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Yankees' Aaron Judge Has Been Unreal, But the AL MVP Race is Far From Over

Zachary D. RymerJune 30, 2022

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

If you're expecting to read a case for why Aaron Judge isn't the current frontrunner for the American League MVP, well, sorry. You'll get no such contrarianism from us.

What we will say, though, is that Judge will have to keep doing exactly what he's doing if he wants to keep outrunning a crowded race for the award.

This hasn't been a problem for the New York Yankees outfielder so far in 2022. His 28 home runs entering Wednesday's contest against the Oakland Athletics were already five more than any other player in Major League Baseball, but he went ahead and added his 29th for safe measure:

MLB @MLB

<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/AllRise?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#AllRise</a> for the 29th time. <a href="https://t.co/ALIT26eTOA">pic.twitter.com/ALIT26eTOA</a>

With 76 games down, the Yankees aren't quite halfway through their 162-game schedule yet. Judge, 30, thus has a real shot at only the ninth 60-homer season in MLB history. It would also be only the third such season outside of the sport's steroid era.

But while it's mainly about the power, Judge's MVP case also goes beyond just power.

His reputation as a hitter who can't get it done in the clutch has gone bye-bye. This year accounts for three of the four walk-off hits he has on his record, and his 1.010 OPS in late and close situations is third-best among hitters with at least 50 plate appearances in those spots. His five home runs are the most.

Judge's defense has also been crucial to the Yankees and not simply because outs above average put him above water as both a right fielder and a center fielder.

By starting more games at the latter (38) than at the former (35), he's made it easier for Yankees manager Aaron Boone to funnel at-bats to fellow sluggers Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Gallo and Josh Donaldson and deny a few to Aaron Hicks, who's barely a replacement-level player in 2022.

Add it all up, and you get a crystal-clear picture of Judge as the driving force behind the best team in recent MLB history. It's indeed largely because of the 6'7", 282-pounder that, at 56-20, the Yankees are off to the best start of any club since the 2001 Seattle Mariners.

However, it's not at the halfway mark that the Baseball Writers Association of America voters cast their votes for MLB's major awards. There's still a whole 'nother half of the season to play, and it's entirely conceivable that Judge will get caught by a fellow AL MVP contender who, if not in home runs, has him beat in other areas.


What Yordan Alvarez Has That Judge Doesn't

Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Key Stats: 67 G, 279 PA, 23 HR, 0 SB, .316 AVG, .412 OBP, .658 SLG, 1.070 OPS

Houston Astros Record: 47-27, 1st in AL West

Right now, there's a question of how healthy Yordan Alvarez is after he was carted off the field following a collision with Jeremy Pena during the Houston Astros' 2-0 win over the New York Mets on Wednesday. Both players are being evaluated for concussions, according to Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle.

In the meantime, Alvarez's offensive numbers stack up against—if not exceed—those of Judge's. His slugging percentage and OPS are both tops in the American League.

The manner in which Alvarez is raking is out of a bygone era. He's not only slugging over .650 but also doing so while striking out only once every five at-bats. The league hasn't seen a performance like that in a full 162-game season since Albert Pujols in the late 2000s.

Moreover, he's really making his hits count.

Houston Astros @astros

YORGONE. <a href="https://t.co/MFRFm0XV9s">pic.twitter.com/MFRFm0XV9s</a>

Among Alvarez's clutch hitting bona fides are 10 home runs with men on base to Judge's eight. And albeit in a smaller sample size, his 1.164 OPS in late and close situations is better than what Judge has going for him.

The bottom line is that Alvarez is not only out-hitting Judge, but out-clutching him as well. The ultimate feather in Alvarez's cap in this regard is his AL lead in championship win probability added, which is...well, precisely what it sounds like.


What Jose Ramirez Has That Judge Doesn't

Jason Miller/Getty Images

Key Stats: 70 G, 305 PA, 16 HR, 12 SB, .297 AVG, .380 OBP, .602 SLG, .982 OPS

Cleveland Guardians Record: 38-34, 2nd in AL Central

With only 16 home runs to his name, Jose Ramirez isn't quite as intimidating a slugger as either Judge or Alvarez.

But as much as them or any other hitter in the American League, he's the last guy an opposing team ever wants to see at the plate in pressure spots. Those just aren't good times to face a guy who leads the AL with 45 extra-base hits and, crucially, 63 runs batted in.

Does it help that Ramirez generally hits behind a couple of capable table-setters in Myles Straw and Amed Rosario? Well, sure. But it helps even more that he gets extra locked-in with men on base and even more so with men in scoring position:

As Ramirez, 29, is as well-known for his knack for hitting in the clutch as he is for his Mario Kart mastery, it's no surprise that nobody in Cleveland's dugout is, well, surprised by how he's getting it done in 2022.

"Not just tonight but the whole year," Guardians manager Terry Francona said of Ramirez in May. "One of the best players in the game. He just does it every day, and he's a joy to watch."

Whereas Alvarez has cWPA in his corner, Ramirez has base-out runs added in his. Not as sexy-sounding, to be sure, but it measures how run expectancy changes from the beginning of a hitter's plate appearance to the end of it. Basically, the Guardians typically have a better chance of winning after Ramirez exits the batter's box.

Considering that he accounts for 32.3 percent of the Guardians' payroll compared to just 8 percent for Judge and 0.4 percent for Alvarez, there's also something to be said of how much more pressure there is on Ramirez to put his team on his back on any given day.


What Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Rafael Devers Have That Judge Doesn't

Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Meanwhile, in Anaheim, Mike Trout is doing Mike Trout things, and Shohei Ohtani is doing Shohei Ohtani things for the Los Angeles Angels.

Though not at the top in any particular category, Trout is near the top of the AL leaderboards with his .285 average, .387 on-base percentage, .650 slugging percentage, 1.037 OPS and 23 home runs. Naturally, what he is on top for is wins above replacement at 4.2.

The three-time AL MVP also boasts the AL lead for regular ol' win probability added, and how he's attained that is fairly straightforward. Performing in high-leverage tends to get you on WPA's good side. And with a 1.125 OPS, Trout has been better in such spots than any AL hitter outside of Stanton.

As for Ohtani, he's long since shaken off his slow start and gotten back to being the best two-way player the major leagues have ever seen. The reigning AL MVP ranks 14th among AL hitters with his 141 OPS+ and 12th among AL pitchers with his 147 ERA+.

MLB @MLB

The MVPs go back-to-back. <a href="https://t.co/uceinF3MLx">pic.twitter.com/uceinF3MLx</a>

Of course, Trout and Ohtani have a couple of obvious things standing in the way of adding another MVP trophy to their respective ledgers. One is their potential to split votes, with the other being that their efforts are once again going to waste. At 37-41, the Angels are on their way to a seventh straight losing season.

Bully for Rafael Devers, as such things could make it easier for him to come from the rear to surpass Judge, Alvarez and Ramirez.

The Boston Red Sox's 25-year-old third baseman is hitting .328/.387/.592 and generally hogging the counting stats leaderboards. He leads the AL with 98 hits, 26 doubles and 126 times on base.

Red Sox @RedSox

Raffy's 17th homer was a BIG one 💪 <a href="https://t.co/KpBreJPngJ">pic.twitter.com/KpBreJPngJ</a>

The totality of Devers' offensive excellence is so great that he actually leads the AL in offensive WAR. His 3.9 overall WAR, meanwhile, is second only to Trout.

Of late, Devers has also been carrying the Red Sox amid their rise from their early-season depths. As the club has gone 32-13 since May 13, he's been positively scorching with a 1.073 OPS and 12 of his 17 home runs.


Don't Count Out a Game-Changing Second-Half Surge

Set Number: X162185 TK1

Because the 2022 season is still far from over, it's also worth considering the possibility that the eventual AL MVP winner won't be Judge or any one of the current front-runners.

Consider, for example, what Player A did in 2018:

  • Before All-Star Break: .823 OPS, 11 HR
  • After All-Star Break: 1.219 OPS, 25 HR

And also what Player B did in 2021:

  • Before All-Star Break: .899 OPS, 15 HR
  • After All-Star Break: 1.188 OPS, 20 HR

Player A was Christian Yelich, who ended up running away with the National League MVP race for 2018 even though he wasn't really in the middle of it in the first half of the year. Player B was Bryce Harper, though he only narrowly outpaced Juan Soto (1.164 OPS, 18 HR) in the second half to down the stretch en route to his second MVP last year.

To name just a few candidates who could mount a similar charge to the AL MVP this season, there's Astros outfielder Kyle Tucker, Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton and perhaps especially, Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The latter is already heating up, having posted a .946 OPS and 11 home runs over his last 33 games.

So as the rest of us watch Judge in a constant state of awe, the man himself should be watching his back.


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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