When Shohei Ohtani is pitching impressively and hitting over 30 homers, he might always be the MVP favorite unless another player in his league comes up with something awfully special.
Like hitting 60 home runs, for example.
Ohtani vs. Aaron Judge for the American League MVP figures to be the most hotly debated postseason award this year. Judge is closing in on Roger Maris’ AL record of 61 homers and might also win the Triple Crown. He’s done it while playing quite a bit of center field for a team that’s nearing a division title.
Ohtani, on the other hand, is pitching better than he did when he was the unanimous MVP last year. He may even be putting himself in the Cy Young conversation, to go along with his 34 homers.
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According to Baseball-Reference’s wins above replacement stat, the two are pretty close. Judge was at 9.9 entering Sunday, with Ohtani at 9.0.
As phenomenal as he is, there are a couple factors — both last year and this year — that keep Ohtani’s WAR a bit below the Barry Bonds/Babe Ruth stratosphere. As well as he’s pitched, the Angels are careful about not overusing him. He threw only 130 1/3 innings last year and has 153 this year. His lack of defensive value also works against him.
That’s just nitpicking, of course. If Ohtani doesn’t win MVP this time, it will have taken a truly spectacular performance to beat him.
Here are a few other famous head-to-head MVP races through the years:
1941 (AL): Joe DiMaggio over Ted Williams. Perhaps the most famous MVP race came in the year DiMaggio had his 56-game hitting streak and Williams hit .406.
1961 (AL): Maris over Mickey Mantle. This was a close race even though Maris — who beat out Mantle for the 1960 MVP as well — hit his 61 home runs to break Ruth’s record. Mantle played a tougher position and, while this obviously wasn’t a factor back then, he had a significant 10.4-6.9 edge on Maris in WAR.
1987 (AL): George Bell over Alan Trammell. Trammell’s Tigers rallied past Bell’s Blue Jays for the AL East title, but the Detroit shortstop couldn’t overcome the Toronto slugger’s 47 home runs and 134 RBIs.
1998 (NL): Sammy Sosa over Mark McGwire. McGwire (70) outlasted Sosa (66) in the home run race after both broke Maris’ record, but the MVP vote was lopsided in Sosa’s favor. His Cubs made the playoffs, and he led the league in runs and RBIs.
2012 (AL): Miguel Cabrera over Mike Trout. In a contentious race pitting traditionalists against new-age stats, the Triple Crown-winning Cabrera took the MVP — and the vote wasn’t all that close. Trout settled for second place despite producing 10.5 WAR as a rookie. After finishing second to Cabrera again the following year, Trout won three MVPs of his own.