Ohtani can't possibly be underrated, can he? (Yes)

June 27th, 2024

For the past half-decade, has been astounding baseball fans with his two-way play, to the point that comparing him with Babe Ruth seems woefully inadequate. But currently, the Dodgers DH can be described with a completely unexpected kind of adjective: underrated.

If that seems ludicrous to you, we understand. After all, how could the word underrated describe a player who is a two-time MVP, owner of the richest contract in sports history, someone who just 10 months ago was putting up a year that made us ask if it was the best season ever, and who is merely one of the most famous athletes on the planet?

And yet: Ohtani, currently recovering from elbow surgery, is merely having his best hitting season. He didn’t just maintain his game from last year. He’s upped it.

After going 1-for-2 with two walks and a home run in Los Angeles’ 4-0 win over the White Sox on Wednesday, his franchise-record 10th consecutive game with an RBI, Ohtani is now hitting .322/.402/.643, good for a career-best 194 OPS+, up from last year’s 184. He’s homered in five of his last six games, and six of eight (against, to be fair, some of the weakest pitching in the game.) He is still listed on the daily injury report.

Ohtani has improved his hard-hit rate from 54% to 61%; he’s cut his strikeout rate from 24% to 20%. He is, with three games left in June, likely to end up with the second-best month of his career. He owns the longest home run anyone has hit this season, a 476-foot homer (which, yes, had the benefit of being hit at Coors Field). With 25 homers and 16 steals through 82 team games, he’s got at least a chance of putting up a 50/30 season, which has never been done before.

Ohtani has been so hot this month, in fact, that he’s still finding ways to challenge the top of new leaderboards. So far in June – again, with three games left, all against San Francisco this weekend – Ohtani has a 68% hard-hit rate, which is to say that 46 of the 68 balls he’s hit have counted as "hard-hit." There have, in the 10 years of Statcast, been thousands upon thousands of hitter months where a batter has made contact with 50 batted balls. Ohtani’s June is currently tied for the fourth-best hard-hit month on record … where one of the three better is a different Ohtani month.

Best hard-hit months, 2015-pres. (min. 50 batted balls)

  • 74% // Aaron Judge, May 2024
  • 69% // Shohei Ohtani, June 2021
  • 69% // Ryan Zimmerman, August 2015
  • 68% // Shohei Ohtani, June 2024 ←
  • 68% // Matt Olson, July 2023
  • 68% // Kyle Schwarber, August 2022

“Really, my approach is to swing at strikes and just making sure that my posture and everything else is lined up,” Ohtani said.

Simple as it sounds, it's not all that hard to see it in action. For two weeks as May became June, he was in a mini-slump, hitting only .188 with a .563 OPS between May 22 and June 9. Even the best hitters have those ups and downs, of course, over a long season, but as you can see here, it was very much correlated with a brief propensity to start fishing outside the zone (red line). When that came back to normal, so did his OPS (blue line).

If you ask him, it’s all got at least a little to do with not having to pull two-way duty, a transition Ruth also made upon his trade from Boston to New York 104 years ago.

"The reality is the workload has been a lot less," Ohtani said. "So I can't deny that. But at the same time, as a hitter, I've been getting better and overall I think I've been growing as a hitter, too."

“Overall,” he added, “looking back, it’s been a really good first half.”

No kidding. That 194 OPS+ we pointed out is tied with Cody Bellinger’s in 2019 for the greatest first half a Dodger hitter has had since the club moved to Los Angeles back in 1958. Really good might not be doing it justice.

Ohtani is slugging .544 against offspeed pitches, highlighted here because it’s his weakest pitching grouping; he’s at .650 against fastballs and .692 off of breaking balls. He rates first in the Majors (ahead of Aaron Judge and Juan Soto) in blast rate, which utilizes Statcast’s bat-tracking technology to identify the swings that are the best combination of being squared up and with a fast swing – the latter being no problem, as only a dozen hitters in the game, most of them superstars, have faster bats.

There are, still, larger goals in mind, and we’re not just talking about the playoff appearances that eluded him with the Angels. Like, for example, the Triple Crown, which has been achieved just once (Miguel Cabrera, 2012) in the last 57 years.

Entering Thursday, Ohtani led the National League in average (.322, by six points), home runs (by four), and was third in RBIs (by only three). Are those the most meaningful stats in today’s data-focused baseball world? Far from it. Would adding the Triple Crown, which only 10 players have ever claimed, still count as a monumental achievement? Sure would.

Ohtani will, also, have a realistic chance to become the first designated hitter in history to win the Most Valuable Player Award. “The writers would never allow [a DH to win]," said long-time slugging DH J.D. Martinez in 2019, and while his stated reasoning behind that was well off the mark, his larger point was correct. Since a DH doesn’t add any value on defense, it’s extremely difficult for a DH to outhit everyone else by so much that he’d be considered most valuable over a player contributing on both sides of the ball.

This year, however, is different.

Mookie Betts and Ronald Acuña Jr., last year’s top two and this year’s favorites, are each injured. Juan Soto lives in the AL now. NL outfielders as a group are posting their worst-ever hitting season. Several of last year’s top 10 MVP finalists – like Corbin Carroll, Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Luis Arraez and Cody Bellinger – are failing to live up to their 2023 performance. Freddie Freeman is, but he’s also not the best hitter on his own team right now.

By Wins Above Replacement, this year’s four best players are in the American League. In the NL, only Bryce Harper is within even one full win of Ohtani, with Ketel Marte and Elly De La Cruz potentially in the mix as well. It might be a down year for position players in the NL. It’s extremely not a down year for Ohtani. It is, incredibly, his best hitting year ever.

"I don't know what more we can really say about him," Freeman said. "I think we've said everything we can since he entered this league, about what an amazing player he is. But when you come over here, you just never know how a first year's going to go on any team. Sometimes, you've just got to step back and just appreciate a player like this."

That is how Ohtani might be underrated, not because he doesn’t get enough attention – he clearly does. It’s because there might not actually be enough credit to give here.