American League MVP race should not be unanimous
Ohtani embodies baseball greatness but not ’23 most valuable
There’s no doubt Shohei Ohtani is the greatest baseball player of this or, perhaps, any generation, but greatness doesn’t always equate to single-season value. The Angels’ DH/RHP, currently a free-agent, is expected to be named ‘23 AL MVP when BBWAA voting results are released on Thursday afternoon, however, all things being equal, it should not be unanimous.
If Most Valuable Player was always determined merely on statistics, then a healthy Ohtani should be declared winner every year, even before the first pitch is thrown in anger. Simply run the contenders’ stats through a computer and remove the human element. The 28-year-old, two-way player, is a once-in-a-lifetime talent.
However, the word “valuable” throws a little bit of a curveball into the workings of what many old-school voters see as one of the most important criteria. How did his team fare? This is not a most-outstanding award, it’s called most valuable. As such, there needs to be more consideration for players that helped carry their team into October and onto the post-season dance floor.
Discuss Ohtani. After signing as a free agent with owner Arte Moreno in December of 2017, in his six subsequent seasons in Anaheim, the Angels have never finished above .500, with a combined record of 401-469, 136 games behind-the-leader. In terms of Ohtani as MLB’s highly promoted major attraction, creating additional international interest and local attention, consider that in his first two seasons, the Angels drew 3-million-plus, but that was at the end of a stretch of 17 consecutive 3M fan seasons, after winning their only World Series in 2002. The next season, 2020, was a pandemic write-off for everyone, however in the three full seasons since then, as North America emerged from the shadow of COVID-19, the Angels, with Ohtani in his prime as the franchise centrepiece, topped out at 2.6-million home fans.
It’s not like they have not been trying. The Angels in 2023 ranked sixth in team payroll out of 32 teams, led by Anthony Rendon ($38M), Mike Trout ($35.45M) and Ohtani ($30M). With the once-in-a-generation superstar headed elsewhere in free-agency, his $30-million salary can surely be spent on three or four players to help GM Perry Minasian contend without him. That might become Ohtani’s true value.
There is a personal history in MVP voting. As a long-time Toronto Star baseball columnist and chairman of the Toronto Chapter of the BBWAA, the AL MVP was often my designated responsibility, one of two Association members from each city voting in every category. I value the V in MVP. Here is how I saw it in 2023.
1- Corey Seager: As an aside, it should be noted that BBWAA balloting for baseball’s most prestigious awards must be submitted by the final day of the regular season, so there is no post-season influence in the result. Seager’s Rangers were streaky down the stretch, but after he had missed 31 games in April and May, he and Marcus Semien were the keys when it counted most, with Seager sparking the four-game sweep of the Jays at Rogers Centre, Sept. 11-14. Despite some hiccups, he was the leader on both sides of the ball that carried them to a wild-card berth. (.327, 33HR, 96RBI; 1.013 OPS, 6.9 WAR)
2- Ohtani: The best baseball player in the universe on the worst team that $200-million can buy. Angels were 62-73 with the Japanese superstar in the lineup. Among the Angels 89 losses, 23 were blowouts of five runs or more. How many times did teams with big leads over the Halos, just challenge Ohtani because of the score (see his OPS of 1.573 when the score differential was four-plus runs). He was the MLB’s best with a combined 10.0 WAR but not its most valuable.
3- Marcus Semien: Two years ago, Semien and Seager were signed as free agents in the same week, so neither would feel like the lone Ranger. The result, batting 1-2 in the Rangers order in ‘22, was sublime. Still, they lost 94 games that year. The next step was the addition of veteran starting pitching to the rotation in ’23, it all came together. It could be argued Semien was more valuable than Seager, but, with the obvious inclusion of Ohtani, it’s hard to challenge these three as being the trio deserving of the MVP podium.
4- Adley Rutschman: This guy is now the face of the Orioles after just two seasons. In 154 games as catcher/DH, the 25-year-old batted near the top of the order and slammed 52 extra-base hits, with an .809 OPS on the way to 101 team wins. Where would they have been with James McCann and Anthony Bemboom as their catchers.
5- Yandy Diaz: The Rays, always on a budget, somehow always seem to be there for the stretch drive and, it seems, always with a different team MVP. This year it was expected to be LF Randy Arozarena or SS Wander Franco, but turned out to be 1B Diaz. Led the AL with a .330 average and in that stretch from April 27 to the end of the season was never under .300.
6- Julio Rodriguez: The easiest call to include in the Top 10 in MVP voting is J-Rod, because when the young centre-fielder finally got hot after the All-Star break, so did his Mariners. On July 24, the M’s were in fourth place, -8.5 GBL. In the next 48 games through Sept. 20, he hit .361 with a 1.088 OPS and the team moved to within a half game of the AL West lead. For the season he hit .275, with 32 homers and 37 steals.
7- Kyle Tucker: A little bit under the radar because of the offensive talent that surrounds him, Tucker played solid right field, with 29 homers and 30 steals in his 157 games. DH Yordan Alvarez only played in 114 games and posted ridiculously good numbers, but day-in, day-out the Astros relied on Tucker as they roared back to capture the division.
8- Bobby Witt Jr: A great player with a bad team, Witt Jr. has the same MVP arguments going as does Ohtani (minus the pitching part). Just saying, at 23-years-old, that Witt Jr. has taken over from Harry and Meghan as the face of the Royals in America, moving forward. This guy is a talent that deserves a better supporting cast. Had 30 homers and 49 steals and is one of the fastest players in baseball.
9- Bo Bichette: There were six AL teams with 88-plus wins in ’23. Five of those teams have MVP choices already listed here in the Top 10. Certainly aware that the Jays relied on a sturdy rotations and much-improved depth in the bullpen, but watching Bichette every day, one appreciates the improvement on defence and the continued aggressiveness and effectiveness on offence. He just can’t bat second.
10- Jose Ramirez/Rafael Devers: The MVP credentials for these two, talented, all-star third-basemen are so similar, it seems fitting to have them tie for the final spot in the Top 10. Both Guardians and Red Sox were disappointing, but of all the players on those two teams, these are the ones you want to see in big situations.
*Honourable mention: RH Gerrit Cole (NYY), IF Gunnar Henderson (BLT), 2B Gleyber Torres (NYY).