Before the season started, joyless realists espoused the heretical belief that Shohei Ohtani wouldn’t be able to cut it as a major league hitter. They figured that Ohtani would eventually have to give up hitting and stick to pitching. The idea makes sense if you have no sense of whimsy or optimism in your life. No one has been an effective two-way player since Babe Ruth, and Ohtani has a fair amount of swing and miss in his game.
Through June 6, Ohtani had given up 17 runs in 49 1/3 innings while striking out 61 and walking 20. That’s good for a 3.10 ERA and 3.28 FIP. In that time, he also posted a 149 wRC+ in 129 plate appearances. It’s a small sample, but there’s a greater evidence that Ohtani can be a two-way player than not.
Ohtani, of course, hasn’t pitched since June due to an elbow sprain, so we haven’t gotten a full season of him doing both. Without him pitching and hitting, much of the novelty wore away, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been great as a one-way player, and his claim to the Rookie of the Year award is no less valid.
Since then, Ohtani has put up a 143 wRC+ in 132 plate appearances. On the season, he’s slashing .276/.354/.547 for a 146 wRC+. That would be third among all designated hitters with at least 100 plate appearances behind Steve Pearce and JD Martinez.
There remain concerns about Ohtani as a hitter. His strikeout rate is above league average at 28.7 percent. His contact rate of 69.7 is 24th worst in the majors among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances. But he’s coupled this with a decent walk rate of 10 percent, and he has some ability to hit for average. He’s not an outhouse or castle guy despite having a violent all-or-nothing swing.
His BABIP of .345 might suggest otherwise and while I think the average is going to come down some, his batted-ball luck hasn’t entirely been luck at all. He’s not lighting up the Statcast leaderboards; his average exit velocity of 87.4 is pretty average, but Ohtani excels at avoiding weakly hit balls. Per Fangraphs, his soft contact rate is third in the majors behind Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez. He’s able to spray the ball to all fields as well so teams are forced to play straight up against him.
Not only has Ohtani proven he can hit at the major league level, Ohtani is likely the most deserving candidate for Rookie of the Year based on his hitting alone. His 1.8 fWAR is right along with Gleyber Torres (1.6 fWAR) and Miguel Andujar (2.3 fWAR), and both Yankees have at least 100 more plate appearances than he does. His .901 OPS and 146 wRC+ are the highest of the three. Torres and Andujar have the advantage in the counting stats (which still matter to voters), but when you add in the nine games Ohtani started and remember that Torres and Andujar are average and disastrous on defense respectively, Ohtani pulls even farther ahead.
Ohtani might not win a Silver Slugger at DH, but he’s shown at the very least that he can be an average major league hitter. He’ll probably continue to be a good-to-great hitter. Hardly anyone doubts his ability to pitch, so the only reason to doubt his ability to be a two-way player is his elbow. Before Monday’s game he threw a 50-pitch simulated game and later hit a three-run dinger, so his elbow is probably fine. Even in the worst-case scenario, if his arm is never the same he’s still a great one-way player.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score, McCovey Chronicles, and BP Wrigleyville. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.