Greatest season ever? Shohei has a case

August 26th, 2021

It is now time for your regularly scheduled greatness update.

OK, maybe not “regularly scheduled,” perhaps, but the 63-65 Angels are now 80% of the way through their schedule, and even though Ohtani allowed a season-high three homers on Wednesday night, the totality of his accomplishments continue to pile up. We’re not talking about what he’s doing too much, because it is not possible to talk about this too much. He’s having a season unlike any in our lifetimes, and really unlike any season this sport has ever seen. He has beyond wrapped up the AL Most Valuable Player award, which he'll likely win unanimously. He might even get some down ballot Cy Young support.

He's got 41 homers (after launching a leadoff long ball Thursday afternoon in Baltimore), 19 steals, and a 3.00 ERA at the most basic level. But there's so much more to it.

"There's nobody who does what he does at that level,” six-time All-Star CC Sabathia said last week. Ohtani is “putting together the greatest single season in MLB history,” tweeted former Major League outfielder (and current Rockies broadcaster) Ryan Spilborghs last Friday.

Is he? There might not be one right answer to this, but the fact that this is something we can even talk about with a straight face tells you a lot about how incredible this Ohtani campaign has been, and the closer we get to the end of the season, the closer we get to finding out. It’s absolutely worth trying to find out.

The thing is, before we can update you historically, we have to explain what’s changed recently. As Ohtani’s offense has dipped somewhat of late (a mere .768 OPS in August entering Wednesday), his pitching has absolutely taken off. After a June 30 debacle in New York (7 earned runs in two-thirds of an inning), his ERA sat at 3.60. He’d walked nearly 14% of batters he faced.

Since then, Ohtani has made seven starts, including in Baltimore on Wednesday night. He has allowed, in total, 11 earned runs. He’s walked four of the 168 batters he’s faced, or less than 3%. It’s a stunning turnaround, as ably detailed by’s Sarah Langs earlier this week. You wouldn’t have thought there could possibly be anything left he could be doing better. He’s pitching way better.

So what we’re left with is a hitter who still leads the Majors in home runs (40) and Win Probability Added (4.6) and is second in slugging (.628). (While also having stolen 19 bases, the eighth-most in the Majors. With his next steal, he’ll have posted just the 32nd 40/20 season in history, and the first ever by an Angel.)

Simultaneously, we have a pitcher who has the 10th-best strikeout rate of any pitcher with 100 innings this season (29.9%), the 8th-lowest ERA of any pitcher with 40 innings since July 1 (2.20) and, in his split-fingered fastball, he has the single most dominant pitch of the pitch tracking era.

And now, perhaps, you get all the hype.

All that said, let’s get the easy part out of the way:

Ohtani is obviously the best player of 2021

There’s no argument here. There can’t be. Using Baseball Reference’s version of Wins Above Replacement (combining pitching and hitting, of course), he entered Wednesday night’s game with 8.0 WAR, which would be a massive number in a full season, to say nothing of one that still has 20% left to go. You can see how this looks when plotted with the roughly 1,000 players who have either had 100 plate appearances or pitched in five games. It's him, then everyone else.

Most hilariously, look at the gap between Ohtani and everyone else. He’s at 8 WAR, remember. No one else has reached 7 WAR. No one else has reached 6 WAR.

It’s that gap between first and second place (2.2 WAR entering Wednesday night) that really stands out. Since Jackie Robinson integrated the game in 1947, there have only been six seasons where the first-place WAR finisher had a larger gap over the second-place finisher.

Biggest WAR gaps between first and second place, 1947-pres.

+3.4 WAR -- 1985 Dwight Gooden
+2.9 WAR -- 1956 Mickey Mantle
+2.7 WAR -- 1967 Carl Yastrzemski
+2.5 WAR -- 1975 Joe Morgan
+2.3 WAR -- 1991 Cal Ripken, Jr.
+2.3 WAR -- 1997 Roger Clemens
+2.2 WAR -- 2021 Ohtani

Now: There’s an argument to be made that WAR, our usual go-to for this sort of thing, isn’t built to adequately handle the kind of player Ohtani is, the two-way threat that hasn’t been seen since a brief period of Babe Ruth’s career more than a century ago.

That’s a fair critique, and probably not wrong; again, there’s never really been a player like this. WAR may not actually be fully equipped for this job. That said, the extra impact of Ohtani contributing in multiple ways is probably both “real” and “not nearly as large as you want it to be.”

One recent in-depth investigation suggested that we’re missing out on assigning him “a few tenths of a win,” which is valuable, yet also not game-changing in and of itself. There’s also the other side of this, which is that for all the value he’s adding on the mound and at the plate, he’s contributed just about nothing on defense this year. That means he’s missing out on some of the daily statistical fielding value that fueled recent great seasons like Mookie Betts’ 10.7 WAR 2018, for example.

Still, because of the two-way aspect, if you want to mentally add even more value to these numbers, we wouldn’t complain. So we’ll note that, and proceed with what we’ve got.

What we’ve got is exactly what you’d expect: He’s 2021’s most valuable player by a whole lot. Where are we, historically?

Ohtani is in the mix with all-time greats

There have been -- dating back to 1901 in the AL and NL -- more than 74,000 seasons with our same minimum from above, either 100 plate appearances batting or 5 games pitching. Of those, 504, or slightly more than one-half of one percent were considered to be worth at least 8 Wins Above Replacement. So right away, if his season ended today, you can tell this is pretty special. It’s better than 99% of all other baseball seasons.

But the season is not over, of course. Ohtani probably will receive about 120 more plate appearances and maybe 5 more starts on the mound. The various projection systems suggest about 1.4 more WAR is remaining in Ohtani’s year. If we give him that, and push his year up to 9.5 WAR, well, now we’re into truly rarified air. That’s happened only 179 times. Now we’re better than 99.8% of all other seasons, ever. (Those 179 times came courtesy of 87 different players. Of those 122, 56 are in the Hall of Fame, and 10 more are not yet eligible.)

To really show what's happening here, though, we need to do something unorthodox, which is to attempt to show more than 74,000 different seasons on a chart, split by pitching and hitting WAR. This gets messy, but we're trying to show all of history at a glance here, and this probably tells the right story.

Ohtani isn't having the best pitching season ever; how could he, in only 105 innings? Ohtani isn't having the best position player season ever; how could he, when he isn't really playing defense, and when the game used to allow for things like "Ruth out-homering entire other teams?"

But the greatness here is really in that space that's almost entirely out by itself, the space where there's plenty of value added on both sides of the ball. The only dot anywhere near him: Ruth's 1918.

So: Is Ohtani having the greatest season ever? The truth is, it's up to you. He's not going to end up with the all-time WAR record, or even really that close to it, in part because pitchers from generations ago threw more than three times the innings he will, in part because he doesn't add much fielding value, in part because WAR may simply not be up to the task. Then again, it's easy to cast a side-eye at pre-integration baseball, at pre-bullpen baseball, at pre-continental travel baseball, especially when we know today's players are exponentially more talented than the ones that Ruth, Mays or Ripken ever had to deal with.

What we know for certain is that WAR will tell you this is going to end up in the top one-half of one-percent or so of all seasons ever. We know that based on all the additional context of how he got there, you're going to be able to make the argument that this really is the greatest season ever. Sometimes, half the fun is simply in making the argument. Ohtani, the future MVP, the real-life superhero, absolutely will be able to do so.