How Ohtani is raising his game ... again

May 19th, 2024

Coming into 2024, it wasn't hard to imagine that , unburdened from the responsibility of having to pitch and with the advantage of having a better team around him, would find a way to elevate his offensive game.

As usual, though, the superstar slugger has managed to obliterate even the most optimistic of expectations the same way he does hanging breaking balls.

More than a quarter of the way through the first season of a historic 10-year, $700 million deal with the Dodgers, Ohtani hasn't just improved at the plate, he's gone to another stratosphere.

Ohtani is off to the best offensive start of his career by a wide margin, producing a .358/.426/.676 slash line, 13 homers, 16 doubles, 11 steals and 32 RBIs over his first 45 games. He homered again Friday, which was officially recognized as Shohei Ohtani Day in Los Angeles County.

Entering Saturday, the 29-year-old was the MLB leader in batting average, slugging, OPS (1.102), hits (64) and total bases (121), was tied for the MLB lead in homers and was the only player in the Majors with double-digit totals in both homers and steals.

Take a look at how his production compares to where it was at this point (through 47 team games) over the past three years, during Ohtani's tenure with the Angels.

Ohtani's numbers through 47 team games, 2021-24

  • 2024: .358 BA // 1.102 OPS // 13 HR // 11 SB // 121 TB
  • 2023: .286 BA // .900 OPS // 11 HR // 6 SB // 95 TB
  • 2022: .247 BA // .760 OPS // 9 HR // 7 SB // 79 TB
  • 2021: .268 BA // .938 OPS // 14 HR // 6 SB // 104 TB

Here are three huge components fueling Ohtani's incredible start. (All stats below are through Friday.)

1. Career-best contact quality (and quantity)

Ohtani’s ability to barrel the ball at an elite rate is nothing new, but he’s taken it to the extreme in 2024, producing a barrel -- batted balls with an optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, typically resulting in extra-base hits -- in a ridiculous 15.6% of his plate appearances.

That’s the highest mark in MLB this season and 3.4 points better than Ohtani’s previous career high of 12.2% in 2021.

If he keeps up his current pace, Ohtani would finish this season with 110 barrels, which would break Aaron Judge’s Statcast-era (since 2015) record of 106, set in 2022. That would be 40 more barrels than Ohtani had in 2023 and 32 more than his career high of 78 in 2021.

A combination of factors have contributed to the spike:

  • More hard contact: Ohtani is producing hard contact at the highest rate of his career -- 61.7% of his batted balls have been hit with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher, up from 52.2% in 2021-23.
  • More air contact: Ohtani is hitting the ball in the launch-angle sweet-spot zone at the highest rate of his career -- 45.4% of his batted balls have been hit with a launch angle ranging from 8-32 degrees, up from 35.3% from 2021-23.
  • More balls in play: Ohtani is striking out at the lowest rate of his career -- 19.5%, down from 25.9% in 2021-23.

Ohtani’s staggering expected stats, which take both quality of contact and strikeouts into account (expected wOBA also factors in walks), show the massive impact those improvements have had. The slugger is not only outperforming everyone else this season but also outdoing previous versions of himself by leaps and bounds:

  • His .368 expected batting average is 36 points better than any other qualifier in 2024 and 73 points better than his previous career high.
  • His .731 expected slugging percentage is 24 points better than any other qualifier in 2024 and 93 points better than his previous career high.
  • His .492 expected wOBA is 26 points better than any other qualifier and 66 points better than his previous career high.

2. He's dominating non-fastballs

While Ohtani was hardly inept against breaking and offspeed pitches in the past, pitchers were much more likely to have success against him with those types of pitches than they were when they threw him fastballs.

Ohtani’s performance by pitch classification, 2021-23:

  • Fastballs: .320 BA // .654 SLG // .447 wOBA
  • Breaking: .244 BA // .563 SLG // .369 wOBA
  • Offspeed: .233 BA // .469 SLG // .324 wOBA

Ohtani, though, is now performing just as well, if not better, against breaking and offspeed pitches as he is against heaters.

In fact, Ohtani has been the best hitter in MLB (tied with the Orioles' Gunnar Henderson) this season against non-fastballs.

Highest wOBA against breaking + offspeed pitches, 2024
Minimum 50 plate appearances ending on those pitches

  • 1. (tied) Shohei Ohtani: .469
  • 1. (tied) Gunnar Henderson: .469
  • 3. Alec Bohm: .448
  • 4. Jake Cronenworth: .446
  • 5. Rafael Devers: .434

3. He's owning the edges

Much like they did with breaking and offspeed pitches, one area pitchers could have some level of success against Ohtani in the past was on the edges of the plate, defined as pitches within one baseball’s width of the strike-zone borders.

Ohtani began to change that last season, hitting .300 with a .572 slugging percentage and a .393 wOBA against edge pitches, up from .236 with a .419 slugging percentage and a .303 wOBA from 2018-22.

He’s been even better on those pitches in 2024, so much so that he's now MLB's third-best hitter on edge pitches.

Highest wOBA on edge pitches, 2024
Minimum 50 plate appearances ending on those pitches

  1. Salvador Perez: 442
  2. Mark Canha: .436
  3. Shohei Ohtani: .432
  4. Luis Rengifo: .429
  5. Bobby Witt Jr.: .427

Historic pace

Ohtani has been so good on offense this season that he is tied with teammate Mookie Betts for first among all players with 3.1 WAR (per FanGraphs), despite the fact that designated hitters are given a steep penalty in the WAR calculation for their lack of defensive value.

That puts Ohtani on pace for 10.7 WAR, which would shatter the single-season record for a primary DH (using 65% of games played as a DH as the qualifier) since the rule was adopted by the American League in 1973.

Highest fWAR for a primary DH in a single season, since 1973
Minimum 65% of games played as a DH

  • 7.0, Edgar Martinez (1995)
  • 6.5, Shohei Ohtani (2023)
  • 6.3, David Ortiz (2007)
  • 6.1, Edgar Martinez (1997)
  • 6.0, Travis Hafner (2006)
    Ohtani: currently on pace for 10.7 WAR in 2024

Ohtani's total of 3.1 fWAR is also more than he had at this point of the season in each of the past three years, when he was both hitting and pitching, so he's effectively providing more value (at least in terms of WAR) as a hitter right now than he was as a two-way player.

Ohtani's combined fWAR through 47 team games, 2021-24

  • 2024: 3.1 (3.1 as a position player, 0.0 as a pitcher) -- on pace for 10.6 WAR
  • 2023: 2.1 (1.2 as a position player, 0.9 as a pitcher) -- finished with 8.9 WAR
  • 2022: 1.8 (0.4 as a position player, 1.4 as a pitcher) -- finished with 9.2 WAR
  • 2021: 1.9 (1.3 as a position player, 0.6 as a pitcher) -- finished with 8.0 WAR

Ohtani's brilliant offensive performance has him in contention for his third MVP Award in four years. If he wins National League honors, he'd join Hall of Famer Frank Robinson as the only two players with an MVP Award in both leagues.

What else might Ohtani accomplish this season? How about his first batting title? A 40-40 campaign? A Triple Crown? It's all in play for the once-in-a-lifetime superstar.