Even before his much-anticipated move from Japan to America in the offseason of 2017-18, baseball fans knew that Shohei Ohtani had virtually unlimited potential as a two-way talent. The biggest question was simply whether his situation — and his durability — would allow him to live up to that promise and become MLB’s first true two-way superstar in a very long time. And so far this season, in his fourth year with the Los Angeles Angels, Ohtani is off to the start fans have long been dreaming of.
In wins above replacement,1 Ohtani ranks 10th in combined value across hitting, baserunning, fielding and pitching. That’s already impressive, but as MLB.com’s Mike Petriello points out, it may also be underselling Ohtani’s true value because of how good he’s been in big moments — like on May 16 when he smashed this clutch ninth-inning home run against the Boston Red Sox, which ultimately provided the winning margin for the Halos:
Between his clutch hitting and valuable pitching, Ohtani currently leads baseball in combined win probability added (WPA), on top of his top-10 WAR showing to date:
|Most valuable by WAR||Wins Above Replacement|
|Player||Team||As Batter||As Pitcher||Total|
|7||Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||TOR||2.57||0.00||2.57|
|Most valuable by WPA||Win Probability Added|
|Player||Team||As Batter||As Pitcher||Total|
|3||Ronald Acuña Jr.||ATL||2.20||0.00||2.20|
Along the way, Ohtani has continued to wow everyone with his typical array of mind-blowing all-around skills. Ohtani ranks second in MLB in home runs and third in total bases; he also leads baseball in isolated power and “barrels” — essentially, perfectly hit balls — per plate appearance. This double he ripped against Kansas City on April 12, which left the bat at 119 mph, gave Ohtani the second-hardest hit ball of 2021 according to Statcast, trailing only exit-velocity king Giancarlo Stanton. And on the pitching side, he ranks fifth among starters (with at least 30 innings) in strikeouts per nine innings, fourth in whiff rate, 12th in average fastball velocity and 18th in ERA.
Ohtani can even make a difference as a situational hitter, like he did on Sunday against the Oakland A’s. Despite it being his scheduled day off, Ohtani entered the game as a pinch hitter with the bases loaded and Los Angeles trailing 4-3 in the bottom of the seventh inning. Though he didn’t hit a grand slam, he did lift the ball to right field near the warning track, deep enough for Justin Upton to tag and score the tying run from third, which contributed to the Angels’ eventual 6-5 win. That’s just the kind of individual season it’s been for Ohtani — even when he’s not supposed to play, he makes something good happen.
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It’s also indicative of just what kind of a superstar player Ohtani has developed into this season. Over the first three years of Ohtani’s MLB career, he showed tantalizing flashes of his all-around value, but he never sustained it over an entire season. The closest he had come was probably in the first half of 2018, his rookie season, when he not only had an .887 OPS as a hitter but also started nine games with a 3.10 ERA on the mound. But his two-way effort that year was cut short by an elbow injury that landed him on the injured list and eventually led to Tommy John surgery. Though he would hit well (.953 OPS, 15 home runs) over the remainder of the season — and win American League Rookie of the Year honors — Ohtani threw only 2⅓ innings in the second half of the schedule.
In 2019, Ohtani nursed his surgically repaired pitching elbow and was used exclusively as a designated hitter. He had another above-average season at the plate, with an .848 OPS, but between not pitching, his lack of defensive value at DH and another injury that shut down his season prematurely, Ohtani was limited to 2.0 WAR — essentially the output expected from an average starting player, not a player with his once-in-a-lifetime combination of skills. And the less said about Ohtani’s pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the better: He hit just .190 with a .657 OPS and allowed seven earned runs in 1⅔ innings, leading to a dreadful -0.3 WAR in 46 appearances.
So this year has been the first in which we’ve truly seen the full scope of Ohtani’s potential as an all-around MVP-caliber player. Across all phases of the game, he’s tracking to produce 7.9 WAR over a 162-game schedule, including 5.0 as a batter and 2.9 as a pitcher. If he maintains that pace, he would become just the fifth player since 1901 to produce at least 2.0 WAR with both his bat and his arm, and the first since Don Drysdale did it in 1965.
|WAR per 162 team games|
|Player||Year||Age||Team||As Batter||As Pitcher||Total|
And while Drysdale was a good hitter for a pitcher, even being used 14 times as a pinch-hitter that season, he didn’t dabble in playing the field — he was a pitcher at his core. The same went for Don Newcombe, who was used 23 times as a pinch-hitter while he was putting up a ridiculous 1.028 OPS in 1955, but otherwise did not play anywhere except the mound. The underrated Wes Ferrell might be a bit more comparable to Ohtani, since he also played the outfield in his career — though in 1935 he, too, was used exclusively as a pitcher and pinch-hitter. So really, that just leaves Babe Ruth, the comparison that Ohtani has carried with him since before he even arrived in America.
In 1918, Ruth made 20 pitching appearances (including 19 starts) and played the outfield in 59 games — his first season as anything but a pitcher and pinch-hitter — while compiling 6.8 WAR in Boston’s 126-game schedule. That was the last season by anybody who combined such high value as both a position player and a pitcher, until Ohtani came along. Ruth would have other, more valuable seasons later on as a pure batter, such as when he produced 14.5 WAR while playing outfield for the Yankees in 1923. But there’s a reason why Ohtani’s two-way play this season evokes memories of Ruth’s final few seasons with the Red Sox, more than a century earlier. We simply haven’t seen anything quite like this since the Bambino.
Of course, there are still plenty of questions about whether Ohtani can keep this up over a full season. His fastball velocity was notably down in his most recent outing against Cleveland on May 19, which is always a concerning sign for any pitcher (particularly one with a history of arm injury). Angels manager Joe Maddon insists there is nothing wrong with his two-way superstar from an injury standpoint, but it’s something to keep an eye on when Ohtani makes his next scheduled start on Friday.
And if he does stay healthy and effective, there are also questions about how far even a player of Ohtani’s talent can carry this Angels club. Despite his heroics — and those of teammate Mike Trout, who had bounced back from a comparatively down 2020 campaign to look like the GOAT again before recently injuring his calf — Los Angeles is once again enduring a miserable season. At 20-27, the Angels are currently last in the AL West, and our forecast model gives them just a 7 percent chance to make the playoffs. With Trout projected to miss at least a month and a half, the outlook can only get worse from here. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, since this team has been wasting Trout’s talent for almost a decade; now it may be Ohtani’s turn to see an MVP-level season end without a playoff appearance to show for it.
But no matter what his team’s record is, Ohtani has become arguably the most electrifying player in baseball this season. After years of teasing the potential for a two-way performance of Ruthian proportions, we’re finally seeing Ohtani put everything together all at once — and it’s been a beautiful thing for baseball fans to witness.
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