Shohei Ohtani Had a Decent Week

How were your last seven days at work? Did you meet demanding, perhaps even impossible, expectations? While performing in unfamiliar surroundings? In front of literally millions of expectant eyes?

If not, then you probably failed to match Shohei Ohtani’s first full week as an employee in the United States.

To recap:

  • Tuesday (as DH): 3 for 4, first MLB home run (off Josh Tomlin).
  • Wednesday (as DH): 2 for 5, home run (off Corey Kluber).
  • Friday (as DH): 1 for 4, BB, home run (off Daniel Gossett).
  • Sunday (as pitcher): six perfect innings, a total of 12 strikeouts and just one walk over seven innings, 25 whiffs (including 15 whiffs via the splitter).

Let’s consider some video evidence.

Tuesday’s home run…

Wednesday’s home run…

Friday’s 449-foot home run…

And 42 seconds’ worth of strikeouts from Sunday…

What can you prove in a week of baseball?

You can verify that your throwing velocity and exit velocity are very real. You can also become a historical outlier, a once-in-a-100-year phenomenon.

Wrote Jay Jaffe at the end of last week on that precise topic:

“Not since June 13-14, 1921 has a player followed up a win as a starting pitcher with a home run as a position player in his next game, and not since 1919 has a player served as both a starting pitcher and position player with any kind of regularity.”

The last player to log at least 100 innings and 200 plate appearances in a season was Ruth in 1918 and 1919. With health, Ohtani should exceed those thresholds easily in 2018, 100 years after Ruth first did it. We are witnessing history.

There were few questions about Othani’s ability on the mound, but he’s exceeding even those expectations with a fastball that is averaging 98.0 mph with league-average spin rate of 2,200 rpm and a splitter that has the highest whiff rate among a qualified pitches (70.3%).

While it’s just two starts covering 13 innings, those starts and innings have been of an ace-like variety. Ohtani leads all qualified starters in swinging-strike rate (23.5%). The next closest pitcher, Gerrit Cole (19.6%) trails him by four percentage points. Ohtani has the same swinging-strike rate as Aroldis Chapman.

The arm was expected to be ace-caliber, though Ohtani has exceeded even expectations there. It was the bat that so many doubted. It is the bat that is beginning to gain some believers. He’s quelling doubt about his capacity to handle a relatively large role in the Angels’ offense — and dismissing concerns that Ohtani the Batter is simply a novelty act.

The Davenport Translations always believed in the bat — the Angels claimed to believe this spring — with a translated 133 wRC+ based on his 2016 season. That translation is one reason I suspected back in December that Ohtani might live up to the hype. The Davenport Translations have done well projecting foreign professional position players.

We also have witnessed something else: Ohtani has reached his first Win Above Replacement. He’s produced 0.6 WAR on the mound and 0.4 WAR at the plate to date. Only Didi Gregorius (1.1 WAR) has recorded more wins than Ohtani, who is tied at second 1.0 with Bryce Harper and Matt Chapman.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the most underpaid employee in the world is also its best baseball player. He’ll have to be better than his own teammate, Mike Trout, but if Ohtani is truly an elite pitcher and above-average hitter, he’s got a chance to out-WAR Trout. He’ll have a chance to out-WAR everyone. He’s still going to have to adjust as team’s gather more scouting data and prove his hit tool is legit, but the game power is there. Maybe his bat will prove not to be ready after these early fireworks. But I don’t want to bet against a talent that is doing something that hasn’t been done in 100 years.

He’s on pace for a 16.2 WAR season!

Yeah, it’s early but he already has a 10-WAR season on his professional resume. As Ben Lindbergh noted for The Ringer in October, Ohtani was worth 10.4 WAR in his last full season in the NPB, his age-21 campaign. While the NPB is somewhere between the majors and Triple-A in terms of quality, there are also more games played in the majors.

Projecting off of Ohtani’s 2016 translated statistics, Jeff Zimmerman and I calculated a 5.2 WAR forecast for Ohtani based on 180 innings and 400 plate appearances as a DH. It wasn’t perfect science, but only 25 major leaguers were worth five or more wins last season and Ohtani might be capable of much more with health. With any hard-throwing young pitcher, health is a major concern — and Ohtani arrived in Los Angeles with questions about his right elbow. But if his shoulder and elbow remain intact, the upside is that few, if any, players out-WAR Ohtani in 2018.

We’re still in the introductory chapter, but Ohtani has done nothing to lower expectations; rather, he’s elevated them.

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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5 years ago

This has been pointed out before but 180 IP and 400 PA are both unlikely.
Angels are on a six man rotation which would lead to Ohtani starting ~27 games.
In order to reach 180 IP, he would need to go 6 2/3 innings on average.
Only Kluber and Sale managed to do this last season.
Somwhere between 160~170 innings would be a more realistic median projection.

Similarly, Ohtani participates in three games out of six as a DH.
Assuming 4.2PA/G (He has been hitting in the 8 hole), this leads to 340 PA, not 400 PA.

5 years ago
Reply to  tung_twista

Agreed, yet given his performance, he likely will receive a few more starts and games at DH.

Through seasonal gaps like off days and the all star break, if he is as good as advertised (or even good but less so than he’s shown), the Angels can reset their rotation at the break to maximize Ohtani starts.

5 years ago
Reply to  tb.25

Agree on the innings, not on the PAs. If the LAAs contend this year I’m expecting that 6-man rotation to sort itself out before all is said and done. A healthy and effective Ohtani may very well push 180 innings.

I’m not as sure about where 50 PAs are going to come from. Any effort to maximize his innings pitched is going to cramp his PAs (assuming they won’t let him play at all the day before or after a start) so they might even drop a bit from 340

Jasper Franciscomember
5 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

If he proves himself, he should also get pinch-hitting PAs.

5 years ago

That would probably be 5-10 PAs at the very most though.

5 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

It’s conceivable that he could hit while pitching. The argument against that has been that when he’s taken out of the game, the weak-hitting reliever(s) who follow him would have to hit. But it turns out that if Ohtani has a wRC+ of greater than about 130, the overall production is still better than the alternative.

If we assume a) the league average wOBA for a pitcher is .144 (it was last year); b) Pujols’s wOBA is .286 (it was last year); and c) Ohtani averages 2.5 PA per start (about equivalent to six innings), he needs a wOBA of about .370 for his production + that of relievers to be the same as that of Pujols for the entire game (and that doesn’t even take into account the possibility that a reliever could be PH for). A wOBA of .370 corresponds roughly to a wRC+ of 130, depending on park factors. It’s also noteworthy that Hideki Matsui, probably Ohtani’s closest comp among Japanese players, had two seasons of 130 or better, and four more close to 130, despite playing almost his entire MLB career in his 30s, presumably in decline.

Of course, Ohtani may not want to hit when he’s pitching. Not hitting may be part of his rest program. And taking him out means that the weak hitting pitcher will be coming up in higher leverage situations. Moreover, just by virtue of hitting, the decision of when to remove him becomes more complicated, and not dependent entirely on his pitching performance. Any AL manager might want to avoid that problem. And Pujols may not be able to handle an extra 25 games or so at 1B. But it’s something to consider.

5 years ago
Reply to  WARrior

What’s with all the people saying the RP will have to hit? The RP will only have to hit if a game goes to extras or maybe if Ohtani fails to make it out of the 1st. Pinch-hitters, folks. The Angels will use pinch-hitters.

5 years ago
Reply to  Neil

Sometimes, yes, and this needs to be factored in. But if a reliever is going well, the manager may not want to take him out. He now has to balance a better hitter vs. a better pitcher. He can’t make the decision entirely on the basis of pitching, as AL managers are accustomed to doing.

5 years ago
Reply to  tb.25

I believe the Angels are looking to keep him on a strict Sunday schedule, since the proliferation of Monday off-days maximizes his DH opportunities without having him hit the day after a start.

5 years ago
Reply to  tung_twista

I’m thinking he will get 4 game DH appearances per week (Tuesday – Friday when no off day) . 12 weeks of games if he played 4 in a row is available on the schedule. That gives him another 50 at bats, thus 390. I’d also expect him to move up in the order if he proves himself in the month of April. Lastly I didn’t give him any at bats for NL road games. Figure to get some for that as well.