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Shohei runaway? Angels’ Ohtani is overwhelming favorite to win AL MVP award

The Angels' Shohei Ohtani celebrates with teammate Mike Trout.
Shohei Ohtani, right, being congratulated by Mike Trout after a home run against Boston on May 16, could soon be joining his Angels teammate as an MVP winner.
(Kathryn Riley / Getty Images)

As Shohei Ohtani climbed the dugout steps, some 50,000 spectators rose to their feet.

In Saturday night’s game between the Angels and Dodgers, just the sight of the two-way star was enough to cause a stir.

Though Ohtani didn’t start any of the three games, with his designated hitter spot unavailable in the National League Freeway Series and his turn in the rotation not due up, he pinch-hit each day. And when he walked to the plate Saturday, a tied game hung the balance. Chavez Ravine came to life.

Part of the crowd broke out in cheers. Others desperately booed. Some began chanting “M-V-P!” But all admired, either in fear or anticipation or simple awe at a player who, even four months into an historic season, continues to perform in a way the sport has never seen.

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“I know there’s other guys having good years, but you have to stop and really analyze and think about what’s going on here,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said recently, when asked to evaluate Ohtani’s chances of winning the American League most valuable player award. “There’s nobody who even comes close to what he’s doing.”

The Angels may finally have found a solution to their pitching issues, which means they need to pursue a big-time bat. Corey Seager could be the solution.

While Ohtani hasn’t been in top form at the plate lately — he is batting just .138 in his last 11 games with no home runs, his longest drought all season — he is still being treated like one of the most dynamic forces in the game.

Saturday was the latest example, from the stir of the crowd to the decisions Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was forced to weigh in the dugout. Even with runners on first and second and two out, Roberts said he considered intentionally walking Ohtani to load the bases.

Instead, he rolled the dice and had reliever Brusdar Graterol “pitch him carefully.”

The gamble worked. Ohtani struck out against a 101.5-mph fastball to end the inning. And the Dodgers went on to win.

But for a moment, Ohtani had produced more late-game theatrics. Once again, he was center stage. In this Season of Shohei, such scenes have become routine. And though the Angels’ hopes of making the playoffs might be fading, with the club eight games out of a wild-card spot, Ohtani’s star remains as bright as ever.

“It’s not even close,” Maddon said. “What he’s doing is so unique, it’s so different. To compare him to anybody else right now, you just can’t.”

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Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., whose team opens a four-game series in Anaheim on Tuesday, presents the most compelling case.

The 22-year-old son of the Angels’ Hall of Fame legend, Guerrero entered this week leading all batters in wins above replacement, according to Fangraphs. With a .318 average (fourth in the AL), 35 home runs (second) and 87 RBI (first), he has an outside shot at winning the triple crown.

Toronto Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. during the fourth inning against the New York Mets.
Vladmir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays is probably the only real competition Shohei Ohtani has for the AL MVP award.
(Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)

And yet, with less than two months to play, it seems like Ohtani already has one hand on the plaque.

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No other player has a combined Wins Above Replacement — hitting plus pitching — that comes close to topping Ohtani’s 6.5. Ohtani also leads the majors in home runs (37), extra-base hits (65) and slugging percentage (.653), as well as ranking in the top 10 among AL starters with at least 80 innings pitched in earned-run average (2.93) and strikeouts per nine innings (11.09)

Ohtani is a massive MVP favorite in the betting markets, with minus-750 odds to win the award, according to BetMGM.

The National League race is setting up to have the more intriguing finish, especially with Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres targeting a return from injury while Bryce Harper of the Philadelphia Phillies continues a midseason surge.

And most pundits aren’t even wielding the Angels’ mediocre 56-56 record — the 21st time this season they’ve been exactly .500 — against Ohtani the way they traditionally do with Mike Trout and other past winners on similar teams.

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“If he continues along this path and stays well,” Maddon said, “it’s hard to argue against him.”

Instead, fans have grown ever-more enamored with the 27-year-old All-Star as the season has gone along, his popularity transcending the field like few others in the sport.

Every time the Angels have Ohtani-themed giveaways at home games — including shirts, bobbleheads and even a pillow — online auction sites immediately have the products listed for sale, sometimes for more than $100.

Last month, two Ohtani jerseys auctioned off on MLB.com for charity received record-breaking bids for the site of more than $100,000.

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And a week after Ohtani shined in a two-way performance at the All-Star game, he signed a multiyear partnership with global merchandise brand Fanatics — which to that point in July had seen Ohtani become its top-selling athlete, doing more sales across its network of sites than any player in any sport.

Fernando Valenzuela made two starts with the Angels in 1991. And while he didn’t pitch well, he proved to himself he still belonged in the majors.

“The last few years, we’ve had a couple of real breakouts that have had a significant influence on the memorabilia business: Aaron Judge, Pete Alonso, Tatis and others,” said Victor Shaffer, executive vice president of Fanatics Authentic, the company’s memorabilia and collectibles division.

“[Ohtani] is up with them, if not beyond. … There’s a pretty significant enthusiasm, and not only among the Angels fanbase. It spans to all baseball fans at this point, because what he’s doing is so extraordinary.”

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It’s all setting up for a coronation over the final stretch of the season.

Ohtani already has overcome the doubts that accompanied him entering this campaign. He’s instilled disbelief with the continued excellence of his two-way play. Now, he has a couple months left to cement what might be one of the most celebrated individual seasons of all time.

“This guy is doing something that nobody’s ever done,” Maddon said. “You’re gonna see incredible offensive numbers, then incredible pitching numbers. And how could you walk away from that? That’s different. That’s the most valuable player in baseball, pretty much.”


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