The MVP awards will be announced Thursday, and the American League vote between Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge promises to be a tight one. If Altuve wins, it will be the final exclamation point on his rise from novelty to superstar, the culmination of a season that included a World Series title, his third batting championship and his fourth straight 200-hit campaign.
Aaron Judge‘s MVP-caliber season was even more of a surprise. While he was a highly rated prospect after the Yankees drafted him 32nd overall in 2013, his struggles during his late-season call-up in 2016 meant he wasn’t even guaranteed to be the Yankees’ starting right fielder when spring training kicked off. He’d win that job and go on to set the major league record for rookies with 52 home runs.
In the end, maybe it doesn’t really matter who wins. Both players are great for the sport; not only terrific ambassadors for the game, but exciting and unique players to watch. They are two guys who, when they’re about to bat, you don’t change the channel or take the dog out. For different reasons, they defy the baseball logic we’ve constructed in our brains.
How can a guy hit a baseball that far? How can somebody as short as Altuve be so powerful? How can somebody as big as Judge move like that in the outfield? How does Altuve swing so hard and not strike out more?
No matter the voting results, we need an Altuve-Judge commercial for next season: No matter your size, baseball is the sport for you. Maybe we’ll have a tie for only the second time in MVP voting — Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez tied for NL honors in 1979 — and everybody will be happy.
There’s this little thing I do in my head at the end of every baseball season that kind of goes like this: Who was the story of the season? If historians were going to focus on one player to tell the story of a season, who would they focus on?
That’s not always easy to answer. Sometimes it’s obvious. When you think of 1988, you think Orel Hershiser: the Cy Young Award, the consecutive scoreless innings streak, the dominant postseason performance. In 1998, it’s Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. In 2014, Clayton Kershaw went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA and won Cy Young and MVP honors, but Madison Bumgarner‘s historic run in the playoffs made it the Year of MadBum. Sometimes — like 2016 — the story is about an entire team, which trumps any individual narrative.
Who was the big story of 2017? I suppose you can argue Giancarlo Stanton with his 59 home runs, but the Marlins weren’t a factor in the playoff race. Plus, his push for 60 homers came in the second half. We were talking about Altuve and Judge all season.
It feels more like the season belonged to Judge. Maybe that’s the influence of playing for the Yankees. Maybe it’s because his season was more shocking, and something new always gets more attention. Altuve also had others stealing focus away from him at various times as the Astros ran away in the AL West — George Springer and Carlos Correa and then Justin Verlander.
Meanwhile, Judge was in the headlines all season, bashing those mammoth home runs, winning the Home Run Derby in dramatic fashion, slumping after the All-Star break, and then carrying the Yankees to a wild-card berth with a monster September when he hit 15 home runs and drove in 32 runs.
That said … I think Altuve is the MVP here. Judge has the lead over Altuve in FanGraphs WAR (8.2 to 7.5), while Altuve has the slight edge in Baseball-Reference WAR (8.3 to 8.1). The difference for me is that Altuve was much better in clutch situations, with far superior numbers in high-leverage situations and a higher win probability added. Judge not only beat up on a bad pitchers — in 89 at-bats when the game margin was five runs or greater, he hit 17 home runs and slugged 1.000 — but also benefited from that short porch at Yankee Stadium, hitting 33 of his 52 home runs at home.
The interesting thing about Altuve, if he wins, is how his season doesn’t really fit the usual MVP parameters. I searched for all players since 1931 (the first year of BBWAA voting) who hit between .336 and .356 and slugged between 22 and 26 home runs — a list of 31 players. Altuve’s 81 RBIs are fourth-lowest on the list, ahead of only three partial-season players (Matt Williams in 76 games in 1995, Moises Alou in the strike-shortened 1994 season and Johnny Mize in 1946).
One player on the list did win an MVP Award — Buster Posey in 2012, although he drove in 103 runs that year (Daniel Murphy finished second in the NL MVP voting last year with similar numbers and drove in 104 runs).
Altuve’s 81 RBIs would be the fewest for an MVP winner who wasn’t a pitcher since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. Again, that’s no knock on his production: He hit .350 with runners on base. Altuve basically had the same season as 2016, when he finished third in the MVP vote, so maybe it’s a testament to the level he’s achieved that he might win the award in a season that might not even stand out as his best.
And if he doesn’t win? Then Judge joins Ichiro and Fred Lynn as the only players to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. That would be pretty cool. As fans, we can’t lose.