TORONTO – The case for American League MVP, to some, was settled long ago, Shohei Ohtani’s extraordinary and historic two-way dominance at the plate and on the mound largely blunting conversation about the candidacy of others.
Reinforcing the unique nature of what he’s accomplished, there are few comparable seasons in the major leagues to put up against the Los Angeles Angels sensation’s performance. Babe Ruth’s 1919 campaign, when he posted a 1.114 OPS in 130 games and logged a 2.97 ERA in 133.1 innings across 17 outings, is probably the best match.
To that end, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s remarkable 2021 has been largely viewed in the wider baseball discourse through the prism of Ohtani’s somewhat unprecedented contributions, which undersells the daily value provided by the first baseman to the Toronto Blue Jays.
The gap in wins above replacement value, as calculated by Fangraphs, between the two isn’t as wide as one might suspect given Ohtani’s dual roles, with a cumulative total of 7.8 (4.9 at the plate, 2.9 on the mound) versus Guerrero’s 6.6.
A big final week would further eat into that gap and perhaps convince some voters to reconsider his merits, especially if he helps catapult the Blue Jays into a wild-card berth. That they’re in contention at all right now reflects how Guerrero has in large measure carried the club, something his teammates point out when asked how they would make his case.
“Honestly, I’ve thought about it a lot, because I think he is the MVP,” shortstop Bo Bichette says. “It really boils down to one thing for me – when you look at everybody this year, who has been the most dominant player on the field every single day, and I don't think anybody's even been close to Vladdy. Obviously, not taking anything away from Shohei's year, he's been amazing, he's done something that we haven't seen for generations. But I think when you're talking about an MVP and someone who is impacting the game at an incredible level every single day, I don't think anybody's done that as well as Vladdy.”
In that vein, Guerrero has appeared in 155 of his team’s 156 games heading into Tuesday’s action, playing first base in 128 of those contests for a total of 1,099.2 defensive innings, with 27 starts at DH. Ohtani has logged 130.1 innings over 23 starts, logged 8.1 innings over seven games in the outfield and served as the DH 120 times.
Clearly, there’s a significant defensive contribution made on days Ohtani pitches, but the majority of the time his contributions are offensive only. Guerrero, on the other hand, is making a near daily contribution at the plate and in the field, something even a neutral observer like Josh Donaldson, the Minnesota Twins third baseman who won the AL MVP award with the Blue Jays in 2015, pointed to during his recent appearance on At The Letters.
Beyond the obvious, Guerrero’s “availability” is the quality Bichette most appreciates about his teammate.
“He plays every single day, he's had one off-day this year,” he says. “To not only to be putting up the numbers he does, but to be on the field every single day, that's something that people don't appreciate as much anymore and don't realize how important that is. To me, that's what an MVP does – he puts up great numbers and he puts them up every day.”
Blue Jays second baseman Marcus Semien, who if on a different team would be touted as another worthy MVP candidate, admits he’s “biased towards position players because there's a Cy Young Award, as well,” but adds Guerrero “is the MVP in my eyes.”
“He's the best hitter in the game,” adds Semien. “It depends on how they want to vote it. If they want to vote it on WAR, obviously his WAR isn't going to be as high as Ohtani. But he's got the best numbers in the game. That's the bottom line.”
Similarly, centre-fielder George Springer also sees the MVP as an offence-driven award. And the numbers, heading into Tuesday’s play, are pretty clear in that regard.
A statistical comparison between Vladimir Guerrero Jr .and Shohei Ohtani's 2021 seasons.
“I don't think there's been any more valuable hitter in the league than Vladdy all year,” says Springer. “The stuff he's been able to do, the season he's having, you haven't really seen one like that in a long time. I understand what Ohtani is doing is something I don't ever think we'll see ever again.
“But there's never a moment for (Guerrero) where you can see his age. He's hit some huge homers, some big knocks, he's playing an unbelievable first base. To me he’s been hands down our most valuable player, but I also think he's been the most valuable player all year.”
Robbie Ray, himself in a dogfight with Yankees ace Gerrit Cole for AL Cy Young Award honours, also looks at the MVP award through an offensive lens.
“He's not only put up the power numbers, but he's hit for average, I feel like he goes out every day and it's two or three hits,” says Ray. “I mean, his average is around .320, Shohei's is closer to .260, so Vlad's not only hitting with the same power numbers, but he's hitting with more average and getting on base more. For me, that makes the case right there. Obviously Ohtani pitches as well, so that gives him a little bit of an upper hand. But if you take the two hitters, you can't argue that Vlad's not better.”
— Chris Black (@DownToBlack) September 22, 2021
Numbers aside, Springer has also been impressed by Guerrero’s wider contributions to the team, from how his presence in the lineup impacts everyone else’s at-bats to the way he pours into others, adding to the MVP case.
“The talent kind of speaks for itself,” says Springer. “But who he is as a person, you never really see him get too down. You never really see him get too high. He's kind of always the same and that's rare to see and it's really hard to understand if you're not with him in the dugout all the time. He wants the best for everybody on the team, which is awesome. Whether he gets a hit or not, he comes down and he's right there rooting for the next guy. It's stuff like that.”
Swingman Ross Stripling played with Cody Bellinger during his MVP season in 2019 and Mookie Betts, the 2018 AL winner with Boston, on the Los Angeles Dodgers. He feels what Guerrero has done this season “is right there with them, if not actually above them, and younger than them.”
“To hit for average, power, drive guys in, play good defence, be healthy all year hitting in that three-hole all year and produce like he has, that’s what an MVP does,” Stripling says. “Whether he wins the Triple Crown or not it’s been really impressive. And to do it at such a young age (23), and to face a lot of pitchers for the first time where pitchers usually have that advantage, and Vladdy finding ways to hit the ball hard consistently, like 105 plus, 110, the one-teens, I've never seen it and I played with some really good players.”
And unlike Ohtani, Guerrero has put up his numbers in the AL East crucible all season long, a division likely to finish with four 90-win teams, creating a daily pressure to help his team keep pace in pursuit of a playoff spot. Whether that gets factored or not, it’s pretty valuable.
“When he's not doing well, which is obviously not often, you don't really say, 'Oh, the pitcher's nasty,' you'll say, 'Vladdy's not himself today,'” says Bichette. “It never seems like anybody's ever better than him, it's him getting himself out when he does. He's just special to watch. Every day, he comes prepared, he's ready to play, has good at-bats, he believes himself, he's confident. That's super important for a team trying to win a World Series, to have best hitter in the game right in the middle of it.”