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Breaking down Shohei Ohtani’s Award-Winning Rookie Season

How did Ohtani manage to dazzle and make history despite experiencing a serious injury?

Texas Rangers v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Shohei Ohtani is the 2018 American League Rookie of the Year. Halos Heaven’s own Jessica DeLine wrote about Ohtani’s feat shortly after winning the award on Monday afternoon, documenting some fascinating tidbits on how the Japanese superstar took home 25 of 30 first place votes en route to this accomplishment.

To really appreciate what Ohtani accomplished, it’s important to realize just how hard it is to churn out the type of production Ohtani did in so many different ways on the baseball field. To get a better picture of how he pulled this off, let’s break up Ohtani’s season in three parts, starting with his most valuable contribution.

Ohtani the hitter

I will fully acknowledge that I expected Ohtani to accumulate most of his value as a pitcher in his first year but that was not the case. Instead, Ohtani hit the absolute snot out of the ball in his 367 plate appearances as a designated hitter. Ohtani showcased an impressive blend of elite power (22 home runs) and above-average plate discipline (10.1 percent walk rate).

While his 27.8 percent strikeout rate (28th worst among hitters with 300+ plate appearances) was rather high, it didn’t matter because Ohtani’s plate discipline (.361 OBP) and pop kept his value up with the best hitters. His 152 wRC+ (more on wRC+ here) was eighth best among hitters with 300 or more plate appearances.

Ohtani made loud contact all season long, something that is now quantifiable thanks to the Statcast leaderboards on Baseball Savant. Ohtani ranked near the top in tons of categories that measure batted ball authority.

  • Eighth in Batted Balls per Plate Appearance (9.8 percent)
  • 10th in percent of 95+ mph baseballs per batted ball (50.2 percent)
  • 11th in average exit velocity (92.6 mph)
  • 15th in average home run distance (413 feet)

Ohtani managed to post outrageous offensive numbers in both halves of the season, finishing with a 144 wRC+ in the first half and a 158 wRC+ in the second half. After struggling with both production and injury in June/July, Ohtani went on an absolute tear in August (197 wRC+) and September/October (171 wRC+).

Platooned for most of the season, Ohtani did show noticeable splits, running a 182 wRC+ versus right-handers and an 84 wRC+ versus left-handers. Ohtani did improve in the second half, however, with more at bats versus lefties, running a .254/.309/.429 line and 109 wRC+ in the final half of the season. With Ohtani not slated to pitch in 2019, the Angels will likely let him rip it against both righties and lefties.

What Ohtani was unable to showcase on the mound instead came at the plate where Ohtani electrified with 22 tape measure home runs, all of which you can view in this arousing video below.

Ohtani the pitcher

Many baseball people valued Ohtani’s pitching abilities over his hitting ability and we got a glimpse of that pitching aplenty in 2018. While Ohtani ultimately only threw 51 2/3 innings, he flashed brilliance in the form of a diverse and electric arsenal that fooled many hitters.

Ohtani’s 3.31 ERA was 20 percent better than league average (80 ERA-) with peripherals to back it up (3.57 FIP). The walk rate was too high (10.4 percent) and hampered him at times but Ohtani managed to miss so many bats that it generally wasn’t a problem. Among starting pitchers who tossed at least 50 innings, Ohtani was elite in several categories measuring bat-missing ability.

  • First in contact percent (65.7 percent)
  • Fourth in swinging-strike rate (15.2 percent)
  • 12th in strikeout rate (29.9 percent)

Ohtani generated so many whiffs thanks to his electrifying stuff, which is often headlined by his fastball that averaged 96.7 mph this season. However, that pitch had the least success among his four pitches in terms of missing bats. In 2018, the average whiff rate (pitches swung at and missed divided by total swings) was 24 percent.

That fastball generated a below-average 21.1 percent whiff rate while his split-finger (55.8 percent), curveball (40 percent) and slider (39.8 percent) were all elite pitches. Obviously, Ohtani was able to set up those pitches using the fastball but it’s telling that Ohtani’s worst pitch was a fastball that is one of the hardest in baseball.

Unfortunately, Ohtani’s season was cut short when he was diagnosed with a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) in his throwing arm in July. Ohtani ultimately tried to rehab his arm, without success, and underwent Tommy John Surgery in October, likely knocking him out of pitching duties for 2019.

Here’s hoping Ohtani regains all of his stuff in 2020 so we can witness more performances like this one.

Ohtani the runner

We knew Ohtani was a fast runner but it was the least-talked about aspect of his game coming into the season. Seeing this six-foot-four-inch man run around the diamond was just the cherry on top to his electric skill set. Ohtani swiped 10 bases in his 14 opportunities and flashed plus run times with ease.

One of Statcast’s new prizes is sprint speed, which measures how quick a player is based on the amount of feet they run in one second. Ohtani, by this measure, ranked well above-average with a 28.4 feet-per-second mark that was above the league average mark of 27 feet-per-second.

This is an area we may see Ohtani improve upon in 2019, when he’s strictly a hitter and should have way more opportunities to run on the bases. It’s feasible that he can be a 20/20 threat and can showcase his speed more like he did when he cleared the bases with a triple in April.

What to make of all of this?

It’s clear that Shohei Ohtani is an incredible specimen. Ohtani flashed elite power and above-average plate discipline as a hitter, elite bat-missing abilities as a pitcher and flashed above-average speed on the bases. This type of athleticism is basically unheard of and it’s no surprise that Ohtani turned those tools into production on the field.

As a whole, Ohtani was worth 3.8 Wins Above Replacement, despite the fact that he missed an entire month. Those 3.8 wins were the fifth most by an Angels rookie, ranking behind Mike Trout (10), Tim Salmon (4.7), Devon White (4.6) and Ken McBride (4.1). His 152 wRC+ was the second best behind only Trout (167).

We witnessed history in 2018 as Shohei Ohtani attempted to become the first legitimate two-way player since Babe Ruth pulled it off a century ago. While the injury cooled some of the hype, Ohtani had a hugely successful season and he has an insanely bright future ahead for the Los Angeles Angels.