Plotting Ohtani's path to 62 home runs

Angels slugger leads MLB with 36 homers through 100 team games

July 25th, 2023

It is perhaps the highest praise that you can offer to Shohei Ohtani, two-way legend, subject of nearly every trade rumor, that the following statement appears to be true:

Ohtani has a real chance to hit 62 homers and tie Aaron Judge’s less-than-a-year-old American League record, and we’re hardly talking about it enough.

It's hard to imagine that there’s an Ohtani-related topic that hasn’t been deeply investigated, or that the possibility of getting past one of baseball’s most hallowed numbers – the 60-homer season – hasn’t been plastered on every billboard in America. It is, perhaps, because the Trade Deadline is so near, taking up much of the oxygen in the room, or maybe it's because it's so difficult to discuss him as "just a hitter," as though he's not simultaneously one of the best pitchers on the planet.

But still: 62! Ohtani hit his 36th homer of the season on Sunday against the Pirates, extending his Major League lead to four, over Matt Olson. The Angels, who were off on Monday before beginning a road trip that will take them through Detroit, Toronto and Atlanta – and through the Aug. 1 Trade Deadline – have conveniently played exactly 100 games. And yes, if he’s traded, that would mean that was his final home blast in Anaheim.

That means Ohtani needs 26 to tie Judge, and he’s got 62 games left in which to do it. ("Probably," because there is a chance he gets traded, which could actually get him into more games. We'll dig into that a bit more below.)

“Records are meant to be broken,” Judge said when the Yankees were in Anaheim last week. “It’s just a record. It’ll be exciting for the game if he went out there and got 63-plus. We’ll see what happens.”

So: Can he make what’s sure to be an extraordinary season a historic one as well? Let’s investigate.

1. What pace is he on?
Ohtani is on pace to hit 59 homers if he plays every remaining game, and 58 if he plays as often the rest of the season as he’s played so far. (He’s appeared in 98 of the 100 games the Angels have played.) Hitting 36 or more homers through 100 team games is exceptional, though not unprecedented; it’s happened just 25 times in the history of AL/NL baseball.

Sticking to somewhat more recent times – the beginning of divisional play in 1969 – 10 players have done it a total of 14 times, including Judge last year, who had popped 39. They didn’t all manage to top Roger Maris, obviously.

Of course, “pace” is a tricky thing, because it assumes you’ll just keep on doing the same thing you’ve already done. For example, two years ago, we saw a slugger also hit 36 homers in his first 100 team games, putting him on pace to get up near 60. Unfortunately, he then hit just 10 over the remainder of the season, giving him a great-but-hardly-historic 46. That 2021 masher? Shohei Ohtani.

2. Is this asking him to do something he’s never done before?
It’s not much of a conversation if we were saying that someone like Luis Arraez (3 homers) “could” hit 59 homers in 62 games, right? We need to live within the constraints of reality, which means that it would be nice if we’re not asking Ohtani to do something that’s never been done before – or something he’s never done before.

Fortunately, hitting 26 homers over a span of 62 games isn’t all that unusual. Judge did it last year, sure, but in recent years we’ve also seen hot streaks from good-not-elite hitters like Eugenio Suárez (2019), Khris Davis (2018), and Matt Carpenter (2018), among bigger names like Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton. A streak like this happens basically every season.

Ohtani has done it too. In fact, he’s had a run like this twice, setting aside overlapping spans.

  • 2023 // 28 homers over 62 games (through July 23)
  • 2021 // 27 homers over 62 games (May 14 through July 30)

It’s not, obviously, easy. But it’s not something out of reach, either. He did just do it.

3. What are the projections suggesting?
Over at FanGraphs, which hosts a variety of projection systems, the suggestion is 16 to 18 more home runs, which would put him in the 52 to 54 range. Projections can’t and don’t purport to be exact tellers of the future, yet there’s a whole heap of evidence that shows that even this far into the system, preseason projections tend to do better at prediction than season-to-date stats.

That said, projections, by their nature, tend to be conservative, and even if they do a great job in the aggregate, all it takes is one all-world hitter on a bit of a run to outdo them. (Since the start of June, Ohtani hasn’t just been “one of the best” hitters in the Majors. He’s been the best hitter in the Majors.)

That's exactly what we came across when we looked at Judge in the same way last year – slightly further into the season, when the Yankees had played 106 games – and he already had hit 43 homers. At the time, he was on pace for 66 homers (which he didn’t get to), and he was projected for 59 (which he exceeded). He didn't keep up his pace, but he did do better than what he was projected to do.

So if Ohtani were to do the same, he would land in between the pace and the projection, which would be approximately 57 homers.

4. Is there anything noteworthy about the remaining schedule?
The Angels have 29 more home games spread across nine series, and that’s good news for Ohtani, because the Big A has become one of the friendliest home run parks for lefties ever since the team lowered the home run boundaries in right field prior to 2018. According to Statcast’s three-year park factors, it’s the second-friendliest regular home field for lefty homers, boosting them by 25%, and second only to Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park.

While Ohtani doesn’t have a particularly noticeable home/road home run split this year (19 at home, 17 on the road), he’s certainly been happier to homer at the Big A than away from home over his career (96 at home, 67 on the road).

On the road, the Angels have 11 more series comprising 33 games. Those ballparks are all over the map for lefty power, with a few being above-average lefty homer parks (Atlanta, Philadelphia, Texas), one being the absolute worst (Detroit), and the rest scattered from average to mildly below. This probably won't have a ton of impact, given that Ohtani has the second-longest average home run distance so far this year. When he hits them, they stay hit.

5. Is he going to be involved in the most home runs ever?
OK, let’s get silly for a second. This doesn’t actually matter, but since we are working with an unprecedented level of hitting and pitching stardom, it’s worth discussing. Let’s say he hits 55 home runs this year. But he’s also a pitcher, and he’s allowed 18 homers on the mound – and he’s projected to allow eight more. That would be 81 total homers. It would be the most home runs a single player had been involved in (hitting and pitching) by a whole lot.

The top eight seasons for most home runs involved in match the top eight home run hitting seasons of all time, starting with Barry Bonds’ 73 in 2001. Ohtani’s 2021 (at 61, total) and Babe Ruth’s 1921 (at 60, total) are the top two among those who both hit and allowed a homer.

It’s not a record anyone will treasure. It is, however, a whole lot of watching baseballs fly into seats.

6. What was that “probably” business above?
We said he’s got 62 games left to do it, but, to be more accurate, the Angels have 62 games remaining as of Tuesday morning. But the Dodgers, for example, will have 63 more games. The Braves will have 64 more. And we don’t know Ohtani will still be an Angel next week, do we?

A potential trade, as unlikely as it might seem, introduces all sorts of uncertainty. It might add more chances, if he goes to Atlanta or Los Angeles. It might remove some, if he goes to the Rays, who have played the most games already – to say nothing of whatever travel issues might arise if he’s in Atlanta with the Angels on Aug. 2, and gets shipped back to the West Coast, where the Dodgers, Giants and Mariners will all be at home. That’s all without getting into the changes in what parks he’d be playing in, or the complete upheaval to his life should he suddenly find himself in a new home city.

We saw this, to some extent, in 1997, when Mark McGwire hit 58 home runs between Oakland and St. Louis, the most for any player traded within that season, because he left the A’s after their 109th game and joined the Cardinals before their 108th game. He hadn’t played in every A’s game, so he didn’t get into 163, but he did have 163 opportunities to, which he took advantage of by hitting his 58th and final homer in the last St. Louis game of the season.

7. So is he going to do it?
We'll admit that the numbers -- the pace, the projection, the rarity of getting to 60 -- are somewhat stacked against him. Somewhere in the 50s seems more likely than in the 60s. On the other hand, 26 homers in the next 62 games isn't a terribly unreasonable ask; again, he does have 28 in his last 62. On the other hand, haven't we learned by this point never to assume there's something Ohtani can't do? We'll say he ties Judge but doesn't top him, and he gets there in the final weekend of the season, whether that's in Anaheim as an Angel or somewhere else in a new uniform.

But if he falls just short, perhaps by a single home run, then you’ll have someone extremely interesting to blame. That would be Judge himself, who robbed Ohtani of a likely home run way back in April in the Bronx.

It was the second time he’d done that, since Judge also robbed Ohtani of a potential homer on the same field in 2021 – and, of course, Ohtani allowed one of Judge’s 62 home runs last year as well. You tend to think of sluggers as being separate from one another, of competing against each other but not actually head-to-head. When one’s a strong fielder and the other is a great pitcher, it never really works out that way. Judge will have a say in this battle, as well.