The host asked a good question on the MLB Network as they were signing off the American League MVP show on Thursday night: Who had the best runner-up season in MVP history?
New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge had been named the winner a little earlier, getting 28 of 30 first-place votes by a BBWAA panel. In winning MVP for the first time, Judge not only set the single-season home run record in the AL with 62, but he also objectively had one of the 20 best offensive seasons in major-league history. It was even better when you add the context of integration in MLB, a significant factor that players like Babe Ruth could avoid until Jackie Robinson broke the modern color barrier in 1947.
The AL MVP second-place finisher — Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani — had one of the 15 or so top offensive seasons in MLB while also finishing third in WAR for pitchers at Baseball-Reference and scoring highly using other metrics. Nobody has ever come close to what Ohtani accomplished in 2022 — unless you look at Ohtani in 2021.
He’s the real answer to the question. Not only did Ohtani perform like no other player in MLB history in 2022, it follows that he had the best season of any player to not win MVP.
On the National League side, St. Louis Cardinals slugger Paul Goldschmidt won his first MVP at age 35 by a comfortable margin over Manny Machado of the San Diego Padres. Goldy’s teammate Nolan Arenado finished third, and Freddie Freeman of the Los Angeles Dodgers ended up fourth. The stats and voting results in the NL were much more conventional.
Before the two-way wizardry of Ohtani, history was full of conventional players having great seasons and getting beat out for MVP, for one reason or another.
Ted Williams hitting .406 in 1941 and finishing second in MVP to Joe DiMaggio is a go-to answer for trivia buffs. In 2017, Judge himself led the AL in WAR (via Baseball-Reference) but famously finished second to José Altuve in the MVP race before the Houston Astros scandal broke. Mike Trout in 2012 had 10.5 bWAR and finished second in the MVP race to Miguel Cabrera, who won the Triple Crown with a 7.1 bWAR. In 2009, Zack Greinke led the league in bWAR and finished 17th in MVP voting — though he did win AL Cy Young, which was considered something of a sabermetric breakthrough at the time because he beat out three pitchers who won 19 games compared to his 16.
In 1993, Kevin Appier, to name another Kansas City Royals pitching great, finished 24th in MVP voting after finishing first in bWAR. He wasn’t going to beat out Frank Thomas, but 24th seems harshly dismissive. Even more starkly, Cal Ripken in 1984 led with 10.0 bWAR and finished 27th in MVP voting a year after he won MVP and a World Series. Give someone else a chance, the voters said, denying Ripken a little piece of legacy in the spirit of fairness (or someone’s idea of it). That someone was Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Willie Hernandez, who was fifth on his own team in WAR.
Of course, WAR wasn't widely considered as a factor in measuring results until recently. Ask a professional ball writer about WAR in the ‘80s or ‘90s, and they'll just ask what it's good for. Advanced metrics of all kinds are still relatively new ideas for certain decision makers.
In fairness to Judge, advanced metrics can be used to argue that he was worthy of winning MVP instead of Ohtani. Judge had an 11.4 WAR at FanGraphs, nearly two wins more than Ohtani’s combination of hitting and pitching. It could be argued that Ohtani broke WAR, even though the metric’s defenders say he didn’t. Still, it’s called “Wins Above Replacement,” and who exactly is this person who could replace Ohtani as a hitter-pitcher combination? He doesn’t exist.
There’s no doubt that Judge was a significantly better hitter than the next guy. He had the best hitting season since Barry Bonds a generation ago. But nobody could say a similar thing about Ohtani because he had no true precedent.