Angels' Historic All-Star Shohei Ohtani Just Keeps Adding to Year for the Books

Zachary D. RymerJuly 8, 2021

Los Angeles Angels' Shohei Ohtani (17) celebrates in the dugout after scoring off of a home run hit by Max Stassi during the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, July 6, 2021, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
AP Photo/Ashley Landis

Whether your preference is to call him the best or merely the most exciting player in Major League Baseball, Shohei Ohtani is having a season worthy of his most oft-mentioned historical comp.

"We all romanticize what it would have been like to watch Babe Ruth play," Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday, according to MLB.com's Rhett Bollinger. "Now we're living it. So don't underestimate what we're seeing."

The high point of Ohtani's 2021 campaign was Sunday, when he became the first player ever selected to an All-Star team as a hitter and a pitcher. As a sort of preemptive celebration, he also launched the second-longest home run of his career that day:


SHOHEI WITH NUMBER 31. <a href="https://t.co/4gVlA9WCJj">pic.twitter.com/4gVlA9WCJj</a>

After celebrating his 27th birthday Monday, Ohtani recovered from a disastrous outing in New York on June 30 with a brilliant start at home against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday. He allowed two runs on five hits and zero walks in seven innings to spearhead a 5-3 win. Back in his customary role at designated hitter, he then homered again on Wednesday.

Ohtani's All-Star hitter credentials are now backed up by a 176 OPS+ and MLB-leading marks in home runs (32) and slugging percentage (.700). As a pitcher, he's rocking a 132 ERA+ and striking out 11.7 batters per nine innings.

Value-wise, that adds up to 5.4 wins above replacement for Baseball Reference. Thus does Ohtani co-lead that department with New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom, and either one of them could secure baseball's first 11-WAR season since Barry Bonds in 2002.

They'll have to stay healthy to chase that feat, and yet it's precisely because Ohtani is healthy that he's doing all this.

He had right ankle and right elbow issues before he even signed with the Angels in December 2017, and he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018 and left knee surgery in 2019. Then in 2020, a strained forearm limited him to just two pitching appearances. So, when he reported to spring training this year, he did so at full health for perhaps the first time in his major league career.

This alone helps explain why Ohtani is working on his best two-way season since he put up a 1.004 OPS and a 1.86 ERA for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in 2016. But for the heck of it, we'll dig into exactly how he's doing it.

Ohtani the Gallo

It was certainly apparent even before 2021 that Ohtani was a gifted slugger. Though he smashed only seven home runs in 44 games amid last year's shortened season, in 2018 and 2019 only five players needed fewer plate appearances to hit 40 homers.

Now, his 32 home runs aren't significant just because they're the most this season.

They're also tied for the eighth-most by a left-handed hitter in the first half of a season. Ohtani also has already broken Hideki Matsui's 17-year-old record for home runs by a Japan-born player.

ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 02: Los Angeles Angels designated hitter Shohei Ohtani (17) hits a two run home run in the fourth inning of a game against the Baltimore Orioles played on July 2, 2021 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, CA. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If there's a frustrating part to Ohtani's prowess at the plate, it's that he's more of a good hitter than a great hitter. To wit, both his .279 batting average and .364 on-base percentage rank outside the top 30. Among other things, those modest figures trace back to a chase rate in the 42nd percentile and a strikeout rate in the 14th percentile.

But lest anyone mistake this for a suggestion that Ohtani should change his approach, what really matters is where he stands among his peers when he does put the ball in play:

  • Batting average on contact: .413 (6th)
  • Slugging percentage on contact: 1.036 (1st)

It takes real power to achieve numbers like those, and Ohtani's power is indeed real in the sense that it's both organic and efficient.

Organic, in that his average exit velocity of 93.5 mph is in the 96th percentile. Efficient, in that he's hitting a career-best 38.6 percent of his batted balls in the sweet spot, with a launch angle between 8 and 32 degrees, where the average batted ball goes for a .592 average and 1.094 slugging percentage.

Combined, these two traits have allowed Ohtani to rack up 51 barrels—i.e., batted balls with an ideal combination of launch angle and exit velocity—out of 197 balls in play. That's a rate of 25.9 percent, which is currently the highest for any hitter in the seven-year Statcast era.

Unsurprisingly, the only other left-handed hitter near the top of that list is the Texas Rangers' 6'5", 250-pound slugger, Joey Gallo. At 6'4", 210 pounds, Ohtani probably isn't as powerful as his fellow Home Run Derby contestant. But considering that Gallo can do things like this, it's no small compliment to say that Ohtani is the better power hitter in baseball right now.

Ohtani the Darvish

Though Ohtani was able to right his ship on the mound Tuesday, he didn't do it by overpowering Red Sox hitters. He notched only four strikeouts, the fewest for any start of his in which he pitched at least six innings.

But to hear it from Boston manager Alex Cora, that was less a measure of Ohtani's luck and more so one of his skill. As quoted by Bollinger:

"He's a different pitcher than in '18. In '18 when we came here, his stuff was electric. Today, yeah, he threw hard, all that, but he pitched today. You see him out there and he knows what he's doing. It's amazing what he's doing. Unreal."

Ohtani was indeed throwing hard, as his fastball sat at 95.7 mph and got as high as 98.5 mph. But his performance was just as much a showcase for his new cutter (or cutters, as Owen McGrattan of FanGraphs detailed in May), which he threw 19 times and against which Red Sox hitters went 0-for-7.

Along with his fastball, splitter and slider, that cutter is one of four pitches that Ohtani is throwing at least 11 percent of the time in 2021. He also has a curveball that sits in the mid-70s but which he can turn into an eephus when he wants to show hitters a different speed. And, wow, did he ever do that to poor Danny Santana:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Shohei Ohtani, 68mph Curveball and 98mph Fastball (consecutive pitches/Overlay) <a href="https://t.co/SlOG0WCi4X">pic.twitter.com/SlOG0WCi4X</a>

But while all this is another way of saying it's not all about the splitter for Ohtani anymore, it's still mostly about the splitter.

He's busting it out less often this year (18.5 percent) than he did as a rookie in 2018 (22.4 percent), but clearly not because the pitch has lost potency. Just ask Rafael Devers:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Shohei Ohtani, Nasty 86mph Splitter. 😨<br><br>And, reactions from Devers &amp; Ohtani. <a href="https://t.co/bQpqwYEuNc">pic.twitter.com/bQpqwYEuNc</a>

Opposing hitters are just 6-for-75 against it with 49 strikeouts. That's an .080 batting average that looks a lot like the pitch's .081 expected batting average.

Among pitches that have ended at least 80 plate appearances in 2021, that mark puts Ohtani in special company:

  1. Tyler Glasnow, curveball: .079 xBA
  2. Shohei Ohtani, splitter: .081 xBA
  3. Carlos Rodon, slider: .092 xBA
  4. Jacob deGrom, slider: .101 xBA
  5. Kevin Gausman, splitter: .134 xBA

Though comparing a Japanese player to other Japanese players can play into a lazy trope, it's frankly hard to watch Ohtani and not see shades of another great Japanese hurler with a hard fastball and a deep repertoire marked by a signature pitch and the occasional eephus curveball: San Diego Padres ace Yu Darvish.

As to whether the two countrymen will match up in the All-Star Game at Coors Field on Tuesday, there seems to be mutual interest. Ohtani said in November he's "eager" to face Darvish, who's hopeful that it will finally happen in the Midsummer Classic.

The Problem with the Babe Ruth Comp

Even if Ohtani's hitting and pitching skills are best compared to those of contemporaries such as Gallo and Darvish, there's no escaping the total package of the one and only Ruth.

However, even the Bambino never had a season like the one Ohtani is having now.

As a pitcher, Ruth peaked with a 158 ERA+ over 323.2 innings in 1916. Though he also hit well that year, it wasn't until 1918 that he began his reign as a game-changing slugger by leading the majors in home runs (11) and slugging (.555) for the first time.

By that season, Ruth's pitching was actually veering toward mediocrity in the form of a 122 ERA+ over 166.1 innings. He was mediocre when he put up only a 102 ERA+ over 133.1 innings in 1919, and after that he made only five more appearances on the mound in his career.

In other words: While Ruth was indeed both a great pitcher and a great hitter, whether he was ever both at the same time is debatable.

As Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight did, it's more appropriate to compare Ohtani to Negro Leagues legend Bullet Rogan. And while Rogan enjoyed nearly a decade as a two-way star, next year will mark the 100th anniversary of his magnum opus, in which he had a 199 OPS+ as a hitter and a 159 ERA+ as a pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs.

Of course, there's an extent to which all this is academic. Because whether Ohtani is a modern-day Ruth or a modern-day Rogan, he is unlike any player of the last century.

So, Maddon need not worry that anyone is underestimating what Ohtani is doing. And years from now, we'll romanticize him, too.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.