Ohtani the Pitcher Has Overtaken Ohtani the Hitter

Shohei Ohtani
Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Shohei Ohtani is doing remarkable things again. The reigning AL MVP has been on an exceptional run as a pitcher lately, not only making a bit of history but also bolstering his cases to start the All-Star Game and to win additional hardware. While his hitting was the more amazing of his two endeavors in 2021, his improvements on the mound have pushed him into new territory.

On Wednesday night, Ohtani threw seven innings of two-hit ball against the Marlins, striking out 10 and allowing just one unearned run. That run came in the first inning, as the fans in Miami (they do have those, right?) were still settling into their seats. Jon Berti reached on a throwing error by shortstop Luis Rengifo, took third on a Joey Wendle double, and scored on a Garrett Cooper sacrifice fly. The run ended Ohtani’s streak of scoreless innings at 21.2, the longest of his career, but from there he cruised. He didn’t allow a hit after giving up a one-out single in the second to Miguel Rojas and retired 15 straight batters from that point until he walked Jesús Sánchez with one out in the seventh. For good measure, Ohtani also drove in the go-ahead runs via a two-run single off Trevor Rogers and later walked, stole a base, and scored another run. Nobody has had a game like that in at least the last century.

With his 10 strikeouts, Ohtani reached double digits for the third game in a row, something he’d never done before in his stateside career, and something only one other pitcher (Corbin Burnes) has done this season; six pitchers did it last year, with two (Shane Bieber and Robbie Ray) putting together four-game streaks. Over his past four starts, Ohtani hasn’t allowed a single earned run and has struck out 40 batters, something only seven other pitchers have done (one of them twice) since 1913, the year that earned runs became an official stat:

40 Strikeouts and No Earned Runs in a 4-Start Span
Ray CulpBOS9/13/19689/25/196836.043
Chan Ho ParkLAD9/19/20004/2/200132.041
Johan SantanaMIN9/3/20049/19/200429.041
R.A. Dickey*NYM6/2/20126/18/201234.142
Clayton KershawLAD6/18/20147/4/201432.044
Clayton KershawLAD7/8/20158/1/201534.045
Chris SaleBOS7/11/20188/12/201824.043
Max Scherzer*WSN8/26/20219/12/202129.241
Shohei Ohtani*LAA6/16/20227/6/202226.240
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Since 1913. * = allowed unearned run.

That’s some pretty cool company, even if the list heavily skews towards the recent past thanks to ever-increasing strikeout rates — so much so that Ohtani required fewer innings to complete the feat than all but one pitcher (Sale). It’s also worth pointing out that none of the aforementioned hurlers were regularly taking their cuts as hitters on the days they weren’t pitching.

Thanks in part to this run, which was preceded by a seven-inning, one-run effort against the Red Sox, Ohtani is putting together his best major league season as a pitcher. While his 81 innings are three short of the total needed to qualify for the ERA title, his 2.44 mark is in a virtual tie with Nestor Cortes for fifth among AL pitchers with at least 80 innings. His 2.42 FIP and 2.6 WAR both rank third among the same group, behind only Kevin Gausman (1.67 FIP, 3.7 WAR) and Shane McClanahan (2.40 FIP, 2.9 WAR). Meanwhile his 2.77 xERA is fourth behind McClanahan, Cortes, and Dylan Cease, and both his 34.4% strikeout rate and 28.2% strikeout-walk differential rank second only to McClanahan.

All of those rate stats represent improvements upon last year, when Ohtani pitched to a 3.18 ERA, 3.32 xERA, and 3.52 FIP. His strikeout rate is up over five points from last year’s 29.3%, and his walk rate down over two points from last year’s 8.3%. He’s already approaching last year’s 3.0 pitching WAR in 49.1 fewer innings; prorated to last year’s total, he’d produce about 4.2 WAR, roughly a 40% jump.

As Ben Clemens wrote in April, Ohtani has overhauled his slider, throwing it harder (an average of 84.9 mph this year, up from 82.2 last year) and getting even more horizontal break (126% of average, up from 115% last year). He’s throwing the pitch much more often, and batters are doing less with it than before, which is true also for his curve and fastball if not his splitter. Meanwhile, he’s mothballed a less effective cutter:

Shohei Ohtani Pitch Comparison, 2021 vs. 2022
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Relative to last year, Ohtani’s wOBA allowed has dropped by 131 points via the curve, 101 points via the fastball, and 43 points via the slider, and those pitches account for about 81% of what he’s thrown this season. Batters can still hardly touch his splitter; even if it hasn’t been as effective as last year, his wOBA allowed on that pitch is 51 points lower than on any other. His overall wOBA allowed has dropped by 25 points, from .279 to .254.

Ohtani’s performance is enough to put him in the discussion to start the All-Star Game in Los Angeles. Yes, he started last year in Denver, throwing a shutout inning, batting leadoff for the AL, and staying in the game for a second plate appearance as the DH in a precursor to the rule that’s been adopted for his benefit. Certainly one can make the case for McClanahan given his leads in ERA, strikeouts, and bWAR (3.2), or Justin Verlander given his 2.03 ERA and comeback from nearly two full seasons lost to Tommy John surgery. The alternatives spur the annual debate on what or whom the All-Star Game is supposed to reward. As a man much smarter than I am wrote four years ago:

Even once you acknowledge that the game is first and foremost an exhibition for the fans, who, after all, are the ones responsible for the vote, you run up against the question of criteria. Are the selections simply supposed to represent the hottest players over the first 80-something games of the season? The most accomplished players from around the league? The biggest stars on the most successful teams? Or the players whose true talent level over a large sample size suggests that they’re actually the best? You could go any one of those ways and get different answers — or find fault with any of them, as well.

In this case, I’d vote for the unicorn, the guy combining elite moundwork and All-Star caliber offense in a manner unprecedented within the past century — except for what the same unicorn did last year, when his offense was a step or two ahead of his pitching. Particularly with the Angels having undertaken their annual slide into oblivion after a hotter-than-usual start, MLB shouldn’t miss this opportunity to put Ohtani in the spotlight for a marquee event.

As for his offense, in the midst of a 3-for-24 slump, Ohtani is hitting .257/.343/.490, down from last year’s .257/.372/.592. Some of that is due to the less hospitable conditions for hitters; his slugging percentage has fallen by over 100 points, but his wRC+ has dropped by only 20, from 152 to 132, though in doing so, he’s fallen from second in the league to 22nd.

That said, as a batter, Ohtani’s xSLG is actually 15 points higher than last year, and his xwOBA is unchanged. As a pitcher, his xwOBA has dropped thanks to the improved strikeout and walk rates, pushing his xERA (which is just xwOBA converted to an ERA scale) down by more than half a run:

Shohei Ohtani via Statcast, 2021 vs. 2022
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

How can you not just marvel at the fact that both of those performances — which, if we’re sticking to xwOBA, place him in the 95th percentile on one side of the ball and the 92nd percentile on the other — come from the same person? That the same guy can hit 100-mph lasers (84 this year, more than all but seven other players) and throw them as well (22, more than all but four other starting pitchers)? Ohtani’s combination of talents is the stuff of sepia-toned legend, and yet we have ample data to back up the fact that he can do these things regularly. What a time to be alive.

Between his pitching and his offense (1.6 WAR), Ohtani has totaled 4.2 WAR, which is 0.2 shy of the major league lead shared by three other players:

Combined WAR Leaders
RKPlayerTeamPosPAPos WARIPPitch WARTotal WAR
1TPaul GoldschmidtCardinals1B3564.44.4
Manny MachadoPadres3B3104.44.4
Rafael DeversRed Sox3B3514.44.4
4Aaron JudgeYankeesRF/CF3494.34.3
5TShohei OhtaniAngelsDH/P3471.6812.64.2
Nolan ArenadoCardinals3B3424.24.2
7TYordan AlvarezAstrosLF/DH3074.04.0
Dansby SwansonBravesSS3494.04.0
9José RamírezGuardians3B3333.93.9
10TKevin GausmanBlue JaysP00.0883.73.7
Mookie BettsDodgersRF2973.73.7

If the AL voting were to happen today, I suspect Judge, who has 30 homers already (a 59-homer pace) for a 60–23 team (.723, a record-setting 117-win pace) playing for his next contract ($250 million?) would carry the day, because he’s an athletic marvel with a compelling story, not to mention the advantage of doing so with the sport’s most visible team. But I know which way I’d go without hesitation: the guy filling in both WAR columns.

With so many fantastic players and so many superlatives over the course of a six-month season, it’s easy to lose sight of greatness, particularly when it’s stuck on a losing ballclub. What Ohtani’s doing shouldn’t be missed, though, because he continues to find new ways to amaze.

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