While many were aware of Shohei Ohtani’s two-way potential when he was posted by the Nippon-Ham Fighters back in the winter of 2017, few could have imagined it was possible for him to accomplish what he did during the 2021 season.
It is certainly not unheard of for someone to enter pro-ball with two-way potential. In 2017, the year Ohtani was posted, two prospects taken in the top 5 picks of the Rule 5 Draft had shown two-way potential.
The first of these prospects, Hunter Greene, was selected 2nd overall by the Cincinnati Reds. While Greene has solely focused on pitching while in pro-ball and currently ranks as one of the better pitching prospects in all of baseball, during his time as an amateur he had shown first round potential as a shortstop.
The second of these prospects, Brendan McKay, was selected 4th overall by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2017 draft. While McKay has continued developing as a two-way player in pro-ball and even briefly appeared at the Major League Level in 2019, poor offensive performance throughout his time in the minors and recent injuries have many convinced he should solely focus on pitching.
Ohtani may not even be the only two-way player on his own team. The Los Angeles Angels signed Michael Lorenzen to a 1-year deal in late November before Major League Baseball’s lockout. Lorenzen, who spent his first 6 Major League seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, has mainly been used as a reliever during his Major League Career but was a two-way standout at Cal State Fullerton and has spent time in the outfield over recent seasons, including playing 89 innings there in 2019. While the Angels plan on using Lorenzen as a starting pitcher, he has previously expressed desire to get regular playing time as an outfielder. While Lorenzen has appeared in 473.1 innings as a pitcher during his Major League Career, pitching to a 96 ERA- and a 100 FIP-, he also has 147 plate appearances where he has hit .233/.282/.429 with an 84 wRC+.
After surprising many by signing with the Los Angeles Angels in early December 2017, Ohtani was given the opportunity to play both ways during his rookie season. While there were some concerns whether Ohtani’s hit tool would translate to the Major League Level due to the length in his swing, he was able to put many of these concerns to bed during his remarkable rookie season which saw him take home the American League Rookie of the Year Award.
At the plate, Ohtani would finish his rookie season with a 149 wRC+ and .390 wOBA over 367 plate appearances. While there were still some concerns about the swing-and-miss, these numbers from his rookie season did not appear to be a fluke as he showed the ability to consistently drive the ball hard, finishing in the leagues 96th percentile in average exit velocity.
By the end of his rookie season, there were more concerns about whether he would be able to continue as a pitcher. While the numbers were fine when he was on the mound during his rookie season, it was discovered in early June 2018 that Ohtani had suffered a Grade 2 Sprain of the UCL in his right elbow.
Ohtani was able to work his way back for a brief outing in early September 2018 against the Houston Astros. During this outing however, he would be removed after facing only 11 batters and it was later revealed he had suffered further damage to his UCL. Following the recommendation for Tommy John Surgery, Ohtani agreed to undergo the surgery during the first week of the offseason.
After the surgery it immediately became clear Ohtani would not appear as a two-way player during the 2019 season, though this didn’t stop him from returning as a hitter.
While rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery on the mound, Ohtani even had a disappointing season offensively in 2019 by his standards. Over 425 plate appearances as the Angels Designated Hitter, he finished the year with a 120 wRC+ and .352 wOBA. Even with the power production slowing down during the second half, he again showed the ability to consistently crush the baseball and was even able to cut down on the strike outs.
The decline in Ohtani’s offensive performance during 2019 was a result of the knee injury he was battling throughout the season. Towards the end of the year, things got so bad that Ohtani decided to undergo surgery and this caused him to miss the final few weeks of the season.
As is the case with much of the world, 2020 didn’t go anywhere near as planned for Shohei Ohtani.
While a global pandemic delayed the start of the Major League Baseball season until July, Ohtani’s return to the mound was a complete disaster. After 2 starts, in which he retired only 5 batters, allowed 7 earned runs and saw concerning velocity declines, Ohtani was quickly shut down on the mound for the remainder of the season.
Ohtani was even a massive disappointment offensively in 2020. Over 175 plate appearances, he would finish with a 81 wRC+ and even saw concerning declines in his batted ball metrics. It was clear that Ohtani had not yet fully recovered from the injury that kept him out at the end of the 2019 season.
Entering the 2021 season, the ability to stay healthy was becoming a serious concern for Ohtani and many were wondering if even attempting to comeback as a two-way player was the best decision for him. Ohtani entered the 2021 season on a mission to prove these doubters wrong.
Ohtani’s 2021 season would look impressive if you were solely to judge him on his offensive performance. Despite the offensive production falling off in the second half, Ohtani was undeniably the best designated hitter in baseball over his 639 plate appearances. He was named the recipient of the Silver Slugger Award at the position on November 11th.
Ohtani was even one of the better hitters in all of baseball in 2021. While he still strikes out at a high rate and his contact-rate is well-below league average, Ohtani was able to finish near the top of the league for all qualified hitters in walk rate last season.
While his 46 homeruns ranked 3rd overall, his wRC+ and wOBA both ranked 5th among all qualified hitters in baseball.
The Statcast numbers are somehow even more impressive. Ohtani led Major League Baseball with 78 barrels (optimal combination of launch angle and exit velocity) and finished in the 98th percentile in average exit velocity.
While the offensive performance was very impressive, Ohtani was able to return from Tommy John on the mound to be one of the better pitchers in baseball over his 130.1 innings. He would finish the 2021 season with a 73 ERA-, an 80 FIP- and an impressive 29.3% K%.
It is easy to see why Shohei is able to be so dominant on the mound as his arsenal features multiple 80-grade pitches. While the blazing four-seam fastball sits in the mid-to-upper 90’s and was even clocked as high as 101 this season, the splitter Ohtani features was one of the most dominant pitches in all of baseball this year.
Opponents hit for just an .087 batting average against the splitter in 2021 and he was able to use it to generate whiffs at a 48.5% clip.
Ohtani’s primary breaking ball is a slider that features a spin rate of 2350 RPM’s and has 8.5 inches of horizontal movement on average due to its higher spin efficiency. While this pitch isn’t quite as dominant as the splitter, opponents still hit just .185 against this offering in 2021.
While it is remarkable what Ohtani was able to do both at the plate and on the mound, many often forget about the speed he possesses. His average sprint speed of 28.8 feet per second was in the league’s top 9% and he even had the 5th fastest home to first time of any player in all of baseball last year.
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As he was finally able to put a full semi-healthy season together, this was the culmination of what many had long been dreaming of from Ohtani. No one in Major League History has ever been as dominant as both a pitcher and hitter at the same time as Ohtani was this past season. Many of the game’s best players even seemed awestruck at what Ohtani accomplished in 2021, including teammate and three-time American League MVP winner Mike Trout.
Ohtani was honored as the 16th ever recipient of the Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award for his remarkable season on October 26th, was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player in November and was even named the AP Male Athlete of the Year at the end of December.
All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant