Recently, I gave my many reasons for slightly favoring outfielder Aaron Judge over the unique two-way pitcher-slugger Shohei Ohtani for the American League Most Valuable Player award. Judge has since hit his 61st homer to tie Roger Maris for the American League homer record.
But last night Ohtani made a case for MVP by carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning with two outs before giving up a couple of singles. He raised his record to 15-8 and lowered his ERA to 2.35.
I would still vote for Judge for MVP but now I’m wondering about Ohtani for the AL Cy Young award for best pitcher. Ohtani’s pitching ranks among the four best by starting pitchers in the AL this year with Dylan Cease, Alek Manoha, and ageless Justin Verlander.
Ohtani has one more start next Wednesday on the last game of the regular season. But it’s unlikely he’ll be able to distinguish himself from the pack as clearly deserving the Cy Young. He may have the best stuff in the American League, but he pitches with five days’ rest rather than the usual four days rest, so he throws slightly fewer innings than his rivals.
On the other hand, I reasoned, the Cy Young is not awarded “for the best pitching” but is given “to the best pitcher,” so why not count whatever else Ohtani does while pitching including fielding, baserunning, and hitting?
When I looked around, I found out that nobody actually knows an official judgement on how to vote for the Cy Young. Here’s a 2015 article by a sportswriter who was just named a Cy Young voter, but wasn’t given an answer to this question.
Off-hand, I can’t think of a pitcher who might have won the Cy Young with his bat, so the question apparently hasn’t come up. The closest example I can think of was Don Drysdale who went 23-12 with a 2.77 ERA for the 1965 L.A. Dodgers. But back then, electors only got one vote, and all 20 voted for Drysdale’s teammate Sandy Koufax (26-8, 2.04, and a record 382 strikeouts).
But Drysdale’s pitching really wasn’t that good that year: the modern Wins Above Replacement credits him with pitching 3.2 wins better than a Triple AAA minor leaguer, which didn’t put him in the top ten in the league.
But Drysdale finished fifth in the MVP voting (and second to Koufax among pitchers), so under a modern Cy Young voting system he could have finished anywhere from second to, say, twelfth. One reason was that Drysdale was one of the best hitters in the National League that year, by far the Dodgers’ most dangerous hitter, batting .300 with 7 homers (no Dodger regular hit more than 12 homers that year). As a batter playing about one-quarter of the time, Drysdale earned 2.1 wins.
So, for the purpose of Cy Young voting, should Drysdale be evaluated upon his 3.2 WAR pitching or his 5.3 WAR while playing the position of pitcher (with, admittedly, a little pinch-hitting)? Clearly, Drysdale’s slugging was relevant in the MVP race, just as Ohtani won MVP last year without being the best hitter or the best pitcher, but by doing an amazing job of both. But what about the Cy Young vote? If it was relevant in 1965, then why not for Ohtani in 2022?
That’s not a bad argument, but I see now an objection: Ohtani never hits as the pitcher, he officially hits always as the Designated Hitter. Most of the time he doesn’t play the field but hits as the DH, while every sixth day he’s both the starting pitcher on the field and the DH in batting lineup. That’s a rather legalistic objection, but it seems decisive to me.