How To Compare Two Radically Different MVP Contenders


Aaron Judge is chasing one of the most revered numbers in sports: 60 home runs in a season, doing it while wearing the same pinstriped uniform as Babe Ruth when the Sultan of Swat first accomplished the feat in 1927. Judge is doing this in an era when pitchers are throwing harder than ever, when getting a base hit is harder than it’s been in five decades, in a season in which no other player is close to his home run total. If he gets there, it will be a historic season.

Shohei Ohtani is chasing only his own impossible goals: to star as both pitcher and hitter, something no player has done in the major leagues since Bullet Joe Rogan in the Negro Leagues in the 1920s and Ruth with the Red Sox more than 100 years ago. Ohtani is doing this in an era when players are bigger and stronger than ever, and even Ruth, who does fit that category, did it for only a short time before switching to full-time Sultan. Ohtani did it last season and he’s doing it again — back-to-back historic seasons.

It should be an MVP race for the ages, but instead it feels like, barring injury, Judge has the award wrapped up. Maybe he should have it locked up: Judge leads Ohtani in WAR, he leads in narrative, and the Yankees are in first place while the Angels — once again — will finish with a losing record.

With the Yankees in Anaheim Monday through Wednesday — unfortunately, Ohtani pitched Saturday, so we won’t get a head-to-head showdown against Judge — let’s dig into the MVP race and these two remarkable seasons. I want to break this discussion into three different categories:

Who has the most value? The MVP discussion is mostly about numbers, and the simplest way to slice and dice the two players is to simply look at their WAR. Judge is at 7.4 via Baseball-Reference, while Ohtani, after seven shutout innings to beat the Blue Jays on Saturday, is at 7.0 — 4.2 for pitching, 2.8 for hitting. FanGraphs gives Judge a little bigger edge, 7.9 to 7.0. Both figures are presented with a precision that doesn’t actually exist, so perhaps the actual value of the two players is closer.

Who is having the more impressive, iconic season? Numbers aside, which season will we most remember in the future? Certainly, if Judge can surpass Maris’ 61 home runs, this favors him, as he would not only establish a new American League record but set what many fans will consider the true home run record. That’s a narrative difficult for Ohtani to overcome, no matter the impressive nature of his two-way play.

Whose game is the most aesthetically pleasing? To steal from another sport, this is in many ways the heart of the Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James argument. Jordan had an acrobatic beauty and flair to his game, while James’ game is more one-dimensional — brute-force drives to the basket and pull-up jumpers — less appealing in style (at least to me, that is). Does Judge or Ohtani own an advantage here?

Let’s dig in.

Who has the most value?

The first thing to understand about Judge’s season — he’s sitting at 49 home runs while also leading the AL in runs, RBIs, walks, slugging percentage, OPS and total bases — is that he’s doing this in a context unlike any of the eight previous 60-homer seasons.

Ruth famously homered more than every other AL team in 1927 when he hit 60, but teammate Lou Gehrig hit 47 and topped Ruth in total bases and extra-base hits. When Maris hit 61, he went toe-to-toe with teammate Mickey Mantle most of the season, pulling away in September as an injured Mantle finished with 54. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both topped 60 in 1998 (and Ken Griffey Jr. hit 56) and then again in 1999. And when Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001, Sosa hit 64 (and Luis Gonzalez hit 57). In other words, none of these guys was all alone at the top of the leaderboard.

Judge, however, is all by himself. He’s 14 home runs ahead of Kyle Schwarber, who is second in the majors in home runs with 35. The last player to lead the majors by at least 14 home runs was Jimmie Foxx in 1933, when he hit 48 with Ruth next at 34. For further context, when Judge hit 52 home runs as a rookie in 2017, the average AL team scored 4.71 runs per game and the league-wide OPS was .753; this season, those figures are 4.19 runs per game (a number inflated by the runner-on-second rule in extra innings) and .698. It’s the lowest OPS in the AL since 1981. Yet Judge is still on pace to hit 62.

We can use advanced metrics to analyze Judge’s season. His park-adjusted OPS+ is 195, which would rank higher than four of the 60-homer seasons:

Bonds, 2001: 259
Ruth, 1927: 225
McGwire, 1998: 216
Sosa, 2001: 203
Judge, 2022: 195
McGwire, 1999: 177
Maris, 1961: 167
Sosa, 1998: 160
Sosa, 1999: 151

Because he also adds value on defense and on the bases, Judge’s projected WAR is even more impressive:

Ruth, 1927: 12.6
Bonds, 2001: 11.9
Sosa, 2001: 10.3
Judge, 2022: 9.8*
McGwire, 1998: 7.5
Maris, 1961: 6.9
Sosa, 1998: 6.5
McGwire, 1999: 5.2
Sosa, 1999: 4.8
*prorated over full season

The only hitch in all this: Paul Goldschmidt actually has a higher OPS+ at 200, so Judge isn’t clearly the best all-around hitter in the majors in 2022, even if he does have a commanding lead in home runs.

Ohtani is having another impressive offensive season, although not quite at the level of 2021. Still, he’s hitting .265/.358/.516 with 28 home runs, ranking in the top 10 in the AL in numerous categories, including OPS+. He has been even more dominant on the mound, going 11-8 with a 2.67 ERA and 176 strikeouts in 128 innings. Even though he has made fewer starts than the league leaders since the Angels use a six-man rotation, he’s third in WAR among AL pitchers.

Basically, he has been something like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at the plate and Shane McClanahan on the mound. So why does Judge still have a notable edge in WAR? For one thing, it does tell us how amazing Judge has been at the plate. Baseball-Reference estimates Judge has created 56 more runs hitting than the average hitter; Ohtani has created 24. That’s more than three wins of value. Judge also has positive value as a fielder; plus, the way WAR is constructed, Ohtani takes a positional adjustment hit as a DH-only player. All told, Baseball-Reference credits Judge with 7.3 offensive WAR and Ohtani with 2.8 (this includes the positional adjustment).

Ohtani makes most of that back up with his pitching value — but not quite enough. If we factored in clutch hitting, that would favor Judge even more, as his high-leverage numbers are better. As one example, Judge has seven home runs and a .896 OPS in “late and close” situations, while Ohtani has two home runs and a .747 OPS. As valuable as Ohtani has been as both hitter and pitcher, two excellent players don’t necessarily equal the value of one historically great one — and that appears to be the case so far.

Who is having the more impressive, iconic season?

This is more of a “gut feeling” approach — yes, frowned upon in an era when everything is measured with scientific exactitude. Of course, the MVP award doesn’t have to go to the player with the most value (as determined by 2022 standards). Sometimes a season stands above others for other reasons that go beyond just numbers.

What’s interesting here is that the player having the most iconic season doesn’t always win the MVP award. Some examples in history:

  • 1985: Willie McGee over Dwight Gooden. Gooden had perhaps the best pitching season of all time — and finished fourth in the MVP voting. But Gooden owned that season and certainly owned the attention of baseball fans and magazine covers.
  • 1988: Kirk Gibson over Orel Hershiser. Both were Dodgers, and while Gibson’s home run in the World Series is one of baseball’s greatest moments, it is Hershiser’s season we remember — 23 wins, the consecutive scoreless innings record, the dominating performance throughout the postseason.
  • 1998: Sosa over McGwire. McGwire set the home run record, but Sosa took MVP honors (largely because the Cubs made the playoffs and the Cardinals did not).
  • 1999: Ivan Rodriguez over Pedro Martinez. Pudge won the MVP award, but Pedro’s season (23-4, 2.07 ERA, 313 strikeouts) is one of the most iconic pitching seasons of all time.
  • 2017: Jose Altuve over Judge. Judge set the rookie record for home runs (since broken by Pete Alonso) and had the slightly higher WAR, but Altuve was the easy winner in the MVP voting (receiving 27 of the 30 first-place votes).

On the other hand, having the more iconic season can certainly push a player to MVP honors. The best example here might be the infamous Miguel Cabrera–Mike Trout debate from 2012. Trout certainly had the better all-around season, at least in terms of WAR (he topped Cabrera 10.5 to 7.1), but Cabrera won the Triple Crown — and the MVP award.

Judge has the edge here because he’s chasing a famous number — but that narrative changes if he doesn’t get to 60. Voters might then consider the nature of Ohtani’s season, which is diminished in appreciation only in comparison to what he did last season. I’ll say again, since the most attention Ohtani received this season came when his name was floated in trade rumors at the deadline: Ohtani is doing something nobody has done in 90 years and something no player has ever done with this high of a talent level across the sport. It’s not just that he’s hitting and pitching, but doing them both well:

–Hitting: Entering Monday, he ranks fifth in the AL in OPS, tied for third in home runs, seventh in RBIs, tied for sixth in runs scored, fifth in runs created, sixth in OPS+. He’s been a top-10 hitter in the American League, arguably top five or six.

Pitching: He ranked third in the AL in WAR, sixth in ERA, fourth in strikeouts, first in strikeouts per nine and seventh in lowest OBP allowed. He has been a top-10 pitcher in the AL this season, probably top three or four.

It remains one of the most amazing achievements in modern professional sports. You can argue that every Ohtani season is the most impressive season. Then again … they didn’t give Willie Mays the MVP award every season either.

Whose game is the most aesthetically pleasing?

Maybe you scoff at this. To dig into baseball history, I think of the Joe DiMaggio-Ted Williams argument. DiMaggio would win three MVP awards to two for Williams, although Williams twice failed to win it in seasons when he won the Triple Crown (and also not in the season he hit .406, when he lost to, you guessed it — DiMaggio). Using our retroactive analysis, Williams led the AL six times in WAR, and often by large margins. DiMaggio led three times, although only once in a season when he took home MVP honors.

Yes, the Yankees won the pennant all the time and the Red Sox didn’t, and that was an important factor back when the MVP usually went to a player on the pennant-winning team. But I think there’s another reason most writers at the time considered DiMaggio the superior player: He had an artistry to his game that Williams lacked, especially on defense. DiMaggio played center field with graceful long strides, whereas Williams was indifferent. On the bases, it was said DiMaggio never made a mistake, while Williams was, well, indifferent.

With Judge, you’re always aware of his physical size and strength, and I think that sometimes distracts from a style of play that is smooth and refined. At the plate, he’s a picture of stillness as the pitcher sets up. His stance is slightly open, hands extended out from his body (they used to be higher and closer in). As the pitcher delivers, he draws his hands back just a bit to put the bat in motion and uses a slight leg kick as a timing mechanism. But it’s a quiet, simple approach — it just happens to come from a man who is 6-foot-7 and 280-some pounds of chiseled strength. As his .293 average suggests, he has matured into an excellent all-around hitter, just one who can also hit the ball 450 feet (which he has done five times).

In the field, the best way I can put it: When it comes to Judge, you never see a ball fall where you think, “He should have made that play.” The metrics confirm the eye test, where Statcast’s outs above average rate Judge in the 84th percentile — he makes all the plays and then some. Most remarkable, he’s quick enough and athletic enough that the Yankees have started him 59 times in center field.

At the plate, Ohtani is also a physical marvel. He stands upright with his hands up above the rim of his batting helmet and extended out from his body. As with Judge, there is little hand movement, although he has that awkward-looking twist with his front foot as he swings. I always get the feeling Ohtani is trying to obliterate the baseball into the ozone layer — and when he does, it’s a beautiful sight, the power from his rapid-fire torso twist and parabolic swing often sending the ball on a towering path into the outfield bleachers.

On the mound, few starters can match his raw stuff, with a four-seam fastball that averages 97.2 mph, a wipeout slider, a wipeout splitter, a big curveball and a cutter. And as if five pitches weren’t enough, he recently unveiled a diving, darting two-seamer that he had been fooling around with in the bullpen. He has cut down on his walks this season while increasing his strikeout rate. In his past 13 starts, he has a 1.90 ERA. He has matured into a legitimate ace (other than he won’t throw as many innings as some of the other top starters).

Does either player have the edge here? I admit to loving Ohtani’s home runs; maybe it’s just that left-handed swing. Of course, if you want to include his speed — eight triples last year, six this year — that’s another advantage. There are few highlights in the game as enjoyable as Ohtani turning on the jets and heading for third base. It’s just too bad he does all this for a lousy team.

Still, I feel like praising Ohtani’s game is discounting Judge’s athleticism, and that’s not fair at all. Judge is a joy to watch as well — and I love that he bet on himself to have a monster season, which he has done. For now, he’s the MVP, and it absolutely has taken a historic season to put him in that position.

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