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Can Shohei Ohtani Be Even Better?

The new so-called “Shohei Ohtani rule” for DHs could help a little, but even the underlying numbers show that the reigning AL MVP could improve in 2022

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Let’s stipulate that Shohei Ohtani is too good for this world. Let’s also stipulate that Ohtani has already fulfilled even the loftiest expectations set when he embarked on his career as a two-way player in Japan, when he dominated NPB in 2016, when he debuted in MLB in 2018, and when, fully healthy for the first time in years, he looked godlike last spring. Finally, let’s stipulate that when a player completes the greatest true two-way season of all time—a record- and mold-breaking campaign in which he made the All-Star team twice over, led the majors in whichever version of WAR you prefer, and won a unanimous MVP award after slamming 46 homers, swiping 26 bases, and leading his league in triples while also finding time to strike out 156 batters in 130 1/3 innings en route to a 3.18 ERA—it would, on the surface, seem unreasonable to wonder whether he can do even more.

Well, let’s be unreasonable. But not that unreasonable, really, which is the scary (and also extremely exciting) thing. Nothing Ohtani accomplished last year was unsupported by his underlying performance or his prodigious, unparalleled physical skills. It’s completely plausible (though perhaps not probable) that he could be better this year.

I’m hardly the first to get greedy in daydreaming about Ohtani’s 2022. Last week, Angels GM Perry Minasian said, “I know this is lofty expectations, and I know this sounds crazy, but I still think there’s another gear in there, another level. As amazing as last year was, I think he can reach higher levels.” Via his interpreter, Ohtani himself said, “I feel like I can’t be doing the same thing as last year, and have the same stats as last year. I need to get better and keep on improving.” He also said, “Obviously, skills-wise, there’s room for improvement”—obviously?—and “Physically, I already feel a lot stronger than last year.”

And then there’s Angels catcher Max Stassi, who worked with Ohtani at a Driveline Baseball facility last month and who this week said, “He put a lot of hard work in this offseason. He’s in a much better place going into this year. I think he has a better understanding of the two-way stuff and what he needs to do. He wants to increase his workload.” The only Angels-affiliated source who seems to be pumping the brakes a bit—or at least not flooring the accelerator—is manager Joe Maddon, who said, “It’s hard to imagine he’s going to do more this year than he did last year. I’ll take a repeat performance, adding maybe several more innings as a pitcher.”

We could, of course, chalk all of these high hopes up to the irrepressible buoyancy of spring training, when players and executives routinely (and often incorrectly) predict improvement and everyone gets along great and shows up in great shape. Sadly, the smart money says that Ohtani is more likely to be bitten by the regression bug than to build on his success. Past MVPs (excluding those who played during or immediately preceding significantly shortened seasons) have seen their playing time decrease from an average of 720 combined plate appearances and batters faced in their award-winning campaigns to an average of 650 (a 10 percent drop) in the sequels, while their Baseball-Reference WAR totals fell from an average of 7.7 to 5.4 (a 29 percent drop). In other words, they’ve tended to play a little less and a good deal worse. If Ohtani suffered the same declines in playing time and performance as the typical MVP, he’d see his PA+BF and WAR totals decrease from 1,172 to 1,058 and from 9.1 to 6.4, respectively.

But Ohtani is the farthest thing from a typical player, or even a typical MVP.

The first argument against a coming decline is that Ohtani’s 2021 wasn’t the charmed product of a disproportionate number of balls bouncing his way. On the whole, fortune favors the breakout player; one reason why players tend to take steps back immediately following large leaps, both on the field and in fantasy baseball, is that they may have been playing over their heads to begin with, boosted by borderline batted balls that happened to fall between fielders, squirt past gloves, or squeak over walls. (Or the opposite, for pitchers.) Ohtani wasn’t one such BABIP or home-run-per-fly-ball beneficiary. He surrendered and walloped about as many homers as he “should” have, and the overall quality of contact he allowed as a pitcher and produced as a hitter either approximated or surpassed his results. On the mound, Ohtani allowed a .279 weighted on-base average (wOBA), a near-match for his .282 expected wOBA allowed (xwOBA). At the plate, his .393 wOBA was well below his .411 xWOBA, marking Ohtani as one of the unluckier batters in baseball. (On Barrels, the hard-hit balls that Ohtani generated more often than almost anyone, his wOBA shortfall was 90 points.) And although he’s past the point of the aging curve at which one would normally expect a player’s physical capabilities to improve, he won’t turn 28 until July.

The one way in which Ohtani was a little lucky is that he avoided any serious injuries, despite his heavy workload and a multitude of disturbingly close calls. As I noted in an end-of-season orgy of Ohtani stats, Ohtani sat out only four games last season—none due to injury—and his 1,172 combined plate appearances and batters faced were the most any player has accumulated in any single season this century. Another season without an IL stint is a lot to ask, especially in light of the knee and elbow injuries (and surgeries) that prevented him from pitching, hampered his hitting or pitching performances, or put him on the shelf entirely for large parts of his first three MLB seasons. For both batters and pitchers (and presumably batters who pitch), previous injury history is the best predictor of future injury risk, even multiple seasons down the line.

The good news is that two recent rule changes give Ohtani more opportunities to amass playing time, which could help him surpass last year’s counting stats if he stays healthy again, or offset the losses if he does get hurt. Say what you will about MLB’s promotional prowess, but to its credit, the league has repeatedly rewritten the rulebook to capitalize on perhaps its most marketable player’s singular skill set. (Just as Sony’s San Diego Studio had to rewrite MLB the Show 22’s code to support the game’s unique cover model.) The first alteration—which was inevitable with or without Ohtani—is the universal designated hitter. Two of the four games Ohtani missed entirely in 2021 were interleague contests without a DH, as were seven other games in which his only action on offense came in one pinch-hit plate appearance. Thanks to the addition of the DH to the National League, there won’t be any games when the Angels can’t start Ohtani in one of his regular roles.

Nor will there be any games when he’ll have to stop hitting, thanks to the second adjustment to MLB’s regulations, which has already been dubbed the “Shohei Ohtani rule.” Much to Maddon’s delight, MLB and the MLBPA have agreed to formalize the one-time tweak to the DH rule that allowed Ohtani to stay in the All-Star Game as a DH even after he was pulled as a pitcher. In the past, teams that were playing under DH rules forfeited the DH if their pitcher was also in the starting lineup (which was rarely the case, Ohtani aside). Consequently, whenever Ohtani played both ways in the same game, the Angels lost his bat when he was replaced as a pitcher—unless they moved him to the outfield long enough for his spot in the batting order to come up again—and they were forced to let subsequent pitchers bat (or use pinch hitters) for the rest of the game. For instance, in Ohtani’s worst game, a June 30 disaster start when he batted once and pitched only 2/3 of an inning against the Yankees before being knocked out, Maddon used pinch hitter Scott Schebler in that lineup spot and later let pitchers Dylan Bundy and Tony Watson hit for themselves (though the Angels came back to win anyway).

Now, Ohtani can be both the starting pitcher and the DH, and he can continue to DH even after a new pitcher replaces him. That means more plate appearances, though not that many more. Last year, Ohtani averaged 3.00 plate appearances in games when he pitched, and 4.45 in games when he started at DH. If we extrapolate that difference over 30 starts—probably more than Ohtani will make, given the Angels’ six-pitcher rotation—it amounts to only 44 extra plate appearances, or roughly 0.4 WAR at Ohtani’s 2021 rate of DH production. In the second half of last season, though, Ohtani went deeper into games as a pitcher. As a result, he averaged 3.70 plate appearances in games when he pitched, compared to 4.47 in games when he started at DH. Over 30 starts, that difference would amount to only 23 plate appearances and 0.2 WAR.

Still, between the universal DH, the Ohtani rule, and the end of seven-inning games—which the Angels played four of last year—the game’s new conditions are tacking the equivalent of 10 to 15 more potential full games onto Ohtani’s 2021 schedule as a DH. He may need an additional day off or two to compensate for the loss of those forced breathers, but the extra reps could still help further his pursuit of such goals as a double-digit WAR total, a 50-homer or 30-steal season, or the first 50-25 season in MLB history.

That’s not to say that the only way Ohtani could get better is to benefit from rules changes. He could also simply play better—or, on the pitching side, merely maintain the gains he made during last season. As I noted last October, Ohtani walked 16.9 percent of the hitters he faced through May, the second-highest rate among pitchers who threw at least 30 innings pitched. From July on, he walked only 3.3 percent of the hitters he faced, the lowest rate among the 114 pitchers who threw at least 55 innings over that span. There’s some truth to the maxim that command takes time to return after Tommy John surgery, and Ohtani’s early wildness—19 walks over his first four starts and 18 2/3 innings—wasn’t reflective of who’d he been before his surgery or who he was for the remainder of last season. After averaging 5.0 innings per start through June, he averaged 6.4 innings per start thereafter.

As Stassi suggested, there’s every reason to think that Ohtani can pick up as a pitcher where he left off late last summer, rather than needing a month or more to work off the rust, find his feel for his offerings, and tinker with his pitch mix. Having weathered a huge uptick in innings relative to his 2017-20 workloads, he’s poised to add to his 2021 total this year. A healthy Ohtani could challenge the personal innings high he set in 2015, when he worked 160 2/3 frames in 22 Pacific League starts. (FanGraphs’ ZiPS projections have him pegged for an increase to 1254 combined plate appearances plus batters faced, albeit with a downgrade to a measly 7.2 WAR.)

Speaking of Stassi, working with him more might help Ohtani too. Ohtani got good defensive support from the fielders behind him, but more than almost any other pitcher, he was plagued by substandard catcher receiving. Stassi was one of MLB’s best framers, and Kurt Suzuki (who caught 16 of Ohtani’s 23 starts) was one of the worst. The Angels re-signed Suzuki, but the just-extended Stassi is likely in line for more playing time than he got last year, and after catching Ohtani more often down the stretch, coaxing better stats out of Ohtani than Suzuki did, and training with him in February, Stassi could become his go-to battery-mate.

On a less positive note, Ohtani slumped (by his standards) on offense in the last two months of the season. The culprit could have been fatigue, as some suggested, though it’s tough to square that explanation with his late-season success on the mound. (For what it’s worth, Ohtani said in October that “there wasn’t a point in the season where I really felt tired or fatigued.”) Alternatively, Ohtani may have felt the effects of being the roster’s last star standing. The Angels’ lineup was the worst in baseball after the trade deadline, thanks largely to the absences of the order’s other well-known names. Mike Trout last played on May 17; Anthony Rendon last played on July 4; Justin Upton missed a month midseason and last played on September 1; and even Jared Walsh was hurt for parts of July and August.

Through mid-June, Ohtani almost always had Trout or Rendon hitting behind him, but as the season wore on, his lineup “protection” was provided largely by the likes of José Iglesias, Taylor Ward, Phil Gosselin, David Fletcher, and Jo Adell. (The hitters who batted behind Ohtani collectively slashed .202/.264/.274 in the second half, a precipitous falloff from .251/.384/.408 in the first half.) In fact, from August 4 on, Ohtani almost exclusively had Gosselin, Fletcher, or Adell hitting behind him, save for two games when he hit in front of Stassi and one when he hit in front of Walsh. That period coincided with a comparative power outage for Ohtani, who hit .221/.392/.436 over that span compared to .274/.362/.666 through August 3.

The importance of lineup protection is generally overblown: Prior research has shown that pitching around hitters usually leads to more walks and more strikeouts but little difference in outcomes on balls put in play. In meaningful late-September games—meaningful, that is, for the Angels’ opponents—Ohtani (who led his league with 20 intentional passes) was walked at historic rates. On the whole, though, pitchers didn’t seem to challenge Ohtani over the plate or middle-middle much less often from August on than they had through July. It’s possible, though, that his weak supporting cast caused Ohtani to put pressure on himself to supply offense, which may have contributed to the increased pull tendencies that made him a more frequent target and victim of the shift. (If the shift is banned after this season, remind me to list that as a plus in my “Can Ohtani Be Even Better in 2023?” article this time next year.)

It’s easy to drool over how good Ohtani would be if he paired his first-half hitting performance with his second-half pitching performance over the full 2022 season. Before the All-Star break, Ohtani was worth 3.7 WAR as a hitter through 89 team games, which would put him on pace for 6.8 WAR over 162. After the All-Star break, he was worth 2.3 WAR as a pitcher in 73 team games, which (without rounding) extrapolates to 5.0 WAR over 162. Put the two together, and you have an 11.8 WAR season, which would be the most valuable since Barry Bonds’s 11.9 in 2001. Factor in those additional DH plate appearances Ohtani has coming to him, and he could claim the top spot this century while potentially teaming with Trout to form one of the most valuable teammate tandems ever. Clearly, we’re engaging in creative accounting—almost every player would look better if we wiped away the weaker half of their season and pretended that the hotter half had extended all the way—but it’s not hard to imagine Ohtani’s actual 2022 season slotting in somewhere between his 2021 and that pie-in-the-sky scenario.

There’s one other way in which Ohtani’s 2022 could top his 2021: The Angels could make the playoffs, which hasn’t happened since 2014. FanGraphs, which projects them for 82 wins, gives them a 39 percent chance to qualify for the postseason, while Baseball Prospectus sees them as an 88-win squad with a 67 percent playoff probability. The Angels have underperformed their FanGraphs-projected win totals for seven consecutive seasons—three more than any other team with an active underperformance streak—but maybe, bolstered by a healthier Trout and Rendon, a revamped bullpen, and greater contributions from under-25 talents like Adell, Brandon Marsh, and Reid Detmers, they’ll snap that persistent, disappointing pattern this year.

Playing in the postseason wouldn’t add to Ohtani’s WAR total, but it would introduce the possibility of the sort of signature, season-capping moment that was missing last year. Engrossing as it was to watch Ohtani do his thing during All-Star Week and in regular-season games that were largely devoid of postseason stakes for the Angels, imagine how much more riveting it would be to see him pitch and hit in huge games in October. For that, though, he’ll need other players to pick up their performance—and the only thing Ohtani can’t do on a baseball field is impart his incomparable powers to anyone else.

Thanks to Lucas Apostoleris of Baseball Prospectus, Kenny Jackelen of Baseball-Reference, and The Ringer’s Zach Kram for research assistance.