The heavyweight tilt we've been waiting for

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Shohei Ohtani will square off in a battle of MVP candidates. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Shohei Ohtani will square off in a battle of MVP candidates. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)

MVP races in the majors normally play out like six-month marathons, but on Thursday night the AL battle will briefly become more like a boxing match with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Shohei Ohtani stepping into the ring.

Because position players usually bring home the hardware — only 23 of the 181 MVPs in MLB history have been pitchers — we’re consistently denied the pleasure of seeing the top candidates battle each other head-to-head.

Since 1992, only two pitchers have been named MVP (Justin Verlander in 2011 and Clayton Kershaw in 2014), and Kershaw didn’t even face the man who came second in the MVP race that year (Giancarlo Stanton). Verlander went up against his runner-up (Jacoby Ellsbury) eight times, but Ellsbury went an anti-climactic 1-for-7 with a single, a walk and one strikeout. To make things even less exciting, both of Verlander and Ellsbury’s meetings came in May, when the latter was hitting a strong — but not award-worthy — .297/.356/.448, so it couldn’t have been billed as a duel between top MVP candidates.

That means when Guerrero Jr. steps into the box against Ohtani on Thursday, it’ll be the first true battle of its kind in decades. To be clear, the two aren’t neck-and-neck in the MVP race. Guerrero Jr. has cooled off of late, and Ohtani’s two-way accomplishments are so singular and awe-inspiring that he’d have to fall off significantly down the stretch for the award to slip through his fingertips.

Even if Vladdy isn’t as close a second as he once was, this rare one-two battle should be celebrated, and will be fascinating to watch — but who has the edge?

In order to break down the Guerrero Jr.-Ohtani matchup, the first step is to cross-reference Vladdy’s effectiveness against the pitch types Ohtani throws using Statcast Run Value, with his rank among MLB hitters for context:

Guerrero Jr. doesn’t have a profound pitch-type weakness, but Ohtani is unlikely to blow him away with his 95.5-mph fastball. The 22-year-old’s 10 extra-base hits against 95+ mph fastballs ranks sixth in the majors, and he’s slugged .760 against four-seamers overall — with an even better xSLG of .783. Ohtani can’t totally abandon his fastball against Vladdy considering he uses the pitch more than half the time, but that’s probably not where he’s going to gain an advantage.

The curveball looks like a useful weapon for the Japanese right-hander to deploy against Guerrero Jr. considering the slugger’s nondescript production against hooks, but that’s more of a show-me pitch for the multi-talented star. Although the pitch has strong movement both vertically (5% above average) and horizontally (23%) and doesn’t lack aesthetic value...

… he’s thrown it less than five percent of the time in 2021, and it has generated just five whiffs. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him mix it in at some point against Guerrero Jr., but it’s not an offering he’s likely to lean on.

Unsurprisingly, where Ohtani is likely to claim an edge is with his best pitch: the splitter. The offering has been nothing short of devastating this year, causing opponents to hit just .084 against it while whiffing 53.8 percent of the time. Ohtani has thrown his splitter 430 times in his MLB career, and it’s resulted in 90 strikeouts and zero home runs. There’s no question that it’s among the best weapons in baseball.

What’s less clear is how effective Guerrero Jr. is against the splitter, as he’s seen just 61 of them in his MLB career. Against those pitches, he’s hit .316 and slugged .684, but it’s tough to trust a sample that small. He has shown the ability to dig out relatively well-placed splitters low in the zone, like he did for his 10th career home run against Oliver Drake…

… but he’s also demonstrated that he can be totally baffled by the pitch as well — like he was on this hack against Aníbal Sánchez:

The safe money is on Ohtani being able to use the splitter effectively against Guerrero Jr. simply because it’s worked against every other hitter on the planet. That’s especially true because it lives at the bottom of the zone and below — the only place Vladdy hasn’t punished pitches this year:

The best defence the slugger can muster is probably to lay off the pitch entirely considering Ohtani throws it in the strike zone just 35.8 percent of the time. That’s far easier said than done, as part of what makes Ohtani’s splitter so good is that it often looks like a strike before devilishly dropping out of the zone:

Another issue for Guerrero Jr. is that during his recent struggles he’s swinging at more and more pitches outside the zone:

Although the battle between Guerrero Jr. and Ohtani is special due to its circumstances, it’s likely to be won and lost along mundane lines. If Guerrero Jr. can stay disciplined and force Ohtani into the zone with his fastball, the slugger has a good chance to do some damage. If the two-way star can entice Vladdy to chase outside of the zone, and stay ahead in the count enough to lean on his all-world splitter, he should shut the 22-year-old down.

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