The 2023 season has now come and gone, all the awards have been given out, and now the baseball fan is thinking about trades and free-agent signings, and counting the days, of course, until pitchers and catchers report to spring training sites. It’s a hard time of year unless you follow other sports, or have a job or hobby that keeps you busy. Being retired, I have to rely on college basketball, hockey and figure skating – yes, figure skating, and I will write about that in the near future – to get me through the cold winter months. In addition to an adult beverage every now and then.
But let us back up for a few moments and review one aspect of the late baseball season, the choice for Most Valuable Player in the American League. Thirty sportswriters, made up of two from each city, cast their ballots, and all wrote in the same name – Shohei Ohtani.
As a former minor league general manager, I can tell you that sportswriters are an opinionated bunch, especially about the sports that they cover. And they all are positive that those opinions are the correct ones, with “all due respect” to their colleagues. Must be in the genes. Anyway, it is difficult to get 30 sportswriters to all agree, without any dissent, on anything, from what to have for lunch to who was the best pitcher of all time? But in 2023, they all selected Ohtani. (National League writers all chose the Braves’ Ronald Acuña, perhaps a more amazing feat, but we’re not talking about him today.) And my question is: WHY?
Now, please don’t get me wrong, I am not excoriating Ohtani. I think he is an outstanding player and a generational talent. There are a lot of young men who excel as both hitters and pitchers on the high school level, and many of them continue when they reach a college campus. But few take those multi-dimensional skills with them to the minor leagues, and none have graduated to the majors as certified two-way players. You occasionally see someone called in to pitch the last inning of a blow-out, but he draws his bi-monthly paycheck as an infielder or outfielder or catcher, not as a member of the pitching staff. Ohtani is the exception, and in this respect he even eclipses Babe Ruth, who was essentially a pitcher for his first three seasons in the majors (1915-17). By 1918, however, his ability in the batter’s box became more evident — half of his hits went for extra bases — and he transitioned from taking a regular turn in the rotation to trotting out to right field every day. The Angels, on the other hand, knew what they were getting, they signed Ohtani to be both a starting pitcher and a regular in their lineup, and he has not disappointed. He is unquestionably the best player in the American League, maybe in all of major league baseball.
But is he the Most Valuable Player? He certainly carries that title on the Angels, but for the entire league, I think not. And let me tell you why.
There is no clear definition of what goes into being an MVP, and I’m betting that, among those 30 sportswriters, there are at least a dozen different opinions. I don’t have a vote, but I do have my own viewpoint, which is pretty simple – the Most Valuable Player is the guy who made the difference between a team being good and bad. In other words, take him out of the lineup and his club will finish under .500 for the season. With him in the lineup, on the other hand, the team is competitive against everyone. He brings out the best in his teammates just by his very presence.
I’m sure all of the Angels tried very hard all season long, but their best efforts produced 73 wins and 89 losses, a winning percentage of .451, and a fourth-place finish in the five-team American League West. Only 4.5 games out of first place on August 1 with their 56-51 record, they proceeded to go 17-38 over the final two months of the year, a .309 record. By way of contrast, the Oakland A’s, who posted the worst record in the majors this year (50-112), won 20 games and lost 35, a .364 percentage and three full games better than the Angels. Yet no member of the A’s received a single vote in the MVP balloting.
Yes, I know Ohtani got hurt in early September and missed the last 25 games of the season. But the Angels had already dropped from second in the division (on June 28) to fourth by Labor Day, having won just 20 of the 55 games they played in that span, a winning percentage of only .364. Remember, this is with Ohtani in the lineup. Which means that, as good as he was, he led his team south; if he was a general on the field of battle, he and his troops would have been in a full-blown retreat.
As I stated earlier, he may be the best player in all of baseball. If an award were given for the Outstanding Player of the Year, he would probably win. But how did he make a significant difference to the Angels? You might argue that if he had not been in the lineup, the Halos might have had a worse mark than the A’s; most certainly they would have lost more than 100 games. To my mind, that is a pretty weak argument for an MVP candidate’s credentials.
So who was the American League’s MVP in 2023? A good case can be made for Corey Seager, who was instrumental in the Texas Rangers’ 22-game improvement and eventual World Series triumph. (Please remember that post-season performance does not factor into MVP voting; those ballots are all turned in before any playoff games commence.) Seager, though, had plenty of help on that Rangers’ team, most notably from Marcus Semien, Adolis Garcia and Jonah Heim. Julio Rodriguez, all of 22 years old, led the Mariners into contention with their 88 wins and the hope for even better years ahead. And another youngster, Adley Rutschman, helped the Orioles to 101 victories and the AL East title, a remarkable turnaround for a club that lost more than 100 games in 2018, 2019, and 2021. Had I been voting, he might have been my choice, although truthfully I think the league’s Most Valuable Person this year was Bruce Bochy, to whom I give the most credit for the Rangers’ remarkable and unexpected victory in the World Series.
The Texas trio of Seager, Semien and Garcia, plus Rodriguez and Rutschman, all made significant contributions to their teams’ success in 2023. Shohei Ohtani put up some great numbers, but took his team… nowhere. In fact, the Angels have finished under .500 every year since 2015, three years before Ohtani joined them. He was supposed to lead them (along with Mike Trout, who has suffered several injuries as he has aged), to a lofty position in the American League. Instead, they have plodded along, an also-ran, eclipsed by almost everyone else (only three other AL teams won fewer games this season). As good and unique as he is, in my opinion, Shohei Ohtani was hardly the Most Valuable Player in the American League.