It’s not hyperbole or an overstatement to say that Shohei Ohtani is baseball’s most interesting player.
Sure, teammate Mike Trout is the game’s premier player and a literal generational talent. Yes, Fernando Tatis Jr. might be THAT dude for the next decade thanks to his insanely loud skills and marketability. Jacob deGrom is somehow defying normal aging curves for pitchers and on an all-time great stretch. Ronald Acuña Jr. could legitimately home and steal 50 times in a season. Juan Soto might just be the next Ted Williams. None of these players, however, are attempting to do what Shohei Ohtani is doing.
Ohtani is off to an incredible start to his 2021 season, both from a sheer statistical perspective and from a watchability standpoint, on both sides of the ball. Ohtani crushed his seventh home run on Sunday in Houston, tying him for the MLB lead. In 81 plate appearances, Ohtani is hitting .286/.321/.662 and ranks 15th among qualified hitters with his 175 wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus). Ohtani is a top-30 position player by Wins Above Replacement (0.8 WAR), despite being a designated hitter and not adding any defensive value. Ohtani’s also added value on the bases with three stolen bases. While he’s made only two starts on the mound, he’s also added value there with a 1.04 ERA in 8 2/3 innings.
To fully grasp just how special of a start this is, let’s break this down by focusing on his three specific impact areas: offense, pitching, and speed. We’ll look not only at traditional and advanced statistics but also look at some Statcast percentile rankings to give you a true idea of his raw skills.
Shohei Ohtani, the masher
- 100th percentile maximum exit velocity
- 98th percentile barrel percentage
- 94th percentile expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA)
Ohtani has done the most damage from a sheer power perspective this season, which is abundantly clear from every meaningful statistic. He’s near the top of the traditional leaderboards if you look at statistics such as home runs or slugging percentage. He’s near the top if you look at advanced metrics like wRC+ and hard-hit percentage. And he’s near the top for sheer power skills from Statcast, such as exit velocity and barrels.
While the MLB-leading seven home runs and .662 slugging percentage are very impressive, I’m most struck by the Statcast percentiles referenced above. Only Giancarlo Stanton has hit a harder baseball (120.1 mph) than Shohei Ohtani’s 119 mph double in Kansas City. Only Rafael Devers has barreled more total baseballs and at a higher percentage than Ohtani (13 barrels and 16 percent, respectively). Only 14 hitters rank better by xwOBA (.433), which “tells the story of a player’s season based on quality and amount of contact, not outcomes“. All together, it’s an impressive and top-shelf ability to hit the absolute crap out of baseballs and turn them into great results.
If there is one thing to monitor, it’s Ohtani’s approach at the plate. His 2.5 percent walk rate and 29.6 percent strikeout rate are career-worst marks, which can be explained by increases in swing percentage and chase percentage and a decrease in contact percentage. That said, Ohtani’s always shown a propensity to take walks and as long as he keeps mashing pitches, I’m not sure it will matter much. If Ohtani’s walk rate normalizes and he keeps this new level of elite batted-ball authority, there could be even bigger things on the way.
Shohei Ohtani, the bat-misser
- 98th percentile whiff rate
- 96th percentile fastball velocity
- 88th percentile strikeout percentage
Ohtani certainly has a more mixed track record on the mound. After a strong performance in 2018 as a pitcher was cut short due to an eventual Tommy John surgery, he missed all of 2019, only made two starts in 2020, and has made two starts thus far in 2020. Add it all up and you have just 62 MLB innings, albeit very good ones as evidenced by his 3.92 ERA and 3.91 FIP (Field Independent Pitching). Ohtani’s had mixed results so far in 2021; his 1.04 ERA is obviously fantastic while his 26.8 walk percentage is abysmal. What’s not in question, however, is his sheer ability to miss bats.
As you can see above, he’s near the top for very meaningful strikeout indicators. Among all pitchers with 25 plate appearances against, Ohtani trails just 10 pitchers in whiff percentage, which is the total percentage of whiffs-per-swing. He throws one of the hardest fastballs in the entire sport and has maxed out at 101 mph this season. Add in his three superb secondary pitches and you have one of the nastiest inning-per-inning pitchers in the sport. There simply aren’t many pitchers capable of touching 101 mph, throwing a 93 diving mph splitter, and spinning two-plane breaking balls. With the results to boot, it’s not just aesthetically-pleasing but he’s also showing the ability to miss bats.
Obviously, the pitching aspect is very much a work in progress for Ohtani. He’ll make his third start of the season tonight and the goal has to be getting deeper into the game and fixing his ugly command numbers. I’m a believer that the stuff and athleticism are too good to have 20-grade command and think that more reps will alleviate that issue. The first step to doing it, though, is simply getting himself out there more often.
Shohei Ohtani, the speedster
- 96th percentile sprint speed
It’s easy to forget about Ohtani’s speed when he’s busy hitting baseballs 450 feet or throwing them 101 mph. That speed, when it’s on display, is equally as impressive, however. This is apparent by just looking at the raw traditional stats, whether it’s his two triples or three stolen bases in 20 games this year. That speed is even more impressive when you see his 96th percentile sprint speed. At 29.2 feet-per-second, he’s well above the average rate of 27 feet/sec and grouped around names like Mike Trout, Byron Buxton, and Ronald Acuña Jr.
Again, it’s easy to forget about this speed but he’s already swiped 32 bases in his career. With multiple stolen bases and triples this season, we’ve seen more of this speed from Ohtani. Just another electric tool in Ohtani’s diverse and elite arsenal.
The whole package
You probably didn’t need me to tell you all of this to not only recognize Ohtani’s greatness but also how unprecedented this all is. As the Angels Twitter account said this morning, Ohtani is entering tonight as the first starting pitcher in nearly a century to make a start while also leading the majors in home runs (7).
The skills he displays as a hitter, pitcher, and runner are elite in their own right. When he’s capable of doing all three things, it’s completely unprecedented. The power/speed combination is matched by a select few in the game: Mike Trout, Fernando Tatis Jr., Ronald Acuña Jr, Byron Buxton, Jazz Chisolm Jr., Akil Baddoo, and Chris Taylor are the only others with 90th+ percentile sprint speeds and barrel percentages. What separates Ohtani from that group is his pitching ability, one that has seen him post a 98th percentile whiff rate this season.
Soak this all in, Angels fans. The Angels have not one but two generational talents on the roster in Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani. We know about Mike Trout’s yearly greatness but Shohei Ohtani is doing equally unprecedented things on the baseball field. While the team success has not been there, having the chance to watch history unfold is quite the treat.