Consider the legendary Ruth. In 1918, Ruth made 20 pitching appearances (including 19 starts) and played the outfield in 59 games. It was his first season as anything but a pitcher and pinch hitter, and he compiled 6.8 wins above replacement over Boston’s 126-game schedule. Ruth would produce other, more valuable seasons later on as a pure hitter — such as when he produced 14.5 WAR while playing outfield for the Yankees in 1923 — but 1918 was the last season anybody provided such high value as both a position player and a pitcher. That is, until Ohtani came along.
Ohtani is batting .256 with 45 home runs and a .952 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, the latter 55 percent higher than the league average. He’s appeared in 148 of 152 games with 66 plate appearances when he starts on the mound. He also leads the majors in isolated power (a measure of extra-base hits) and is second in barrels per plate appearance, which are hits on the sweet spot of the bat. Ohtani’s average exit velocity (93.5 mph) is the second-highest among hitters with at least 250 balls put in play after Fernando Tatis Jr.
His performance has earned him 4.6 wins above replacement heading into Thursday night. If we were to translate that production into monetary value through FanGraphs’ free agent valuation formula, which presumes a cost of $8 million per win above replacement, it would be worth $36.6 million on the open market. Given Ohtani’s 2021 salary is $3 million and increases to only $5.5 million next year, that is a huge value for the Angels.
Because Ohtani is under team control through 2023, his salary is depressed compared to traditional free agents. Still, getting more than 12 times their investment is certainly working out for the Angels thus far. Other batters on the roster making a similar salary include José Iglesias (batting .259 with eight home runs and a .670 OPS) and David Fletcher (.271, two home runs, .635 OPS).
Of course, that’s just taking into account Ohtani’s offense. On the mound, Ohtani is 9-2 with a 3.28 ERA and has struck out 146 batters in 123⅓ innings. Opposing hitters manage a mere .211 batting average and have struck out 37 times in 109 at-bats ending on Ohtani’s slider. His split-finger fastball is even better; he has allowed eight hits and struck out 75 in 123 at-bats this season. Again using FanGraphs’ valuation method, his pitching performance is worth $21.7 million in 2021. Combine the hitting and pitching values and Ohtani is giving the Angels over $58 million in production for a salary of just $3 million.
As you can imagine, the list of players exceeding 2.5 wins above replacement as both a hitter and a pitcher is limited. In fact, since 1901, there are three seasons in which a player generated 2.5 wins above replacement or more as both a hitter and a pitcher: Wes Ferrell in 1935, Don Drysdale in 1965 and Ohtani. There aren’t any pitchers aside from Ohtani worth as much as one win above replacement as a batter this season. The closest is Atlanta Braves pitcher Max Fried, whose .306 average and .726 OPS is worth almost one win above replacement.
“It goes to show you why he’s an MVP candidate,” Oakland Athletics catcher Yan Gomes said of Ohtani.
The MVP race could be an intriguing one, however. Overall, Ohtani leads the American League in wins above replacement (7.3) with another strong MVP candidate, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (6.8 fWAR), right behind him. Guerrero leads the majors in batting average (.323), is tied with Salvador Perez for the most home runs (46) and is tied for fifth in RBI (105), making him a Triple Crown threat. Still, the object of the game is to win, and no one contributes more to that endeavor than Ohtani.
It’s easy to see how rare and valuable a two-way player such as Ohtani can be, and perhaps this is the next phase of “Moneyball,” the quest to find an undervalued skill set that provides a tactical advantage. If Ohtani can do it and inspires other young players to try, perhaps there could be a wave of two-way players coming down the line.