Ohtani has somehow ... gotten better?

Two-way sensation has continued slugging, while turning up the heat on the mound

September 21st, 2022

This story was excerpted from Rhett Bollinger's Angels Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ANAHEIM -- After another incredible performance in which he threw seven scoreless innings and ripped an RBI double in a 2-1 win over the Mariners on Saturday, two-way star Shohei Ohtani was asked if he believed he was having a better season than last year, when he won the AL MVP Award unanimously.

Ohtani, who is in a race with Yankees slugger Aaron Judge for this year’s AL MVP Award, was careful with his answer, but ultimately indicated he believes he’s been better this year.

"I don't like to self-critique in any way,” Ohtani said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “One thing I could say is, overall, balance-wise, I'm having a better season this year than I had last year."

Ohtani hasn’t had the eye-popping power numbers or the stolen-base totals like last year, but he’s been a more consistent hitter and a much better pitcher than he was last season. So it is possible to make the case that Ohtani has somehow improved on his historic 2021 season.

Ohtani has batted .268/.357/.534 with 34 homers, 27 doubles, six triples and 89 RBIs through his first 143 games this season. He hit .257/.372/.592 with 46 homers, 26 doubles, eight triples and 100 RBIs in 155 games last year.

His offense is obviously down a bit from last year, but not as much when adjusted for the lower run-scoring environment in the Majors this year. Ohtani's OPS+, which is league and ballpark adjusted, was 157 last year and is 148 this year. That means his OPS+ was 57 percent better than the league average last year and is 48 percent better than average this year.

But Ohtani's improved pitching is where he makes up the difference. Last year, the right-hander posted a 3.18 ERA with 156 strikeouts, 44 walks and 15 homers allowed in 130 1/3 innings over 23 starts. This season, Ohtani has made 25 starts and has posted a 2.43 ERA with 196 strikeouts, 36 walks and 14 homers allowed in 148 innings.

Ohtani is scheduled to make three more starts this year, and needs 14 innings to qualify for the ERA title. He's also just four strikeouts away from reaching 200 on the year. Ohtani's ERA+, which is similar to OPS+, is 165 this year, compared to 141 last year. He's benefitted from better control and the highest strikeout rate in the Majors.

Ohtani is likely to finish in the Top 5 in the balloting for the AL Cy Young Award after not receiving any votes last year. The biggest knock on him is a lack of innings, because he pitches in a six-man rotation, but when he’s been on the mound, the 28-year-old has been one of the best pitchers in the Majors. Ohtani's slider has been more effective than last year and he’s also started throwing a two-seamer.

As a pitcher, Ohtani ranks third in strikeouts, fifth in ERA and tied for fifth in wins in the AL. And as a hitter, he ranks fourth in OPS, fourth in home runs and tied for sixth in RBIs in the league.

Add it all up and interim manager Phil Nevin believes Ohtani deserves to win the AL MVP despite Judge’s incredible season. Judge is likely to set the AL record for homers and has a chance at the Triple Crown, which is why he’s considered the favorite to win the award, but Nevin believes Ohtani provides more value because he’s an elite hitter and an elite pitcher.

“I don't take this for granted at all,” Nevin said. “We're all seeing things that we haven't seen before; to be that dominant on both sides. I've said it before, he's the most valuable player of our game right now, and until somebody can come in and do the things he does on both sides, I don't see it going any other way.”