Ohtani’s Best Case (by WAR)

Is MVP-Ohtani within reach?

It’s hard to believe the winter of Ohtani was just three years ago when every team had a chance to sign arguably the most exciting and high-profile player out of Japan since Ichiro. Team finances certainly shouldn’t have been a concern for any club at the time with the opportunity to sign a potential generational talent to a league-minimum contract (albeit with a hefty one-time posting fee). What little information– the team presentations, the rampant speculation based on previous interviews from Ohtani and his close associates– did come out that winter seemed both wild and eminently reasonable for a player, regardless of how he did in the majors, whose type hadn’t been seen since Babe Ruth.

It feels like a lifetime ago, and not just for our pandemic year and the myriad other milestones, events, and news that mark the time and give us common reference points over the past three years. Since entering the majors, that excitement and optimism about Ohtani have come in fits and starts. There was initial worry in his first spring training when at least eight scouts proclaimed Ohtani “not ready” for Major League Baseball (emphasis mine):

“He’s basically like a high school hitter because he’s never seen a good curveball. He’s seen fastballs and changeups. And you’re asking a high school hitter to jump to the major leagues?”

Then, when the lights turned on for the season, all Ohtani did was strike out better than 10 per nine with an ERA of 3.31 while hitting six homers and slashing .282/.368/.536 in two months before being shut down on the pitching side with an elbow injury. Pretty good for a high school hitter, no?

The excitement was real but fleeting. Ohtani continued to mash through 2019 and muddled through 2020 while questions surrounded whether he should actually return to the mound or just go to full-time hitting. And through Thursday’s games, Ohtani’s return to the mound has gone reasonably well. Striking out better than fourteen batters per nine, and an ERA below three paired with nine homers and six steals will play. 

These glimpses of what a full and completely healthy two-way Ohtani looks like have been unfortunately just glimpses thus far (and, notably, still early in his career). But those tantalizing looks followed by extended periods of downtime while Ohtani recovered left a lot of time for dreaming on the possible again. What’s a realistic ceiling for a two-way player, and is it possible that we see league-MVP Ohtani while splitting time between DH and pitching once a week (with time built in for rest and recovery)? Here are three scenarios to estimate a peak-WAR season from Shotime:

Scenario 1: We’ve seen peak performance Ohtani for a full season already

In Ohtani’s Rookie of the Year 2018, he produced 3.8 total fWAR between hitting and pitching. Across 367 PA, he produced 2.7 wins above replacement to go along with 1.1 wins across 51.2 innings pitched.

Let’s assume with the Angels’ more aggressive hitting schedule Ohtani could get to 500 plate appearances. It’s not too far-fetched, as he’s already reached 114 plate appearances through 29 team games (as of Thursday). If he produces at the same level as his 2018 statistics, that would work out to 5.1 wins above replacement for hitting alone. For some context, that would compare favorably to the 20th-most valuable season by a batter of the 2019 season, while not receiving any credit for defense as a DH.

Pitching is obviously the big question, and already this year Ohtani has had starts skipped or pushed back due to a blister issue. In his rookie season, his 1.1 WAR was across those 51.2 innings. Because we’ve never seen a fully healthy pitcher Ohtani, we have to guess what his innings pitched ceiling might be. Let’s assume that this season represents the best-case scenario for a fully healthy Ohtani, in which he’s pitched 18 innings through 29 team games. That would amount to a pace of 100 innings. If he pitches as well as his rookie year over those 100 innings, he’d end up with 2.1 pitching WAR.

Combined, if Ohtani’s rookie year were to take place over a “full” season, he’d be looking at 7.2 wins above replacement, which is a definite top-10 player in a baseball-type year. 


Scenario 2: This is Ohtani’s best year

If the past few years with Ohtani have taught us anything, it’s to appreciate when he’s on the field. It’s disappointing but understandable to hear talk about moving Shohei full-time to either pitching or hitting because unicorns like this don’t come around too often. I want it to work, and not because I’m opposed to the DH in the National League (though I’m sure there’s part of me that likes the idea of a pitcher proving that it’s possible to be good at both, rare as it may be). But Ohtani himself or the team that employs him may at one point decide, quite rationally and understandably, that the workload is simply too great to do both and there’s more value in being great at one thing over a full season than just good-to-great at two things for part of the year. 

If that’s true, perhaps this is the most playing time Ohtani ends up getting at both positions simultaneously. At the risk of being made to sound like a fool as those scouts in 2018 have been, I suspect that the overall increase to playing time must come with some type of performance penalty that Ohtani simply hasn’t dealt with to this stage in his career, so for this scenario, assume that Ohtani reaches the 500 PA and 100 IP threshold with his current production pace rather than his 2018 season’s pace.

Using Ohtani’s 2021 per-PA and innings pitched pace, we come up with 1.7 WAR for pitching and 4.4 WAR for hitting, good for 6.1 WAR over a full season.

Again, a very good season, albeit one that assumes Ohtani is peaking right now with the most playing time he’s going to get as a two-way player. However, what if those scouts in 2018 were right, in the respect that Ohtani has a lot to learn in the major leagues? Ohtani is 26 years old and has just over 1,000 plate appearances in MLB in his career. What if there’s a previously unseen level that Ohtani could unlock both at the plate and on the mound? 


Scenario 3: Ohtani produces the best seasons ever in limited playing time

This scenario is more esoteric than the other two. In this instance, what’s the ceiling of what a player can do in 500 PA or less and 100 IP or less? Of course, a player doing both hasn’t succeeded in over a century. But if we allow ourselves to dream of Ohtani being the greatest sub-500 PA, sub-100 IP player of all-time combined into one season, what would that look like in terms of WAR?

The bad news for Ohtani is that no DH has ever produced four or more WAR in a season in which they received less than 500 PA. The players that have come closest (Joe Mauer’s 2013 5.2 WAR in 508 PA, for example), played other defensive positions that bumped up their WAR. Stretching a 500 PA mark a bit, David Ortiz produced 3.2 WAR in 509 plate appearances in 2003, so safe to say that’s a likely high watermark. The good news, obviously, is that Ohtani is on pace this season to shatter that mark in the early going, perhaps producing the best DH-season in under 500 plate appearances in history by WAR!

On the pitching side, since 1900, the highest WAR for a pitcher throwing less than 100 innings belongs to Eric Gagne in 2003, with an incredible 4.7 wins above replacement. He struck out 14.98 per nine that season, remarkably close to Ohtani’s current 14.46 k/9. That leaderboard is filled with relievers. To find a comparable starter, we again have to fudge our parameters a bit. Increasing the innings pitched total to 103 innings, Roy Halladay produced 4 wins above replacement in 2001. 

So, for Ohtani to be the best-ever DH and pitcher in a single season, he’d have to reach 509 PA appearances and 103 innings pitched, and simply do them as well as David Ortiz and Roy Halladay for a total WAR of 7.2. It’s that simple. 

Flippancy aside, that happens to be the exact WAR total when we extrapolate out Ohtani’s rookie of the year 2018 season over a full season’s worth of plate appearances and innings pitched. Obviously, it’s quite a stretch to just double the 50 innings pitched in 2018 and assume Ohtani would carry that for a full season. 

What it definitely does, though, is remind us how special Ohtani has been and could continue to be with a full season of health. We’ve already seen the pace for the greatest hitting and pitching season in over a century over a limited sample. 

Regardless of whether he reaches those thresholds now or in the future, let’s appreciate that there hasn’t been a player like Ohtani in most of our lifetimes.

Various photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Aaron Polcare

Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts is a baseball columnist for Pitcher List. His work has been featured on Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, and October. He's still getting used to the DH in the national league. @seanroberts.bsky.social

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