Is this year’s Shohei Ohtani better than last year’s Shohei Ohtani?

Is this year’s Shohei Ohtani better than last year’s Shohei Ohtani? post thumbnail image

When Shohei Ohtani first arrived in the major leagues after signing with the Angels, he did so with quite an advanced billing, extreme even for Los Angeles: The Japanese Babe Ruth.

It was a snappy and evocative moniker, effective in what it was meant to convey. Ohtani didn’t just pitch and hit — he did both at elite levels. At the same time. We hadn’t seen anything like it since Ruth, so the hype went.

The thing is, it has not turned out to be merely hype. Ohtani has not only lived up to the billing, he has left it behind — like an old movie poster someone forgot to take down. Because comparing Ohtani to Ruth no longer makes sense: No one has excelled at pitching and hitting at the same time like Ohtani in the extant major leagues, not even Ruth. You can point to some of the great two-way Negro Leagues stars like Martin Dihigo, Bullet Rogan and Double Duty Radcliffe, but no one in the American League or National League.

Understand that this is not a claim that Ohtani is as good as Ruth, whose contributions to the game as a hitter are almost mythical. It’s just to acknowledge that while Ruth was the only other AL or NL player who both hit and pitched at an All-Star level for an extended time in the same career, not even The Babe did so simultaneously.

Ruth split significant time between playing a position and pitching in only two seasons, 1918 and 1919. The closest Ruth came to what Ohtani has done was 1918, when he finished seventh in AL position player bWAR, 17th in pitching bWAR and fourth overall. Last season, 103 years later and in a much larger American League, Ohtani ranked 11th in position player bWAR, seventh in pitching bWAR and easily led the AL overall.

In other words, the Ruth comp was great for building anticipation for what Ohtani had to offer, but it no longer works. Ohtani is truly incomparable.

Or, is he? There is one player against whom it might still make sense to compare Ohtani: himself.

Ohtani put up 9.0 bWAR last season en route to becoming a unanimous pick in the AL MVP balloting. That’s a hard act to follow, even for a unicorn talent like Ohtani, who seems obsessed with self-improvement.

Indeed, Ohtani’s 2022 season didn’t start off in quite the same glitzy manner, as the Yankees’ Aaron Judge picked up the early buzz in the MVP race. Through May 8, Ohtani was hitting just .235/.302/.383 with four homers. On the mound, he was better, going 3-2 with 3.08 ERA and sparkling peripherals. Still, you add it up, and it was a totally unique player having a good season, just not the historic one he enjoyed a season ago.

But it was early, and since then, we’ve seen “Shotime” back in full bloom. Since that May 8 nadir, Ohtani has hit .279/.370/.581 with 14 homers at the dish while going 4-2 with a 2.45 ERA on the slab. That stretch was headlined by a two-game outburst against Kansas City, against whom Ohtani collected two homers and eight RBIs one night, then the next day posted a game score of 90, going eight shutout innings with 13 strikeouts. I mean … that should just not be possible.

According to my AXE system for assessing the awards races (it’s basically a consensus of leading value and win probability metrics), Ohtani’s ranking across MLB has risen from 36th place when I ran numbers June 19 to second place as the July 4 holiday arrives. In the AL, AXE has him among a vicious cluster of MVP candidates:

AL AXE LEADERS

1. Mike Trout, LAA (141)

2. (tie) Rafael Devers, BOS (140)

Judge, NYY (140)

Ohtani, LAA (140)

5. Yordan Alvarez, HOU (138)

6. Jose Ramirez, CLE (135)

(Through July 3)

Look, no matter what these numbers or any other filter of advanced metrics suggest, if Judge hits 55 to 60 homers and the Yankees win 110 to 115 games, he’s going to be awfully tough to beat when the ballots are cast. But Ohtani is making his case by making the absurd standards he set last season appear, for him, to be a matter of routine.

We can’t forecast Ohtani’s eventual 2022 stat line with a high degree of certainty, but what we can do is make a more skills-based assessment of this year’s Shohei versus last year’s Shohei.

We’ll do this by grading Ohtani on all of the traditional scouting tools and using the same 20-to-80 scale that most scouts and prospect analysts tend to use. This will be a statistical scale, in which 50 is average, 60 is one standard deviation better than average, 40 is one below, and so on.

To be clear, I make no claims to be a qualified scout, no matter how much time I spend staring at baseball, so this will be 100% based on advanced qualitative and performance metrics. What I’m interested in is “applied tools,” which is to say, I don’t care how fast the player can run in a sprint drill or how far he can hit the ball in batting practice. I’m only interested in how those underlying skills have been applied in actual games.

As a position player

Hitting

2021 grade: 60 (out of 80)

2022 grade: 55 (out of 80)

The hit tool in prospect evaluations is kind of a nebulous thing, where sometimes it feels like a straight translation of batting average and other times one that folds in plate discipline, hand-eye coordination, etc. From a numbers standpoint, I lean toward considering a range of production from getting the bat on the ball to producing a high BABIP but also extra bases, and being disciplined.

For our purposes here, I’m basing my grades on how well Ohtani has performed across the three primary slash categories (average, on-base, slugging). To do this here and in all these categories, I’m converting raw numbers to standard scores, and then into indexes. Then I use the harmonic mean of the statistics applicable to that skill category to determine the grade.

Ohtani, who turns 28 on July 5, has not been a high-batting-average guy the past couple of years, hitting .249 going back to the start of 2020. Still, keep in mind that this is still above the league mean during that span. He strikes out more than the league average, but the payoff in terms of extra bases has been more than worth it.

Ohtani has cut his strikeout rate this season and has produced a slightly higher BABIP than in 2021. However, his homer percentage has slipped by nearly 2% and his walk rate is down by more than 4%. Thus his overall grade slips by one-half of a standard deviation.

That said, keep in mind Ohtani’s recent trajectory. There is plenty of time left for him to catch up and surpass his grade from last season.

Power

2021 grade: 75

2022 grade: 65

First, as you might have already noticed, while a lot of prospect analysts shy away from giving grades that don’t end in zero, I do not. But I do so because I’m basing everything on data in which gradations between levels of performance are more clear-cut than when relying on even a well-honed observational eye.

Ohtani hit 46 homers and slugged .592 last season. This season, he’s on pace to hit 36 homers and has slugged .503. That’s the basis for the drop in grade, though it should be noted that Ohtani has hit a higher percentage of line drives this season and that has paid off in the form of a higher rate of doubles. Still, the slugging drop is what it is.

That drop might be temporary. Part of the evidence for that is his recent production, but just as important, that uptick is undergirded by strong Statcast-based indicators. Ohtani ranks sixth in the majors in “expected” slugging, and only nine hitters have suffered a bigger shortfall between their expected number and their actual number.

Ohtani has hit the ball just as hard this season, though he has done so with a lower average launch angle. One tweak, and the expected numbers and actual numbers could converge quickly, and his power grade will be right back up there with the elite.

Baserunning

2021 grade: 55

2022 grade: 50

Here I think sprint speed has become a little bit of an unreliable indicator when describing players. While it is great for quantifying a player’s in-game speed, it’s still more an evaluation of tools than skill. Ohtani does well in sprint speed — 75th percentile this season and 91st percentile in 2021 — but it’s not what I’m after.

Instead, I’m going to use the baserunning runs metric at Fangraphs, which suggests how many runs a player has added (or cost) his team based on taking extra bases, stealing bases, avoiding outs on the basepaths, etc.

We know Ohtani is fast, but overall, he has graded out as an average-ish runner the past two seasons. In 2021, he stole a career-high 26 bases but also led the league by getting caught 10 times. So far in 2022, he has gone 8-for-13 in steals and is on pace to go 16-for-26 on the season. He’s scoring 30% of the time he has reached base and has taken extra bases more often (46% as opposed to 41% in 2021, per baseball-reference.com data).

Add it all up, and whereas Fangraphs measured Ohtani as adding 2.4 runs per 600 plate appearances on the basepaths in 2021, this year he’s costing the Angels about a half-run over 600 plate appearances.

Defense

2021 grade: 50

2022 grade: 50

It would be fascinating to see what Ohtani could do as an everyday outfielder. Alas, that would happen only if he were to give up pitching, and we don’t want that. Defensive runs saved is about the only advanced measure we have on pitcher fielding. Last season Ohtani was plus-2, and this season he’s at plus-1. We’ll call both seasons average, giving him grades of 50, and call it a day. No one is basing an MVP pick on this category anyway.

For what it’s worth, Ohtani has committed just one error during his career, and it came last season. Also, while he has never picked off a runner, there have been only three stolen bases against him in seven attempts during his career. That has been the primary basis of his positive DRS figures.

Arm

2021 grade: 50

2022 grade: 50

Well, we know Ohtani has a strong arm. But we don’t have enough, or any, data on which to grade it from the standpoint of fielding. He has played 8⅓ innings in the outfield during his career and managed to do so without handling a single fielding chance. And an arm grade has a lot more behind it than arm strength.

Think of Pirates rookie Oneil Cruz, who we’ve already seen make the kind of blazing throws from shortstop that make you jump out of your chair and shout. Even he doesn’t grade out with an 80 arm, because he has too often displayed a tendency to fire those lasers all over the field. Accuracy, mechanics, consistency, quickness of release — all of these things go into grading the arm of a fielder, and with Ohtani and the major leagues, we have nothing to go on.

Still, I’m giving Ohtani a 50 because he can, you know, throw more than 100 mph.

Total position-player grade

2021: 70

2022: 65

As a pitcher

Fastball

2021 grade: 45

2022 grade: 55

While I love sifting through the pitch-specific grades of prospects, trying to envision what the arsenal of a coming ace might look like, I’ve always been a bit leery of reading too much into the metrics behind individual pitches at the big league level. The physics of them are great — spin, movement, velocity. They describe in numbers what we see with our eyes. It’s where we start to delve into the performance of a pitch — average against, WOBA against, etc. — that I am cautious, because so much of pitching is based on how the individual pitches in a toolkit work in conjunction with each other.

That caveat out of the way, I based the grades for Ohtani’s individual pitches on WOBA allowed on each offering, as measured by TruMedia. For the purposes of this exercise, Ohtani’s four-seamer and his occasional cutter are treated as the same offering.

Last season, Ohtani gave up a WOBA of .372 on his fastball (and cutter), well above the MLB average of .336. This season, that’s down to .313, enough to bump him up a full grade.

According to Statcast data, Ohtani has sliced his usage of the cutter by about two-thirds. Other than that, Ohtani is throwing harder this season, with an average velocity on the four-seamer going from 95.6 mph to 97.1, with a comparable spin rate. The drop in WOBA isn’t entirely reflected in his expected numbers, so some regression might be on the way.

Splitter

2021 grade: 80

2022 grade: 75

Ohtani’s splitter is one of the best single pitches in all of baseball, and that hasn’t changed. Last season, Ohtani gave up a miniscule .113 WOBA on the splitter, easily best in baseball among starting pitchers. This season, that number has risen to .181, which is still awfully good. However, Dodgers righty Tony Gonsolin‘s splitter this season has been ridiculous (.127 WOBA allowed), and the Mets’ Taijuan Walker has given up a .163 WOBA on the pitch. Unless it’s really close, I tend to reserve 80 grades for the top-ranked score in a category, so that’s why Ohtani gets the slight bump down.

Slider

2021 grade: 50

2022 grade: 55

TruMedia’s numbers suggest Ohtani has gotten a lot more production out of his slider this season, with an WOBA allowed that has gone from .259 to .232. Statcast backs that up, with a 20-point improvement in expected WOBA. Ohtani has thrown more sliders as well, with his usage up about 8%. There has been good reason for that: As with the fastball, Ohtani’s velocity on sliders is up, 2.7 mph in this case, and his spin rate has jumped by 91 revolutions per minute.

Curveball

2021 grade: 40

2022 grade: 50

Ohtani’s curve got blistered last season, to the tune of a .409 WOBA allowed, per TruMedia. This season, he’s at .263, or better than league average (.278). According to Statcast numbers, he’s throwing the hook about three times as often as he did in 2021. He’s throwing it harder than he did last season (a 3.2 mph increase) and spinning it more (increase of 106 rpm). It’s working.

Control/command

2021 grade: 50

2022 grade: 50

While the terms control, command and location all have different connotations when it comes to assessing a pitcher’s ability to locate his offerings, I’m going with the nifty Location+ metric created by Eno Sarris of The Athletic. Last season, Sarris gave Ohtani a Location+ score of 97.7. This year, he’s at … 97.7. No change. League average on that scale is 100, but it’s close enough that I’m giving Ohtani a 50 in both seasons.

Ohtani has sliced about 2.6% off his walk rate this season, so even on the face of it, this declaration of status quo seems counterintuitive. Indeed, if we’re talking pure “control” — the ability to get the ball in the strike zone — it wouldn’t make sense. However, just as important as limiting walks is keeping the ball off the barrel of opponents’ bats. In that area, Ohtani has struggled just a sliver, at least in relation to 2021.

A blunt indicator of this is that Ohtani gave up 15 homers last season but is on pace to give up 16 this season despite the overall drop in homer rates at the league level. Zooming in closer to that, Statcast tells us Ohtani is giving up a slightly higher rate of barrels per plate appearance and that has translated to a 21-point increase in expected slugging for his opponents.

The differences are slight and could disappear fast. Ohtani continues to command his pitches well enough to let his overwhelming stuff play. And his numbers reflect that dominance.

Total pitcher grade

2021: 60

2022: 65

The bottom line

Overall

2021 grade: 75

2022 grade: 70

Last season, Ohtani’s 156 AXE rating was far and away the best in the majors, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Juan Soto and Bryce Harper all tying for second at 141. This season, Ohtani isn’t quite at that historic pace. He slipped so far that he’s only one of a handful of leading AL MVP contenders instead of the runaway front-runner. We should all enjoy slumps like that.

Ohtani of 2022 needs to hit for a little more power to match his 2021 self, and perhaps harness a modicum of additional command on the mound. If that happens, this year’s Ohtani might do the unthinkable, which is to match last year’s Ohtani.



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