How Ohtani could reach new heights in ’24 (even without pitching)

December 18th, 2023

MLB Network, launched on Jan. 1, 2009, is celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2024. Through Jan. 19, MLB Network will count down the top 15 moments it has covered in its history, via weeknight segments on MLB Tonight (6 p.m. ET), as well as across its social platforms. And don’t forget to catch MLB Network’s 15th Anniversary retrospective show – “MLB Network Legendary Moments” presented by Budweiser, with Greg Amsinger, Sean Casey and Harold Reynolds -- scheduled for 7 p.m. ET on Monday, Jan. 22.

The No. 10 moment on the countdown: Shohei Ohtani's sensational 2021 campaign, when his two-way greatness earned him the AL MVP Award in unanimous fashion. The following story was originally published in December 2023.

has defied conventional baseball wisdom since making his MLB debut in 2018, excelling to such a stunning extent both at the plate and on the mound that he has arguably surpassed -- in the two-way player category -- the only comparable player in the game’s history, Babe Ruth.

But Ohtani will be facing some significant changes in 2024. He has a new team after signing the richest contract in sports history to join the Dodgers, and he won’t be a two-way player after undergoing elbow surgery that will prevent him from pitching next season.

There has been some debate concerning Ohtani’s chances to win a third career MVP Award next season since he will “only” be a designated hitter. After all, no full-time DH has ever been named MVP, and Ohtani’s two unanimous MVP selections were the result of an overwhelming two-way performance.

But if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Ohtani, it’s this: You can’t put anything past him. Not a fastball, not a nasty breaking pitch, and not what many consider to be impossible. Here’s a look at how the greatest baseball talent on the planet can reach new heights in 2024, even without pitching:

His production at the plate could be even better

Ohtani had the best offensive campaign of his career in 2023, leading the Majors in slugging percentage (.654), OPS (1.066) and OPS+ (184) while belting 44 home runs in 135 games, missing most of the season’s final month with an elbow injury.

One silver lining to Ohtani being unable to pitch next year is that he will be physically and mentally focused solely on his production at the plate. Part of what has made Ohtani’s exploits on the diamond so astounding is that he has been able to thrive offensively despite the heavy toll pitching takes on the body.

Without having to exert the type of energy it takes to be one of the best pitchers in baseball, Ohtani’s offensive numbers, as great as they’ve already been, could get even better.

Not only that, but Ohtani will have better protection in the lineup. He’ll be inserted into an already deep Dodgers batting order and he’ll presumably hit second, sandwiched between two other former MVP Award winners, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman.

With Freeman hitting behind him, Ohtani could see more pitches in the strike zone than before. Last season, Mike Trout only played in 82 games due to injury, and the three-time American League MVP mostly hit in front of Ohtani in the Angels’ lineup.

The players who hit behind Ohtani last season include Anthony Rendon (.678 OPS), Hunter Renfroe (.737), Brandon Drury (.803), Taylor Ward (.756) and Mickey Moniak (.802).

Freeman’s OPS was .976 last season, and his presence behind Ohtani could pay major dividends in 2024.

He could make designated hitter history

If Ohtani had played in 157 games last season instead of 135 (157 is the number of games he played in 2022), here’s what his stat line might have looked like:

.304/.412/.654, 51 HR, 7.0 WAR (Baseball Reference)

Only one full-time DH has ever hit 50 or more homers in a season. That was Red Sox legend David Ortiz, who launched 54 in 2006.

Only two full-time designated hitters posted a single-season OPS higher than Ohtani’s 1.066 from 2023: Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez (1.107 in 1995) and Travis Hafner (1.097 in 2006).

And only one full-time DH posted a single-season OPS+ higher than Ohtani’s 184 from last season -- Martinez’s OPS+ in 1995 was 185.

The highest WAR (Baseball Reference) in any season by a full-time DH? That would be 7.0, also from Martinez’s brilliant 1995 campaign.

These DH records are well within reach for Ohtani if he plays a full season, especially since all his considerable energies will be channeled into hitting rather than being split between the batter’s box and the mound.

He could make Dodgers history

Ohtani could make franchise history in his first season wearing Dodger blue. A lot of it.

The single-season home run record for the Dodgers is 49, set by Shawn Green in 2001. 

The only Dodgers players to finish a season with a higher OPS than Ohtani’s 1.066 in 2023 are Babe Herman (1.132 in 1930), Gary Sheffield (1.081 in 2000), Duke Snider (1.071 in 1954) and Mike Piazza (1.070 in 1997).

There is only one player in Dodgers history that posted a single-season OPS+ higher than Ohtani’s 184 last season -- Piazza had a 185 OPS+ in 1997.

He could make MLB history

Dodgers records are great, but Ohtani has become accustomed to setting Major League marks. And as many of them as he already owns, he could capture more in 2024.

Specifically, Ohtani could become the first player in MLB history to win a home run title in each league in back-to-back seasons. His 44 homers led the AL in 2023, and in his first season in the National League, he has a chance to lead the league again.

If he does win the NL home run crown in 2024, Ohtani will also have a great chance to become the first player in MLB history to win an MVP Award as a full-time DH (without also pitching, as Ohtani did when he won MVP honors in 2021 and '23).

The closest any full-time DH has come to being named MVP was a second-place finish, which has occurred three times -- Paul Molitor in 1993, Frank Thomas in 2000, and Ortiz in '05.

If Ohtani were to win a third career MVP Award next season, he’d be:

-- The second player in MLB history to win an MVP Award in both leagues, joining Frank Robinson, who won the NL honor with the Reds in 1961, and the AL honor with the Orioles in ’66.

-- The second player in MLB history to win three MVP Awards in a four-year span. The other is Barry Bonds, who won three from 1990-93 (1990, ’92 and ’93) and four straight from 2001-04.

-- The sixth player in MLB history to win an MVP Award with multiple teams. The others are Jimmie Foxx, Robinson, Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Bryce Harper.

He could finally become an October legend

All of the incredible feats Ohtani has accomplished in just six MLB seasons to this point have come during the regular season. He hasn’t tasted what it’s like to play in the postseason. 

That could change with his new club. The Dodgers have reached the playoffs 11 straight years, 10 of them by way of an NL West title. And in that time, they’ve won three NL pennants and a World Series championship in 2020. 

Next October, we may finally get to see the most talented baseball player in the world on the field when the lights are the brightest and the stakes are the highest.