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Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani? AL MVP debate might be affected by more than numbers

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

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

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

The BBWAA did not run the election for the Hall of Fame, but it does run the election for most valuable player. These are the first words of the MVP ballot: “There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide.”

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There is a disturbance in the force, and his name is Shohei Ohtani.

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

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

Ohtani is 28. He can keep this up.

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

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

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

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

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

Judge could set the “real” single-season home run record, with 62? Bud Selig squirmed and stuffed his hands in his pockets when Bonds set home run records, but Selig did not strip Bonds of them. Rob Manfred did not strip the Astros of the tainted piece of metal they won in 2017. Baseball does not do retroactive punishment, and Judge should be celebrated on his own considerable merits. The real 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.
(Kenny Yoo / Associated Press)

Judge drove the Yankees toward domination? The Yankees have lost 10 games off their division lead in two months, with the Dodgers lapping them for best record in the majors. The Yankees do not even have the best record in New York. That is not Judge’s fault — just as the Angels’ miserable season is not Ohtani’s fault. Since the All-Star break, the Angels (25-30) have a better record than the Yankees (24-30).

Judge could win the Triple Crown? Ten players have done that.

Judge could hit 62 home runs? Three players have done that.

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

It’s unclear whether Anthony Rendon will return to the Angels before the end of the season, but he is making good progress in his recovery from wrist surgery.

Judge already has clinched the Hank Aaron award, presented annually to the best hitter 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 homers of him.

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

Judge has had 631 plate appearances. Ohtani has had 604, and he has faced 593 batters — that is, 1,197 impacts as either pitcher or batter. No one comes close, and Ohtani has delivered an elite performance on both sides of the ball. Given the excellence both have produced, that could arguably make Ohtani twice as valuable.

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

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

Two-way star Shohei Ohtani says it’s hard to deal with the Angels’ slim playoff chances, but he’s still focusing on one game at a time.

That presupposes the BBWAA wishes to define “valuable.” Jack O’Connell, the longtime secretary-treasurer of the BBWAA, said he could not recall any formal proposal to do so. If the BBWAA can award the MVP to pitchers — even relief pitchers — and to 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 is valuable.”

Let’s get back to 2012, when Trout had the superior WAR and Cabrera won the MVP. The most common thinking: Cabrera clinched the 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 that September, lifting 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 keeps that up for a couple more weeks, and he keeps the Yankees from complete collapse, that just might seal the MVP deal for him. But the suggestion that there is just one worthy candidate is puffery that disrespects both of them.


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