lights out on the mound.

The scouting report going into the 2021 season was that he was more accomplished as a pitcher than a hitter, so he goes and hits 46 HR’s, 100 RBI’s, 26 SB’s with a 150 wRC+ for 5 WAR. The underlying numbers for 2022 are actually not all that far from his 2021 numbers. His home runs are down but that is a league-wide issue, and still, he has already cleared 30 homers. But oh, the pitching. The pitching! The improvement on the mound for Ohtani has been as remarkable as his hitting in 2021. His K/9 are up, BB/9 down, average fastball velocity is up to around 97mph, ERA and FIP both below 3.00. His growth, temperament and poise on the mound has been phenomenal. His starts are must-see television.

Ohtani currently leads the Angels in both plate appearances and innings pitched. No player has led his team in both since Jim Devlin did it for the Louisville Grays in 1876. Against the Yankees on Wednesday, Ohtani became the first player in MLB history to hit 30 home runs and win double-digit (11) games as a pitcher in the same season. He is also the only player in history to hit at least 30 homers and record 100 strikeouts in a season, two years in a row. Should he reach 200 K’s, a new first will be created that only Shohei could conceivably make and break.

Ohtani is a freak of nature, a unicorn. To vote anybody other than Ohtani for MVP would normalize his truly unique talent and skillset, only something truly historic can overtake the total value Ohtani provides on both sides for the Angels. It just so happens we are in the middle of an hitting performance from Aaron Judge that ranks among the very best in baseball history. The Bronx Bomber and the Unicorn, two of the finest baseball players in any era showcasing all that is great about baseball. Whoever wins will the AL MVP will certainly deserve the award.

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