Aaron Judge is chasing Babe Ruth as he winds down July on pace to become the third Yankees player ever — along with Ruth and Roger Maris — to hit 60 or more home runs in a single season.
But Shohei Ohtani has also conjured talk of the ghost of The Bambino. Nobody has been able to both pitch and hit at an elite professional level like Ohtani has in the past 100-plus years — since Ruth became almost exclusively a batter and outfielder after the 1919 season.
A few games clear of the All-Star break, the American League Most Valuable Player award is essentially a two-man race between Judge and Ohtani. And it’s a particularly fascinating two-man race because, for many voters, the decision is entirely a matter of philosophy.
Some believe the MVP cannot possibly come from a team that fails to contend, which would disqualify Ohtani, whose Los Angeles Angels come into Tuesday’s play with a record of 40-56, 11.5 games out of the third wild card spot and effectively eliminated from postseason contention with more than two months to go. Others believe the MVP must be the player who puts up All-Star numbers as a hitter and as a pitcher when, once every century or so, such a player exists. That would disqualify Judge — and everyone else not named Ohtani — as long as the Japanese superstar is playing well.
So what do the bookmakers think of this conundrum? It appears they’re as uncertain of whom to favor as the rest of us.
Inside New York’s state borders, the rules preclude legal wagering on any awards market. So in order to place a bet on the AL MVP at a regulated sportsbook, a bettor has to take a trip across state lines to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or Connecticut.
But surveying half a dozen mobile sportsbooks that operate in New York as well as in multiple border states — BetMGM, BetRivers, Caesars, FanDuel, DraftKings, and PointsBet — we see that Judge and Ohtani are running just about neck and neck in MVP odds:
|SPORTSBOOK||AARON JUDGE||SHOHEI OHTANI|
The No. 3 contender for the award is Yordan Alvarez of the Houston Astros, and he’s priced between +950 and +1300, depending on the sportsbook. These odds basically add up to a reality that unless both Ohtani and Judge miss several weeks down the stretch due to injury, nobody else has a shot at AL MVP.
Judge’s offensive stats are eye-popping, in the traditional categories as well as the advanced modern metrics. He’s hitting .294 with 37 homers (leading Major League Baseball by seven) and 81 RBIs. That puts him on pace to finish at .294/62/135, monster numbers in any era. He’s also second in the AL in OPS at 1.025 and leads the AL in WAR at 5.1.
Ohtani’s offensive stats are modest by comparison. He’s hitting .256 with 20 HRs (on pace for 34) and 57 RBIs (on pace for 96). His OPS is .831 and his WAR is 1.7. His power numbers and WAR are down substantially from his MVP-winning 2021 campaign, when he racked up 46 homers and 100 RBIs.
But then there’s the pitching. In 16 starts, Ohtani has been a notch above where he was a year ago. His 12.9 strikeouts per 9 innings leads MLB, and he’s posted a 9-5 record (for a losing team) with a 2.80 ERA and a pitching WAR of 2.9. At most sportsbooks, he ranks fourth among AL Cy Young candidates.
Add Ohtani’s two WAR metrics together and he’s at 4.6, second in the AL behind Judge.
Value and variables
In this debate, however, the numbers take a back seat to philosophical interpretations of what it means to be “most valuable.”
One Deadspin writer believes Judge is the lone viable option because he’s the only one of the two playing in games that matter. The article uses the words “best player on the best team,” a cornerstone of the Judge MVP case. It’s a belief shared by many media members and baseball fans: If your team is not remotely in contention, and there’s someone performing like Judge is for a team that is in contention, you aren’t the MVP.
But just a week ago, before Judge came out of the All-Star break swatting — and slightly shortening his MVP odds — five CBS Sports journalists unanimously gave their first-place votes to Ohtani. “This is once-in-a-lifetime stuff,” the article reads. That succinctly sums up the feeling among some that as a mere hitter/fielder who doesn’t also pitch, Judge can’t compare with the value Ohtani brings to his team, regardless of how successful that team is.
There are still quite a few variables to consider, though, with some 65 games remaining in the season.
First, as the incremental shifting of the odds in the past week reminds us, how Judge and Ohtani play the rest of the way is hugely important. Judge hit four homers in his first five games post All-Star break, moving him from slight underdog to slight favorite at several books. If Ohtani throws a no-hitter or if Judge has a three-homer night, it can instantly change the equation.
One potentially massive pivot point: It’s possible the Angels will trade Ohtani before the Aug. 2 deadline. That development is reportedly highly unlikely, but there is a non-zero chance of it happening. If Ohtani is traded to the NL, that’s that for his MVP candidacy. Conversely, if he’s traded to an AL contender, that could seriously boost his chances of snagging the award.
Then there’s the question of team performance the rest of the way. Yes, Ohtani’s team is spiraling downward and there’s no reason to expect the Angels to make a climb back toward .500. But what if the Yankees regress in August and September? What if the Astros — just two games back of the Yanks on Tuesday morning — pass them for the best record and Judge no longer has that “best player on the best team” case propelling him?
In fact, it’s worth taking a quick glance at Alvarez’s numbers. He’s hitting .304 (a bit higher than Judge) with a 1.066 OPS (tops in MLB), while trailing Judge in homers (28), RBIs (65), and WAR (4.4). If he finishes just a shade behind in power numbers, close to even in WAR, and the Astros end up with the best record in baseball … sure, that’s a lot of “ifs,” but the possibility of this ending up an Ohtani vs. Alvarez debate, even without a hypothetical injury to Judge opening the door, can’t be ruled out.
Meanwhile, a note for all New York-based bettors who want to bet on Judge without having to cross into another state: Caesars Sportsbook has a special non-MVP prop to consider. The book has reset the line for Judge’s season home run total at 61.5, with under priced at -400 and over at +300. That’s one bet you can make that will in no way be impacted by anyone’s opinions about Shohei Ohtani’s worth.
Photo: Gregory Fisher/USA TODAY