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Aaron Judge vs. Shohei Ohtani: Handicapping the AL MVP Race Down the Stretch

Zachary D. RymerAugust 31, 2022

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

The New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels have played some good baseball over the last two nights, yet arguably more compelling has been the anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better contest between the American League's leading MVP contenders.

First, there was reigning AL MVP Shohei Ohtani hitting a go-ahead home run for the Angels on Monday:

Los Angeles Angels @Angels

That's our MVP 🏆<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/GoHalos?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#GoHalos</a> <a href="https://t.co/EnyOY7QJ1k">pic.twitter.com/EnyOY7QJ1k</a>

And later, Aaron Judge responding with a 434-footer for his 50th home run of the season for the Yankees.

Then on Tuesday, he added No. 51:

New York Yankees @Yankees

<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/AllRise?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#AllRise</a> for Home Run 51 🙌 <a href="https://t.co/qL7i5k3rli">pic.twitter.com/qL7i5k3rli</a>

Though the AL MVP race was already on before the Judge vs. Ohtani show started in Anaheim, it really feels on now.

DraftKings has Judge (-1000) as the favorite, with Ohtani (+550) as really the only player whose odds are within shouting distance. With only one month left in the 2022 Major League Baseball season, neither player can afford to weaken his case for the award.


The Case (So Far) for Aaron Judge

Sarah Stier/Getty Images

It's just not every year that a guy hits 51 home runs, much less before the end of August. The notion of Judge carving out his niche in history is thus no longer in the realm of hyperbole.

As he's on pace to hit 64 home runs, Roger Maris' American League record of 61 from 1961 is well within Judge's reach. Simply hitting nine more would allow him to secure only the ninth 60-homer season in MLB history, and only the third to take place outside of the league's steroid era of the 1990s and early 2000s.

In the meantime, Judge is already one of just eight players to ever pair 50-plus home runs with an OPS+ north of 190, denoting that he's more than 90 percent better than the average hitter in 2022. And with a 15-homer lead over Philadelphia Phillies slugger Kyle Schwarber, he's threatening the largest gap for a league-wide home run title winner since Jimmie Foxx beat Babe Ruth by 17 in 1932, as noted by Benjamin Hoffman of the New York Times.

As for what other numbers the 30-year-old has going for him, how about AL-leading marks for the following:

  • 76 Walks
  • 104 Runs Scored
  • 113 Runs Batted In
  • 71 Extra-Base Hits
  • 312 Total Bases
  • .667 SLG
  • 1.064 OPS
  • 7.7 rWAR
  • 5.6 WPA

The most telling of these figures might be Judge's 5.6 WPA. That stands for "win probability added," and Judge's lead in that category ought to be as self-explanatory as the phrase itself.

Among his exploits this year are four game-tying home runs and 15 go-ahead home runs. The latter collection includes three walk-offs, tying him with Mickey Mantle for the Yankees' single-season record.

MLB @MLB

Aaron Judge's magical season continues! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Walkoff?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Walkoff</a> <a href="https://t.co/sTy6nMhtVH">pic.twitter.com/sTy6nMhtVH</a>

Far from a bat-only player, Judge has also been a godsend for the Yankees on defense. Quantifiably so, in the sense that his metrics are in the black. And also not-so-quantifiably, in the sense that the 6'7", 282-pound right fielder has frequently taken one for the team by starting 60 times in center field. That's allowed the Yankees to hide the hole at that position.

With the Yankees sitting comfortably atop the AL East at 79-51, Judge has already done much to move the needle for the team's quest to win its first World Series since 2009. And while said quest has been sidetracked with a 18-28 record since July 9, it's not Judge's fault.

He's indeed done his utmost to keep the losses from piling up, as his wRC+ (which operates similarly to OPS+) has gone up while his at-bats per home run have gone down:

Seriously, what more could you ask from an offensive player?


The Case (So Far) for Shohei Ohtani

Michael Owens/Getty Images

Ooh, I know. How about if the same offensive player was also an elite pitcher?

That was the book on the 28-year-old Ohtani en route to his unanimous MVP victory in 2021, and so it is once again in 2022. Per his 148 OPS+, he's the fifth-best hitter in the American League. Per his 152 ERA+, he's also the Junior Circuit's fourth-best starting pitcher.

From these perspectives, Ohtani hasn't actually backslid even though his home run output has slipped from 46 last year to 29 thus far in 2022. And considering that his '21 campaign was seriously discussed as one of the greatest in history, that he's basically doing it all over again is not to be underrated.

If WAR is the best way to measure the totality of Ohtani's contributions, it's a good enough reflection that his 7.2 rWAR only puts him half a win off Judge's pace. Yet there's also a good argument that WAR isn't the best measure of Ohtani's total value, as he pays an arguably unfair positional penalty for taking his at-bats exclusively as a designated hitter.

Further, Ohtani's clutchness rivals Judge's more than many might realize.

A higher rate (12 of 29 for 41 percent) of Ohtani's home runs have given the Angels either a tie or the lead than Judge's (19 of 51 for 37 percent) have for the Yankees. He's also one of baseball's best jam-escapers on the mound, ranking second in the AL with an 82.6 left-on-base percentage and first with a .461 OPS with runners in scoring position.

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Shohei Ohtani, K'ing 3 consecutive hitters.<br><br>Getting out of a bases loaded, no out jam. 🔥 <a href="https://t.co/GXOwWYnRjN">pic.twitter.com/GXOwWYnRjN</a>

As was the case in 2021, the catch with Ohtani's latest MVP pursuit is that it's going to waste on an Angels team that's nowhere to be found in the AL playoff picture. They went as high as 11 games over .500 on May 15, but they've since dropped 61 out of 93.

But just as Judge has continued to fight the good fight amid the Yankees' recent struggles, so has Ohtani on both sides of the ball for the Angels. His wRC+ has likewise gone up, while his ERA- (basically ERA+, except lower is better) has gone down:

To label Ohtani as any kind of responsible for the grim state of the Angels is the opposite of fair. Indeed, it's entirely possible that neither team would be in a different spot right now if Ohtani was on the Yankees and Judge was on the Angels.


It All Comes Down to September

Michael Owens/Getty Images

Then again, where the Angels and Yankees would be right now if Ohtani and Judge had switched places at the outset of 2022 might not be the best thought experiment.

As posed by Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay on Twitter, there's also the relatively simple question of where both clubs would be without their biggest stars:

Michael Kay @RealMichaelKay

I’ve been covering baseball for 36 years and the season <a href="https://twitter.com/TheJudge44?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TheJudge44</a> is having is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Take hm off the <a href="https://twitter.com/Yankees?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@yankees</a> and they’d have trouble making playoffs. Take Ohtani off <a href="https://twitter.com/Angels?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Angels</a> and they still would be on the outside looking in. Most valuable?

Kay might not be wrong about the Yankees being more of a fringe playoff contender sans Judge. His 7.6 rWAR accounts for 26.4 percent of the offense's total output of 28.7. Likewise, the Bronx Bombers would be missing a quarter of their 205 home runs without him.

That Ohtani is nonetheless seen as having a shot—both in the betting odds and in various pockets of The Discourse as well—at the AL MVP speaks to the ongoing appreciation for and fascination with his unprecedented two-way talent. It also helps that he's not letting up, as August has seen Ohtani post a 1.030 OPS at the plate and a 2.20 ERA on the mound.

Ohtani's AL MVP chances would surely look that much better if he stays hot as Judge cools in September, for which there's a non-zero chance of happening.

Take what befell Giancarlo Stanton amid his own hunt for 60 home runs in 2017. He had 51 through the Miami Marlins' 132nd game, but then pitchers stopped challenging him with fastballs and his pace slowed accordingly. He finished with "only" 59 home runs.

Yet it's almost as if Judge had been anticipating similar treatment.

Though he's already seen his share of fastballs dry up in August, that hasn't stopped him from slugging nine home runs this month. As much as Judge likes fastballs, he also knows to take a hanging breaking ball (i.e., this one or this one) when offered.

As long as Judge continues to stay in his approach, there won't be any avenues for imminent danger to creep up on his pursuit of home run history. His lead position in the AL MVP race will likewise remain safe, and it's not a given that there will be an opening for Ohtani even if Judge cools enough to fall short of the fabled 60-homer plateau.

Judge has, after all, already established himself as the kind of competition that Ohtani didn't have as he ran away with last year's AL MVP race. Though Marcus Semien and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. both topped 40 home runs, both of them finished roughly two WAR shy of Ohtani for a Toronto Blue Jays squad that missed the playoffs.

So, barring an as-yet-unknown force capable of shrinking Judge down to size, the AL MVP is his to lose.


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.


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