Get it out of the way early: Aaron Judge is especially large for a baseball player, and Jose Altuve is especially small. Let’s go, work with me, shake it off, let’s get it out of our system. Judge is a brobdingnagian big boy from beneath the Earth’s crust, and when he plays the Astros, Altuve is forced to orbit around him. It’s Hank Pym vs. Hank Pym, and the real winner is us.
That’s not the end of the story, though. It’s fantastic that the two leading MVP candidates* are so ... spatially different. Look at that picture up there! It’s like an old Looney Tunes cartoon, where Altuve is the gruff leader and Judge is the gold-hearted muscle. That’s important, and we can marvel at it for as long as these two players are in an artificial competition against each other.
* I see you, Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, and Mike Trout, but I’m not sure that the voters will.
But I’m here to talk to you about the beauty of this MVP race on another level. This is about aesthetics. This is about the elegance of an F1 racer and the munchmunchcrunch of Gravedigger.
This is an MVP race between two players who baseball in very different ways, both of which make you appreciate the sport a helluva lot more.
It’s been a few years, but I’ve sang the praises of Altuve’s batting average and raw hit totals before. And while I could rewrite this, there’s no point when I still believe in every word:
Think about it like this: What happens when someone on your team gets a hit? If you're at the park, you clap and cheer. If you're at home alone, you ... well, that's your time. But you're excited. A player who does this more often than the other players is releasing more endorphins for you, making you clap and cheer more than the other slobs. It adds up over a season, and even if it should be hard to eyeball the difference between a .280 hitter and a .300 hitter, you have a sense of who's doing what. Those .300 hitters are usually fun to watch.
Altuve is the personification of baseball success. While a walk is a positive outcome, and everybody outside of Cincinnati agrees with that point, hitters are still trying to get a hit when they go up to the plate. By that logic, Altuve is the most successful player in the sport. He goes up looking to make solid contact and he succeeds, over and over again.
In that article from 2014, I mentioned Ichiro and Tony Gwynn in passing, but I was forced to serve those names with a heaping plate of caveats. Pretty sure we can dump them now. Altuve has hit .335 over the last four seasons, a remarkable run. He’s a hit away from passing 200 hits for the fourth season in a row. He’s Wade Boggs. He’s Rod Carew. He’s the modern player who just hits. It doesn’t hurt that he has 24 home runs for the second season in a row, but it’s the constant torrent of successful outcomes that stick out.
Judge is not a constant torrent of successful outcomes in the same way, (although his on-base percentage is actually five points higher as of this writing.) He’s a hard punch to the solar plexus that you can’t prepare for, even as you tense up and expect it. He’s a lack of subtlety and nuance, and hot damn if I can’t appreciate some of that in my baseball. Sometimes you want the Dvořák and sometimes you want the Black Flag. When Altuve succeeds, the pitcher is often optimistic that he can still wriggle out of the jam, that it’s fine, just fine. When Judge succeeds, the pitcher is acutely aware of his complete and total failure. He was trying to prevent the thunderous beef-man from hitting the baseball far, and his failures brought shame to his teammates and family.
Altuve’s success lingers, though. Whereas Judge’s success is complete and final, Altuve becomes an extension of the story because he has the speed to flummox pitchers, too. In an era without a lot of stolen bases, he’s become one of the very best, both in terms of quality and quality, and while it’s probably over the top to suggest he’s akin to Billy Hamilton, where every trip to first base becomes a must-see episode, it’s still something worth watching every time. When Altuve is on first, you’re reminded of why you watch baseball.
When Aaron Judge hits a baseball hard enough to change its DNA, you’re reminded of why you watch baseball.
And that’s the point, why this MVP race has been so fun. The players are an exercise in contrasts, each with a different way of skinning a cat. Judge is adept at utterly flattening the cat, where the skin peels off quickly in an even layer, whereas Altuve is better at taking the cat down with repeated blows that ... actually, I’ll probably try a different idiom next time, but you get the point.
There are analogies in other sports, but they all fall short. There are point guards and centers in basketball, Muggsys and Manutes, but the sport is designed for the spectrum of different sizes. It’s baked in. The same goes for offensive linemen vs. quarterbacks, but even then you’ll never see a true Altuve-sized player in the NFL. Soccer is mostly designed to keep the Judges of the world away, too, unless they want to replace the beef with a system of wires and pulleys. With baseball, you have two players trying to do the same thing and achieving positive results in very different ways.
Both players have bent baseball to their will this season, and they’ve done it in distinctly different and fun ways. The 2017 AL MVP race is fun because award races always are. But this one is especially fun because it’s a spectrum of baseball enjoyment, fast to slow, nuance to bluntness. There’s no right answer, and that’s the best part. This is the season of Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge, and may there be several more just like it.