The American League MVP is…

September is coming to a close and the baseball season with it. There are many crazy stories associated with the division races and upcoming playoffs (including their new format), but I want to take a look at the historic American League (AL) MVP race. The word “historic” gets thrown around a lot, but it is absolutely accurate when describing the 2022 AL MVP race. 

 

Unlike other leagues such as the NBA or NFL, there is a seemingly endless wealth of statistics in the MLB to try to quantify how good players are. The NBA has stats, but when determining an MVP in that league, things like impact on the game must also be considered. Certain players, such as LeBron James or Michael Jordan in their prime, took control of games in a way that can’t be properly quantified with stats such as points or assists per game. A problem with the NFL is that different players have such different roles that the MVP race ends up comparing apples to oranges. As a result, the MVP award is essentially a quarterback-only award (there are exceptions, of course, but very few).

 

The MLB is different, though, because there are so many statistics available that it is usually much easier to tell who the best players are. Of course, arguments can be made about whether the home run leader or batting champion is more valuable, and players may lead the league in some statistics but not others. Baseball also has a bit of a position problem to account for, but it is not the same as the NFL. In baseball, players can generally be thrown into one of two categories (with one notable exception who will be discussed later): hitter or pitcher. The MVP award tends to favor hitters since there is already a sort of MVP award for pitchers called the Cy Young Award. However, if a pitcher is having a truly historic season or is so far ahead of the rest of the field in most statistical categories, they can still occasionally take home the MVP award. 

 

So what is so historic about the 2022 AL MVP race? At this point in the year, it’s a two-horse race between Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels and Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees. Judge is having a season unlike any we have seen in a long time. According to Baseball Reference, he has a slash line of .316/.419/.701 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) and, at the time of writing, had 127 runs batted in (RBI) and 59 home runs, just two away from breaking the non-steroid single-season record of 61 set by Roger Maris (also of the Yankees) in 1961. Just the fact that he could break such a sought-after record in a sport that has been keeping records since the 1800s is reason enough to give him the award in most seasons. Additionally, when you consider that he isn’t just hitting for power, but is also hitting for average and getting on base, his achievements become all the more impressive. Judge’s .316 batting average is tied for second in the AL, and his 1.120 on-base plus slugging (OPS) laps the rest of the field. On top of that, he has a chance to win the triple crown, which is when a player leads his league in batting average, RBI and home runs. Judge leads the AL in home runs and RBI comfortably and, as mentioned before, is tied for second in batting average, just .01 behind the league leader. Miguel Cabrera (2012) is the only player in the last 50-plus years to win the AL triple crown, according to FanNation. So, Judge is a shoo-in, right?

 

Not so fast. Despite Judge’s ridiculous season, Ohtani is having a historic season as well, albeit in a different way. Ohtani is having a great year at the plate, with a slash line of .266/.357/.534, 89 RBI and 34 home runs (per Baseball Reference). But these numbers seem pedestrian when compared to Judge’s. What really complicates the matter is that Ohtani isn’t just a hitter, he is a pitcher too. He is having an even better season on the mound than he is at the plate. Ohtani is 13-8 with a 2.43 earned run average (ERA), 148 innings pitched (IP) and 196 strikeouts (SO). Judge is clearly a better hitter, but he is just an outfielder, and not even a particularly great one, either. Ohtani, on the other hand, is simultaneously one of the league’s best hitters and best pitchers. Ohtani is doing something that hasn’t been done since 2021 (when he did this exact same thing and won himself the AL MVP). Aside from last year, you have to go all the way back to Babe Ruth to find a player who excelled so much at both pitching and hitting, and even Ruth didn’t do both in the same season the way Ohtani has for the better part of two years now. Ohtani is not having quite the year at the plate that he did last year (.257/.372/.592 with 46 HR), but he is having a significantly better year as a pitcher than he did last year (9-2, 3.18 ERA, 130.1 IP, 156 SO). 

 

So, it appears we have reached an impasse. How do you choose between someone having a legendary season at the plate and someone who is once again dominating the sport both on the mound and at the plate? One metric used to compare players of any position is wins above replacement (WAR). A player’s total WAR attempts to quantify all aspects of that player (his base running, hitting, fielding, etc.) into one number. That number is supposed to represent how many more wins a team will get by having that player rather than a replacement-level player. For instance, if Player A has a 5.0 WAR, then, theoretically speaking, having Player A on your team will result in your team winning five more games than they would have if you instead had a replacement player at their position. It is a metric that is far from perfect, and is even calculated in many different, complicated ways on different websites (I am using Baseball Reference WAR in this article), but it is a good starting point for trying to get a single number that represents all of a player’s contributions to their team. According to Baseball Reference, a WAR of about two means the player is a starter in the major leagues, a WAR of about five means they are at an All-Star level and a WAR of eight or above means they are playing at an MVP level.

 

Ohtani has the second-highest WAR among pitchers in the AL (5.3), and when you pair that with his offensive WAR (3.5), as well as a couple of other factors like fielding, his total comes out to 8.7. Judge has an offensive WAR of 9.6, the same as his total. So by this metric, Judge should be the MVP. But as I mentioned earlier, this metric is far from perfect, and the MVP winner often does not correlate with the WAR leader. 

 

In any year without Ohtani, Judge would be a unanimous MVP. But before Ohtani came along, we had never seen anyone simultaneously hit and pitch at such a high level. This race really is a toss-up, but I think Aaron Judge should be the 2022 AL MVP. That isn’t a knock on Ohtani at all—I just think Aaron Judge is having such a great year at the plate that it wouldn’t make sense to give the title to anyone else. His season is so rare that we may never see another one like it. As unfair as it seems, Ohtani’s own legendary 2021 season actually diminishes his case for 2022. We saw him do this already, just one year ago, and the sportswriters are not going to give MVP to the same player every year. Nobody can do what Ohtani is doing—he is basically playing two different sports at the same time—but he is neither the best hitter in the league nor the best pitcher in the league. Judge is undoubtedly the best hitter in the league, and, in my opinion, his 2022 season will be remembered as one of the greatest ever. For that reason, I think Judge has to get the MVP, but if Ohtani were to win the award, no one in their right mind would be able to say he didn’t deserve it. 

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