Shohei and the Judge
Something completely obvious occurred to me for the first time this week: We don’t have the same sort of MVP arguments in other sports that we do in baseball. The key MVP argument in baseball over the years, as everybody knows, has revolved around the word “Valuable.” What does “valuable” even mean? Does it mean “best?” Does it mean “most useful?” Does it mean “contributed most to the story of the season?”
Bill James offered the classic playing-card version of the argument. Let’s say you have two people playing Texas hold ’em. He gets a suited ace and king. She gets an unsuited four and seven.
The ace is clearly the best card you can get, the one worth the most. That’s your MVP.
But then the community cards are turned over — they are, let’s say, a six, an eight and another ace. Now the person with the ace has a much better hand, she has roughly an 80% chance of winning. The next card turned over is a third ace; now her chances of winning are at a titanic 91%.
But then the final card turned over is a five of diamonds, and the person with the four and seven actually wins the hand because that’s a straight. He rakes in all the money. What card is the MVP of the hand? Is it the ace in her hand, the card worth the most? Or is it the five of diamonds because it was the card that provided the win? Or is it the seven in his hand because it was his best card and the one that kept the straight together?
I need to ask Jennifer Shahade what she thinks about this puzzle.
Anyway, we talk about stuff like this in baseball all the time. What is most valuable? Is that different from highest WAR or most RBIs or whatever your stat of choice happens to be? Should it matter if your team wins? Etc.
This conversation doesn’t come up in the NBA. You know why? Because if you play at an MVP level in the NBA, your team DOES win, no exceptions. The last NBA MVP to play on a team that missed the playoffs is … no, nobody, it has never happened, and it never will happen, the closest thing to it happening is, like, Nikola Jokić winning it the last couple of years for Denver teams that pretty comfortably made the playoffs but weren’t at the very top of the conference.
The last hockey player to win the Hart Trophy on a team that missed the playoffs is … again, nobody, or at least I’m 99% sure it’s nobody; I must admit I didn’t go all the way back to the Babe Pratt and Max Bentley days to check for sure. (OK, I just did, Bentley’s Black Hawks and Pratt’s Maple Leafs both made the playoffs.)
The last NFL MVP to play on a team that missed the playoffs is … hey, this is a pretty great trivia question because it has actually happened in the NFL. Once. Almost 50 years ago. The last player on a non-playoff team to win the NFL MVP is, you betcha, O.J. Simpson in 1973, when he ran for 2,003 yards and the Bills finished 9-5 and missed out on the wild-card by one game.
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The point is, in those sports, if you put up an MVP-type season, your team is going to win. It’s really that simple. Individual greatness and team success are powerfully connected. LeBron James at his height could lug an adult JCC team to the NBA playoffs (he basically did this with the 2006 Cavs).
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 7-9, added Tom Brady, he put up an MVP-type season (he didn’t win it; Aaron Rodgers did) and the Bucs won the Super Bowl.
The Edmonton Oilers were a laughingstock; they had not made the Stanley Cup playoffs in a decade (and everybody knows that EVERY team makes the Stanley Cup playoffs), then Connor McDavid pops on the scene, puts up some MVP seasons, and the Oilers are a playoff team.
Now, look at baseball — particularly in the last few years. Since 2016, no fewer than FOUR players have won the MVP award on losing teams. They include:
2021: Shohei Ohtani, Angels
2019: Mike Trout, Angels
2017: Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
2016: Mike Trout, Angels
This used to happen with less frequency, but it has always been true in baseball that players on teams that missed the playoffs won MVP awards — Larry Walker in 1997, Cal Ripken Jr. in 1991, Robin Yount in 1989, Andre Dawson in 1987, Dale Murphy in 1983 and so on. The reason, I think, is that there’s an understanding in baseball that one player can only do so much. After all, Ken Griffey Jr. never played in a World Series (and never really came all that close). Ernie Banks never played in a playoff game. Baseball is the team sport where one individual, no matter how good, cannot make a team into a winner.
If you took Aaron Judge off the Yankees and put him on the Royals, K.C. wouldn’t become a playoff team, not even close.
But if you took Patrick Mahomes off the Chiefs and put him on the Giants … look, I don’t know that it would make New York a playoff team, but it would sure as heck make the Giants a LOT better. I actually asked the question to our good friend and hopeless Giants fan Alan Sepinwall … awaiting an answer.*
*Alan says yes, the Giants WOULD make the playoffs with Mahomes “just because so many teams make the playoffs and quarterback is one of the team’s bigger weaknesses.” That would be my take too.
This is just the sport. In baseball, you can’t design plays for a player. Trout or Judge or Bryce Harper or Juan Soto come up every nine batters just like everyone else. Jacob deGrom or Dylan Cease or Justin Verlander pitch every five or six days, just like everybody else. The Cleveland Cavaliers just picked up Donovan Mitchell, and he’s probably the, what, 17th-best player in the NBA? Something like that? And yet, he makes Cleveland, a team that missed the playoffs last year, real contenders in the Eastern Conference.
No single baseball player could make the Cincinnati Reds real contenders in the National League.
This is particularly apparent this year, because Aaron Judge and Shohei Ohtani are not just having great seasons … they are having historic seasons. We’ll talk about the history here in a minute, but Judge is probably going to hit more than 61 home runs and Ohtani is having a hitting-pitching combo season unmatched in the long chronicle of baseball, and yet neither one of them can make their teams go.
Judge’s Yankees ARE in first place, with the second-best record in the American League, but they have been among baseball’s worst teams the last two or so months, even as Judge has been putting up the most ridiculous offensive numbers imaginable.
Judge since July 9: .335/.468/.796 with 24 homers and 53 RBIs in 50 games.
Yankees’ record since July 9: 20-30.
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Ohtani, meanwhile — the better he gets, the worse the Angels seem to play. The Angels are 60-76, TWENTY-SEVEN GAMES BACK in their division, even while Ohtani has been doing the most mind-blowing things.
Let’s talk about some of those mind-blowing things.
OK, here’s one: Ohtani so far in 2022 has a 151 OPS+ as a hitter and a 156 ERA+ as a pitcher. This obviously isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison — or even an apples-to-sneakers comparison — but just for fun, that 151 OPS+ is basically Jeff Bagwell’s career and that 156 ERA+ is basically Pedro Martinez’s career.
Ohtani is the first player to strike out 100 batters and hit 30 home runs in the same season. (He has 181 K’s and 32 homers entering Wednesday.)
And he has a real chance at striking out 200 batters and hitting 35 homers in the same season. I don’t know if he will get there, but if he does that would be — get this — more strikeouts than Jim Palmer ever had in a season and more home runs than Al Kaline, Roberto Clemente or George Brett ever had in a season.
He’s second in the American League in home runs and he leads the American League in strikeouts per nine innings with 12.0. He has a higher pitching bWAR than Justin Verlander and a higher slugging percentage than Freddie Freeman.
Here’s one I like: Ohtani has been intentionally walked 13 times as a hitter and he has issued zero intentional walks as a pitcher.
There … has … never … been … anyone … like … him.
The trouble with geeking out on Shohei Ohtani numbers is that people immediately think you’re making an MVP case for him … and I’m really not. I’m already on record as saying that Aaron Judge is my MVP this season and what baseball really needs to do is invent a whole new award for Ohtani because nobody else is playing his game. He’s simply his own category.
As of this exact moment, Judge is leading Ohtani in WAR …
Judge: 8.9 fWAR, 8.4 bWAR
Ohtani: 7.8 fWAR, 7.9 bWAR
… but that certainly could flip by the end of the season. Either way, assuming Judge doesn’t completely fold down the stretch, I’m still giving him the MVP. Here’s why: I’m not entirely sure that we know how to judge what Ohtani is doing. We know it’s absolutely incredible, but do you really get a true sense of his value by adding up his hitting and pitching WAR? I’m not sure you do.
And we should not underestimate just how incredible a season Aaron Judge is having. Everybody’s looking to see if he can pass Roger Maris’ 61, but either way he’s having a much, much better season than Maris had in 1961.
Judge’s OPS is almost 100 points higher than Maris’ was that season — Judge is leading the league in OPS by a wide margin; Maris didn’t even come close to leading the league in OPS in 1961 (he finished fifth). Maris was considered a good rightfielder in his day, but Judge is better, and Judge has played about half his games in centerfield. Judge has stolen 15 bases while getting caught just twice. Maris stole 0.
Because Judge is a much more conventional player than Ohtani, we can do a better job of calculating his value. And if he finishes off this season, his value will be roughly as a 10-WAR player. There have only been nine players since 1969 who have had 10-WAR seasons — Barry Bonds had three of them, Mike Trout and Cal Ripken Jr. had two. When a player has a 10-WAR season, unless there’s a bizarre circumstance or people somehow miss it, that player wins the MVP. Going backward:
2018: Mookie Betts (10.7 WAR): Won MVP
2016: Mike Trout (10.5 WAR): Won MVP.
2012: Mike Trout (10.5 WAR): Lost MVP to Miggy Cabrera, who won the Triple Crown.
2004: Barry Bonds (10.6 WAR): Won MVP.
2002: Barry Bonds (11.8 WAR) Won MVP.
2001: Barry Bonds (11.9 WAR): Won MVP.
2001: Sammy Sosa (10.3 WAR): Lost MVP to Bonds.
2000: Alex Rodriguez (10.4 WAR): Lost MVP to Jason Giambi because people did not value A-Rod’s shortstop defense. Anyway, Pedro Martinez should have won that year.
1991: Cal Ripken Jr. (11.5 WAR): Won MVP.
1984: Cal Ripken Jr. (10.0 WAR): Didn’t come close to winning the MVP because he’d won it already in 1983 and the Orioles finished fifth.
1982: Robin Yount (10.6 WAR): Won MVP.
1975: Joe Morgan (11.0 WAR): Won MVP.
1969: Rico Petrocelli (10.0 WAR): Finished seventh in MVP balloting because people did not value his shortstop defense and the Red Sox were not a factor in the pennant race.
Now, Judge is likely to join that elite group … and while you certainly could argue that Ohtani’s overall value is greater, I’m inclined to go with Judge as MVP even if he is the more conventional choice. I’d rather them name a star after Ohtani or give him the first flying car or something.