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In this week’s “By The Numbers” breakdown, the analysis will focus solely on the most valuable player in baseball: Shohei Ohtani. The scope will cover the superstar's impact in the sport itself as well as his overall value in fantasy baseball. Ohtani is a diamond in the rough that, despite the hype and excitement surrounding him, is still somehow taken for granted and underappreciated by the vast majority of those fortunate enough to watch him play.
A true two-way player in an age of the game where so much effort is put into specific training regimens and focus surrounding a player's specific skill set, whether that be hitter or pitcher, is truly unique. During this week’s adventure through advanced data, you will be reminded of just how difficult it is to be a successful pitcher at the major league level, and the commitment it takes to make it. You will then be reminded of the fact that hitting a baseball at the major league level may very well be the most difficult task to perform successfully in all of sports. Shohei Ohtani is doing both at an all-star level, which makes him not only the most valuable player in baseball this season but one of the most valuable players in the history of baseball.
There are various points of view on how the Most Valuable Player award should be awarded, notably the interpretation of the word valuable. The important thing to remember is that you keep an open mind, ignore the small sample size, and enjoy the breakdown of a truly amazing player.
The History Of The Hybrid Baseball Player
A “hybrid” baseball player, simply put, is someone with the ability to contribute meaningfully at the plate and on the mound. No offense to Anthony Rizzo and the impressive “changeup” he used to strike out Freddie Freeman earlier in the 2021 season, but our criteria for a hybrid player is reserved for those who could make a career out of either skill.
Jacob deGrom is an example of a great pitcher who happens to have above-average skill with the bat, in comparison to other pitchers. The two-time Cy Young award winner may carry a batting average of .391 this season (over 23 at-bats), but it’s safe to say his career mark of .201 is closer to his true value on offense. Although it should be noted that the right-hander was originally a shortstop, and if given the directive to work on his bat I would not discount his ability.
There have been plenty of starting pitchers that were talented with the bat over the past two decades such as Micah Owings and Mike Hampton. In fact, Hampton hit .311 with a .373 on-base percentage the year he went 22-4 with a 2.90 ERA for the Astros in 1999. The offensive performance is impressive, but outside of his years with Colorado, mostly singles and little power. Not that you should hold that against him, he is a pitcher. Starting pitchers have been trained to concentrate on their craft and ignore swinging the bat. This is why most players who take the mound are a liability at the plate.
A closer example of a true hybrid player during the wild card era is Rick Ankiel. The former Cardinals’ pitcher once posted an 11-7 record with a 3.50 ERA and a 26.4 percent strikeout rate in 2000. Unfortunately, Ankiel had an uncontrollable case of the “yips'' on the mound, notably in the 2000 NLCS versus the New York Mets, when the left-hander simply could not find the plate. This would not be the end for the southpaw, who would reinvent himself several years later and come back as a power-hitting outfielder. Not only did Ankiel have a cannon for an arm (highlight reel material), but in 2008 was able to hit .264 with 25 home runs and 71 RBI in St. Louis. However, Ankiel’s success at each aspect of the game came at different points in his career but never overlapped into a true hybrid player.
A present-day, pre-Ohtani, version of the hybrid player is Michael Lorenzen. The 29-year-old has a 3.97 ERA over 444 ⅓ innings in his career while playing 34 games in the outfield for the Reds. Lorenzen only carries a career batting average of .235 but did hit .290 with four home runs during the 2018 season.
As you can see, there have been very few examples of recent major league baseball players that could both pitch and hit, let alone do them well and at the same time. Of course, there is one major example in the game’s history that we have yet to talk about.
The Great Bambino
If you go back into the early days of baseball, you will find several examples of players who pitched and hit equally well. In 1886 Bob Caruthers won 30 games while simultaneously leading the league in OPS while pitcher Guy Hecker won 26 games with a 2.87 ERA and won the batting title. In the Negro Leagues, Bullet Joe Rogan, Martin Dihigo, and Leon Day were all dominant pitchers who could handle the bat. Unfortunately, it is difficult to make comparisons due to the time in which these performances took place and the leagues in which they were achieved. If you have time, I highly suggest educating yourself on these past legends.
However, there is one truly popular example that comes to mind when trying to find a comparison to Shohei Ohtani, and that is Babe Ruth. Ok, put the pitchforks down. I am not saying that Ohtani is an equal comparison to the Sultan of Swat. I am saying that he may be the closest thing though.
In 1918, Ruth carried a 13-7 record for the Red Sox with a 2.22 ERA over 166 ⅓ innings. The hall-of-famer did this while batting .300/.411/.555 with 11 home runs, which led the league at the time. It was during this season that Boston finally decided that Ruth was too valuable to be kept out of the lineup, and played him at first base. Once the Yankees got around to trading for the home run legend, he became a full-time hitter.
There are other great examples of past pitchers who had terrific years at the plate, such as Don Newcombe in 1955 (20-5, 3.20 ERA, .359 AVG, 7 HR), Warren Spahn, and Don Drysdale, but they were full-time pitchers with limited at-bats. Ruth is the only true comparison for a player that was able to both pitch and take the field during the same season, and excel at both.
It’s Sho Time
While some of the previous examples have highlighted several players who have achieved unique stat lines, Ohtani is somewhat different. Not only does the 26-year-old pitch, but he finds himself in the lineup almost every day as the designated hitter for the Angels.
In 2017 Shohei Ohtani signed a six-year contract to play for Los Angeles for a $2.3 million dollar signing bonus and a league minimum yearly salary due to a posting agreement between major league baseball. The right-hander’s former team, the Nippon Ham Fighters received $20 million dollars in the same transaction.
This past offseason, the Angels and Ohtani agreed to a two-year $8 million contract in order to avoid arbitration which, as you will see, is still the bargain of the century.
In 2021 Ohtani is currently batting .256/.335/.588 with 16 home runs, 42 RBI, 38 runs scored, and eight stolen bases over 199 at-bats. This makes him one of the premier hitters in the American League. When he takes the mound, the star hybrid is even better, posting a 2.76 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over 42 ⅓ innings with 60 strikeouts.
To give you a clearer idea of how productive Ohtani has been, take a look at this chart that gives current day comparisons to some of the right-hander's statistical achievements so far:
Ohtani boasts the most effective splitter in baseball by Run Value per 100 innings. The dominant pitch generates an absurd 63.9 percent whiff rate and 71.9 percent strikeout rate, holding opposing batters to a .037 batting average and .075 wOBA.
In terms of “swing and miss,” Ohtani’s splitter is one of the most dominant pitches in all of baseball, trailing only Aroldis Chapman’s sinker and Bryan Shaw’s curveball in whiff percentage. However, the Angels right-hander heavily leans on this pitch (20.8 percent usage), making it a devastating weapon against opposing batters with a 68.8 percent ground ball rate.
Ohtani’s workhorse pitch is still the four-seam fastball, which is the case for many major leaguers. As a singular weapon, this is likely the worst pitch in his arsenal, but one of incredible importance as it is used to set up the rest of the 26-year-old’s bag of tricks. The four-seam works exceedingly well with the cutter and slider.
A 35.3 percent strikeout rate and 39.1 percent whiff rate make Ohtani’s slider his second-best weapon, aside from his seldom used (but impressive) curveball. The pitch does not generate a ton of chase, but hitters post a meager 60.9 percent contact rate against it due to its incredible 19.2 inches of horizontal break.
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You should probably take another look at the comparison chart posted earlier in the article to get a sense at how incredible Shohei Ohtani has been with a bat in his hand. Just as a reminder, the hybrid superstar is currently performing like a machine that is made up of the best parts of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr., Rafael Devers, and Trevor Story.
Ohtani’s 22.6 percent barrel rate, which is insane, leads major league baseball. He also leads all the way with unfair maximum exit velocity of 119 miles per hour. This is why aluminum bats are not allowed.
What is even more impressive is that this incredible power is not locked into a typical and expected pull-heavy batted ball profile. Ohtani uses the entire field to attack with a pull percentage of 36.8 percent, centerfield percentage of 35.3 percent, and opposite field percentage of 27.8 percent. Superior bat control with the ability to use the entire field is an elite ability.
If you want to poke one hole in Ohtani’s game, it would be his platoon splits. While the Angels superstar handles right-handed pitching quite well, he only hits .232 against southpaws. Although this is hardly a major issue because in the end Ohtani is still able to generate a 99 wRC+ versus left-handers, which is right around league average production.
Born To Run
What if I were to tell you that Shohei Ohtani not only had the hard-hitting ability of the game's most elite power hitters, but also came equipped with a 95th percentile sprint speed. Is that something you would be interested in?
Most Valuable Player
Shohei Ohtani has the talent to win the American League Cy Young award while having the offensive ability to win the Most Valuable Player Award. There has never been another player in the history of baseball that has been able to do both at the same time.
The fact that Ohtani is doing all of this while being grossly underpaid is just another wrinkle in this amazing story. He took a pay cut to come overseas, join major league baseball, and compete against the best in the world.
Some believe the Most Valuable Player award should be reserved for hitters. After all, there is already a Cy Young Award for pitchers. This is not a bad argument to make, but what about when an offensive MVP candidate also happens to be a top-five pitcher in the league?
Others believe that the Most Valuable Player award should go to a player on a winning team. The belief being that a player can somehow not be valuable enough if the team is losing. This line of thinking merely benefits the best player on a team full of other very good players. A case could be made that a player should receive extra attention if they happen to be a standout performer on a team that would otherwise be dead in the water without them. However, that can be achieved without necessarily being on a successful team.
Shohei Ohtani finds himself on a team with arguably the best player in baseball. Mike Trout. A player who has yet to be on a successful team. So for the sake of argument, let’s take “winning team” out of the equation.
You are left with, once again, a player with the talent to win the American League Cy Young award who has the offensive ability to win the Most Valuable Player award. The only thing standing in the way of Shohei Ohtani having the most valuable season in the history of baseball is time. If the Angels hybrid superstar can stay healthy all season, he will have achieved greatness in a way that has only been achieved by Babe Ruth and Steve Nebraska (fictional character from movie “The Scout”). Imagine if Ronald Acuna could pitch like Max Scherzer. What if Zack Wheeler could hit like Jose Ramirez? That is what Shohei Ohtani is currently doing.
Shohei Ohtani is the most valuable player in baseball.