Along with balls in play, complete games, and the sacrifice bunt, one casualty of sabermetrics is the concept of the cycle. Not because cycles don’t happen anymore—this decade has seen about one for every 1,300 team games, right in line with historical rates. Rather, for the analytically inclined fan, statistics have effectively downplayed the significance of the achievement. From a win probability perspective, hitting for the cycle is about as valuable as hitting two home runs, and the latter now happens about twice a day without generating inordinate excitement each time.
One recent cycle succeeded in generating inordinate excitement even among statfolk, though, and that’s because the cycler was Shohei Ohtani. In a 5-3 win over the Rays this month, the Angels DH clobbered a first-inning homer, third-inning double, and fifth-inning triple off southpaw Ryan Yarbrough, then added a single off Hunter Wood in his final at-bat.
Last night Shohei Ohtani became the first Japanese player to hit for the cycle in the Major Leagues! pic.twitter.com/lJYZpXXGyS— Baseball Quotes (@BaseballQuotes1) June 14, 2019
Yet the excitement came not because Shohei Ohtani hit for the cycle. The excitement came because Shohei Ohtani hit for the cycle. The emphasis matters. Ohtani is back after missing the first five weeks of the season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, which will keep him off the mound for all of 2019. For this year, at least, he is no longer a two-way player, but rather merely the most exciting designated hitter in the majors. And what a hitter he is—so polished, so powerful, so darn exciting that his continued success at the plate might even raise broader questions about his two-way future, simply because it’s difficult to think the Angels would ever willingly remove Ohtani from their lineup.
Ohtani was a revelation at the plate in 2018, quickly overcoming his 4-for-32 spring training by removing a pre-swing leg kick and walloping three homers in his first four regular-season games. Ohtani’s OPS was over 1.000 through mid-May, and it again exceeded 1.000 in September—after he had learned he’d need elbow surgery. He won Rookie of the Year honors despite appearing in just 10 games as a pitcher, his ostensible specialty.
In his return to the majors this year, Ohtani struggled: Through his first 22 games of the season, he was hitting .225/.304/.326, with only three of his 20 hits going for extra bases. But it’s rarely wise for baseball viewers to overreact to small samples, and sure enough, Ohtani has returned to form—and then some—over the last three weeks. On June 4, he went 2-for-3 with a homer; on June 5, he went 2-for-4 with a homer; overall since his slow start, he’s hitting .349/.397/.730 with a full 50 percent of his hits going for extra bases, good for a 197 wRC+ that ranks sixth in baseball in that span. (Teammate Mike Trout, naturally, has been even hotter, tying for third on that leaderboard.)
Overall, then, since the start of last season, Ohtani has been one of the dozen best batters in the majors (minimum 500 plate appearances). He’s tied with Freddie Freeman and just behind Cody Bellinger, Juan Soto, and Aaron Judge in wRC+.
Best Hitters Since the Start of 2018
In his second season, Ohtani has refined some aspects of his offensive approach. He’s swinging a bit more at pitches inside the strike zone and a bit less at pitches outside; he’s making a bit more contact when he offers at a pitch and swinging a bit more on first pitches specifically. (That kind of selective aggression is a positive: In his career, Ohtani is hitting .446 with a 1.054 slugging percentage when he makes contact in a 0-0 count.) None of these changes are monumental on their own, but taken together, the little bits add up to help Ohtani’s overall offensive profile.
He’s also fixed his platoon weakness, which didn’t exist in Japan but arose last season, to the point that the Angels began shielding him from playing against the league’s toughest lefties. He’s improved his OPS+ against left-handed pitchers from 82 last season to 137 this year, and though that latter mark is buoyed somewhat by unsustainable batted-ball luck, the underlying numbers suggest a meaningful difference in his performance against same-side pitchers. He already has as many home runs against lefties this season (two) as he did all of last year.
And Ohtani has continued to pound the ball all around the field. As a whole, MLB hitters average about 2 to 3 more miles per hour of exit velocity on pulled balls compared to balls hit up the middle or to the opposite field. Ohtani, though, hits the ball just as hard the other way, and he goes the other way often. This balance has the effect of reducing the impact of the shift against him—Statcast data shows that teams shifted against Ohtani on 47 percent of his plate appearances last year, but just 26 percent this year—as well as allowing him to access his power. Ohtani has pulled just nine of his 31 career home runs, or 29 percent. Among 95 players with at least 30 homers since the start of last season, Ohtani’s homer pull rate ranks 94th—ahead of only Judge (28 percent) and his short right-field porch in Yankee Stadium.
Thanks to his early slump, however, Ohtani’s numbers from this season don’t compare as well to his 2018 baseline (152 wRC+ last year, 123 so far this year); he hasn’t tapped into quite as much power, despite 2019’s homer-happy ball, and he hasn’t enjoyed as much fortune on balls in play. At first, this decline appears a puzzle: His average exit velocity is unchanged from last year and still one of the best in baseball, and he’s hitting the ball hard about as often. But on closer look, one key number stands out about Ohtani’s 2019 and helps explain some of lesser production: Among players with as many plate appearances as Ohtani, nobody has seen his ground ball rate rise as much year over year.
That’s a problem because hitting the ball hard is one thing; hitting the ball hard and in the right direction is another important step entirely. Ohtani can generate all the exit velocity he wants, but it’s squandered more often if it yields grounders rather than air balls soaring toward the outfield fence. This is the problem that Christian Yelich, for instance, faced before breaking out last summer; in his Miami days, he enjoyed good but not great offensive results because too much of his power went into singles instead of home runs.
In his own MLB career, Ohtani has hit 159 balls on the ground and produced a .252 batting average and .296 slugging percentage on those plays. On 177 balls in the air? A .546 batting average and 1.218 slugging percentage. Since the start of 2018, only Yelich has fared better on air balls; right behind Ohtani in third place is Judge.
On the other end of the spectrum from Ohtani in year-over-year ground ball changes—players who have dropped their ground ball rate the most and are now hitting more balls in the air—is a flock of much-improved hitters like Yelich, Bellinger, Gary Sánchez, and Ketel Marte. Ohtani is already a tremendous hitter; if he reverses his grounder gains—and no obvious issue appears in his swing or approach this season that might explain them—to maximize his power, he’ll produce even more runs going forward.
He also might still be adjusting to his recovery from surgery; his torrid June pace might just be a hot streak, or it could represent a broader return to dominance at the plate as he continues to heal. One piece of evidence in the latter direction, interestingly, involves Ohtani’s baserunning—another talent this all-around dynamo possesses.
Overall this season, compared to last year, Ohtani is attempting fewer stolen bases, taking the extra base (e.g., going first to third on a single) less, and even registering slower run times: Baseball Savant’s leaderboards show that Ohtani’s sprint speed has dropped from 28.4 feet per second last season to 27.7 so far this year. But at least with that final note, like with his hitting, he seems to have rounded into form after a slower start. According to data provided by MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, Ohtani’s sprint speed has increased from 26.7 feet per second in May to 28.4 in June, putting him right back where he was last year, and his 13 fastest runs have all come this month. Both his hitting and running point to recently regained fitness.
The wonder of all these offensive numbers, of course, is that Ohtani can collect them while also boasting a triple-digits fastball and the most unhittable pitch for any MLB starter. But Ohtani probably won’t pitch this season, and he missed most of last season as a pitcher, and he pitched just five games in his last year in Japan due to injury, too, so he’ll enter next season having thrown just 77 combined innings in three years. The Angels will be forced into caution with his innings load when he returns to the mound next year and beyond. So what does his continued offensive production, with every driven ball adding more evidence that Ohtani is truly this impressive a hitter, mean for his two-way future?
Some might then conclude that the Angels would be better off transitioning him to a full-time hitter—ironically, the reverse of the prediction that many skeptics offered upon Ohtani’s arrival in the U.S., which was that he’d blossom on the mound but not stick at the plate and therefore need to become a pitcher full-time. It’s easy to imagine advantages if Ohtani switches and gives up on the two-way effort.
Ohtani could boost the Angels lineup every day, like he is this year, instead of carefully charting off days to allow for the rest a pitcher needs. With his arm, speed, and athleticism, he would doubtlessly play a competent, if not stellar, right field; if he became a one-way player, he could add value not just with his extra at-bats, but with his glove as well. He might add more value with his feet, too, if he’s more cautious as a runner while he’s serving as a two-way player: Last year, he attempted just one stolen base before injuring his arm in June, then attempted 13 more steals (succeeding on nine) thereafter. His team would lose value if it lost his pitching, of course, so a strict player-value assessment supports his two-way usage if he’s this good at both, but there would be a logical foundation if the Angels concluded that he’s such an accomplished hitter that losing his bat for a chunk of days each week isn’t worth the tradeoff, or that his increased injury potential as a pitcher is too much of a risk.
And more broadly, the possibility that Ohtani would start a trend toward two-way players seems to have stalled, at least for now. Players attempting to follow the first successful two-way star since Babe Ruth 100 years ago haven’t been able to maintain all the necessary aspects of performance for the experiment to work, just as Micah Owings and Brooks Kieschnick couldn’t manage last decade and Christian Bethancourt couldn’t a few years ago.
Reds relief pitcher Michael Lorenzen has made nine appearances in the outfield, but he’s also batted just 10 times versus 35 pitching appearances. Rays super-prospect Brendan McKay has posted a 1.22 ERA and struck out 35 percent of opposing hitters across Double-A and Triple-A this season, but he’s struggled significantly more at the plate, with a .185/.288/.311 line and is likely to debut just as a pitcher, not a hitter, this season. Ohtani teammate Jared Walsh has pitched just two times in the majors thus far, both the ninth inning of blowouts, and he hasn’t hit well, either. Fellow Angel Kaleb Cowart has fared the worst of all, amassing a .608 OPS at the plate and a 17.18 ERA on the mound in the minor leagues. Prospective two-way player Matt Davidson has yet to pitch once with Texas’s Triple-A squad, nor has he hit well enough to warrant an MLB promotion.
Ohtani is distinct from all those players because he isn’t trying to force either his hitting or pitching. Were he a hitter alone, he’d give the Angels a second All-Star outfielder next to Trout; were he just a healthy pitcher, he’d lead strikeout leaderboards and reach the All-Star Game as well. The problem with Ohtani, unlike other contemporary two-way strivers, is not that he’s not good enough at either route; it’s that he might be so good as to render the balancing act not worth the attendant risks and playing-time compromises.
For as long as Ohtani continues down a two-way path, then, his will be a tricky rooting interest for fans drawn to his star’s unique shine. Of course his cycle is a delight, and every long home run and swift triple deserves rapturous attention. But each also fuels a lingering concern: Does every extra-base hit increase the possibility, if ever so slightly, inch by inch, that he might do just that—as if being one of the best hitters on the planet is worthy of a “just”—and not the other half? Ohtani has given no indication that he wants anything other than two-way play, nor has the Angels organization. He’ll probably be a two-way player again in April 2020.
But even Ruth lasted in that role for just a year and a half because the strain was too much to handle, and nobody would suggest the Yankees erred when they used him as a hitter exclusively. A century later, though, it’s vital to separate the entangled notions of player value to his team and player value to the sport, and to fans, and to the very romanticism that elevates baseball in the public consciousness. Ohtani is a special hitter; he’s just more special as the only one of his kind.
Statistics through Monday’s games.