For MLB fans and BBWAA members, the time will come to draw a line in the sand for AL MVP this year. Are you on Houston Astros’ Jose Altuve’s side, or the rookie phenom Aaron Judge’s?
Plenty of cliche comparisons come by drawing Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve‘s stature to that of his productiveness on the field. Even more contrast comes in physically standing him alongside the main competition, Aaron Judge.
Height; Judge has him by 13 full inches on paper. Weight; Judge takes the cake with over 100 lbs separating the two. Power; Judge, who’s now the only rookie to eclipse 50 home runs in a full ‘debut’ year. Market and press coverage; Judge again, who plays right field in the mecca of baseball for the Bronx Bombers at Yankee Stadium in the Big Apple.
Not that BBWAA voters are inclined to favor American born players in major awards voting, but Judge is American. Jose Altuve was born in Venezuela. For the first time in quite some a while in America, politics seem to be deeply interwoven into the fabric of professional sports. And it’s not as though tensions between Altuve’s homeland and the United States aren’t present, either.
Politics aside, Altuve has had the better campaign. No question. Start to finish. So too have his Houston Astros over the Yankees. He deserves to be recognized and rewarded for his efforts, more now than ever.
It’s time to look at the numbers and support Altuve’s case as American League MVP of Major League Baseball in 2017.
The game has always been about consistency. Not only in 2017, but over most his career, Jose Altuve has been durable, productive and reliable. Now, of course past performance is irrelevant in a single season award category. But how can the BBWAA ignore the fact he’s set to lead the AL in batting average for the third time in four seasons?
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With that, comes his fourth consecutive 200 hit season, by way of Altuve having appeared in 150-plus games dating back to 2013. So, what has Altuve done over the last six months to strengthen his case?
In each individual month, Altuve has hit over .300 for the Astros, with his OPS never dipping below .865. Judge hit .230 in July, posting an .847 OPS. Things only got worse in August, when he hit .185 with three home runs and a replacement level OPS of .680. The fact the Yankees have a horse in this race is remarkable, due mostly to a bounce-back mammoth September by Judge, swatting 14 long balls and driving in 31.
Consistency; Altuve. Wins above replacement; Altuve. According to baseball-reference.com, his 8.4 mark is a career high. Both players have been good with their gloves this season, too. Judge has a 7.9 WAR, with 7.0 of that number being accounted for in his oWAR. Altuve’s oWAR is still better, at 8.1.
Now for the damning case against Judge; he’s only third in AL oWAR. The freak that is Mike Trout, who missed eight weeks with a thumb injury, has a 7.4 oWAR. That goes to show how truly miserable Judge’s July and August were. Oh, and Judge will lead MLB in strikeouts this year, having surpassed the egregious 200 mark a few days ago.
Not since Ichiro Suzuki won the AL ROY and MVP honors back in 2001 has an MLB player had a legitimate chance at matching the incredible feat. Judge is in that position. But I ask you this — whose season more closely mirrors Ichiro’s historic one?
Japan’s Wizard had 242 hits, stole 56 bases and hit .350 with an .838 OPS. Altuve’s total hits come far closer to matching Ichiro’s than Judge’s 153 do. Altuve has 32 SBs to Judge’s nine. Batting averages aren’t even worth comparing and given that Altuve is authentically a leadoff hitter with more career plate appearances in the one-hole than anywhere else, his .964 OPS is almost surreal.
Altuve’s OBP of .412 is also the finest total of his career. Ichiro’s was .381 in 2001. Judge’s is .421 because he’s accumulated 126 walks, hardly a testament to his plate discipline when you factor in the 200-plus K’s. The fact of the matter is, Altuve would rather battle for a hit than take a walk. He’s a better pure hitter and bad ball hitter. Look at this contact percentage, in spite of his size and reach. Altuve can get the bat on the ball all over and outside of the strike zone. A stark contrast to Judge, who has his best success when pitchers deal him high and inside.
Finally, while not a huge factor, there’s each players’ team success. The edge has to go to Altuve here. His WAR better reflects his importance in the Astros’ lineup. Houston was the first AL team to reach 80 wins back on September 1st. They clinched their division 17 days later, while the Yankees have been battling for a wild card berth almost the entire month of September. They clinched a playoff spot (now set to be a wild card game showdown with the Twins) on September 23rd. A case could be made for both, that without their presence in their team’s respective lineups, neither the Astros or Yankees would be in the postseason.
This will be the fourth straight season the Houston Astros will be represented on an AL MVP ballot by Jose Altuve. One of the few knocks against Altuve wininng this award is, he’s had a stronger supporting cast in 2017 than Judge has. The next five hitters on Houston this season have a collective 24.1 WAR, to New York’s 18.3.
However, in 2001, Ichiro didn’t even lead his team in WAR, nevermind the league. His 7.7 mark was in the shadow of Aaron Boone‘s 8.8, who led the Mariners. That mark was followed by Mike Cameron‘s 5.9, John Olerud‘s 5.2, Edgar Martinez‘s 4.8 and Mark McLemore‘s 3.5 (28.2 total).
Aaron Judge had a remarkable season — perhaps one that will never be replicated again by a rookie, or even himself, for that matter. I’d bet the farm Altuve has a better chance of appearing on 2018’s MVP ballot, though. Given his 12.7% strike out rate an advanced ability to put the ball in play, Altuve will continuet to produce. Given Judge’s 30.6% strike out rate and that his plate dynamics more closely resemble Adam Dunn‘s than they do Lou Gehrig‘s, pitchers will begin adjusting to his approach in future seasons.
From 2012-16, Mike Trout led the AL in WAR, while thrice conceding MVP honors. Twice to Miguel Cabrera in 2012/2013 and then again to Josh Donaldson in 2015. Stranger things have happened when it comes to awards voting. Miggy likely won in ’12 because of his triple crown output. 2013 was an outlier, while Donaldson’s 8.8 WAR in ’15 holds up against Judge’s and Altuve’s mark in ’17.
When it’s all said and done and Trout’s career is in the books, the BBWAA may want to have a couple of those voting years back. Trout and Cabrera will first ballot Hall of Famers. Donaldson? Maybe. It’s too soon to tell. The same goes for Altuve and Judge, though power hitters have a propensity to break down sooner than players like Altuve do.
One thing is certain though. throughout the course of the 2017 season, Atluve’s game and swing never broke down. His .485 BA in July was something special. As CBS MLB writer Mike Axisa put it in his July 25th piece, “[Jose] Altuve is the best player on the best team in the league, which likely gives him a leg up in the AL MVP voting.”
That statement still rings true, especially when one considers how much Aaron Judge’s game declined in the month to follow.