Ohtani is breaking baseball -- in a good way

Angels superstar hitting like Arenado, striking out hitters like Bieber

May 19th, 2021

Shohei Ohtani is breaking baseball in all the best ways, and we’re not just talking about things like:

• Batting second while being the starting pitcher (hadn’t been done in the AL or NL since 1903)
• Leading off the day after being the starting pitcher (hadn’t been done since 1916)
• Becoming the third player ever to play the field in the same game as striking out 10 batters
• Becoming one of just two players on record to throw a ball 100-plus mph and hit one 100-plus mph in the same game

Not to mention the fact that he’s doing all those things while, you know, also leading the Majors in home runs.

We’re talking about the fact that he’s hitting better than Nolan Arenado, has the same pitching strikeout rate as Shane Bieber and the most extra-base hits in the game -- and he’s doing all of it at the same time. He’s slugging better than Vladimir Guerrero Jr., except that when Guerrero isn’t hitting, he’s playing a decent first base, not hopping on the mound and tossing 99 mph heat past good hitters. Who does that? No one but Ohtani.

You can, and should, tune into the Ohtani show on Wednesday evening, when he takes the mound against José Ramírez and his Cleveland mates on MLB Network nationally, as well as free on MLB.TV. It is extremely worth your time to do so, if only because Cleveland has been no-hit twice already this season and Ohtani has allowed the lowest hits-per-pitch rate in the American League.

But let’s look at the bigger picture here. How do we put all of this in the context of today’s game if Ohtani is doing things that haven’t been done since literally Babe Ruth? (And that might not even be a strong enough comparison, given that Ruth played 100 years ago in a sport that didn’t have night games, 96 mph sliders, cross-continent travel or integration, and since he was a “two-way player” for only a relatively brief period at the end of his Red Sox tenure.) How do we express how generally unreasonable all of this really is?

We can’t, probably, other than just to gawk. But we can try. Let’s talk about the American League Most Valuable Player Award. No, it’s not too soon.

If Ohtani isn’t the biggest star in the baseball world right now, that may be in part because of his relatively limited track record in the Majors, interrupted as it was by 2018 Tommy John surgery and 2019 left knee surgery, and in large part because he and Mike Trout somehow play on a fourth-place team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2015.

But it also seems like every day he’s doing something that stands out, and it’s not always about the combination of pitching and hitting. His Sunday homer against Boston? It was one of the five most valuable events (given the context of the Angels being down by one run with two outs in the ninth) of the season. His Monday homer against Cleveland, the one at his eyes? It was the highest pitch hit for a homer by any Angels batter on record, dating back to 2008. His April 12 double against Kansas City? At 119 mph, it’s the hardest-hit ball by a lefty batter ever tracked.

It goes on like this. Ohtani is not the best hitter -- although he is extremely good -- nor is he the best pitcher -- though he’s extremely good there too, if a bit too wild -- but he's both in a sport where it is very hard to be either one. He’s generally a non-factor on defense, but he’s got elite speed and has added some baserunning value. In terms of adding value in the biggest spots -- you know, what many people could consider “valuable” -- well, he’s No. 1 in baseball in win probability added, and that's just among hitters (more on this below).

But because we’ve never really seen a player like this, it’s difficult to wrap our heads around it all. Put another way: A designated hitter has never won a Most Valuable Player Award, because they add no value on defense, and it’s not the Most Valuable Hitter Award. As a pure DH, Ohtani is not out-hitting J.D. Martinez, Yermín Mercedes or Yordan Alvarez, but he’s also faced 110 batters -- and counting -- as a pitcher, striking out 40 of them, and that has to count. But how much?

Ohtani’s case, to be clear, is not just about numbers. He’s so much more important than that. But the numbers love him, too. Let’s try to break that down.

How do you define value?

The first place to start, usually, is the cold hard math of Wins Above Replacement, which doesn’t take into account the entire Ohtani experience of it all, but is nonetheless the best we’ve got at expressing value. Think about it like this: “Having the most WAR” is not a guarantee of winning MVP, nor should it be. But it’s nearly impossible to be your league's most valuable player if you’re not pretty close to the top of the WAR leaderboards.

At Baseball-Reference, for example, Ohtani has 1.2 WAR as a position player, and 1.3 more WAR as a pitcher, giving him a 2.5 WAR total that is the fourth best in the American League.

2021 American League WAR leaders

2.8 WAR -- Byron Buxton, MIN
2.7 WAR -- John Means, BAL
2.6 WAR -- Isiah Kiner-Falefa, TEX
2.5 WAR -- Ohtani, LAA
2.2 WAR -- Gerrit Cole, NYY
2.1 WAR -- Vladimir Guerrero Jr., TOR
2.1 WAR -- Mike Trout, LAA
2.1 WAR -- Kyle Gibson, TEX
2.0 WAR -- Xander Bogaerts, BOS

“A list of WAR leaders is not a list of MVP finalists” ought to be pretty clear in this case, because no matter what WAR says, Means is not winning the MVP. Kiner-Falefa is not winning the MVP. Gibson won’t even be in the conversation. Buxton is currently injured, with no clear return date. Trout has a calf strain that could cost him six to eight weeks. Bogaerts is baseball's best-hitting shortstop, but the defensive metrics routinely regard his glove as a poor one.

So, Ohtani is left as the leader in the clubhouse, right? Good. We’re done here. Not so fast.

How does Ohtani's playing time break down?

Three years ago, when the discussion was about whether Ohtani or New York’s Miguel Andújar would win Rookie of the Year -- Ohtani won easily -- Yankees fans focused on the fact that Andújar was an everyday player with 606 plate appearances (despite playing a below-average third base) while Ohtani had 367 plate appearances (while sometimes pitching).

That’s not an issue in 2021. Ohtani has, somewhat unbelievably, played in every single Angels game this year. The only game he didn’t start came back on April 5, the day after he narrowly avoided an injury while attempting to field a wild throw home as José Abreu slid in underneath him. (Ohtani pinch-hit in the eighth and was hit by a pitch, later scoring a run.)

His 163 plate appearances entering Tuesday were the second most on the Angels; they’re more than Ronald Acuña Jr. or Aaron Judge or Kris Bryant. This part is not an issue. But look at his games played, because they break down like this:

34 starts -- DH
3 starts -- P, hitting for himself (no team DH)
2 starts -- P, not hitting (team used DH)

So he is, primarily, a designated hitter, which means the question we’re asking is really about what happens when he’s not hitting. Other designated hitters, like Martinez, Mercedes or Alvarez, offer no defensive value or negative defensive value. That’s true of Ohtani, too, in about 87% of Angels games. So if you just look at WAR collected as a position player, he’s tied for 22nd, which is a rough oversimplification of being the 11th-best hitter having taken the 29th-most plate appearances and providing zero defensive value.

But unlike Martinez, Mercedes or Alvarez, Ohtani is also offering value on the mound (1.3 WAR). The way the math works out then, seems like maybe it makes sense -- that is, since he's started only five times, and acted as a “normal AL pitcher” in two of them, there have been only three games so far in which he has provided the Angels with extra batting value over whomever else they'd have played at DH that day. Maybe that'll pile up over a full season if he hits every single time he pitches, but so far, it hasn't mattered much. Not that he needs it to; he is, again, fourth in the AL in WAR as it is.

What about the context MVP voters like to see?

It is, again, not a simple WAR contest, so we have to factor in how MVP voters actually think about these things. We have “he plays on a losing team,” which seems unlikely to change but no longer seems to matter much; it didn’t stop Trout from winning in the past, or Giancarlo Stanton on the 85-loss 2017 Marlins, and so on. If a team with Trout and Ohtani can’t win, it proves more than ever how much of a team game baseball really is.

But we’re talking about MVP voters, right? There’s never really been a dictionary definition of value here, in the sense that some voters just want big numbers, and others want direct contribution toward winning, and ideally you have both, but not always.

How, then, about this? No player in the Majors (combining hitting and pitching here) has done more to help his team actually win games, given the context of “big spots,” like the home run against the Red Sox we mentioned before. If you want value, that seems like value.

Win Probability Added, 2021, hitting + pitching

2.8 -- Ohtani, LAA
1.9 -- Ramírez, CLE
1.9 -- Kyle Seager, SEA
1.8 -- Ramón Laureano, OAK

So does he have a shot here?

It seems unreasonable to think that Ohtani will play in 162 games this year, especially as the Angels' postseason odds dwindle below 25%. If we were to do the thing you should not do and just assume he performs exactly the same over the course of the season, he'd have a 10-WAR year and probably sweep the balloting.

But the answer, here, clearly, is "yes." We'll be the first to say that numbers can't truly capture what he's doing, but at the same time they're doing a decent enough job of accounting for his dual role, and they're convincingly saying he's been one of the AL's most valuable players. Throw in all the historic context -- with the hope he does anything close to this for the remainder of 2021 -- and he might have it in the bag.

It's not too early to think about it. When you have a player like Ohtani doing what he's doing, waiting too long to talk about it is ... waiting too long. This is the Ohtani we'd been waiting for ever since he arrived in 2018. Don't miss a second of it.