Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani? The AL MVP debate challenges WAR, but don’t ignore the ubiquitous stat. Here’s why

Long before grassroots football evolved into an entire industry interested in quantifying the value of players, the word enveloped itself into the game without much fanfare. The MVP Awards, whose 2022 winners will be announced on Thursday night, date back to 1931 in their current form. Before that, but after they were just a giveaway to car companies based on batting average, the AL and NL awarded a League Trophy to the “player with the most service to his team”. And by the late 1920s, that was formalized when the BBWAA took over voting. A century later, most everyone involved with MLB recognizes the benchmarks of player performance established by statistics, and specifically by Wins Above Replacement, or WAR.

Outside of the tiebreaker situations that require awards, it can feel like there’s very little left to count, estimate or calculate. There is almost nothing you could hold a Socratic seminar on. Keyword: Almost. When New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge (spoiler alert) wins the American League award, it will leave many wondering how Los Angeles Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani could continue his unprecedented two-way feat, but he will lose an award that he won unanimously just last year.

There are plenty of factors that may or may not have swayed voters: Since Ohtani has already won, the success of the Yankees team, Judge’s historic feat of hitting 62 homers. But the most decisive argument in Judge’s favor is WAR’s commanding record. Whether you check FanGraphs or Baseball Reference, Judge comes out on top.

. . (As luck would have it, it would be easy for either of them to capture the NL award, unfortunately.)

The pro-Ohtani party line, then, stems from the notion that his leadership is double duty— Pitching! And! Hitting! — breaks WAR, that ubiquitous value metric has entered a player so different that he can’t be equated with the rest of the league. So let’s talk about the ways Ohtani tests the limits of WAR, and whether we should trust his assessment of whether a great player, Judge or Ohtani, provided the The most service to their team.

Aaron Judge posted one of the most valuable offensive seasons in baseball history. Should that take precedence in AL MVP voting over Shohei Ohtani’s two-way excellence? (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

How Aaron Judge’s WAR measures Shohei Ohtani’s excellence

Let’s get this out of the way first: WAR destroys all team-dependent context. RBIs, clutch hits, the Yankees making the playoffs while the Angels didn’t? Totally irrelevant to WAR. I think we can all agree that it’s not Ohtani’s fault that Anthony Rendon got hurt, or that the Angels didn’t have any competent players to replace him.

Speaking of replacing players, that’s built into the name, so it’s important to understand. Simply put, “replacement level” is a consistent estimate of a readily available player that teams could quickly acquire in a pinch. Importantly, this is also a way to remove actual team situations from the equation. It serves instead as a handy hypothetical baseline — the baseball stat equivalent of zeroing the scale after you lay down the wax paper, but before you add the deli meat.

The rest of the WAR calculation involves crunching numbers you know from traditional box scores and leaderboards. For hitting, that means a formula that literally counts every positive event at the plate — from walks to singles to homers — and weights it appropriately based on its current value in the current season’s scoring environment. For pitching, it means calculating how many runs a pitcher allows per nine innings, but realizing the advantages or disadvantages of fielders. Different calculations use quite different methods for this part, but generally you are left with a more complicated version of ERA that is less fortunate.

This part is pretty simple.

The 2022 version of Judge was better than Ohtani … and just about everyone else in recent baseball memory. The 62 homers were the headliner, but he also led baseball in on-base percentage. Overall, his batting line was more than twice as well as the average MLB hitter, That’s what his 207 wRC+, a pitch-adjusted metric that repackages the factors that go into FanGraphs WAR, is telling us – that he was 107% better than the batting average. Only 15 seasons in MLB history have cleared that 200 wRC+ bar (only 12 if you took out strikeout or pandemic shortened campaigns) and no one had done it since Barry Bonds.

Ohtani had a more run of the mill season with the bat, hitting 34 homers and batting .273 to come in at a 142 wRC+. It was a great year, but 71 other individual seasons have passed or surpassed one just since Ohtani entered the league in 2018. Of course … he pitched, too. Ohtani, who finished fourth in AL Cy Young voting released Wednesday night, had his best season on the mound. He leaned more on his slider, added a sinker (of course) and worked deeper into games. All told, he fired 166 innings with a 2.33 ERA and 2.40 FIP, which is the fielding-independent metric FanGraphs uses to calculate a pitcher’s WAR. The ERA ranked sixth and the FIP ranked third among qualified starters. Overall, the pitching side’s WAR came out to 5.6 at FanGraphs.

On the hitting side, however, Ohtani totaled a modest 3.8 WAR, where Judge achieved 11.4. That huge gap comes in part from Judge’s mental offensive prowess, but also from the need for WAR to account for the relative difficulty of each player’s assignment — the positional adjustment.

Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani unanimously wins the AL MVP Award in 2021. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. V'squez)

Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani unanimously won the AL MVP Award in 2021. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

How does WAR handle talent that replaces two players?

Ohtani’s position is the whole point: He’s a pitcher, he’s a hitter, he does both. But most of the time, in 503 of his 666 plate appearances, he was a designated hitter who didn’t contribute to any defense. Before we get into all the Ohtani stuff, let’s remember why WAR has significant positions.

There is a clear rationale for the position adjustment, which goes like this:

  1. Playing shortstop or center field is more challenging than playing left field or DH.

  2. Therefore, finding a hypothetical replacement player to manage one of the tougher positions is a much different task than finding a center left fielder.

  3. Therefore, players who are considered capable of standing at shortstop should have a higher starting WAR point than left fielders.

In practice, it means that a player’s total value is inflated or deflated in the final calculation based on the number of games he spends at each position. Designated hitters, who play no defense at all, take the steepest decline to firmly distinguish between, say, a DH who posts a 1.000 OPS and a shortstop who posts a 1.000 OPS.

And in case you thought that story wouldn’t really confuse you, , it was made before WAR was invented and it would be available in real time.

  1. Right fielder/designated hitter, 1.011 OPS, 3.8 bWAR

  2. Shortstop, 1.045 OPS, 9.4 bWAR

  3. Left fielder, 1.033 OPS, 5.7 bWAR

  4. Center, 1.020 OPS, 9.7 bWAR

  5. First baseman, 1.003 OPS, 5.6 bWAR

That’s Juan Gonzalez, the Texas Rangers slugger, who won the honor over runner-up Alex Rodriguez and fourth-place finisher Ken Griffey Jr. in an absolutely absurd vote … that would not happen now.

Whatever you think of its exact application – which could definitely use some updating – the location adjustment serves a real purpose. Now, does it account for Ohtani correctly? in September and : Mostly, yes, and there would be no difference that could be Ohtani over the Judge.

the same trends toward flexibility that make the positional adjustment questionable are coming in spades in Ohtani’s case.

“The WAR model is based on an obsolete idea,” Carleton wrote. “Teams are moving away from the idea of ​​a designated starter at each outfield position to a pair with dedicated backups, and even away from the starter three times through the order. As flexibility within a roster becomes the way teams are assembled, it’s a good idea to remember that flexibility has value, but WAR isn’t set to capture it.”

First, let’s talk about the Judge’s positional adjustment. This season, he has helped the Yankees tremendously by being willing and surprisingly able to be in the middle. He wasn’t the best in the league there, where he’s often among the game’s best right fielders, but that was a huge boon to an injury-prone roster that could put out another much worse. Because his right field defense was often positive, while his center field defense was just okay, perhaps his flexibility counted against him in the end.

While Ohtani does two different things very well, the Angels’ roster is set up in a specific, fairly rigid way to facilitate it. He wants the DH job every single day. He has to pitch every sixth day, not every fifth, which means he doesn’t give his team a two-in-one roster spot advantage. They still have five more starting pitchers on their roster, and their non-Ohtani group of players has fewer ways to maximize their potential.

Ohtani’s phenomenon is not just about his ability to pitch and hit, but the paradigms he questions so much. While I don’t think his (likely) runner-up finish will look like the double vote that inspired 1996, Ohtani’s continued success will force the basketball world to think again, again. Along with the extremely exciting barrage that the Judge had and which Statcast tracks on the records. It’s unimaginable how it could have been a few years ago, but if Ohtani manages to play both ways it doesn’t mean he’s the most valuable player in the game every season he pulls it off . And that’s encouraging in some small way – proof that there’s still plenty to discover.

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