Aaron Judge vs. Shohei Ohtani for AL MVP? A clear-cut NL Cy Young winner?

Aaron Judge vs. Shohei Ohtani for AL MVP? A clear-cut NL Cy Young winner?

A few weeks ago, it appeared the American League MVP debate was going to be an epic three-way battle between Aaron Judge, Yordan Alvarez and Shohei Ohtani, perhaps one of the best three-player races of all time.

Judge had 33 home runs at the All-Star break as the Yankees were steamrolling through the league, giving him a season pace of 58 and a chance to hit 60. Alvarez was arguably having an even better offensive season, hitting .306/.405/.653 with 26 home runs at the break. His weighted runs created plus (wRC+) figure was over 200, a number reached just nine times in a full season since 1950 — four of those by Barry Bonds. Ohtani, of course, was having another brilliant two-way season.

Since then, however, Judge has been scorching hot, hitting .403 with 13 home runs in 20 games heading into Sunday night’s shutout loss to the Red Sox, giving him 46 home runs on the season. Now his wRC+ is over 200. Ohtani has continued to star for the hapless Angels, especially on the pitching side, where he’s 10-7 with a 2.68 ERA and 157 strikeouts in 111 innings (including a 1.70 ERA over his past 10 starts). Alvarez, meanwhile, missed seven games with a hand injury and has slowed down a bit. Our three-player clash is now a two-player race between Judge and Ohtani.

Brad Doolittle and Dave Schoenfield take a look at where we are in both leagues’ MVP and Cy Young races. A statistical glimpse of the races is provided using Doolittle AXE ratings. The ratings are prorated for 162 games using season-to-date results, plus a rest-of-season forecast based on anticipated playing time and 2022 performance. Playing time estimates are based on depth chart data from Fangraphs.com. Odds from Caesars Sportsbook are as of Sunday.


Aaron Judge vs. Shohei Ohtani for AL MVP? A clear-cut NL Cy Young winner?

Award Index (AXE) Leaders

1. Paul Goldschmidt, St. Louis Cardinals (148.4)
2. Nolan Arenado, St. Louis Cardinals (144.3)
3. Manny Machado, San Diego Padres (139.0)
4. Francisco Lindor, New York Mets (138.7)
5. Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers (136.0)
6. Freddie Freeman, Los Angeles Dodgers (135.7)
7. Austin Riley, Atlanta Braves (135.0)
8. Trea Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers (133.0)
9. Dansby Swanson, Atlanta Braves (130.7)
10. Juan Soto, San Diego Padres (125.1)
11. Tommy Edman, St. Louis Cardinals (124.8)

Odds from Caesars Sportsbook

Goldschmidt -150
Riley +300
Arenado +900
Freeman +900
Pete Alonso, Mets +1600
Betts +2200
Machado +2500
Turner +3000
Soto +3500

What AXE sees: We pushed this AXE leaderboard to 11 in order to get Edman on the list. Edman has been falling down the standings some in recent weeks but before that, he was building a fascinating MVP case based on top-of-the-charts metrics in defense and baserunning. Even with the recent drop, it’s the type of season a vintage Ben Zobrist would be proud of. Goldschmidt has been in the top two or three for most of the season and it’s not hard to understand why. He has a non-zero chance at a traditional Triple Crown and a pretty good chance at a clean sweep in the slash categories.

Still, Arenado, his teammate, is right there and it could come down to who has more big moments in a successful Cardinals playoff push. Machado has been steady all season. Meanwhile, Lindor has been the most rapid riser, leading a coterie of Mets position players having elite seasons.

What Dave says: Goldschmidt has seemingly been the leader here since he hit .404 with 10 home runs and 33 RBIs in May, but now he appears to be neck-and-neck with teammate Arenado. Goldschmidt has the offensive edge, but Arenado is not far behind while also providing his usual Gold Glove defense at third base. It certainly will be a fascinating debate if this holds, as the last time teammates to finish 1-2 in the MVP voting was 2000, when Jeff Kent beat out Barry Bonds.

Where it gets really interesting, however, is if one of the other contenders makes a late push. We could end up with a situation like 1996, when Mariners teammates Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. were the two best players in the league but A-Rod got 10 first-place votes and Griffey four, while Juan Gonzalez ended up winning MVP honors with A-Rod and Griffey in second and fourth place, respectively. (In those pre-WAR days, it’s now viewed as one of the worst MVP selections ever).

Anyway, Goldschmidt is my sentimental favorite given that he has two runner-ups and another third-place finish in his career. I’m also a little surprised, but pleased, to see Lindor third in the AXE rankings. His numbers may not jump out at you, but he’s probably going to score and drive in 100 runs, still plays a good shortstop and has been tearing it up the past seven weeks or so. He could be the sneaky candidate if he keeps hitting down the stretch.

Last word from Brad: You almost feel bad for the Dodgers on the leaderboard, as their collective excellence has become so extreme that everything L.A. does feels more like inevitability than anything. Still, this race is far from decided and anyone in the top eight could build a strong case with a massive finish. Nevertheless, Goldschmidt has been gradually pulling ahead over the last couple of months and shows little inclination of slowing his pace. Unless he slumps over the rest of the season, Goldy has to be considered a mild favorite right now for what would be his first MVP, coming in his age-34 season after several near misses earlier in his career.


Aaron Judge vs. Shohei Ohtani for AL MVP? A clear-cut NL Cy Young winner?

Award Index (AXE) Leaders

1. Aaron Judge, New York Yankees (160.1)
2. Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels (143.7)
3. Yordan Alvarez, Houston Astros (140.3)
4. (tie) Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Guardians (132.9)
5. Rafael Devers, Boston Red Sox (132.9)
6. Andres Gimenez, Cleveland Guardians (132.8)
7. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels (131.0)
8. DJ LeMahieu, New York Yankees (128.5)
9. Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox (126.8)
10. Julio Rodriguez, Seattle Mariners (125.4)

Odds from Caesars Sportsbook

Judge -650
Ohtani +450
Alvarez +4000
Ramirez +6000
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays +10000
Devers +10000

What AXE sees: AXE is seeing the same thing as everybody else, which is that Judge has bludgeoned his way to clear front-runner status, and unless he cools off dramatically, the only question is whether he’s going to be a unanimous pick. A 160 AXE is getting into historic AXE territory. At the All-Star break, Ohtani was leading the AL with a 144 AXE, with Judge at 141 and Alvarez right there, too, at 140. Additionally, Fangraphs has Judge on pace for 10.8 fWAR, which would be one of the 30-best seasons ever posted by a position player.

What Dave says: As unique and wonderful as Ohtani’s two-way performance is, it’s hard to disagree with AXE right now, given Judge is on pace for 65 home runs. If he breaks Roger Maris’ “clean” AL record of 61, it’s going to be hard to deny him. He leads the AL in home runs, RBIs, runs, walks, slugging percentage, OPS and total bases, while also playing good defense for a division-leading team.

The raw calculations don’t give Ohtani any extra credit for essentially being two players in one. Should that be the case? Last year, he didn’t need any; his combined WAR was easily the best in the AL. This year, Judge has a sizable lead, 7.2 to 5.6 in WAR heading into Sunday. On the other hand, Ohtani is ninth in the AL in OPS and tied for third in pitching WAR, so how can you deny him? Only with a historic performance, and that’s what Judge is delivering.

Last word from Brad: When you have a player putting up historic all-around numbers like Judge, and doing it for the New York Yankees, and doing it in a league context where offense is down and spotlighting the narrative of it all with a chase for 60 homers, you can see where this is going. Even if Judge invariably cools some, it’s hard to see anyone catching him in this race.

NL Cy Young

Aaron Judge vs. Shohei Ohtani for AL MVP? A clear-cut NL Cy Young winner?

Award Index (AXE) Leaders

1. Sandy Alcantara, Miami Marlins (155.8)
2. Max Fried, Atlanta Braves (146.3)
3. Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies (142.5)
4. Carlos Rodon, San Francisco Giants (141.7)
5. Max Scherzer, New York Mets (139.3)
6. Zack Wheeler, Philadelphia Phillies (138.8)
7. Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers (138.3)
8. Logan Webb, San Francisco Giants (133.4)
9. Merrill Kelly, Arizona Diamondbacks (130.5)
10. Tony Gonsolin, Los Angeles Dodgers (129.7)

Odds from Caesars Sportsbook

Alcantara -300
Burnes +900
Fried +1500
Wheeler +2000
Rodon +2500
Gonsolin +3000
Joe Musgrove, Padres +3500
Scherzer +3500

What AXE sees: If the Marlins were in contention, Alcantara might be creating MVP buzz. He’s having that kind of season. The only reason it’s this close on the AXE leaderboard is because of how the Fangraphs version of pitching WAR leans so heavily on defense-independent variables. And if too many voters are looking at that leaderboard, where Alcantara is in a scrum with Rodon and Fried, that might lead to him being undersold. In AXE, that’s balanced out by his huge lead in WAR and in the Baseball Reference version of win probability added. If Alcantara keeps rolling, AXE sees him as the crystal-clear Cy Young favorite.

What Dave says: This is the easiest call of the four awards. I suppose there are those who will point to Alcantara’s .248 BABIP and somewhat pedestrian 7.9 K’s per nine and suggest he’s been lucky. But when you watch him pitch, you realize that’s not the case. Yes, he’s a little more pitch-to-contact than many starters today, but that’s because he induces so much weak contact on his 98-mph sinker. That also allows him to be extraordinarily efficient: He’s pitched 13 1/3 more innings than any other starter in the majors. So you have a workhorse starter who leads the league in ERA. That’s a Cy Young winner.

Last word from Brad: If you haven’t seen Alcantara pitch this season and you have the means to do so, make it a point to tune in. He has become must-see viewing. And as managers and front offices continue to try to figure out how to adjust to the new restrictions on the size of pitching staffs, a good place to start is by showing video of Alcantara working to everyone in your organization. He’s made complete games cool again, and he’s done so with pitch counts that have never climbed higher than 117. Let’s hope voters don’t overthink this: Alcantara has been the best pitcher in baseball this season. (Though, he should be grateful that Jacob deGrom’s season got such a late start.)

AL Cy Young

Aaron Judge vs. Shohei Ohtani for AL MVP? A clear-cut NL Cy Young winner?

Award Index (AXE) Leaders

1. Justin Verlander, Houston Astros (142.1)
2. Dylan Cease, Chicago White Sox (140.5)
3. Shane McClanahan, Tampa Bay Rays (136.3)
4. Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels (135.3)
5. Kevin Gausman, Toronto Blue Jays (131.2)
6. Alek Manoah, Toronto Blue Jays (130.0)
7. Martin Perez, Texas Rangers (129.6)
8. Framber Valdez, Houston Astros (128.8)
9. Nestor Cortes, New York Yankees (128.7)
10. Shane Bieber, Cleveland Guardians (124.6)

Odds from Caesars Sportsbook

Verlander -175
Cease +275
McClanahan +500
Ohtani +2000
Manoah +3500
Gausman +5000

What AXE sees: Verlander has been getting plenty of well-deserved attention for his incredible comeback from Tommy John surgery. He’s a Hall of Famer having a Hall-of-Fame type season. Ohtani merits a special call-out for the gains he’s made on the pitching side this season. You have to wonder what his workload is going to look like down the stretch with the Angels once again out of contention. Verlander has to be the favorite, barring a collapse, but Cease has been climbing up this leaderboard rapidly. Incredibly, he didn’t make the AL All-Star team and that decision looks worse with every outing he makes.

What Dave says: As you can see, this remains a crowded race, so it’s still wide open. With 50 or so games left, that means nine starts or so for each pitcher. McClanahan was the leader through the first half, but he hasn’t been as sharp his past three starts, with 20 hits and 11 runs in 16⅔ innings (and just 11 K’s). Two of those starts came against Detroit and Cleveland, hardly offensive powerhouses, so you have to wonder if he’s hitting a little bit of a wall as he’s now exceeded his innings total from 2021.

Cease is the young pitcher with momentum now, with a crazy 0.66 ERA over his past 14 starts. He’s allowed no more than one earned run in any of those starts — although that’s a little misleading. He allowed six unearned runs in one start against the Dodgers, walked seven in another game while allowing two unearned runs, and has pitched seven innings just twice in those 14 outings.

For me, Verlander is the slight leader at the moment. He’s pitched at least seven innings 10 times this season compared to just four for Cease, and at least six innings 18 times compared to 11 for Cease. Maybe it’s a little thing, but an extra inning here and there feels like a big deal. Oh, and I know referencing wins is a no-go in the sabermetric crowd, but it doesn’t hurt that Verlander is 15-3. He has to close strong, but I think he will — and become the 11th pitcher to win at least three Cy Young Awards.

Last word from Brad: The narrative around Verlander is going to be hard to beat even if Cease continues to dominate and is a chief driver of a White Sox run to the playoffs. Verlander could win 22 or 23 games the way he’s going, and I’m not ashamed to point that out. I don’t evaluate based on wins (duh) but I do love it when a pitcher puts up a big number. This race is still fairly open and anyone among the top four or five who gets on a roll from here on out could win it. But Verlander is in the driver’s seat.

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