Sunday afternoon, Yankees rookie slugger Aaron Judge crushed his 47th and 48th home runs of the season, meaning he is very close to making some impressive history. The all-time rookie record is 49 home runs by Mark McGwire with the 1987 Athletics. Judge is one away from tying Big Mac's record and two away from becoming the first 50-homer rookie in MLB history.
Here are the two home runs Judge hit Sunday:
Judge, who struggled through a pretty massive slump in the weeks following the All-Star break, has turned things around in a big way in September. He is hitting .296/.436/.831 with 11 home runs in 21 games this month. The second half slump is over.
Needless to say, Judge is the overwhelming favorite for AL Rookie of the Year, and he's also a bona fide MVP candidate. The second half slump cut into his candidacy for a while, but now that he's raking again, is it possible he could steal award? Well, sure, of course he could. But should he?
The AL MVP front-runner at this point seems to be Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, and hey, he deserves to be. Altuve has been one of the best players in baseball this season, and for most of the summer the 'Stros were the top team in the AL. Being the best player on the best team in the league is a good way to get MVP votes.
The stats heavily favor Judge over Altuve. Here's the head-to-head comparison:
|AVG||OBP||SLG||OPS+||HR||RBI||SB||DRS||FanGraphs WAR||Baseball-Ref. WAR|
Jose Altuve HOU 2B
Aaron Judge NYY RF
Altuve has the higher batting average and more steals while Judge has the superior on-base and power (and defensive) numbers. Keep in mind position matters. A second baseman putting up Altuve numbers is more impressive than a corner outfielder putting up Judge numbers. WAR does consider positional value, however, and Altuve has a big edge in Baseball-Reference.com's version of the stat. FanGraphs says they've provided equal value.
MVP is not just a statistical award, of course. It's a performance-plus-narrative award. Both players are on postseason teams, and many voters absolutely consider that when voting. The Astros cruised to the AL West title while the Yankees will likely settle for a wild-card spot. How does that factor into the voting? There are two possible ways:
- The Astros have such a big lead that they would've won the division even without Altuve. The Yankees won a much closer AL wild-card race, therefore Judge's performance was more "valuable."
- The Astros have such a big lead in the AL West because of Altuve. He led his team to the division title and helped them clinch so early. Had Judge not slumped after the All-Star break, the Yankees might've won the division rather than settle for the wild-card spot.
There is no right answer here. Each voter is different and I'm sure several will see it one way and several will see it the other. And several will see it another way entirely. There's a narrative to be constructed around both players. In any given year, Altuve and Judge would be worthy MVP candidates. This season they happen to be pitted against each other in the race.
My hunch right now is Altuve would win the award if the voting were held today. Judge has been scorching hot in September though, and if he continues to crush the ball in the final week, it could given him that final statistical boost to overtake Altuve in the MVP voting. He'd join Ichiro Suzuki and Fred Lynn as the only players to win MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season.
Of course, Judge and Altuve are not the only AL MVP candidates. They're merely the two biggest names in the MVP race right now. Here are some others worth mentioning, listed alphabetically:
Last year's AL MVP runner-up has seen his offensive numbers drop a bit this season -- he's lost 55 points of batting average and 78 points of slugging percentage -- though 71 extra-base hits and 99 RBI is nothing to sneeze at. Mookie Betts is also an impact defensive right fielder. Arguably the best defensive outfielder in baseball. Plus he plays for a likely division champ. That doesn't hurt his case.
When Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw won their MVP awards, they did it by being far and away the best pitchers in the league. Corey Kluber, as good as he's been, has not been at that level. He and Chris Sale are basically neck-and-neck for the Cy Young award. I have a hard time seeing one far ahead of the other. That said, being the best pitcher on the league's best team will help Kluber's MVP case. He'll get MVP votes, I'm sure of it, though I don't think he's had the kind of season it usually takes for a pitcher to win MVP.
Another problem for Kluber: the Indians have multiple MVP candidates, and they could split MVP votes. Jose Ramirez has been out of this world good this season. He leads the AL with 86 extra-base hits and makes a ton of contact -- his 11.0 percent strikeout rate is fifth lowest among the 147 players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title -- in an age where strikeouts are so prevalent. If the season ended today, I suspect Ramirez, Altuve, and Judge would finish in the top three of the AL MVP voting in some order.
A little second half slide -- Sale has a 3.69 ERA in his last 10 starts and 61 innings, which is obviously very good, but not MVP worthy -- has allowed Kluber to catch up to Sale in the AL Cy Young race. As with Kluber, Sale is having an excellent season, though it doesn't appear to be the type of season required for a pitcher to win MVP. Then again, Sale is the first AL pitcher with 300 strikeouts since Pedro Martinez in 1999, so maybe that'll do the trick.
Had Mike Trout not missed those seven weeks with a thumb injury, he likely would've been among the MVP favorites, and the Angels likely would've been much closer to clinching a postseason spot. Trout remains the best player in baseball and he deserves a lot of MVP support. That injury is going to do him in though. Unless he can miraculous drag the Halos to the postseason this final week, that thumb injury all but ended Trout's shot at winning his third MVP.
AL MVP Honorable Mentions: Carlos Correa, Astros; Francisco Lindor, Indians; Gary Sanchez, Yankees; Luis Severino, Yankees; Andrelton Simmons, Angels; George Springer, Astros; Justin Upton, Tigers/Angels