The MLB season has only just begun, but we already have the biggest story of the year: Los Angeles Angels rookie phenom Shohei Ohtani has the potential to completely redefine the definition of MVP.
Ohtani has been worthy of the hype surrounding his arrival in the United States. The Japanese star, who works as both a starting pitcher and a designated hitter, ended his second week in the majors with a dominant start Sunday against the Oakland Athletics, carrying a perfect game into the seventh inning. He ultimately yielded one walk and one hit with 12 strikeouts in seven innings. It was his second win in two starts, but that’s not doing his season justice.
Not only are we witnessing history, we might also be recalibrating what it means to be baseball’s most valuable player. Since 1931, the first year the award was voted on by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, 20 pitchers, including 16 starters, have won an MVP award, with Clayton Kershaw (2014 in the National League) the most recent recipient. But we’ve also never seen a player like Ohtani in modern times.
The value Ohtani presents as a player who contributes as a pitcher and as a hitter is simply dripping with potential if he can continue his early-season success.
Ohtani’s four-seam fastball is averaging 98.7 mph and topping out at 100 mph, producing a swinging strike rate of 8 percent, the sixth-highest this season. His split-finger fastball has struck out 13 batters in 19 at-bats ending on the pitch. He has allowed just one hit on the sweet spot of the bat — tied for the lowest among 104 pitchers with at least 150 pitches thrown — and is the league leader in overall swinging strike rate (24 percent). Only Patrick Corbin of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Gerrit Cole of the Houston Astros and Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets have a larger differential between their strikeout and walk rates than Ohtani this season.
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Oh, by the way, Ohtani rakes, too. The 23-year-old is batting .389 with three home runs in 19 plate appearances, producing runs at a rate that is almost triple the league average after adjusting for league and park effects (278 wRC+). And these aren’t just run-of-the-mill home runs; Ohtani hit one off Oakland’s Daniel Gossett at 112.4 mph that had a projected distance of 449 feet.
“It was loud,’’ Oakland shortstop Marcus Semien said. “The guys on their team talk about how far he hits the ball in [batting practice], his raw power. He showed it off there.’’
Ohtani is just the third player in MLB history to get two wins and hit three dingers in his team’s first 10 games. The last person to do it was Jim Shaw in 1919, but his three home runs in the Washington Senators’ first 10 games ended up being the only ones he hit all season.
Ohtani is also the third player to hit a home run in three consecutive games and also record a double-digit strikeout game in the same season. Ken Brett (1973) and Babe Ruth (1916) are the others. But it took Ruth until the end of June to make the cut, and Brett needed until the end of August. Ohtani did it within the first week and a half of his major league career.
Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope math. Ohtani has two starts and six games in the batter’s box this season, which projects to 97 games as a hitter and 32 starts as a pitcher. That equates to roughly 300 plate appearances and 200 innings pitched. Using his wins above replacement to date (1.0, according to FanGraphs), and assuming Ohtani continues his torrid pace, we could expect him to be worth 15.5 total fWAR (9.2 pitching and 6.3 hitting) for the season, a staggering amount that would beat the best season on record: Ruth’s 1923 MVP campaign (15 fWAR). That was a year in which Ruth was not used as a pitcher, so just let that thought sink in for a second and appreciate how good Ruth was at the plate that season.
But sustaining greatness is difficult, and Ohtani’s projections are much lower: He is penciled in for 13 to 15 home runs and 1.0 fWAR as a hitter and is expected to go 10-7 with a 3.46 ERA (3.2 fWAR) as a pitcher. But there hasn’t been a player like Ohtani since Ruth, so it’s possible the projections underestimate what he can do. And since the knock on voting for a pitcher as the MVP has always been that they play just once every five days, Ohtani has a chance to recast the vision of what the MVP should and can be.
The AL doesn’t have as strong of a track record as the NL when it comes to rewarding the league leader in fWAR as the MVP, but the first-place finisher has been named MVP four times since 2007 and in two of the past three seasons. Ohtani could make it three of four if he continues to play like he has to start this season.
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