Friday, August 19, 2022

Shohei Ohtani is trying to join rare MVP company; here’s where his case stands and how it differs from 2021

The Los Angeles Angels are once again enduring a disappointing season in which the excellence of Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout is compromised by the lesser reality of the standings. This, of course, is a familiar refrain to Halos rooters and those who hope to see Ohtani and Trout display their excellence in the postseason. 

For now, though, we’ll have to settle for regular-season excellence, and both have provided plenty of that in 2022, Ohtani in particular. So as we approach the All-Star break, let’s take a moment to appraise Ohtani’s chances of doing something not often glimpsed in baseball — repeating as the MVP. 

In 2021, Ohtani reached new heights as a two-way performer, in part because of health and durability. His WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, of 9.0 topped the loop by a substantial margin, and that immense value combined with his star power and the singular nature of his accomplishments made him the unanimous choice in the AL MVP race. That backdrop brings us to the current season and where Ohtani — who just struck out 12 Astros in a start on Wednesday night — stands just past the midpoint of the season. Let’s examine. 

Ohtani is trying to become just the 14th player ever to win back-to-back MVP awards.

As you might expect, winning the MVP in consecutive seasons is a rare thing. Indeed, just 13 players have achieved it, including Barry Bonds who did it on multiple occasions and won six awards overall. Here’s the complete list: 

For two partly overlapping periods of time — from 1922 to 1928 in the American League and from 1924 to 1929 in the National League — prior winners of the MVP award were not eligible to win a second time. In essence, the modern incarnation of the MVP award began in 1931. Only one pitcher, Detroit’s Newhouser, has won the MVP award in consecutive years. 

The above is the company Ohtani seeks to keep this season. 

You can make the case that Ohtani has been the best player in the AL this year. 

Here’s the current WAR leaderboard in the AL: 

  1. Shohei Ohtani, Angels, 4.3
  2. Yordan Alvarez, Astros, 4.1
  3. Rafael Devers, Red Sox, 4.0
  4. Mike Trout, Angels, 3.8
  5. Aaron Judge, Yankees, 3.6

Yes, Ohtani again lords over all he surveys in the junior circuit. As you can see, though, it’s a tight race, and there’s plenty of time for Ohtani to be caught and passed by others on the list — even those outside the top five. No, WAR is not a flawless metric, but it’s the best and most accurate public-facing measure of overall player value we have, and in recent years it’s been a fairly reliable predictor of MVP voting outcomes. Right now it argues that Ohtani is at least somewhat deserving of MVP laurels for a second straight year. 

One thing, though … Ohtani’s 2022 WAR is on pace to fall shy of that 9.0 WAR he authored last season. If he performs similarly over the balance of the season, then he’ll wind up with a 2022 WAR of 7.8. That’s still excellent, but it’s a step back from the 2021 levels. There’s some indication that over the last 50 years, voters like to see a candidate be even better in year two before giving him a second straight MVP award. 

Of the eight repeaters over the last 50 years, five had higher WARs in year two than they did during year one of their MVP streaks. A sixth, Schmidt, was on pace to beat his year one WAR by a wide margin, but the strike-shortened 1981 season prevented that from happening. So, really, it’s six out of eight. The two outliers are Morgan, and Bonds from 2001-02. Perhaps all that isn’t relevant to Ohtani’s fortunes in 2022 given the evolved electorate, but it’s something to bear in mind. 

Ohtani’s two-way value is more pitching-dominant this season.  

Last year, Ohtani’s MVP case largely resided on his production at the plate with his mound-work playing a complementary role. In 2022, those trends have reversed. Consider:

  • In 2021, Ohtani’s pitching WAR accounted for 45.6 percent of his total WAR.
  • Thus far in 2022, Ohtani’s pitching WAR accounts for 65.1 percent of his total WAR. 

So Ohtani’s pitching as a share of his overall value went from less than half to almost two-thirds. In matters related, he’s shaved almost a run off his 2021 ERA while increasing his K/BB ratio. As well, Ohtani is on pace to pitch more than 150 innings for the first time in his career. With the bat, he’s still been quite effective as the Halos’ primary DH, but the power production has dropped off significantly. 

How, or even whether, all of this affects support for his MVP case in 2022 is uncertain, but it seems worth acknowledging that he’s a different kind of two-way star this season. 

Aaron Judge has been the AL MVP favorite for most of the year. 

If the sportsbooks and general sentiment are reliable guides, then Judge has been in the lead for AL MVP laurels for most of the season (Caesars Sportsbook listed Ohtani and Judge as co-favorites at +125 on Thursday morning). That’s defensible given that Judge has been the best player for the best team. He’s on pace to top 50 home runs this season, he’s got a career-best OPS+ of 173, and he leads the majors in total bases. As well, he’s been the Yankees’ primary in center field this season. According to WAR, Judge hasn’t been the best player in the AL, but you have to consider the error bars involved in a stat like WAR. We’ve got roughly two-and-a-half months for the story to change, but right that story seems to belong to Judge. 

Health and fatigue will be factors. 

Assuming both Ohtani and Judge continue to perform at high levels — not an unsafe assumption — their ability to stay on the field could be determinative. Each, as you’re probably aware, has a notable injury history, and in Ohtani’s case he’s on target for a career-high in innings pitched. Will that workload exact a price in terms of performance down the stretch? Somewhat relatedly, will the Yankees’ massive lead in the AL East prompt them to rest Judge more often down the stretch and thus hurt his counting stats?

Elsewhere, Alvarez is also very much in the AL MVP discussion, although he’s dealing with significant hand inflammation at the moment. It’s yet to be determined how long he’ll be out and whether that injury will compromise him at the plate upon his return.

The one certainty as we head toward the second half of the season is that Ohtani is very much in the AL MVP conversation, and that means he has a chance to join the rare company of repeaters. 

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