No one could object to the fact that Aaron Judge has been one of the best players in the American League on the best team in baseball. However, just being one of the best players in the league does not guarantee that he will win the coveted AL MVP award that eluded him in 2017. As we near the halfway mark of the season, it seems like a good time to survey the best players in the American League to scope out the competition for MVP. For this analysis, I will be using FanGraphs’ fWAR. There are some differences between the ways that Baseball Reference and FanGraphs calculate WAR, but the differences do not really matter for this case.
In the American League, there are numerous players that have played at an incredibly high level. As a result, I am looking at six of the top seven performers by fWAR in the American League. Blue Jays ace Kevin Gausman has been an outstanding starting pitcher this year and is the lone exclusion, but his position is his problem. Any pitcher who does excel would have a hard time giving the type of value that would denote an MVP award when the competition is this good. That is why Gausman is excluded from the analysis.
Judge has outpaced even the best projections for his performance this year. Across 80 games, he has hit 30 home runs with a .287 batting average and a .366 on-base percentage with a staggering .627 slugging. As a consequence, he has a wRC+ of 175. Totaling slightly below average base running value (-.4) and slightly above average defense (.8) with his stellar offensive numbers results in 4.3 wins above replacement. This tops the American League for fWAR, with only Rafael Devers near him for pure position players.
The 2021 American League MVP, Shohei Ohtani, has continued his trend of providing excellent value from both sides of the ball for the Los Angeles Angels. Though he has not been as dominant offensively, his pitching has been better this year than last year. In fact, most of his overall value comes from his pitching. Over 81.0 innings, he has compiled a paltry ERA of only 2.44, which ends up producing 2.6 pitching WAR. However, his batting has not kept pace with previous years. Over 80 games, he has a .259 average with a .344 OBP and .495 slugging to go with 18 home runs. His 134 wRC+ and 1.6 position player WAR make sense with those numbers in context. Combining his pitching and position player WAR together results in 4.2 wins above replacement. Ohtani is a complete freak of nature, and it is surprising that Judge has outpaced him in wins above replacement as a pure position player.
With the fact that the Yankees have not faced the Boston Red Sox that frequently, I have mostly missed that Devers has been lighting the world on fire with his bat. Across 78 games, he has a .327 averaged with .383 OBP and .579 SLG. A 167 wRC+ looks mighty impressive. During this time he has hit 17 home runs to go along with his above average base running and defense at third base. Combining those values, FanGraphs has Devers listed at 4.1 WAR. Overall, Devers looks like a player to watch for the rest of the year to see if he can keep up this performance. If he can, he might be one of Judge’s stiffest competitors.
If there is one player who might be having a better offensive year than Aaron Judge, it could be Yordan Alvarez. Over 72 games, he has produced a .313 average that pales in comparison to his .411 on-base percentage and .660 slugging percentage. As a cherry on top, he has 25 home runs. Those numbers result in an absolutely mind-boggling 201 wRC+. For context, that is significantly above Judge in every category except for home runs and games played. Unfortunately for Alvarez, he is let down by his subpar defense and base running. When taking his performance all together, he has provided 3.9 WAR for the Houston Astros. With the lackluster defense and base running, it is unlikely that he will be able to catch up to Judge unless he suddenly starts turning into a plus defender or explodes offensively.
As usual, José Ramírez continues to provide the Cleveland Guardians with valuable performance at a very affordable price. Compared to some of the other players on this list, a .285 average with .369 OBP and .570 SLG might seem pedestrian, but it remains incredibly valuable when put in tandem with good base running and defense. The fact remains that a 162 wRC+ remains very good. At the same time, he has hit 16 home runs while striking out less than he walks. Ramírez’s 3.8 WAR is not as high as some other players, but he remains in striking distance of the top performers in the American League. Ramírez has a track record of success and he remains in the fight for the MVP.
The future Hall of Famer, Mike Trout, has been just slightly more human this year than in years past. He has a positively mediocre (this is sarcasm) .269 average and .371 on-base percentage. Even his slugging percentage is a paltry (still sarcasm) .610 with only (would you believe, also sarcasm) 24 home runs. In a concerning turn of events, Trout has been striking out at the highest rate in his career at 30 percent of his at-bats. Additionally, he has been providing negative value with his base running (-.09) and some positive value with his defense (1.0). In combination, Trout provides 3.6 wins above replacement for the Los Angeles Angels. While he has not provided the same value as Judge or some of the other top performers, he remains a future Hall of Famer. There is a very real possibility that he could find his best form after dealing with some injuries earlier this season.
Aaron Judge has been the best player in the American League through the first half of the season. However, he does not have the MVP award in the bag yet. There are many players who are hot on his heels, and whether its Shohei Ohtani as a two-way player or Rafael Devers as an excellent all around player, Judge could still lose out. If he wants to win the MVP award, he is going to need to keep performing at the same or better levels while not sustaining any major injuries. Even then, winning the MVP award is not a certainty with the recent lower body injury that Judge kept him out of the lineup on Thursday. With that being said, as the best performing player in the American League on the best team, he stands a good shot.