Will Ohtani's 2023 be the best season in baseball history?

Two-way star has 40 homers and 8.7 Wins Above Replacement

August 4th, 2023

It’s that time of the year again. It’s “is having the greatest year in history?” time. That's what happens when your baseball card looks like this (through Thursday):

  • As batter: .310/.413/.685, a 1.098 OPS (192 OPS+) with 40 HR
  • As pitcher: 3.32 ERA (135 ERA+) in 124 2/3 innings, with 160 K's

If the fact that we’ve now asked this question multiple times seems to lessen the impact, we argue that it’s exactly the opposite. If you have one season that’s arguably the greatest ever (his 2021, when he was the unanimous AL MVP, hitting 46 homers while throwing 130 innings of 3.18 ball), and follow it up with one that’s slightly superior by WAR (2022, when he was a much better pitcher and finished second in the MVP Award race and fourth in the Cy Young Award race), and have now followed it up with a season that’s already featured what might have been The Best Month Ever and The Best Day Ever, well, we’re really beyond mere seasons, aren’t we?

It’s a testament to what he’s done, and continues to do, that this question -- whether his 2023 season is the best in baseball history -- feels like it’s not even big enough, because now it’s three consecutive seasons of this premise. Ohtani surpassed Babe Ruth comparisons long ago, and if it becomes tiring to repeatedly hear that no one has ever done this before, that’s because no one has ever done this before. Not, at least, like this.

On Thursday, a day after he’d won his second consecutive AL Player of the Month Award, he reached base four times, including hitting his Major League-leading 40th homer, becoming the first starting pitcher in nearly six decades to hit a homer and steal a base in the same game. (The Angels lost, 5-3. You may insert your Tungsten Arm jokes here.)

As of Friday morning, Ohtani leads the Majors in home runs, triples, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases, OPS, OPS+, and WAR. He still has an outside-yet-realistic shot of matching or topping Aaron Judge’s year-old American League record of 62 home runs, and he owns the longest home run of the entire season (493 feet on June 30). Entering Friday night's game in Seattle, he had reached base in 23 of his last 34 plate appearances, a stretch of on-base success that hasn't been seen in the Majors in nearly two years.

He is, hilariously, leading the AL in position player WAR, despite being a DH who adds no fielding value. (You’ll be unsurprised to learn no DH has ever led their league in WAR before.) Plus, with six more steals, he’d join the 40-20 club for the second time. Only seven other players have done it more than once. You'll know their names.

That 192 OPS+ we mentioned above isn't just the best in baseball this year; it's one of the best hitting seasons an American Leaguer has put up in the last 50 years. That would be incredibly impressive if he did nothing else but hit. But, of course, he does something else. He pitches a little, too. On the mound, he leads the Majors in fewest hits allowed per nine innings, he’s third in strikeout rate, and he's sixth in pitching WAR.

He’ll win AL MVP, and he’ll do it unanimously. And when he does, he’ll be the first player in history to sweep all the first place votes twice.

Is it history’s best season? Maybe. How do we even figure that out?

1) What if he wins the Triple Crown (as a hitter) while making the All-Star team (as a pitcher)?

If this happens, then: Yes. Case closed. In this possible future, we would accept no further arguments. While none of those things considers the fielding aspect of the game, it doesn’t matter. This would be the greatest season in baseball history. It might be the greatest season in sports history.

But is it possible? It’s hardly out of the question. With an 11-homer lead over Luis Robert’s 29, he’s all but guaranteed to lead the league in dingers. He’s second in RBI to Adolis García, but only by six. As for batting average, Ohtani’s .310 is third behind Toronto’s Bo Bichette and Tampa Bay’s Yandy Díaz, but Bichette is currently sidelined with a knee injury and it’s difficult to know if he’ll be the same if and when he returns.

A Triple Crown has happened just 12 times since RBI became an official statistic in 1920. Aside from the still-active Miguel Cabrera, every single Triple Crown winner has been a Hall of Famer. None of them were also great pitchers. Remember, when Ohtani made the All-Star team this year, it wasn’t just as a DH, it was separately also as pitcher, for the third year in a row.

Verdict: It would be the greatest year ever.

2) What if he hits 62 homers and makes the All-Star team as a pitcher?

Yes. Stop it. Aaron Judge’s fielding value last year would not equal Ohtani’s pitching value this year. Ruth wasn’t pitching by the time his 1927 came around. Barry Bonds, whatever you may think of how he got there, had offensive seasons between 2001-’04 that topped any of them, but by that point in his career, his once-elite defense had considerably backed up. Roger Maris isn't even in this discussion. Sixty-plus homers and outstanding pitching? Yes. That’d do it. That’d be enough.

Verdict: It would be the greatest year ever.

3) What if he has the most Wins Above Replacement of all time?

WAR isn’t perfect, but it’s a very useful tool to compare performance across different eras.

(Does WAR actually capture Ohtani’s full value as a two-way player? This comes up a lot; we looked into this last year, and came away with the answer that even if it wasn’t really built for this type of player, it’s difficult to argue that the metric is meaningfully undervaluing Ohtani.)

The Angels aren’t even 70% of the way through the season yet, but Ohtani already has 8.7 WAR, which would be one of the best seasons in history even if he failed to appear in a game for the entire rest of the season. (He’s essentially been as valuable as Ronald Acuña Jr. on offense, but if Acuña went and pitched like Blake Snell as well. He has more WAR by himself than eight teams worth of position players.) Since integration in 1947, more than three-quarters of a century ago, there have been 106 seasons of at least 8.7 WAR. That’s a little more than one per year. In a full season. Some teams have never had a player even once have a year like this.

But – regular recent bouts with cramps aside – Ohtani’s season isn’t over. The Angels have 52 games remaining, so he could start on the mound eight or nine more games, and potentially take 200 more plate appearances. There’s a lot of baseball left. How far is he going to get?

If we use what he’s projected for, using ZiPS at FanGraphs, we’re talking 2.8 more WAR. That’s an 11.5 WAR season.

If we use what he’s on pace for, given the same rate of games played to date, we’re talking an 11.3 WAR season.

Given that those numbers are essentially identical, let’s just call it 11.4 WAR and go from there, and if that’s what he ends up with, then the numbers will match the eye test. This is going to be a season that gets up to a nearly unprecedented level, because getting north of 11 WAR is … rarified air.

Seasons of 11.4 WAR or better, since integration (1947)

  • 12.4 // Carl Yastrzemski, 1967
  • 11.9 // Bonds, 2001
  • 11.7 // Bonds, 2002
  • 11.5 // Cal Ripken Jr., 1991

That’s … it. If we go back to the start of AL/NL history, we’re looking at 13 total seasons, and all from players who are inner-circle among the inner-circle of Cooperstown, like Ruth, Gehrig, and Cobb. (And, yes, Bonds.)

It’s unlikely he’ll reach the level that Yaz did in 1967, though that was at least in part because the level of hitting at that time in history was so poor, it was easier for him to separate himself. (His 1.040 OPS is not as good as Ohtani’s 1.098 OPS, but it was further above league average than Ohtani’s is.)

Verdict: He has to actually get up there first, but ... yes, it would be the greatest year ever.

4) What if he has the largest WAR gap between first and second place ever?

Maybe the greatest season ever is about the distance between yourself and everyone else who played that year, because while it may be hard to compare the baseball and social worlds of, say, 2023 and 1923, it’s not that hard to compare Ohtani this year against everyone else this year.

Ohtani, as we said, has 8.7 WAR so far. In second place, at 5.5 WAR, is Atlanta superstar Acuña Jr., who is overwhelmingly likely to win the National League MVP Award. That’s a gap of more than three wins – for reference, last season, stars like Matt Olson, Bichette, and Matt Chapman were roughly in that range for the full year – and if that seems like a lot, it certainly is.

Largest gaps between 1st place and 2nd place WAR, all-time

  • +3.4 WAR (1985, Dwight Gooden over Rickey Henderson)
  • +3.2 WAR (2023, Ohtani over Acuña Jr.)
  • +2.9 WAR (1956, Mickey Mantle over Early Wynn)
  • +2.7 WAR (1967, Carl Yastrzemski over Ron Santo)
  • +2.5 WAR (1975, Joe Morgan over Jim Palmer)

At the moment, the only season with a bigger gap was Gooden’s 1985, when he posted a 1.53 ERA to go with a 24-4 record and 268 strikeouts, giving him a unanimous Cy win – aka, one of history’s greatest ever pitching seasons. At the rate we're going, Ohtani will overtake Gooden by the end of August.

(A fun, if little-remembered fact about that season: Gooden was also the best hitting pitcher that year, collecting 21 hits [including three for extra bases] and posting 1.1 WAR on the hitting side to go with the massive 12.2 he piled up on the mound.)

Verdict: It would be the greatest year ever.

5) So will it be history’s greatest season?

The answer, as always, is a subjective one. He’s not going to top Ruth’s 14.1 WAR 1923 season, if only because ‘replacement level’ has risen so considerably since Ruth was facing the same seven unintegrated teams full of players born in the 19th century that it’s difficult to compare it today. He’s not going to have the most homers in a season, or the highest OPS, and as things stand, he’s not even going to lead his team to the playoffs.

But what seems absolutely clear is, for the third consecutive year, he’s going to post a season that will make you seriously ask the question – and this one is easily better than the previous two. Nearly every Major League player who ever lived would have given anything to have even one season like this. He’s going to have three, in a row, doing it in a way that no one – not even Ruth – has done before. It seems a lot harder to argue that it isn't the all-time greatest year than to argue that it is. Good enough for us.

Verdict: If he stays healthy, it will be the greatest year ever.