Bill James Handbook Excerpt: Shohei Ohtani

November 20, 2021
The following essay is an excerpt from The Bill James Handbook 2022, available now from ACTA Sports.

 

Sometimes in baseball, things happen early in the season that set a tone for the entire year.

In Shohei Ohtani’s case, his first series of the season foreshadowed much of what followed. He lived up to the hype.

The Home Run

Ohtani homered in the ninth inning of his second game of the season. I’d categorize it as impressive since it came off White Sox closer Liam Hendriks, but it wasn’t necessarily memorable.

His second home run of the season—hit 451 feet off a 97-MPH eye-approaching fastball from Dylan Cease—that one was something else.

You know how sometimes you’ll hear a baseball analyst say a player’s home runs sound different than everyone else’s?

This one did.

"A POWWWW with an echo to it," said Angels broadcaster José Mota, who worked most games at home from field level and got to see and hear much of Ohtani’s work close up.

Ohtani’s 46 home runs were one shy of his total in 254 games from 2018 to 2020. They were one shy of Troy Glaus’ Angels franchise record set in 2000.

The Triple

One thing that may have slipped under your Ohtani radar this year is that he led the American League and tied for the major league lead in triples.

His first one of the season came in the Angels’ second game. It was a rocket ground ball that took its first bounce about halfway to José Abreu and then zipped past his glove at about 108 MPH. Abreu had no chance to get in front of the ball. By the time he put his glove down, it was well past him.

"Thank god that ball didn't find José Abreu's chest," Mota said "Oh my gosh, oh my goodness. There's no human being that could have stopped that ball."

A little baseball history lesson:

In 1902, a pitcher/utility player, Harry Howell, hit 11 triples for the Baltimore Orioles (not the current ones, the predecessor to the Yankees franchise).

In 1918, pitcher/outfielder Babe Ruth did the same for the Red Sox.

Two Negro League players—Harry Kenyon and Bullet Rogan—hit eight in 1921. Rogan did it for the Kansas City Monarchs and Kenyon for the Indianapolis ABCs. Rogan did it again for the Monarchs in 1925.

It took 96 years for another player to come along who pitched 20 games in a season and hit at least eight triples.

Ohtani was that player.

The Stolen Base

In the fifth inning of the third game of the Angels–White Sox season-opening four-game series, Ohtani stole second base against pitcher Lance Lynn and catcher Zack Collins. It was his first stolen base of the season.

Ohtani’s 46-home run, 26-stolen base combination has been matched by only four other players—Barry Bonds (1993 Giants), Hall-of-Famer Larry Walker (1997 Rockies), Jose Canseco (1998 Blue Jays), and Alfonso Soriano (2006 Nationals).

The Splitter and the Slider

So that first start of the season had foreshadowing, but that requires some specificity not contained within his pitching line. In 4 2/3 innings he allowed three runs and walked five.

But there was something in that start that foretold the future—Ohtani’s unhittable splitter and nasty slider.

Ohtani got five outs with his splitter that day, all strikeouts.

The .233 OPS against the pitch was second-best among the 30 pitchers who threw at least 100 splitters last season. Only Aroldis Chapman, who threw one-third as many splitters as Ohtani, was better.

After allowing seven runs and four walks in 2/3 of an inning against the Yankees on June 30, Ohtani’s wildness abated.

Ohtani had started throwing his slider more often a few weeks prior to that game, and after that start it really became a difference maker when it was paired with the splitter.

It gave him better options to throw off a fastball that sometimes reached 100 MPH. He walked 35 batters in his first 60 innings, but only nine in his last 70 1/3 innings.

Opponents hit .171 against the slider from July 6 to the end of the season.

The Total Package

Ohtani was a top-25 hitter AND a top-25 pitcher, but perhaps the best thing about his season was that his best ability was availability.

Yes, the best foreshadowing to come from Ohtani’s season-opening series against the White Sox was that he played all four games. He played in 155 out of a possible 162, which meant that we got to see him at his best just about every day of the season.

It was quite a treat.

 
 

COMMENTS (7 Comments, most recent shown first)

Mongo1962
Three of the four players who matched Ohtani's 2021 single-season home-run/stolen-base combo have a Canadian connection:

Walker came up with the Expos
Soriano had his season playing for the Nationals, who used to be the Expos
Canseco had his season playing for the Blue Jays
9:40 AM Nov 27th
 
hotstatrat
That's great writing.

6:26 PM Nov 23rd
 
shthar
you mean, like a pitcher?
12:12 AM Nov 23rd
 
rjazzguy
Call me when he fields a position. For a whole season.
8:49 PM Nov 22nd
 
BenchWarmer
This, to me, is incredibly exciting. I hope he continues his dual threat career.
3:45 PM Nov 22nd
 
mauimike
You forgot the one I sent you about the roller he beat out down the first base line. When he beat the pitcher to the bag.

You're not eating crow, maybe just a wing. I appreciate it.
10:00 PM Nov 21st
 
chuck
Ohtani was also 1st in the AL in drawing intentional walks (20), and was 8 ahead of the next guy. The only hitter drawing more in the majors was Juan Soto (23).
4:36 PM Nov 21st
 
 
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