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Ohtani vs. Guerrero: Baseball’s American League MVP Puzzle Has Only One Correct Answer

Shohei Ohtani and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. have battled back and forth for American League MVP supremacy all season long. While both of them deserve to win it, more importantly, neither deserve to lose it. There is however, a creative win-win-win solution hiding in plain sight.

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Photo by Getty Images (via CBS Sports)

Before we proceed, let’s all of us baseball fans agree right now that the 2021 American League MVP race includes but two deserving candidates. No less, and certainly no more. Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays. That’s the short, but comprehensive list.

What both of them are doing is extremely special and it’s rare, so we should appreciate it” is what Josh Donaldson had to say on the matter, when his Minnesota Twins squared off against the Blue Jays in Toronto a couple of weeks ago. And “The Bringer of Rain” would certainly know a little something about the AL MVP award, since he has one of them sitting on his mantle at home from his own time with these same Blue Jays.

Though Donaldson offered a simple (albeit common) take on this multi-layered MVP race, it perfectly encapsulated the conundrum that they have at hand. “They” being the individuals who are in possession of an MVP voting ballot. This particular marathon isn’t about whether both players are deserving of the honor (they both unequivocally are) or even which is the more deserving player. The notion of having to inform one of these generational talents that their unique case of individual achievements is only good for second best, seems rather… unjust. Unfair. Maybe just dead wrong?

So is there a way by which all of these voters can appropriately acknowledge and reward one of these two players’ massively impressive regular seasons, while bypassing the other guy’s credentials? The answer is actually ‘not really.’

And that’s a damn shame.

Herein lies a fantasy-driven, wishlist version of how the MVP could (and theoretically should) be split between these two goliaths.

Because baseball awards are facilitated by a voting process that’s structured on a points-based system (details below), there isn’t exactly an option to assign the same number of points to 1st place and 2nd place. Essentially, there’s no “both” alternative. So having two players finish with the same number of voting points is quite simply a matter of circumstance. Some coincidental addition.

According to Wikipedia, the voting process was/is as follows:

One writer in each city with a team filled out a ten-place ballot, with ten points for the recipient of a first-place vote, nine for a second-place vote, and so on. In 1938, the BBWAA raised the number of voters to three per city and gave 14 points for a first-place vote. The only significant change since then occurred in 1961, when the number of voters was reduced to two per league city.”

To do what’s right in this scenario, could MLB overhaul its current voting process from points-based to something more creative? Could they adjust the process so that someone can allot the same number of imaginary points to two guys equally at the top? I’m sure votes ending in ties wouldn’t occur often and certainly not on every ballot (besides, sports guys love nothing more than to have their opinion land on once side of the fence or the other). Perhaps a tie could occur when it’s not exactly the same number of points, but rather when there’s a thin threshold between the two candidates? Like say, 5 points or less? Hell, maybe MLB could have an override system built in for when a race is THISCLOSE?

I don’t know guys, I’m spit balling it here. All of these ideas seem completely irrational. Some might say psychotic even.

But we need these two guys to share the award this season. Equals. And after you read through each of their unique individual cases below, I think you’ll agree.

Co-MVPs.

While dependent on the voting system of each sport, the concept of dual MVPs is not completely foreign to the professional sports landscape. The NFL (who does not use a points-based system) awarded co-winners in both 1997 to Brett Favre and Barry Sanders, and in 2003 to Peyton Manning and the late Steve McNair. It felt like the right thing to do, and it will happen again.

Naming co-MVPs this season in the American League would ultimately be just the second time in history that Major League Baseball would distribute duplicate awards, dating all the way back to 1931 when the Baseball Writers’ Association of America first awarded the “modern” MVP. The MLB’s single instance occurred in 1979 when the Cardinals’ Keith Hernandez and the Pirates Willie Stargell shared the National League honor, earning 216 points each. Certainly a fluke, but maybe a controllable concept worth putting in play.

MLB could snatch up some novelty points by making that kind of change here. We don’t say this often, but let’s follow the NFL’s lead on this one. It’s not like Rob Manfred couldn’t stand to save some face.

Regardless, let’s have a look at the nominees.


Shohei Ohtani

As of this very moment, with only the weekend left of regular season remaining, Ohtani is likely still clinging to his “leader in the clubhouse” status for the award, largely due to his hitting and pitching endeavors, where he excelled at both. While Vladdy and his Triple Crown pursuit did close some (or most) of the gap over the past month, his numbers have dipped ever-so-slightly over the past week and a half. The fact that it’s practically impossible for Vlad to now achieve this rare feat certainly works in Ohtani’s favor.

The diversity, excellence and sheer magnitude of highlight reel footage that Ohtani has put forth this season as both a position player and a starting pitcher is unparalleled in the modern era. We’re talking about a special kind of special here. Sniffing the Triple Crown is one thing, but we’ve never witnessed elite all-around play like this before and we may never see a player quite like this again in our lifetimes. I mean, the guy earned All-Star spots for both elements of the game. Please enjoy this dude while he’s here.

Check out Ohtani’s batting statistics:

ABAVG.HRRBIOPS.SBWAR
Hitting532.2584599.960264.9

And of course, his pitching ones:

W-LIPERAWHIPK/BBWAR
Pitching9-21303.181.09156/444.1

The fact that he even attempts to perform both of these critical functions during the same season, same game, even the same inning at times, is exceptional by itself. Then, he executes both at such a freakishly elite level. Hit a 470-foot home run and register several 100+ mph strikeouts in the same game? Ohtani is the only guy who does that. It’s actually his most significant credential toward the MVP race, whereas Guerrero does not pitch. Can we even imagine that? Ohtani has become the definition of must-see television whether he’s at the plate or on the mound, with the tendency being to stop everything you’re doing to tune in and see what might happen next. We’ve all seen mammoth home runs and triple digits on the radar gun before, but it’s witnessing the same player do both, especially in the same game, that elevates the featured attraction.

On the statistical side, where it relates to the overall value he brings to his team, just take a glance at his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) number. His consistency has been remarkable from April to the end of September. His 9.0 WAR (a combination of both hitting and pitching) leads the entire Major Leagues by a wide margin.

Shohei Ohtani is clearly the AL MVP. Why? It's all about the money. - The  Washington Post
Photo by Jae C. Hong (AP)

Of course, Ohtani’s 2021 resume doesn’t come without a couple of miniscule holes in it.

First, fair or unfair, his team isn’t going to the playoffs. They won’t even finish the season over .500. To state the obvious, whether in the batter’s box, in the field, or on the mound, a single player cannot affect the direct outcome of every single game played (especially in baseball, where there’s 162 of them). That winning percentage burden shouldn’t be placed on Ohtani. However, to those voters who might value the number of team wins more than the next, the lack of winning will hurt Ohtani’s case just a bit. For this Los Angeles Angels team, one of it’s early downfalls was the absence of their two other star players in Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon, who’ve been sidelined for most of the season. And their starting rotation, aside from Ohtani, was absolutely dreadful. As an example, Dylan Bundy was one of the “big” offseason acquisitions and he posted a 6.06 ERA this season and toiled between the rotation and long relief duties in the bullpen.

Second, while Ohtani’s gaudy WAR and home run totals have been a sight to behold, he actually doesn’t lead the American League in any other attention-grabbing statistical category. And while perhaps insignificant in the grand scheme of things, he also strikes out a lot. His 187 whiffs are fourth most in the entire league. For as much of a run producer as he currently is, he could be doing even more by cutting down on the strikeouts.

Here are his ranks in some of the other major (and more casual/common) metrics within the American League:

Home Runs: 3rd (45)
Runs: 8th (101)
Hits: 42nd (137)
Batting Average: 48th (.258)
Runs Batted In: 13th (99)
Stolen Bases: 5th (26)
On Base + Slugging Percentage: 2nd (.960)
BB/K Ratio: 25th (.492)

But enough nitpicking. The easy counter to the lack of these other eye-popping numbers is that Ohtani spends a sizable portion of his energy (130.1 innings pitched) in the starting rotation and pitching every five days. So what, we expect him to also lead the league in all the statistical categories?! Of course not, to which I don’t think it actually hurts his case at all. Ohtani’s numbers did fall off a bit in mid-to-late September, but that’s likely due to overwhelming fatigue from carrying this sorry Angels team on his shoulders all season long. The guy is human, after all.

Remove Shohei Ohtani and his 9 replacement wins out of that Angels lineup and use your imagination as to what that team becomes. It should be all the evidence one needs to prove that Ohtani is the most valuable player to his own ball club and certainly deserving of the 2021 AL MVP award.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Meanwhile, Vladdy Jr., all of 22 years old, has been building his AL MVP case all season long, equaling Ohtani’s consistency. Unique from Ohtani’s resume was Guerrero’s hot pursuit of the AL Triple Crown, which unfortunately deteriorated as recently as this past week, where he slipped slightly behind in each of the categories (Salvador Perez’s insane September was the crushing blow). Regardless, he was either on or near the top of all three categories almost the entire season. The accomplishment is such a rare feat that it was only last achieved in 2012 by Miguel Cabrera (a first ballot Hall of Famer), and previous to that, way back in 1967 by Carl Yastrzemski. Maple Leafs fans will agree that ’67 was a long, long time ago. That’s the kind of elite company Guerrero has already surrounded himself with in only his third “full” season.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s Torrid Start To 2021 Season Begins With Maturity
Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice (Getty Images)

Unlike Ohtani, Guerrero’s Blue Jays are still clawing and scratching for a postseason birth, which figures to come right down to tomorrow, the final day of the regular season. So yes, his team has won at a higher clip, but he also has the far superior roster. So while credit is certainly deserving for the wins, it also gets partially taken away because of the talent-laden team around him. This of course will matter less to some voters than others. But the hard truth is that if you take Guerrero off the 2021 Blue Jays, they’re still a very good baseball team.

Personally, I don’t feel like the team narrative overshadows anything this young stud has shown us this season. With Robbie Ray being one of the two Cy Young finalists, Bo Bichette becoming one of the best shortstops in the game, Marcus Semien breaking all kinds of records, and Teoscar Hernandez putting together another Silver Slugger-type season, I still believe that Guerrero is the most valuable member of this team, and like Ray, completely deserving of one of the final two award spots.

For comparison, here are Guerrero’s statistical ranks alongside Ohtani:

Statistic / AL RankOhtaniGuerrero
Plate Appearances630 (25th)688 (3rd)
Hits137 (42nd)185 (2nd)
Runs101 (8th)120 (1st)
Home Runs45 (3rd)46 (2nd)
Batting Average.258 (48th).310 (3rd)
Runs Batted In99 (13th)107 (6th)
On-Base + Slugging %.960 (2nd).992 (1st)
Extra Base Hits79 (2nd)75 (3rd)
Total Bases314 (4th)353 (1st)
Strikeout %.297 (67th).158 (16th)
Walk to Strikeout Rate.492 (25th).780 (6th)

Obviously, you get the idea here.

As an aside to the actual award race, his dedication to the game has also been such a bright spot. The season began with him showing up to Spring Training 42 pounds lighter and in great physical shape, and now is concluding with his team battling for a playoff spot among the AL’s elite. He worked hard in transitioning from 3rd base over to 1st base, where he’s delivered plenty of Gold Glove-level defensive highlights.

On top of all that, consider the absolute ENORMOUS pressure for him to actually perform (and perhaps even outperform), while being constantly measured next to his Hall of Fame father’s illustrious career.

Can you even imagine being young Vladdy Jr. for a single day?

The kid has categorically crushed it.


Coming full circle, the bottom line through this deep dive is that both deserve to win the award, and more importantly, neither deserves to lose it. But we often live in a fantasy world with professional sports. Feels criminal sometimes.

Here’s a table of the final unique “elements” (muhahahaha) that truly matter within this AL MVP race. As you’ll see, there’s less science behind these attributes.

ElementOhtaniGuerrero
Best overall numbersX
Individual WARX
Team successX
Struck out 150 battersX
All-Star as both hitter/pitcherX
Performance relative to ageX
Value to his team (if removed)X
THISCLOSE to the Triple CrownX
LikeabilityXX
Ambassador for the GameXX
# of MVP awards (after ’21)XX

Oh, look at that. It’s a virtual TIE.

While there are many layers to this individual competition, voters have a very difficult decision to make. When the choice is limited to exclusively Player A or exclusively Player B, someone has to lose. In 2021, if only there was a creative way (or creative minds) to impose a system that rewards both players so that Ohtani wins, Guerrero wins, and baseball wins. But I digress.

Minus the steroids form 1998, it was clear that the season belonged to Sosa and McGwire and the epic home run chase. You’ll remember that it was essentially a two-man show through the dog days of summer. The 2021 season feels like the squeaky clean version of that, where these two guys jostled for position as the AL’s best player for months, continuously producing “hold my beer!” moments. The Shohei & Vladdy Show of ’21 was worth the price of admission.

Going back to what Donaldson said in that “we should appreciate” what both of these guys are doing, what better way to acknowledge their season-long dominance than to hand them BOTH the official hardware.

But what do me and my wishlist know?


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