Shohei Ohtani, the AL Awards Races, and Unicorns by Jay Jaffe September 7, 2022 Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports While Dylan Cease was chasing a no-hitter and Aaron Judge was homering in three straight games, Shohei Ohtani enhanced his own cases for the AL Cy Young and MVP awards. On Saturday, he threw eight innings of one-run ball against the Astros in a game that the Angels won in 12 innings, continuing his dominance of the AL West leaders. On Monday, he homered twice and drove in three runs in a 10–0 rout of Detroit, running his totals to five homers, 10 RBIs, and a .414/.469/1.000 line in a seven-game span against the Blue Jays, Yankees, Astros, and Tigers (oh my!). Much to Tungsten Arm O’Doyle’s chagrin, the Angels even went 5–2 in those games. A year after winning the AL MVP award for his unprecedented wire-to-wire excellence both as a pitcher and a designated hitter, Ohtani has continued to thrive in both contexts. But where he didn’t get any attention when it came to the 2021 Cy Young race, this season, he’s pitched his way into the picture. Saturday’s start was Ohtani’s 23rd of the season, matching last year’s total, and he’s now at 136 innings, topping the 130.1 he threw in ’21. His three true outcome peripherals have improved markedly, to the point that he’s shaved nearly a full run off his FIP relative to last season: Shohei Ohtani Pitching Peripherals Season K% BB% K-BB% HR/9 BABIP ERA ERA- FIP FIP- 2021 29.3% 8.3% 21.0% 1.04 .269 3.18 72 3.52 80 2022 33.0% 6.0% 27.0% 0.93 .298 2.58 66 2.54 62 At this writing, with 136 innings in the Angels’ 136 games, Ohtani is officially qualified for the ERA title, though that won’t be the case after Wednesday night, at least until his number comes up again. In any event, it’s worth pointing out that he has the AL’s highest strikeout rate and is one-tenth of a percentage point behind Shane McClanahan for the K-BB% lead. Meanwhile, he also has the league’s second-lowest FIP, behind only Kevin Gausman’s 2.13. Note that Ohtani’s FIP and ERA are both much better than last year despite his BABIP increasing by nearly 30 points. He’s absorbed that by doing a better job of limiting hard contact: Shohei Ohtani Pitching Statcast Season BBE EV Barrel% HardHit% xBA xSLG xwOBA xERA 2021 323 88.4 7.1% 39.9% .207 .344 .282 3.32 2022 333 87.3 7.2% 34.5% .209 .326 .260 2.75 SOURCE: Baseball Savant Underlying those advances, Ohtani is throwing harder — some of his offerings have gained more than three miles per hour — and emphasizing his slider more, particularly against righties, who haven’t hit him as well this year: Shohei Ohtani Pitch Comparison, 2021 vs. 2022 Season Pitch % Velo PA AVG SLG wOBA xwOBA Whiff% 2021 4-Seam 44.1% 95.6 194 .289 .509 .391 .377 20.8% 2022 4-Seam 31.3% 97.3 175 .278 .392 .327 .341 20.3% 2021 Curve 3.6% 74.7 14 .308 .615 .409 .361 25.0% 2022 Curve 9.9% 78.1 43 .244 .415 .301 .214 40.3% 2021 Slider 22.0% 82.2 129 .193 .336 .259 .244 31.1% 2022 Slider 36.7% 85.3 200 .173 .297 .231 .248 39.8% 2021 Splitter 18.3% 88.2 136 .087 .102 .113 .141 48.5% 2022 Splitter 13.3% 89.4 98 .124 .247 .163 .125 49.0% 2021 Cutter 12.1% 86.9 58 .255 .436 .312 .363 19.8% 2022 Cutter 7.1% 90.3 26 .375 .625 .449 .409 24.4% 2022 Sinker 1.6% 97.3 6 .333 .500 .358 .205 22.2% SOURCE: Baseball Savant Batters are having a tougher time with most of his pitches (aside from the cutter) relative to last year; note the 117-point SLG drop for his fastball, and the 28-point drop in wOBA for his slider, for example. His splitter is getting hit harder but is still nearly impossible to deal with. He even added a sinker in August, possibly as a reaction to seeing Clay Holmes‘ 100-mph sinker as a hitter. Good luck dealing with that, hitters: Shohei Ohtani, 100mph Four Seam Fastball and 100mph Sinker, Overlay. pic.twitter.com/YhzusD8cP6 — Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 4, 2022 As for the slider, by Statcast’s measure, at -22 runs it’s tied with Justin Verlander’s fastball as the second-most valuable pitch in the majors this year, behind Cease’s slider (-34 runs). Last year, Ohtani’s splitter (-13 runs) and slider (-11 runs) both reached double digits, but the former has only been worth -2 runs this year; he’s offset that with his improved fastball (from -1 to -5 runs, and yes, it’s awkward to talk about lower negative numbers as superlative). As I noted when writing about Cease on Tuesday, the AL Cy Young race basically comes down to four pitchers: Verlander, Cease, Ohtani, and McClanahan. Verlander and McClanahan are both on the injured list right now, the former with a right calf injury (“fascial disruption, but no muscle fiber disruption”), the latter with a left shoulder impingement. Both are expected back later this month, though how much later could very well have some bearing on who brings home the hardware. Here’s how the four stack up: Top AL Pitchers Pitcher Team IP K% BB% K-BB% ERA xERA FIP WAR bWAR Justin Verlander HOU 152.0 26.5% 4.5% 22.0% 1.84 2.73 2.70 4.8 4.7 Dylan Cease CHW 156.0 31.4% 10.2% 21.2% 2.13 2.62 3.03 3.8 5.4 Shane McClanahan TBR 147.1 32.5% 5.4% 27.1% 2.20 2.54 2.64 3.8 3.9 Shohei Ohtani LAA 136.0 33.0% 6.0% 27.0% 2.58 2.75 2.54 4.4 4.8 Verlander leads the AL in ERA, McClanahan in xERA, Ohtani in strikeout rate, Cease in bWAR. Gausman leads in FIP (2.17) and WAR (5.2), but his 3.12 ERA and 3.44 xERA, to these eyes, make him less likely to get serious traction against this competition. Ohtani is at a disadvantage, innings-wise, but his value is right there with the rest of them; it’s McClanahan whose value by both flavors of WAR is well behind the group, and if he’s not pitching, he’s not going to gain ground. I wrote on Tuesday that I’m not ready to split hairs regarding these guys before they get a few more starts in the stretch run that could produce more separation. I still regard Verlander as the frontrunner due to the unprecedented nature of his comeback from Tommy John surgery age 37, his lead in two traditional triple crown categories (including his 16 wins), and the allure of anointing him a three-time Cy Young winner. But his injury throws the door open, and if none of these guys is getting anywhere near 200 innings, then I certainly don’t see anything that rules Ohtani out of the picture. On the offensive side, Ohtani is hitting .267/.358/.533 and ranks second in the AL in homers (32), third in slugging percentage, and fourth in wRC+ (146). He’s not hitting quite as well as last season, when he batted .257/.372/.592 and finished second in slugging percentage and third in homers (46), but it’s at least worth noting the less hospitable conditions for hitters; his 150 wRC+ from last year, which placed second in the league, was only four points higher. In both seasons he’s hit the ball incredibly hard but hasn’t quite gotten all of his money’s worth: Shohei Ohtani Batting Statcast Season BBE EV Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA 2021 350 93.6 22.3% 53.4% .257 .269 .592 .616 .393 .411 2022 354 92.6 17.5% 47.5% .267 .275 .533 .564 .375 .391 SOURCE: Baseball Savant Last year, Ohtani’s hard-hit rate, average exit velocity, and xwOBA were all in the 97th percentile, and his barrel rate was tops in the majors. This year, he’s in the 95th to 98th percentile in all but hard-hit rate, where he’s just in the 87th percentile. Unfortunately for Ohtani, his biggest obstacle for the MVP award is the guy who’s pulverizing the ball harder than anybody on the planet: Judge. The 30-year-old outfielder is hitting .302/.403/.682 with AL highs in OBP, SLG, homers (54) and wRC+ (202). A run at Barry Bonds’ single-season record of 73 homers is probably out of the question at this point, but Roger Maris’ team and AL record of 61 is in sight. I don’t think you have to jump through the hoops of PED-free “legitimacy” to see the value in getting to 62, particularly when the brawny slugger has done what he’s done in the context of betting tens of millions of dollars in future earnings on his own performance. He’s also continued to mash while the rest of the Yankees’ offense has gone on vacation. The team is 17–26 in the second half, hitting for a 95 wRC+, but Judge has hit .342/.484/.829 with 21 homers in 188 PA for a 261 wRC+. If that’s not the greatest contract drive in history, then I don’t know what is. By virtue of his defense — he’s splitting his time between center field (64 starts) and right (44 starts) as well as DH (19 starts) — Judge has totaled 8.9 WAR, 3.2 more than any other position player, and more than double Ohtani’s WAR as a DH (3.4). But the MVP race isn’t about whether Ohtani has outhit Judge. It’s about whether his unique combination of performances as a DH and as a pitcher is more valuable, where the notion of value is intentionally murky. (“There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means,” reads the instructions to voters. “It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team.”) In terms of our straight up add-the-WARs totals, the answer is that Judge has about a one-win advantage, 8.9 to 7.8. By Baseball Reference’s measure, which uses different defensive and pitching inputs as well as different positional adjustments, Judge’s edge is only 8.4 to 7.9 (4.8 pitching WAR, 3.1 position player WAR). All of this is without touching the value of the roster spot that Ohtani’s two-way prowess saves the Angels. If you believe Baseball Prospectus’ Russell Carleton, who has thought more deeply and more coherently about this matter than you or I have, the combination has probably gained the Angels some fraction of a win. At the same time, as Carleton points out, the Ohtani case has demonstrated the limitations of the models we use for WAR, which weren’t designed to capture the flexibility he affords them, a statement that to a lesser degree applies to the Zobristian multiposition stars. While conceding that the numbers probably still favor Judge, and that with more than three weeks to go there’s still time for each player to make a closing statement that could swing the race, I think this one comes down to intangibles. How much (if at all) do you reward Judge for doing what he’s doing in the context of a playoff race where half of the lineup around him might be posted on the side of a milk carton, and in the glare of the Big Apple spotlight, while being asked questions about his next contract? How much do you reward Ohtani for proving that last year was no fluke, that it’s actually possible that a player can excel on the mound and at the plate and keep improving? Or for keeping a team in a prolonged tailspin in the “must-watch” category if only to see what he’s doing? It all comes down to which unicorn you prefer, and I don’t think there are any wrong answers unless we take the two players’ presences and performances for granted. These guys are both miracles, and we’re lucky we get to watch them.