One of the most heated debates this MLB season regards the AL MVP race. On one side there is Houston Astros star second baseman José Altuve who led the league with a .346 batting average this regular season. On the other side is New York Yankees rookie phenom Aaron Judge, who set the rookie record for homeruns with 52. Correspondents Matthew Mocarsky and Jorge Eckardt debate who they think deserves the award most.
Matthew Mocarsky: The Most Valuable Player Award is quite literally about who provided the most value for his team. By FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) metric, Aaron Judge was worth 8.2 fWAR, leading not only the American League but all of Major League Baseball. Altuve trailed Judge by putting up a 7.5 fWAR mark that didn’t even place second in the American League, as Red Sox ace Chris Sale accumulated 7.9 fWAR. In fact, Altuve came closer to Mike Trout’s 6.9 fWAR than to Judge’s 8.2. While fWAR has a margin for error, the discrepancy between the two is large enough to comfortably say Judge was on the whole more valuable.
Jorge Eckardt: I do not want to go too into it, but just giving the WAR provided by Fangraphs is a little misleading. Baseball-reference has Altuve at an 8.3 WAR, higher than Judge’s 8.1, so when two players are this close, WAR is not accurate enough to correctly determine who is better. Altuve does have a significant advantage in batting average, posting an MLB best .346 this season, while Judge only had a .284, good for 46th in the majors. Furthermore, if Judge were to win, he would be the MVP with the lowest batting average across both leagues since 1982 when Dale Murphy put up a .281 average with the Atlanta Braves. In the American League, which has been more favorable to hitters since the DH was introduced in 1974, you would have to go all the way back to Harmon Killebrew winning the award in 1969 with a .271 batting average to find one that is worse than Judge’s.
Matthew Mocarsky: While Altuve led the AL with a .346 batting average, it would be a mistake to use batting average as a barometer of offensive success. Consider two hypothetical batters; batter one racks up 125 hits in 400 at-bats (which is a .313 average) and batter two only picks up 100 hits in 400 at-bats (a .250 average). While it’s easy to say that batter one was a better hitter than batter two, let’s add a wrinkle to the issue: all of batter one’s hits were singles, and all of batter two’s hits were home runs. Now, who is the better hitter? Clearly, it’s batter two, even if all of his outs are made via strikeout.
This isn’t to say that either of these hypothetical batters represents Jose Altuve or Aaron Judge, but it does prove that we need to consider better barometers of offensive performance. The best statistic for this is Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), which calculates the value of every plate appearance outcome and then adjusts for park and league factors. By this metric, Aaron Judge blew Altuve out of the water with a 173 wRC+ compared to the latter’s 160 wRC+. The league average wRC+ is 100, so Judge was both 73 percent better than the league average and eight percent better than Altuve.
Jorge Eckardt: While I cannot deny that Judge does have Altuve beat in the category of wRC+, I would not say that Judge blew Altuve out of the water. While wRC+ is a good metric to use, I do believe it has flaws. If we take the hypothetical that you gave it would be like comparing one of the greatest hitters of all time, Ichiro Suzuki, to home run or bust poster boy Adam Dunn. Dunn averaged 37 home runs a season over his 14 year career, while Ichiro only averaged seven. However, any baseball fan knows that they would rather have Ichiro than Dunn if they had to pick.
Aaron Judge did set multiple records this season, most notably breaking the rookie record from home runs in a season with 52, and he should be commended for it. However he did also break multiple negative records regarding strikeouts. Judge set the rookie record for most strikeouts in a season with 208. He broke the record for most consecutive games with a strikeout (37), most strikeouts in a postseason series (16) and most strikeouts in a single postseason (27). Altuve on the other hand has only 84 strikeouts throughout the entire regular season, less than half of the amount Judge had. Judge may be a better power hitter, but Altuve is a better pure-hitter.
Matthew Mocarsky: If you want to use Adam Dunn and Ichiro as poster boys to expose a flaw in wRC+, then consider that Dunn has Ichiro beat in career wRC+ (123 to 104). If you want to look at other stats, then we can use Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA), which calculates mathematical valuations on plate outcomes and applies them as linear weights (just like wRC+, but presented in a different scale). Dunn has Ichiro beat there too (.367 to .329). Ichiro was a better all-around player, but Dunn was always the better hitter.
Again looking at wOBA, Judge put up a .430 that easily beat out Altuve’s .405 mark. If we want to look at methods rather than results, Statcast has a statistic called Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) that measures a hitter’s performance based off of contact quality (namely Exit Velocity and Launch Angle). Judge posted an MLB leading .446 mark; because his xwOBA was greater than his wOBA, we can infer that Judge was actually a little unlucky and should have had better numbers. On the other hand, Altuve was all the way down to 80th on the list with a .349 xwOBA.
As for strikeouts, there have been numerous studies that prove their irrelevance. Aaron Judge is a perfect example, considering he was the best offensive player in the league by every metric despite his strikeout tendencies. Joe Panik had the lowest strikeout rate among batters this year; does that mean he was anything more than average at the plate? To close our offensive debate, I’ll note that the AL MVP award is based off of regular season numbers (it is voted on at the end of September) and using playoff statistics means using small sample sizes, which is a slippery slope.
Jorge Eckardt: In regards to wRC+, that is exactly my point. Dunn may have Ichiro beat in that as well as some of the other advanced hitting metrics, but there is no way that Dunn was a better hitter. Dunn was certainly a better power hitter, but pure-hitter it is Ichiro by a mile. As a member of the 3000 hit club and with over 4000 hits professionally, Ichiro is one of if not the best pure-hitter of all time. To put it simply, I believe that wRC+ is flawed, as any metric that puts Adam Dunn head of Ichiro Suzuki in regards to hitting as a whole is baseball blasphemy. As for xwOBA, relying on mainly exit velocity and launch angle, I believe is also flawed. A hit in baseball is a hit, an out is an out no matter in what form it comes. While it is ok for some weight to be given to it, heavily relying on it to draw conclusions is unwise.
That is it for me for offense, and while the voters usually take little stock in defensive statistics, we will delve into it. Oddly enough, Altuve and Judge each posted a .982 fielding percentage this season. However, Altuve was in the top ten for fielding percentage at his position while Judge was not. Altuve also have 562 total chances, more than double Judge who only had 275. Quite simply, it is much harder to play second base than right field, so a .982 is more impressive coming from Altuve.
Matthew Mocarsky: In regards to defense, Judge has Altuve beat there too. Fielding Percentage is flawed because it ignores a fielder’s range, arm, and decision making. A better metric is Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which does account for those things and evaluates how many runs a player is worth on defensive above average. Judge ranked sixth among all right-fielders with a 6.1 UZR (which means he was about six runs above average). As for Altuve, he actually posted a negative UZR of -1.9, which was 13th among second basemen. By another metric, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Judge has the edge with 9 DRS to Altuve’s 3.
The arguments presented here really represent a popular debate in baseball today. This is the debate between old baseball and new baseball, simple observations and statistics versus more in-depth analysis. Matt and Jorge made their points, so now it is up to you to decide who you think should win the AL MVP.