Making sense of Shohei Ohtani’s historic first half of 2021

On Monday, Shohei Ohtani blasted 28 home runs in his first Home Run Derby appearance in Colorado.

Those 28 home runs were not enough to best Juan Soto in the first round but it was still a fun display of Ohtani’s sheer raw power. As the #1 seed in the Derby, thanks to his MLB-leading 33 home runs, he blasted six baseballs over 500 feet in the comfy confines of Coors Field. His 465-foot home run average was the highest figure of any player in a single Home Run Derby round in the Statcast era.

The very next night, Ohtani was the lead-off hitter and designated hitter for the American League All-Star team, as well as the starting pitcher. Major League Baseball ok’d Ohtani being treated as two different players, something that AL All-Star and Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash took full advantage of. Ohtani, the lead-off hitter, faced Max Scherzer and Corbin Burnes in his two plate appearances, going 0-2 with two ground-outs. Ohtani, the starting pitcher, had a 1-2-3 first inning, retiring Fernando Tatis Jr., Max Muncy, and Nolan Arenado. Ohtani was rewarded with the All-Star Game win, adding yet another accolade to his historic 2021 season.

The All-Star accolades for Ohtani are both a good summary of his historic season and the culmination of everything coming together for him. After three seasons of varying levels of success with the Angels, Ohtani has taken his game to an entirely new level this season. In a league filled with young, electric superstars, Ohtani has grabbed hold of the public consciousness across both the baseball and sports world. To get a better idea of Ohtani’s season-to-date, let’s break this up into different segments to really explore the craziness and uniqueness of his situation.

Ohtani is a top-5 position player

If you look at overall value and batting value among position players, Ohtani is in an elite company so far this year. By Wins Above Replacement (the Fangraphs version), Ohtani trails just two position players: Vladimir Guerrero (4.6 fWAR) and Ronald Acuña Jr. (4.4). Ohtani’s 4.0 fWAR is tied with Fernando Tatis Jr. and leads other elite shortstops like Xander Bogaerts, Marcus Semien, and Trea Turner. That’s awfully impressive since all of Ohtani’s position player value is tied to his hitting and baserunning (designated hitters are docked defensive value for not playing a position).

Via Fangraphs

The only better-qualified hitter than Ohtani this season by Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (189). Ohtani’s 180 wRC+ is a dozen points higher than the third-best hitter (Tatis Jr., 168) and more than 30 points better than the 10th-best hitter (Carlos Correa, 149). Ohtani’s doing this mainly thanks to his absurd power (more on this soon), evidenced by his MLB-leading 33 home runs and .698 slugging percentage. His .279 batting average and .364 on-base percentage, however, are also well above the league-average marks. I’ll talk more about his speed later on but he’s also swiped a dozen bags, one of the top-20 marks in the sport. Put it all together and you have a dynamic position player who is an MVP candidate alone just by looking at his offensive value.

Ohtani’s also a pretty darn good pitcher

If you’re reading this and you watched the recent All-Star Game, you’re probably well aware that Ohtani is a very good pitcher too. In 67 innings this season, Ohtani has a well-above-average 3.49 ERA, good for a 132 ERA+ (32 percent better than the league-average starter). He’s struck out 30.7 percent of opposing hitters, the 13th-best mark among pitchers with at least 50 innings thrown. Add it all up and Ohtani has 1.5 fWAR as a pitcher, which is tied for the 51st-best mark among any starters with 50 innings thrown.

What’s been fascinating about Ohtani has been his transformation as a pitcher this year. In his first seven starts, Ohtani had a very good 2.72 ERA and 32.5 strikeout percentage, albeit with a dreadful 16.9 walk percentage. Ohtani’s stuff was electric at that time but the command was not. In his past six starts, Ohtani has a 4.40 ERA, 28.7 strikeout percentage, and 7 walk percentage. Ohtani’s command has improved significantly while not sacrificing that many walks. The ERA looks much worse, which can be explained by his Yankee Stadium outing (seven runs in 2/3 of an inning). Take that outing away and Ohtani has a 2.40 ERA in those other starts in that time. With 67 innings thrown, Ohtani has already surpassed his MLB-high from 2018 (51 2/3 innings). It’s the most in a professional season since he threw 140 innings with the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2016. As he gains more experience, we could see continued development from a pitcher showing both plus stuff and improved command.

Ohtani is the game’s premier power threat

I said I’d come back to Ohtani’s power because it’s the single most valuable and impressive individual trait that Ohtani possesses on a baseball field. He’s running laps around the rest of MLB hitters at this point when it comes to his power. Ohtani’s 33 home runs lead the majors while no other player has even reached 30 yet (Vlad Jr. and Tatis Jr. have 28). Ohtani’s .698 slugging percentage leads the majors and is 40 points better than the next-best hitter (Vlad Jr., .658). That .698 slugging percentage is more than 100 points higher than Acuña Jr., who is fourth on this list. Ohtani is fresh off of one of the biggest power stretches in MLB history, where he slugged 16 home runs in a 21-game span recently, which has never been done by an American League Player.

Via MLB

Statcast metrics confirm everything that his raw stat totals and the eye test shows us. No player is barreling more baseballs, the ideal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, than Ohtani (15.5 percent of his plate appearances). No player has a higher exit velocity on fly-balls and line drives (101 mph) than Ohtani). Only Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge have a higher hard-hit rate (batted balls with 95+ mph exit velocities) than Ohtani. Among the 19 players with 20+ home runs, only Rafael Devers has a farther average home run distance (418 feet) than Ohtani (417 feet). No player owns more 450+ foot home runs than Ohtani.

Ohtani’s splitter is one of the nastiest pitches in MLB

Ohtani is blessed with one of the nastiest four-pitch mixes in the majors. His fastball has averaged 95.5 mph this season and he just hit 100 mph multiple times in his All-Star Game appearance. Among starters, only Sonny Gray’s slider has more horizontal movement than Ohtani’s wipeout slider. Ohtani’s curveball, used sparingly (3.7 percent), flashes plus-plus when he uses it. Even his newly-minted cutter looks like a useful pitch. But it’s Ohtani’s splitter that plays a huge role in his pitching success.

Ohtani’s splitter is a nightmare for hitters as a pitch that sits in the upper-80’s and has straight downward movement. Coming off of his straight, mid-90’s heater, the splitter has befuddled hitters since Ohtani debuted in 2018. He’s yet to allow a home run on the pitch in his time in the majors. This year alone, it’s been a complete disaster for opposing hitters trying to hit it. Hitters are slugging .107 against the splitter and whiffing on more than half of their swings (54.7 percent). It’s the second-best splitter in the majors according to Statcast’s Run Values, trailing only Kevin Gausman. Ohtani has many traits as a pitcher that help him succeed but it’s the splitter that takes him to that next level.

Ohtani is one of the fastest players in the majors

We’re so fixated on Ohtani’s power at the plate and stuff on the mound that we can forget just how fast Ohtani is. The 12 stolen bases are obviously impressive but the underlying metrics are even crazier. By Statcast’s sprint speed, Ohtani comes in at 28.8 feet-per-second (27 is average), which puts him in the 92nd percentile among position players. More impressive is 4.09 second home-to-first time (average sprint time on softly-hit grounders), which trails only three players in the majors.

No player has given their team a higher Win Probability

According to the Fangraphs version of Win Probability Added (WPA), which documents how a player/event alters the outcome of a game, no player has been better than Ohtani (4.85 WPA). With 4.29 WPA as a hitter and 0.56 WPA as a pitcher, Ohtani is altering his team’s success like no other player in the majors. Maybe this isn’t too surprising, given all of the reasons mentioned above (strong production generally leads to a better WPA). What WPA also accounts for, however, is how a particular player does in certain situations (high-leverage, low-leverage, runners in scoring position, etc.).

As a hitter, Ohtani is hitting an absurd .650/.692/1.200 with a 380 wRC+ in 26 high-leverage plate appearances. With runners in scoring position (77 plate appearances), Ohtani is hitting .317/.429/.762 with a 203 wRC+. With runners in scoring position as a pitcher (64 batters faced), Ohtani has a 1.99 Field Independent Pitching (FIP) and .118 batting average against. Ohtani isn’t just performing incredibly well this year; he’s taking it to another level in the most important situations of each game.

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DowningDude
Super Member
3 months ago

The Angels are wasting Shohei Ohtani’s prime.

GrandpaBaseball
Super Member
3 months ago

We are very blessed to have ourselves not one but 2 once in a lifetime players, hopefully in 2022 we will witness the 2 of them fight for MVP. We still have Fletch and Walsh and maybe Rendon joins the party and JUp has one very good season left in him. The possibilities are endless and scary good at the same time. KA-BOOM the KABASH in the OC. Go Angels.

tommyshalo
Trusted Member
3 months ago

Lets sit down and enjoy another half.
Hopefully Trout, JUp and Rendon come back soon to make this season worthy.

FungoAle
Super Member
3 months ago

He is right in the sweet spot of age. Hoping we can see close to this level of performance over the next few years. But I’ll probably demand and expect too much because this first half was off the charts. Angels are smart, just let Shohei really call his own game and when he wants to play and how. This year, they have not throttled him.

Eric_in_Portland
Super Member
3 months ago

as mentioned elsewhere, if Slegers comes in and gets the first batter Ohtani’s ERA would now be 3.09.

It should be fantastic watching Ohtani and Trout whenever they happen to be in the lineup.

Angels2020Champs
Super Member
3 months ago

Yeah I like watching him