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Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani? The AL MVP debate challenges WAR, but don't disregard the ubiquitous stat. Here's why

Long before baseball sprouted an entire industry obsessed with quantifying the value of players, the word enshrined itself into the game without much fanfare. The MVP Awards, whose 2022 winners will be announced Thursday night, date to 1931 in their current form. Before that, but after they were simply a car company giveaway based on batting average, the AL and NL each awarded a League Trophy to the "player who proved of greatest service to his team." And by the late 1920s, the Associated Press had picked up the colloquial "most valuable" language that was formalized when the BBWAA took over voting. A century later, most everyone involved in MLB recognizes the player performance guideposts set up by statistics, and specifically by Wins Above Replacement, or WAR.

Beyond the tiebreaker cases that awards necessitate, it can feel like there's very little left to fudge, estimate or reckon with. There's almost nothing you could stage a Socratic seminar over. Key word: Almost. When New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge (spoiler alert) wins the American League award, it will leave many wondering how Los Angeles Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani could continue his unprecedented two-way excellence, yet lose an award he won unanimously just last year.

There are plenty of factors that may or may not have swayed voters: The very fact that Ohtani already won, the Yankees' team success, Judge's historic achievement in hitting 62 homers. But the most definitive argument in Judge's favor is the WAR leaderboard. Whether you check FanGraphs or Baseball Reference, Judge comes out on top.

At FanGraphs, it's Judge with 11.4 WAR and Ohtani with 9.5. At Baseball Reference, it's Judge with 10.6 WAR and Ohtani with 9.6. (As luck would have it, either one would have easily captured the NL award, alas.)

The pro-Ohtani party line, then, emanates from the notion that his double-duty dominance — Pitching! And! Hitting! — breaks WAR, that the ubiquitous value metric has finally run into a player who is so different he can't be put on equal footing with the rest of the league. So let's talk about the ways Ohtani tests WAR's limits, and whether we should trust its assessment of which great player, Judge or Ohtani, provided the greatest service to their team.

How WAR measures Aaron Judge, Shohei Ohtani’s excellence

Let's just get this out of the way first: WAR strips out all team-dependent context. RBIs, clutch hitting, the Yankees making the playoffs while the Angels didn't? Totally irrelevant to WAR. I think we can all agree it's not Ohtani's fault Anthony Rendon got hurt, nor that the Angels had zero competent players available to replace him.

Speaking of replacing players, that’s built into the name, so it’s important to understand. Simply put, “replacement level” is a consistent estimation of a freely available player teams could quickly acquire in a pinch. Importantly, this is also a way of excising actual team situations from the equation. It instead functions as a handy hypothetical baseline — the baseball stat equivalent of zeroing out the scale after you set down the wax paper, but before you add the deli meat.

The rest of the WAR calculation involves crunching numbers you’re undoubtedly familiar with from traditional box scores and leaderboards. For hitting, that means a formula that quite literally counts up each positive event at the plate — from walks to singles to homers — and weights them appropriately based on their run value in the current season’s scoring environment. For pitching, it means calculating how many runs a pitcher allowed per nine innings, but stripping away the pluses or minuses of fielders. Different calculations use wildly different methods for this part, but generally you’re left with a more complex, less luck-dependent version of ERA.

This part is pretty straightforward.

The 2022 version of Judge was a better hitter than Ohtani … and just about everyone else in recent baseball memory. The 62 homers were the headline, but he also led baseball in on-base percentage. Overall, his batting line was more than twice as good as the average MLB hitter, That's what his 207 wRC+, a park-adjusted metric which repackages the factors that go into FanGraphs WAR, is telling us — that he was 107% better than an average bat. Only 15 seasons in MLB history have cleared that 200 wRC+ bar (only 12 if you removed strike- or pandemic-shortened campaigns) and no one had done it since Barry Bonds.

Ohtani had a more run-of-the-mill Good season with the bat, walloping 34 homers and batting .273 to come in at a 142 wRC+. A great year, but one matched or exceeded by 71 other individual seasons just since Ohtani joined the league in 2018. Of course … he also pitched. Ohtani, who finished fourth in AL Cy Young voting released Wednesday night, had his best season on the mound. He leaned more heavily on his slider, added a sinker (because sure) and worked deeper into games. All told, he fired 166 innings with a 2.33 ERA and a 2.40 FIP, which is the fielding-independent metric FanGraphs uses to calculate pitcher WAR. The ERA ranked sixth and the FIP third among qualified starters. In total, the pitching side of his WAR came out to 5.6 at FanGraphs.

On the hitting side, though, Ohtani’s total was a modest 3.8 WAR, where Judge tallied 11.4. That enormous gap comes partially from Judge’s mind-blowing offensive prowess, but also from WAR’s need to account for the relative difficulty of each player’s assignment — the positional adjustment.

How does WAR handle a talent who takes two players to replace?

Ohtani’s position is sort of the whole point: He’s a pitcher, he’s a hitter, he does both. But the vast majority of the time, in 503 of his 666 plate appearances, he was a designated hitter who wasn’t contributing any defense. Before we get into the Ohtani of it all, let’s remember why positions are significant in WAR.

The positional adjustment has an obvious rationale, which goes like this:

Playing shortstop or center field is more challenging than playing left field or DH.

Therefore, finding a hypothetical replacement player to manage one of the tougher positions is actually a much different, much harder task than finding a replacement left fielder.

Therefore, players deemed capable of standing at shortstop should inherently have a higher WAR starting point than left fielders.

In practice, it means that a player’s overall value is inflated or deflated in the final calculation based on how many games he spends at each position. Designated hitters, who don’t play defense at all, get hit with the steepest reduction to firmly differentiate between, say, a DH who posts a 1.000 OPS and a shortstop who posts a 1.000 OPS.

And lest you think that situation wouldn't actually cause confusion, allow me to direct you to the 1996 AL MVP vote, conducted before WAR was conceived and available in real time.

Right fielder/designated hitter, 1.011 OPS, 3.8 bWAR

Shortstop, 1.045 OPS, 9.4 bWAR

Left fielder, 1.033 OPS, 5.7 bWAR

Center fielder, 1.020 OPS, 9.7 bWAR

First baseman, 1.003 OPS, 5.6 bWAR

That’s Juan Gonzalez, the Texas Rangers slugger, who won the honor over second-place Alex Rodriguez and fourth-place Ken Griffey Jr. in an absurd vote that just … wouldn’t happen now.

Whatever you think about its exact application — which could undoubtedly use some updating — the positional adjustment serves a very real purpose. Now, does it properly account for Ohtani? Several prominent analysts grappled with that question in September and came to similar conclusions: Mostly, yes, and any potential difference wouldn't vault Ohtani over Judge.

As Russell Carleton pointed out at Baseball Prospectus, the same trends toward flexibility that make the positional adjustment worth questioning are keeping it relatively in line for Ohtani.

“The WAR model is based on what is becoming an obsolete idea,” Carleton wrote. “Teams are moving away from the idea of a defined starter at each fielding position to pair with dedicated backups, and even away from the three-times-through-the-order starter. As flexibility within a roster becomes the way that teams are put together, it’s a good idea to remember that flexibility has value, but that WAR isn’t set up to capture it.”

First, let’s talk about Judge’s positional adjustment. This season, he aided the Yankees immensely by being willing and surprisingly able to man center field. He wasn’t the best in the league there, where he often ranks among the game’s better right fielders, but that was still a huge boon to an injury-prone roster that otherwise may have put forth a much worse alternative. Because his right field defense has often been a significant positive, where his center field defense was merely OK, his flexibility may have ultimately counted against him.

While Ohtani does do two different things extremely well, the Angels roster is arranged in a specific, fairly rigid way to facilitate it. He needs the DH position every single day. He needs to pitch every sixth day, not every fifth day, meaning he does not really give his team a two-in-one roster spot advantage. They still have to roster five other pitchers capable of starting, and their non-Ohtani position player group has fewer avenues available to maximize its potential.

The Ohtani phenomenon is not purely about his ability to pitch and hit, but the paradigms he so dramatically calls into question. Even though I don’t think his (likely) second-place finish will come to look like that double-take-inducing 1996 vote, Ohtani’s continued success will push the baseball world to think again, again. As will Judge’s athletically awe-inspiring and Statcast-tracked barrage on the record books. Unthinkable as it may have seemed a few years ago, Ohtani succeeding at playing both ways doesn’t automatically make him the game’s most valuable player in every season he pulls it off. And that’s exciting in some small way — proof that there’s still plenty left to figure out.