Watching Aaron Judge and Shohei Ohtani each chase baseball history in their own way made for one of the most captivating rivalries of 2022.
The winner of the MLB AL MVP won’t be announced until Thursday, Nov. 17 but it will almost certainly be Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani. This wasn’t strictly a head-to-head rivalry, although Judge did hit a single and a solo home run in his only two at-bats against Ohtani this season. Instead, it was watching out player chase history in their own way, changing our perceptions of what was possible on the baseball field.
Judge finished the 2022 season with 62 home runs, breaking the American League single-season record set by Roger Maris. Ohtani again demonstrated his two-way brilliance, hitting 34 home runs himself while going 15-9 from the mound, with a 2.33 ERA.
As part of our Fandoms of the Year project, we’re taking this week to celebrate some of the best rivalries of 2022. To get more perspective on the Shohei Ohtani vs. Aaron Judge rivalry, and what it felt like to be on either side of it in 2022, we’re turning it over to some of their biggest fans.
The Aaron Judge perspective
In 2022, Aaron Judge valiantly went to battle against the idea that Shohei Ohtani must win the American League MVP award in every season he participates in.
Being on the opposite side of the fence from Ohtani in any argument is remarkably frustrating. His advantages are impossible to rebut. He does both pitch and hit, and he does both spectacularly well. His OPS (on-base plus slugging) in 2022, while down from his 2021 MVP season, was still sixth in the American League at .875, ranked ahead of luminaries like Jose Ramirez and Julio Rodriguez. He also pitched like an ace, leading the league in strikeouts per nine innings and finishing fourth in ERA. It’s like if Shane McClanahan and J-Ram were one man. How does anyone compete with that?
Based on the Angels’ record, apparently very easily. And therein lies the most compelling argument for Judge, who carried the Yankees spectacularly during their darkest times, pummeling nine homers with a 1.091 OPS in August as the team spiraled out of control to a 10-18 record.
In fact, his lowest OPS in any given month was .922. In this particular season, Judge was simply in a different class offensively from Ohtani who — we know, we know, we KNOW — also pitches.
In order to gain the upper hand on Ohtani during his peak, some theoretical player would have to have such a mythically spectacular offensive season as to render a well-above-league-average season pedestrian. That is, coincidentally, exactly what Judge has done, heroically catching the rest of the Yankees’ roster in midair just as they were about to splat into the desert and lifting them back up to the edge of the cliff.
“60 home runs” remains a historically important number, even if it is no longer any sort of home run record. So does “61”. You can now add “62” to that triptych, thanks to Judge’s herculean efforts. Not surprisingly, his other metrics matched his counting numbers; a 1.111 OPS (211 OPS+, relative to league average) in a veritable deadball era is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Wait, offense is down league-wide, right? Hmm. Maybe Ohtani’s dominant season on the mound isn’t so spectacular after all. Perhaps that’s why he trails Judge in WAR by a significant margin (10.6 to 9.6 on Baseball Reference, 11.4 to 9.5 on FanGraphs).
Ah, but wait! Ohtani’s value comes in part from creating an extra roster spot, allowing his team to explore unique flexibility. Sadly, the Angels have used that extra roster spot on sludge. Advantage Judge.
The Shohei Ohtani perspective
As a die-hard fan of both Shohei Ohtani and Aaron Judge, the dynamic between these two players and what they meant to MLB this year was everything. As someone who covered the Angels for the first half of the season, it was truly amazing to watch what Ohtani did, and I take his side when it comes to who he is as the MVP in the AL and all of baseball. When it comes to what he brings to a team, he’s undoubtedly the most valuable player in the sport. He’s one of the best hitters in the AL; smoking 34 home runs (fourth in AL) and posting an .875 OPS (fifth in AL).
The best part was that his offense was only his side job, as he’s primarily an ace pitcher, and one that is at the very top of the whole game. He’s the same player who posted a 2.33 ERA (fourth in AL) and won 15 games (T-fourth in AL) on a bad Angels team. He also is undoubtedly the MVP when it comes to what he brings to the league itself. He’s introduced MLB on a deeper level overseas, as he’s the talk of Japan. MLB was dying in THIS country before Ohtani broke out as a two-way sensation, and now it’s even alive all the way across the world.
The fact that Ohtani could compete with (and really, defeat) Judge in who had the better and most valuable season made me proud to be an Ohtani fan. Again, Judge had what is likely the best offensive season of all time. For Ohtani to not only do what even Babe Ruth couldn’t do, but do it to the level where he’s competing with a player like Judge made his run so much fun. Especially since both guys are class acts, and perfect representation for this league.
It’s like the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa battle for who could hit the most homers, but with something even better: Who could have what will go down as the best season in baseball history? Surely, Judge didn’t disappoint with again having what is likely the best offensive season ever. But, Ohtani also didn’t disappoint in having the best overall season of all time. And the cherry on top, of course, was that neither needed PED’s to do it. Baseball was in great hands with these two megastars at work.