In one corner stands 6-foot-7-inch, 282-pound right fielder Aaron Judge. The man who broke the Babe’s record for at-home home runs in a season. Thirty-six of his 55 slams have exited the field at Yankee Stadium this year alone.
To provide context for Judge’s accomplishments, he broke Mark McGwire’s rookie home run record this season and is leading the league with 52 homers on the year. But perhaps most impressive, he is the first and only rookie to have ever won the Home Run Derby. Not to mention that he hit the farthest home run of the year at 495 feet.
In the other corner stands Jose Altuve, a 5-foot-6-inch, 165-pound second baseman who just had another 200-hit season and currently leads the league in wins above replacement (8.3), a metric used to calculate a player’s total contribution. Juxtaposing size, speed and power, both players are leading the 2017 race for Major League Baseball’s MVP.
In a realm defined not by power or distance but by reliability, Jose Altuve ages like a fine wine. In his seven seasons in the MLB, he has gotten better every single year. This season, he has a batting average of .346 and is slugging .547 while maintaining a .410 on-base percentage. He is the respective leader in all three categories.
In 2015, when the Astros made it to the American League Division Series, their first postseason run since losing the World Series in 2005, they lost a heartbreaking 2-3 series to the Kansas City Royals. Altuve has survived a 106-loss season, a 107-loss season and an 111-loss season. But after the loss to Kansas City in 2015, a series in which he recorded three singles in 22 at-bats, Altuve walked into manager A.J. Hinch’s office and apologized. He said he wasn’t going to let it happen again. Then, the very next season, he placed third in the American League MVP vote.
Despite Altuve’s astronomical stats this season, Aaron Judge has received almost every second of baseball airtime on major networks. Why? Because Judge is a rookie and has the market. The New York Yankees are the second most valuable sports team in the world, trailing only Jerry Jones and his Dallas Cowboys. When people think of baseball, they tend to think of the Yankees, a team that spent $225,228,650 on players alone this season.
The Astros’ stadium, Minute Maid Park, holds 41,676, but average attendance is just 29,675. They fail to dominate a national market that the Yankees have had a grip on for the last 20 years.
In terms of this postseason, Judge has struggled as pitchers have found his Achilles heel — the slider. Judge had the most strikeouts of any player in the league, with 208 during the regular season, but when he connects, he goes deep. This comes at the expense of plenty of strikeouts. Experts have also noted that Judge has a tendency to rotate his front shoulder out towards third base which leaves him exposed to low and away breaking balls. He has 21 strikeouts this postseason and set the record for most in a single postseason series with 16 against Cleveland.
This season, Judge has taken a lot of strikes low and outside his strike zone. Perhaps umpires are not used to framing such a large player; Judge is one of the biggest players MLB has ever seen. But on the other side of the debate, Altuve has a similar problem, only he gets called for strikes above his zone.
Altuve has had his fair share of problems, but none of them equate to Judge’s current strikeout vice. The 2017 MVP race is tight, but Altuve’s consistency and performance cannot be ignored. With that said, Judge is not the perfect MVP candidate many originally thought him to be. Only time will tell which player ends up on top.