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Exploring the complexities of the AL MVP debate

The MVP debate is heating up. Is Aaron Judge the most deserving player? What does the award really mean?

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Gatorade All-Star Workout Day Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

MVP talk has been heating up of late, as it tends to do as we approach the later months of the season. The debate for the American League’s award, of course, is largely centered around Aaron Judge and the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani. Both players, no matter which aspects you’re considering, are having excellent MVP-like campaigns. There is much to weigh when considering who stands as the most deserving recipient between the stars. Who exactly it is is the primary concern (of course), but there’s also what the award means to each of us, and how exactly we arrive at those decisions is at the heart of this debate as well.

For simple comparison’s sake, here is what Judge and Ohtani have done coming into play on Monday:

Judge: .300/.398/.678, 46 HR, 199 wRC+, 7.5 fWAR

Ohtani: .254/.349/.499, 26 HR, 135 wRC+, 2.3 fWAR (batting)

111 IP, 157/27 K/BB, 2.68 ERA, 2.45 FIP, 3.6 fWAR (pitching)

Judge has clearly been the better hitter this season, and no one would or should argue with that.

Judge is also not an excellent starting pitcher on top of his hitting prowess, like Ohtani is, which is another hard to argue point.

The complexity in this argument, as one might expect, comes from the time Ohtani spends on the mound. There is obviously tremendous value when one of your team’s best hitters is also your best starting pitcher.

First, starting from the fact that Ohtani is an excellent pitcher, his 2.45 FIP is third in baseball among pitchers with 110 innings. There is also the fact that him occupying basically two roster spots in and of itself provides some value. Eno Sarris wrote about this idea for The Athletic last year, finding that it was indeed something quite valuable that Ohtani provided to the Angels. But it also came with the unsatisfactory conclusion of it being very difficult to quantify. Then again, this may only be so valuable because he’s been restricted to designated hitter when he’s not on the mound. However, there is also the caveat that DHing hurts his WAR totals too. There is a lot going on with this idea, and although it is difficult to quantify, it is certainly at least worth considering in this debate.

One popular way to quantify the combination of Ohtani’s game compared to Judge’s overall contributions is through the various WAR calculations. They all pretty strongly agree that Judge has been the more valuable player overall, and the differences aren’t negligible either. It does absolutely need to be noted, as always, that WAR is imperfect, and not the definitive measure of value. Again, Ohtani’s offensive value is penalized as a DH in these formulas, so they don’t fully account for his two-way status. Still, it may be the best we have for an argument like this, and when the three prominent measures unanimously point toward Judge, it becomes hard to ignore. How much extra credit Ohtani gets for his two-way status is in the eye of the beholder — or soon, the eye of the BBWAA voter.

The award itself, what it means, and who it should subsequently be given to has been a long and hotly debated topic. In my mind, it should simply be given to the best player in any given season. Whoever that is, and the “most valuable” player are essentially the same thing to me. One aspect some consider, team success, seems ridiculous and a bit contradictory to individual awards (as MLB.com’s Mike Petriello noted yesterday).

Ohtani’s propensity to hit and pitch throws a wrench in the works, at least as far as straightforward numbers arguments goes. There was talk last year, when he won the MVP over a powerhouse season from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., about whether he should win the award every season if he kept up what he’s doing. Personally, I would be fine with this, as long as he continued to be the best and “most valuable” player in the league. But this year, that simply isn’t the case. Ohtani’s impressive feats in the box and on the mound just haven’t been quite enough to match Judge’s historic run at the plate, and that’s not even delving deeply into how much he’s helped his team out by capably covering center field for a great deal of 2022.

Ohtani has been doing things we have never seen before, but Judge is making history for the Yankees in his own right. Although parts of what Ohtani does are difficult to put into context, the best we can do when comparing his season to Judge’s is to accumulate their overall value. There is never a perfect way to do this, especially with Ohtani involved, but the best ways we have to do this strongly agree that Judge comes out on top. There is still plenty of time for things to change before the award is handed out, but if things continue the way they are, Judge would appear to be the best choice.