The image was iconic about as soon as it happened. The mammoth Aaron Judge stood at second base in early July at Minute Maid Park. Next to him was Jose Altuve, his head barely reaching Judge’s biceps.
Sure, it was funny. But for the uninitiated, it also was sort of misleading. This was no David and Goliath, this was a meeting of the very best of equals. And on Thursday, all that came to a head as the Astros’ Altuve — the 5-6, 165-pound powerhouse who led the major leagues in batting average — handily defeated the 6-7, 282-pound Judge as the 2017 American League MVP.
Another giant, the Marlins’ 6-6, 245-pound Giancarlo Stanton, hit 59 homers and was named National League MVP.
“That’s what I like about baseball,” Altuve said. “It’s kind of crazy to think that on the other side, the National League, the winner is 6-6. I’m not strong, and that’s what I love about baseball. It’s not the rule that you have to be big and be strong to play baseball and be a good player.”
Out of 30 votes cast by selected members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, Altuve received 27 for first place; Judge received two. The other vote went to the Indians’ Jose Ramirez. Altuve is only the fifth AL second baseman to receive the honor. The position has the fewest MVP winners.
“Absolutely I was surprised,” Altuve said when asked about the large margin between him and Judge. “I was surprised that I won. I wasn’t expecting this. You see Aaron Judge and he had a really good season. I was happy to be in the top three finalists. I couldn’t believe it.”
Altuve was a paragon of consistency. After the first two weeks of the season, his batting average never dipped below .286, and his lowest average in a month was .291. Judge battled a slump, a shoulder injury and a propensity for strikeouts, leading him to a swoon after the All-Star break.
None of this is to say that Judge hasn’t been feted, and feted well, for his historic rookie year. He won a unanimous decision for American League Rookie of the Year earlier this week, and his 52 home runs were a rookie record. If jersey sales are any indication, the All-Star is the most popular Yankee on the field these days, and he even has his own Judge’s Chambers in a section of seats in rightfield. That might be no big deal for other franchises, but for the once stodgy Yankees, it’s about as rebellious as rainbow-dyed hair.
Altuve did have a more positive influence than Judge, at least as far as sabermetrics is concerned. Baseball Reference’s Win Probability Added rating — a formula that rated how win expectancy is affected by a player’s plate appearance — ranked Altuve ninth in baseball with a rating of 3.60, while Judge doesn’t appear in the top 10. The sabermetrics Holy Grail, wins above replacement, also ranks Altuve slightly higher at an MLB-high 8.3 compared to Judge’s 8.1.
More traditional statistics are less definitive. All voting occurs before the postseason, so Altuve’s World Series victory didn’t help his case. He did, however, hit .346, good for his third batting title, and was first in the AL with 204 hits, helping to lead the Astros to 101 wins. He added a .410 on-base percentage, 24 home runs, 32 steals and 112 runs.
Judge was bested only by Stanton in the MLB home run race. He had a 1.049 OPS, second to the Angels’ Mike Trout, and 114 RBIs, good for sixth in baseball. Judge did lead the league in strikeouts, with 208, but added an AL-high 128 runs and 127 walks.
Thursday, though, capped a career-defining year for Altuve. He won the World Series and “three weeks after that, I’m the AL MVP. I have to say, my fans back in Houston and my teammates, they made me what I am right now. They made me an MVP this season.”