Shohei Ohtani, the AL Awards Races, and Unicorns

Shohei Ohtani
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
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:

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.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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1 year ago

This is probably a hot take, but my line in the sand is that Judge is having, quite literally, one of the best power-hitting seasons of all time. If that isn’t MVP-worthy, what is?

I understand that an above-average pitching & hitting line is excellent, and that in any given year it isn’t the wrong choice to write at the top of your ballot, but it feels weird that we are, in a way, “penalizing” Judge + every other position player because they didn’t come up as a two-way player (often times, plenty of players come out of college doing both but they are coerced into picking one over the other at the professional level).

What Ohtani is doing is absolutely unprecedented, and deserves all the praise he’s getting, but Judge is single-handedly carrying the Yankees to a playoff spot (hopefully)- if feels disingenuous to say that isn’t the most valuable in the lens of 162 games.

Smiling Politely
1 year ago
Reply to  jankees1991

Of course it’s MVP worthy (also, the pitching staff would probably like to talk to you about who’s carrying the Yankees, as well). That’s not the question–how do you pick between them, and more fundamentally, can we even assess the full value of either guy (either due to the limitations of our metrics or simply because they’re both having seasons that maybe can’t be fully/empirically measured because of how bonkers amazing they are).

I really don’t think there’s a right or wrong decision, which is what makes it fun and frustrating. You want to reward the right guy, but we really can’t measure them in any comparable way to come to that outcome. I’d make em co-MVPs, but I understand that others feel strongly about certain qualities, etc.

1 year ago

It’s a fair argument. Even your point about pitching, the staff as a whole has certainly kept us afloat.

1 year ago

It’s like picking between Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams for the 1941 AL MVP, although I really think the wrong guy won in that case.

1 year ago
Reply to  jankees1991

I’m not disagreeing with the argument that Judge has been the most valuable player, but I don’t think talking about the Yankees’ second half settles anything. They have been dreadful despite Judge’s play, just as the Angels have been dreadful all season with Ohtani. We are still left with a more abstract notion of greatness that filters out real world results. Judge may end up being the most valuable player, but that will be true regardless of whether the Yankees fully collapse or squeak through.

1 year ago
Reply to  jankees1991

I agree that Judge is having ‘one of the best power-hitting seasons of all time’. But I think ‘one of’ is what matters here. There have been other players who hit more home-runs than Judge will this year, even though they may have been helped by PED. What Ohtani is doing (30+ homers, 10+wins) has never been, and probably won’t be for a long time, done by anyone else whether they are on PED or not.

1 year ago
Reply to  luke555

Babe Ruth came close in 1919 with 29 home runs and 9 wins.

Last edited 1 year ago by Lanidrac
1 year ago
Reply to  jankees1991

McGwire hit 70 and finished 2nd in MVP. He hit 65 the next year and finished 5th.. And that was real time right, no sort of juicing backward looking penalty.

So to answer your question, historically speaking, having one of the best power hitting seasons of all time is just MVP adjacent.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
1 year ago
Reply to  jw757

When McGwire hit 70, the MVP winner hit 66, beat him in the other Triple Crown categories, played a solid RF, and went to the playoffs.

When he hit 65, Chipper out produced him by a full win…and was the best player on the best regular season team in baseball.

1 year ago

yeah, so we’re in agreement. Those best power hitter of all time seasons didn’t quite guarantee an MVP win.

McGwire lost to Sosa (sosa also with an all time power season) with McGwire leading the league in slugging, OBP, OPS, walks and had a full win above where sosa was. As well as one a WRC+ right where Judge is now. In a very unique case (2 dudes hitting 60+ HR in a season for the first time ever!) the most HRs didn’t win it. So yeah, similar to this kinda of unique Ohtani world we’re in. 2 all time great power seasons at the same time.

Then the 65 to chipper, chipper did not have an alltime power season. McGwire did, 65 was still a pretty solid total =). . the all-time power season had him finish 5th…. not 2nd to chipper. 5th. behind the likes of Greg Vaughn. To keep the point going, Sammy and his 63 HR that season (another all-time HR great season) finished 9th…

So yeah. I think we’re fully in agreement. All time power seasons don’t mean MVP is a lock, which was the question. Heck, Maris barely won the MVP in 61! A lot going on with that for sure, but some of it was Mantle had close to an all-time power season himself and lost.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
1 year ago
Reply to  jw757

Yeah…citing a truly horrendous defensive 1B on teams that missed the playoffs doesn’t actually make the point you think it does.

1 year ago

Yes, it does, because those caveats have nothing to do with power hitting, yet they were indeed partly responsible for that power hitter not winning MVP.

Besides, McGwire was a decent fielding 1B who even won a Gold Glove earlier in his career.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
1 year ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Key phrase is “earlier in his career,” haha.

He was worth -26 fielding runs in the two seasons you’re citing…at 1B.