Sports | September 6, 2022 1:33 pm

Does Aaron Judge Deserve the American League MVP Over Shohei Ohtani?

As the season wraps up, sportswriters are agonizing over the decision

Aaron Judge and Shohei Ohtani at the All-Star Game.
You can't go wrong — but Judge is having a season for the ages.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Aaron Judge and Shohei Ohtani are giving sportswriters MVP-level migraines.

With a month left in the season, ESPN’s MLB beat reporters put together their predictions for the divisional and award races down the stretch. They managed to agree on one thing: Judge is their overwhelming favorite to win the American League MVP. All 17 writers voted for him.

But that position has come with a degree of angst — Tristan H. Cockcroft later voted Ohtani for the Cy Young Award, writing: “Ohtani is essentially having a better all-around season than he did in 2021, and it’d be a shame to see him shut out on awards simply because Judge might pass Maris, while guys like [Justin] Verlander and [Dylan] Cease pitched a little bit more often than he did. Is Ohtani for the Cy really that big a stretch?”

Then Jeff Passan posted a tweet at 12:14 in the morning, in which he listed the season-long stats of Players A (a batter), B (a batter), C (a pitcher) and D (a pitcher.) All the stats were fantastic. Players A and C were Mookie Betts, the Los Angeles Dodgers superstar outfielder and Shane McClanahan, the Tampa Bay Rays ace. Players B and D were both Ohtani.

They’re not really sure how to say it, but they feel guilty. This would be a whole lot easier if Ohtani played in the National League. A vote for Judge is a simultaneous disservice to Ohtani, in their eyes. Hence the meandering takes and late-night tweets.

You’ll find less conversational tiptoeing in Reddit groups or sports bars across the country. To many baseball fans, the two-way brilliance of Ohtani makes him a no-brainer MVP pick. He won the award last year, after all, and his offense has been just as productive, while his pitching has gotten way better.

But there are two obstacles standing in Ohtani’s way: A) Judge, and B) the fact that the Los Angeles Angels are 28 games out of first place and about to miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row. The former is a legitimate reason for Ohtani to miss out on the award. The latter is not.

The march for 62: Judge hit his 19th home run off Ohtani earlier this summer.
Photo by Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Players are often penalized in award races if their teams aren’t in playoff contention; this appears to be a major point against Ohtani as the 2022 campaign hits its final weeks here. But the MLB isn’t the NBA. Ohtani doesn’t get to walk the ball up the court every possession or guarantee that he’ll take the final shot. He has to play within the framework of a team-oriented game. He gets four at-bats a contest and toes the rubber once every five days, which, mind you, is more than any other player in the league is doing.

The Angels are awful. No one is disputing that. It likely would’ve been good for the league had the franchise traded Ohtani to a different ballclub this summer. (For a second, amist all the Juan Soto drama, they appeared to be shopping Ohtani in earnest.) But can Ohtani be blamed for their woes? Despite sharing the team with a three-time MVP in Mike Trout, he leads all Angels in hits, runs, walks, total bases and RBI. On the mound, he leads Los Angeles in strikeouts, ERA and WHIP.

In the entirety of the live-ball era (which started in 1920), a player logging more at-bats and innings pitched than the rest of his teammates would be a serious cause for alarm. But if Ohtani hadn’t done that this year, the Angels would have won at least eight less games (Ohtani’s WAR is 7.9), which would have them competing with the Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals for the dubious distinction of the worst team in MLB.

It’s a shame Ohtani plays for the Angels, but that isn’t his fault. Theoretically, you could penalize him for not researching ballclubs better when he came over from Japan — Ohtani was affordable for all 30 MLB teams, costing just a few million in international bonus pool spending, plus a $20 million fee paid to his former Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. He could’ve been a Dodger, a Blue Jay, a Marlin, whatever. But it feels bizarrely retroactive and unfair to judge someone’s 2022 performance on a 2017 career choice.

In truth, the true reason that Ohtani won’t repeat as MVP is Aaron Judge is putting together one of the most magical seasons in baseball history. Again, you can punt the team from the picture — if we’re going to axe the Angels from the Ohtani equation, we should axe the Yankees from the Judge equation, too.

A couple months ago, that sort of omission might have hurt Judge’s MVP case. The Yankees looked unstoppable, poised to challenge the all-time record for wins in a season. But questions and concerns have mounted in Yankeeland ever since, following an abysmal team performance in the dog days of summer. They now cling to a five-game AL East lead over the Rays, and even diehard fans wouldn’t be shocked to see an early exit from the ALDS.

Still: it doesn’t seem to matter how hot or cold the Yankees are, what ballparks they play in, whether Judge is protected by power-hitting stars (Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, Matt Carpenter) or replacement-level players, as a result of the team’s revolving door of second-half injuries. He has hit nonstop, played perfect defense (with a surprising number of games spent patrolling center field) and captured the country’s attention with a march towards Roger Maris’s single-season American League home run record of 61.

That some believe 61 to be the true record isn’t immaterial, either. If Judge surpasses it, he would have the highest total for a player who’s never been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. And the specter of ergogenic boosters still looms large over the game; Fernando Tatis, MLB’s brightest star not named Judge or Ohtani, was suspended 80 games for a positive test just a few weeks ago.

Judge hasn’t just hit thousands of feet of dingers this year, though. The MVP race isn’t simply a matter of his traditional “counting stats” versus Ohtani’s unicorn advanced metrics. The numbers indicate that Judge is also playing a brand of baseball we’ve never seen before. He’s in the 100th percentile for HardHit%, with a league-leading exit velocity of 95.8 MPH, yet is somehow batting .302 with an OBP of .402. This isn’t the Judge who hit 50 home runs in his rookie season but struck out in a third of his plate appearances. This hitter is leading the league in walks, runs and RBI (while hitting second). Watch him play; he no longer waves at sliders out of the zone or fastballs just above it. Such newfound plate discipline is unfair, considering his power’s never been in question.

Considering the riches and honors that await Judge (beyond the potential MVP — a contract worth at least $300 million, and if he stays with the Yankees, likely the first captaincy since the era of Derek Jeter), it’s fascinating that this could very well end up being the best season of his career. He’s a big guy who plays a tough position. The turf at Rogers Centre and Tropicana Field does a number on his lower half. Who knows if we’ll ever seen this level of production again?

The same could be said for Ohtani, who’s also had his share of injuries, and is undoubtedly testing the gods each day he suits up to both pitch and hit. While the fans will dispute whatever the result is, for reasons that veer middle school-ish (Ohtani never wins! Judge plays for the Yankees!), the melancholy plaguing sportswriters is an understanding that greatness is as fleeting as it is rare. You like to award it when you see it, and sometimes — when we’re lucky — that means making an agonizing choice.