Ohtani Might Be Better Than We Thought

A couple weeks ago, I asked my colleague Jeff Zimmerman to help me find some Shohei Ohtani comps and make a projection for Ohtani based upon the Davenport Translations of his 2016 NPB stats. Remember, Ohtani missed much of last season due to ankle and thigh injuries. Per Davenport, Ohtani’s 2016 numbers equate to the following MLB performance as a then-age-21 hitter: 324 at-bats, 14 home runs, 34 walks, 89 strikeouts, a .306/.367/.512 slash line, and 133 wRC+. He’s 23 now.

I was trying to answer whether Ohtani would produce more relative value as a DH in the AL or as a pitcher not only batting but also pinch-hitting in the NL. (And, yes, he might end up playing in the field in the NL.)

Here’s the full list of performance comps Zimmerman provided for Ohtani the Hitter:

2016 Comps
Adrian Beltre
Aledmys Diaz
Tyler Naquin
Hanley Ramirez
Corey Seager
Andrew Toles

2017 Comps
Jorge Alfaro
Robinson Chirinos
Lonnie Chisenhall
Adam Lind
Domingo Santana
George Springer
Eric Thames

2018 Comps (via Steamer Projections)
Mookie Betts
Charlie Blackmon
Carlos Correa
Aaron Judge
Yasiel Puig
George Springer

That’s pretty impressive company for a player about whose bat there’s more uncertainty than his arm. Moving on, Zimmerman also provided comps based on Ohtani’s translated rates of 9.2 strikeouts and 2.9 walks per nine over 180 innings. Zimmerman forecast a 3.4 WAR for Ohtani’s age-23 season.

Jeff’s pitcher 2018 pitcher projection comps off those translations also were generally good — Drew Hutchison alert! — but not quite the elite ace level many might be expecting.

2014 Comps
Gerrit Cole
Jacob deGrom
Gio Gonzalez
Drew Hutchison
Ian Kennedy
Jake Odorizzi

2015 Comps
Mike Fiers
Cole Hamels
Ian Kennedy
Carlos Martinez
Lance McCullers

2016 Comps
Daniel Norris
Carlos Rodon

2017 Comps
Jon Lester
David Price

2018 Comps (via Steamer Projections)
Luis Castillo
Jon Gray
Jimmy Nelson
James Paxton
Luke Weaver

Overall, based on the 2018 forecasts, Ohtani is impressive. Pair James Paxton and George Springer together, or Charlie Blackmon and Jimmy Nelson, or Mookie Betts and Jon Gray and you have a comp for Ohtani. That’s a heckuva player. Not a player who is Ruthian, necessarily, but the best two-way major leaguer since Babe Ruth.

Projecting off of the translated statistics, we finished with a 5.2 WAR forecast based on 180 innings and 400 plate appearances as a DH. Not bad! Only 25 major leaguers were worth five or more wins last season, though that forecast falls below the incredible expectations Ohtani is towing across the Pacific.

Dan Szymborski created his own projection and it was more muted in expectation. Szymborski’s ZiPS system calls for a 3.55 ERA, 139 innings, 122 hits, 61 walks, and 161 strikeouts from Ohtani.

Zimmmeran also sought comparables off of the ZiPS projection. Here are those comps: Tyler Glasnow (!), Luiz Gohara, Dinelson Lamet, and Alex Reyes.

Now here’s the ZiPS projected batting slash line: .266/.328/.466. And the comps based on that: Maikel Franco, Matt Kemp, and Evan Longoria.

Even a Glasnow-Franco combination would represent a unique talent, especially in light of Ohtani’s youth. Nevertheless, it would also be a disappointment — not only to this author but also the team that wins the Ohtani sweepstakes.

The forecasts are fun because there’s an element of mystery surrounding Ohtani. But thanks to Trackman data and first-rate investigation by FanGraphs alum and MLB.com stalwart Mike Petriello, there is now less mystery regarding what Ohtani is and might become. The Trackman data verifies that Ohtani has otherworldly talent and makes the above pitching translation — and many of the comps — seem extremely conservative.

The NPB Trackman data found Ohtani maxed out at 101.6 mph last season and that he averaged 97.5 mph with his fastball. It’s also a fastball with an above-average spin rate (2,301 rpms). While Ohtani didn’t pitch much in 2017, one also don’t require a large sample for velocity to stabilize. Good luck with that pitch up in the zone, MLB hitters.

Wrote Petriello:

In terms of maximum velocity, 101.6 is pretty close to being off the charts. If we round up to 102 mph, we can see that over the three seasons of Statcast™, only a dozen pitchers have reached that mark. Many of them did it just once or twice; 80 percent of those pitches belong to Aroldis Chapman alone. If we narrow it just to starting pitchers, we’ll see 102 mph just four times in three years, from Nathan Eovaldi and Noah Syndergaard.

Petriello placed a Luis Severino comp on Ohtani’s fastball due to its velocity and spin. Severino’s fastball averaged 97.5 mph. In the PITCHf/x era, only three starting pitchers to throw at least 30 innings in a season have averaged better than 97 mph with their fastball. All three instances occurred last year: Severino, Syndergaard (98.9 mph), and Castillo (97.5)

As with Syndergaard, we might wonder whether Ohtani throws too hard to maintain long-term health and effectiveness. But the elite velocity is as advertised and we haven’t even addressed his offspeed and breaking stuff. He’s regarded as having three plus pitches and repeatable mechanics that should result in above-average command.

Ohtani’s power as a hitter also looks very real: he produced a max exit velocity of 111.1 mph, which is rare. (His ability to contact major-league pitching is the biggest question.)

Wrote Petriello:

If we look at Ohtani’s averages by batted ball type, we see some interesting names as comparables. On 31 tracked fly balls, his average exit velocity was 94.3 mph, with a maximum of 110.7 mph. The Major League-average exit velocity on fly balls was 91.2 mph, so Ohtani has that beat, and of the 375 hitters who had at least 25 fly balls, his 94.3 would have ranked 50th, or in the top 13 percent.

That’s very similar to Freddie Freeman, Yoenis Cespedes and Joc Pederson, and Pederson seems like a pretty good comp, as a young left-handed bat with big power and high strikeout numbers.

We don’t know if Ohtani will stay healthy as a pitcher. We don’t know if he’ll have a manageable strikeout rate as a hitter. But the raw ability, the underlying skills, are elite. The Trackman data verifies his skill level. It’s hard evidence that he warrants status as a two-way player.

And for your enjoyment, some recycled GIFs I made earlier this spring, including this blur of a fasball:

And how about this location?

He has a plus breaking ball:

And has added a changeup:

The power always looked real and now it’s been verified:

Ohtani’s arrival in the majors will result in perhaps the most anticipated debut in major North American pro sports since that of LeBron James some 15 years ago. Most prospects who are hyped to this level fail to reach stratosphere-high expectations. But the rarest of talents can match and exceed the hype. LeBron did it. And Trackman data verifies that Ohtani, while still something of a mystery, is very much for real.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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John W.
6 years ago

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