By Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer
Aaron Judge is producing prodigious statistics and a near-nightly show in pursuit of decades-old records, but to use his chase to diminish Shohei Ohtani’s accomplishments is to punish Ohtani for being exceptional.
In most seasons, Judge’s year would make him an MVP lock. But this is not the typical season. This season features the most dominant full-time, two-way season ever performed in Major League Baseball. So long as he can keep this up for a few final weeks, Ohtani is the rightful American League MVP.
For Judge, that’s a shame. He’s had one of the best offensive seasons this century. It looks like he will best the New York Yankees’ single-season home run record and fall not far short of the league mark he has pronounced the “real” record, Barry Bonds’ 73.
But Ohtani has no records in sight, no nightly chase to keep up with, because what he is doing is entirely without precedent. He is the only person who has accomplished anything even close to what he is doing this year, and the injury risk inherent in attempting both tasks means there’s no guarantee he will ever repeat it.
The only way we can even measure him against others is to split him into two players, and both Ohtani the hitter and Ohtani the pitcher compare favorably to most of their peers. Both versions of him would be in the running for the MVP and Cy Young awards. There is precedent for players to win with production just like his.
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The 2021 NL Cy Young, the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes, finished that season with a 2.43 ERA over 167 innings. He was dominant enough to strike out 12.6 batters per nine innings. Ohtani the pitcher is on pace to finish 2022 with 158 innings at a 2.55 ERA. He has been dominant enough to strike out 12 batters per nine innings. This is a Cy Young-caliber season. The innings might sound like less than we used to expect, but Burnes proved voters will overlook deficiencies there. Whether it is Ohtani or one of his peers, the 2022 AL Cy Young winner is likely to have thrown fewer than 200 innings this season.
The 2016 NL MVP, the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, logged 39 homers and a 146 OPS+, 46% better than league average as a hitter after factoring in the league and ballparks in which he played. Yes, Bryant played the field, and Ohtani the hitter is a designated hitter. He’s a DH on pace to finish 2022 with 39 homers and a 148 OPS+. This is an MVP-caliber season.
What could Judge do to warrant a win over Ohtani? Well, he could pitch. He tried it once, 11 years ago, as a 19-year-old rising college sophomore spending the summer with the Anchorage Glacier Pilots of the Alaska Baseball League. He walked three in one inning. It’s hard to do both, you know.
Of course, there is an offensive threshold Judge could reach at which point he’d warrant a vote even over the best two-way player ever. He just hasn’t hit it yet. Judge went into play Wednesday with a 209 OPS+. Last century, Ted Williams logged four full seasons with a mark better than that, and three of the four times, he lost the MVP race.
Judge is doing something rare. He is having the best offensive season since Barry Bonds retired. Ohtani is doing something unprecedented. He is having the best two-way season ever.
We have never agreed on what the “valuable” in MVP means. For a long time, players received significant boosts if their teams qualified for the playoffs. In recent years, Baseball Writers’ Association of America voters have placed less and less emphasis on team success when determining their ballots.
That trend works in Ohtani’s favor, for Judge’s season, especially lately, has propelled the Yankees and kept them atop the AL East, while Ohtani hasn’t been able to keep the Angels out of fourth place. But just as Judge shouldn’t be dinged if the Yankees somehow squander their lead, Ohtani shouldn’t be overlooked because of the Angels’ years of franchise-wide failures.
Think of it this way: If Ohtani didn’t have his 2021 season and was doing this in 2022, proving to the world this was possible, wouldn’t he be the MVP?
He should be anyway.
Related: Ready for the counterpoint? Jake Mintz says Aaron Judge is transcending the typical MVP campaign and carrying the Yankees while doing so, making him deserving of the award.
Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the Dodgers for The Athletic, the Angels and Dodgers for the Orange County Register and L.A. Times, and his alma mater, USC, for ESPN Los Angeles. He is the author of “How to Beat a Broken Game.” Follow him on Twitter @pedromoura.
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