With Double Duty, Ohtani Is Playing His Way Into MVP Consideration

Shohei Ohtani produced another tour de force on Friday night against the Diamondbacks, throwing five strong innings and collecting a pair of doubles — lighting up Statcast along the way — and even making a defensive cameo in the Angels’ 6–5 win, though he departed before the matter was settled in extra innings. None of what the 26-year-old phenom did on Friday was anything we haven’t seen from him before, but that’s part of the point. He’s making this double duty stuff seem routine, combining pitching and hitting responsibilities in a way that hasn’t been pulled off in over a century, performing at a very high level in both roles with specific elements that are elite, and positioning himself as a legitimate MVP candidate.

Othani was facing a downtrodden club that had lost 21 of their previous 23 games, but the Diamondbacks were at least playing at Chase Field rather than threatening to extend their 19-game road losing streak. On the mound, he allowed just two runs over five innings, striking out eight. Both runs came in a messy fifth inning that included hitting Tim Locastro with a pitch, back-to-back balks (the second of which scored Josh Rojas), and a wild pitch on which Eduardo Escobar struck out but reached first safely as Ketel Marte scored from third. Surprisingly, nobody had that particular combination on their Bad Inning Bingo cards.

That inning aside, Ohtani was impressive, generating 14 whiffs, just one shy of his season high (which he’s reached three times); seven of those were via his four-seamer and another five with his splitter. The latter has a claim as the most unhittable pitch in baseball. Among offerings that have concluded at least 50 plate appearances, Ohtani’s splitter has held batters to the majors’ lowest wOBA:

Lowest wOBA Against Pitch Type
Pitcher Team Type PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Shohei Ohtani LAA Split-Finger 67 .063 .090 .094 .084
Tyler Glasnow TBR Curveball 81 .086 .086 .123 .090
Carlos Rodón CHW Slider 76 .044 .145 .044 .109
Yu Darvish SDP Slider 81 .077 .111 .128 .110
Jacob deGrom NYM Slider 72 .085 .097 .155 .110
Domingo Germán NYY Curveball 60 .107 .167 .107 .134
Josh Hader MIL 4-Seam Fastball 56 .098 .161 .118 .135
Zack Greinke HOU Changeup 75 .130 .173 .130 .143
Kevin Gausman SFG Split-Finger 139 .115 .158 .168 .149
Giovanny Gallegos STL Slider 58 .138 .138 .224 .155
Julio Urías LAD Changeup 62 .148 .161 .197 .157
Luis Garcia HOU Cutter 61 .088 .148 .211 .162
Julio Urías LAD Curveball 99 .135 .143 .240 .164
Taijuan Walker NYM Slider 50 .152 .180 .196 .166
Blake Snell SDP Slider 76 .114 .184 .171 .167
Brandon Woodruff MIL 4-Seam Fastball 120 .093 .176 .176 .168
Josh Fleming TBR Changeup 50 .143 .160 .224 .168
Trevor Bauer LAD Slider 59 .109 .169 .200 .169
Andrew Kittredge TBR Slider 55 .115 .164 .212 .169
Gerrit Cole NYY Changeup 59 .155 .169 .224 .172
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Minimum 50 plate appearances ending with pitch. Yellow shading = majors’ lowest in category. All statistics through June 12.

Meanwhile, Ohtani’s splitter has also produced the majors’ highest whiffs per swing rate:

Highest Whiff Percentage Against Pitch Type
Pitcher Team Pitch PA Whiff % K% PutAway%
Shohei Ohtani LAA Splitter 67 60.0 67.2 47.4
Jacob deGrom NYM Slider 72 57.7 62.5 46.9
Tyler Glasnow TBR Curveball 81 56.3 69.1 36.8
Ryan Tepera TOR Slider 50 53.5 48.0 32.0
Dylan Cease CHW Slider 89 53.3 39.3 26.1
Tanner Scott BAL Slider 68 53.0 45.6 36.9
Cristian Javier HOU Slider 57 50.5 56.1 32.3
Luis Garcia HOU Cutter 61 49.6 41.0 29.8
Robbie Ray TOR Slider 69 49.1 49.3 28.3
Shane McClanahan TBR Slider 69 48.1 40.6 28.0
Hirokazu Sawamura BOS Splitter 51 47.8 47.1 32.9
Kevin Gausman SFG Splitter 139 47.4 46.0 32.3
Devin Williams MIL Changeup 77 47.2 44.2 35.1
Shane Bieber CLE Slider 87 46.8 32.2 25.9
Tyler Glasnow TBR Slider 60 46.3 23.3 20.0
Carlos Rodón CHW Slider 76 46.3 60.5 32.4
Giovanny Gallegos STL Slider 58 45.6 41.4 31.2
Freddy Peralta MIL Slider 85 45.4 44.7 31.7
Kyle Gibson TEX Slider 66 45.0 40.9 28.1
Dinelson Lamet SDP Slider 52 44.7 42.3 31.0
Max Scherzer WAS Slider 63 44.7 39.7 28.4
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Minimum 50 plate appearances ending with pitch. Whiff% is per swing, K% is per plate appearance ending with the pitch, PutAway% is rate of two-strike pitches that result in a strikeout. All statistics through June 12.

I’ve included Ohtani’s majors-leading putaway percentage on the offering (per two-strike pitch ending with a strikeout) and his second-ranked strikeout percentage (per plate appearance ending with the pitch). Glasnow’s curveball is the only pitch that has a higher rate in the latter category.

As for Ohtani’s fastball, which averaged 95.2 mph on Friday — and 95.5 for the season, 1.2 mph lower than his 2018 rookie campaign — he threw one to Asdrúbal Cabrera in the third inning that was clocked at 99.6 mph. That’s his fastest since a 98.8 mph heater on May 5; he hasn’t topped 100.0 since April 4, but both of those round up to 100 if you’re counting that way. Velocity aside, the most distinctive thing about his heater — which batters have hit for a .270 AVG, .444 SLG, and .400 wOBA — is his 30.2% PutAway%, which ranks eighth in the majors.

In 47.1 innings (4.1 shy of his rookie total), Ohtani has posted a 2.85 ERA, 3.41 FIP, and 3.61 xERA. Those numbers won’t thrust him into the AL Cy Young race, particularly give his workload constraints; he’s on pace to throw 118 innings after two years of almost nothing. Still, they’re significantly better than average — his ERA- is 69, his FIP- is 82 — and they testify to a convincing recovery after so much time lost to blisters, a UCL sprain that resulted in Tommy John surgery, and a flexor pronator sprain that shut him down after two brutal appearances last year.

Among AL pitchers with at least 40 innings, Ohtani’s 34% strikeout rate ranks fifth and his 0.76 homers per nine 11th. While his 14% walk rate is the league’s second-highest, he’s gotten the situation under control; after walking 19 batters in his first four starts (18.2 IP), he’s walked just nine over his last five (28.2 IP), with just one start with more than two. On a per-plate appearance basis, his walk rate has dropped from 22.6% over those first four starts to 7.6% over the last five. That’ll do.

As for Ohtani’s hitting, he went 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles. The first one, off Merrill Kelly, came in the third inning after he fouled an 0–2 cutter off his right knee, producing a scary moment (think Christian Yelich suffering a season-ending kneecap fracture in 2019). Uncomfortable but undaunted, Ohtani arose and, four pitches later, ripped a sinker into the right-center field gap, driving in Justin Upton; the drive’s 114.9-mph exit velocity was the game’s highest.

Moments later, Ohtani came around to score on an Anthony Rendon single. That hit was sandwiched around a pair of groundouts, but in the seventh inning, after moving from the mound to right field, he doubled off Taylor Clarke to send Upton to third, who later scored on a wild pitch to break a 4–4 tie, though Ohtani was stranded at third. He departed the game after the inning, with Taylor Ward moving from center to right and Juan Lagares taking over in center.

This was the third time this season that Ohtani has moved from the mound to the outfield in the same game, and the first in a contest the Angels won; they lost 5–1 to Houston on May 11 despite his season-high seven-inning, one-run effort, and 3–2 to Cleveland on May 19, when he pitched just 4.2 innings and allowed two runs. He’s played the outfield on two other occasions — once after shifting from designated hitter, once after pinch-hitting — and while he’s yet to record a putout or assist in 6.1 total innings in the pasture, he’s now gone 2-for-4 in those extra plate appearances.

Including his pinch-hitting appearances on Saturday and Sunday, Ohtani is hitting .269/.353/.608 and ranks second in the AL in slugging percentage and homers (17) behind only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (.688 SLG, 21 HR). Ohtani’s 159 wRC+, meanwhile, is third behind Guerrero (204) and Matt Olson (169). Again, it’s a convincing turnaround given last year’s dismal .190/.291/.366 (82 wRC+) line. The offseason work he did to strengthen his lower body and rebuild his swing is paying off; he’s absolutely crushing the ball. Through Saturday, his 23.8% barrel rate leads the majors; his .418 xwOBA places him in the 97th percentile; and his 55.2% barrel rate and 93.5 mph average exit velocity are both in the 96th percentile. All of those are career highs, and his 34 barrels are just three short of his career high, set in 2018, albeit on 72 fewer batted ball events (143 to 225).

Owning the major’s top barrel rate as well as its most unhittable pitch (or one of them, at least) is incredibly cool, but one of Ohtani’s most impressive stats is perhaps his most basic one: He’s played in 60 of the team’s 65 games, starting 55 times and pinch-hitting in five. He’s made his two-way play routine to an extent that he wasn’t allowed to do in 2018, when the Angels generally kept him out of the lineup both the day before and the day after his starts and didn’t let him hit on the days he pitched, lest they lose the DH upon his departure. Even given the caveat that he’s not playing the field, this is a huge deal — the closest analogue we’ve seen to Babe Ruth’s 1918 and ’19 seasons. In ’18, Ruth, still a member of the Red Sox, made 19 starts plus one relief appearance, totaling 166.1 innings, and added another 57 starts in the outfield (including 11 in center!) and 13 at first base, plus five pinch-hitting appearances. His 11 homers and .555 slugging percentage led the AL and his 2.22 ERA ranked ninth, and his 6.7 combined WAR ranked second in the majors. In ’19, Ruth made 15 starts plus two relief appearances, tossing 133.1 innings, and 106 starts in the outfield plus another five at first base, as well as one pinch-hitting appearance. He set a single-season home run record that year with 29 and ran away with the major league leads in OBP (.456), SLG (657) and combined WAR (9.8).

While I’m not suggesting that Ohtani is revolutionizing the game the way Ruth did, his 2.1 WAR as a hitter (tied for ninth in the league entering Sunday) and 1.1 WAR as a pitcher combined rank second only to Guerrero’s 3.9, and it projects to 8.0 WAR over the course of the season, about halfway between Ruth’s 1918 and ’19 seasons. With Vladito currently leading all three Triple Crown categories (he has 55 RBI and a .344 batting average to go with his 21 homers), this could be a very interesting MVP race, and any fears that it will boil down to a repeat of the 2012 AL battle between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, with its old school/new school fault lines, ought to be at least somewhat assuaged by Guerrero’s high WAR.

Then again, these days one can’t get much more old school than invoking the Bambino himself. That Ohtani’s performance is inviting that comparison is a wonder to behold.

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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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1 year ago

Right now, Ohtani leads the majors in hitting WPA and total WPA (hitting + pitching). With the Angels hanging on in playoff hunt, he really could be MVP.

Smiling Politely
1 year ago
Reply to  tz

Agreed–while I’m no fan of The Narrative, I wouldn’t mind seeing it work for good for a change (I’m still bitter about Braun beating Kemp a few years ago, too!)