He's not Babe Ruth. So after his rookie year, who is Shohei Ohtani?

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Thursday, September 27, 2018

If you like really Weird Baseball -- and you're a little bit greedy -- the first season of Shohei Ohtani was, you'd have to admit, not really weird enough. He did not, for instance, play right field and then jog to the mound mid-inning to strike somebody out. He did not pinch hit in the eighth inning to give his team the lead, and then stay in the game to get the save. He did not homer four times and pitch a no-hitter in the same game. (Seriously, you are really greedy.)

No. All he did is hit some days, pitch in some other ones. In the broad scheme of things, he was doing something nobody else can do, but in the very specific scheme of things --when you are at aLos Angeles Angelsgame and trying to explain to a baseball-casual companion what's so special about what they're watching -- Ohtani was ... doing things lots of people can do. Hitting, or pitching. Or sitting on the bench, because of how many days off it takes to let a guy hit and pitch in the same week (but not at the same time).

I bring this up not to say that the Ohtani viewing experience was a letdown, but to express with great admiration and surprise that it wasn't. The unicorn aspect of Ohtani turns out to be hard to capture in a single camera shot, or even in a single game. But the more mundane, discrete abilities of Ohtani -- as a hitter, and as a pitcher, separately, on separate days -- are extraordinary in themselves.

This comes up because I was thinking about the Ohtani comp that we were forced to use before the season: Babe Ruth. The Japanese Babe Ruth. Insane. Unfair. But it was either that or Brooks Kieschnick, and Ruth seemed a little bit more accurate. Now we've seen Ohtani for a year, though -- and now that we are most likely facing a 2019 season in which he only bats (and rehabs) -- we can break him down into non-Ruth, non-unicorn comps.

So: Who is Shohei Ohtani?

And, two days after that: Who is Shohei Ohtani?

To answer the second question first -- or, wait, is it the first question? -- let's start with his hitting:

Ohtani's slash line after Sunday was .281/.364/.560. Adjusted for his ballpark, era and quality of competition, that's about 50 percent better than the league-average hitting, in his age-23 season. His birthday was five days after the cutoff that baseball ages follow, so let's just say he was straddling 23 and 24.

Let's look at every hitter who was, in an age-23 or age-24 season, in the same range of offensive production as Ohtani. We set the parameters from a 138 OPS+ -- or, 38 percent higher than the league average, after adjustments for context -- to a 172 OPS+, and that got us 135 other seasons. But not all of those are particularly useful comps. Nick Johnson is in that group, but Nick Johnson -- who rarely homered but walked constantly -- isn't very similar to Ohtani. Nor is Rickey Henderson or Trea Turner.

So the next step: We took Ohtani's walk rate, strikeout rate and isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average), and normalized them against the league averages. Ohtani walked about 36 percent more than the average hitter this year, so his walk rate would be (for our purposes) 136, where 100 is average. He struck out 37 percent more often than the average hitter. His isolated power was 93 percent higher than the league average.

So that's what we know about Ohtani the hitter: He's really young and really good, and he walks and strikes out more (but not extremely more) than the league average, and he has massive power that shows up in games.

We repeated these steps with the other 135 player seasons and sorted the players by how similar their normalized walk, strikeout and power rates were to Ohtani's. Nobody who was this good at this age was less like Ohtani than Tony Gwynn. (The system works!) And nobody who was this good at this age was more like Ohtani than ...

Boog Powell!

Wait, this was supposed to say Jose Canseco, the year he won the MVP award and went 40/40 and had 6,000 baseball cards made of him, the year he was one of the great spectacles and superstars of the era. A few days ago it said Jose Canseco! Alas, Ohtani's 1-for-12 weekend against Houston made this answer a little less interesting.

OK, but Powell. He's famous, too, and at age 24 he hit .287/.372/.532 and finished third in MVP voting as the Orioles' first baseman. Here's what Sports Illustrated wrote about Boog Powell early in that season:

The Orioles just love to talk about 23-year-old Boog Powell. They talk about the ball Boog hit over the distant hedge in left center in Baltimore, his two 450-footers, the eight homers in D.C. Stadium. Powell, who is 6 feet 3 and 235 pounds, does not ordinarily hit the towering fly balls that most big men do. He is more of a line-drive specialist because he has a level swing and does not try to overpower the pitch. Still, one day last year in Kansas City he got under one ball and sent it up, up and away, until it crashed high off the distant scoreboard. If it hadn't stopped then, it would have gone nearly 500 feet. Even the usually noncommittal Powell was impressed. "One of these days I'm going to hit the moon," he said.

That's a pretty good comp. Here's who comes after Powell, some of whom are also pretty good comps:

2. Tim Salmon, 1993

3. Jose Canseco, 1988

4. Fernando Tatis, 1999

5. Dick Allen, 1965

6. Danny Tartabull, 1987

7. Eric Davis, 1986

8. Michael Conforto, 2017

9. Manny Ramirez, 1995

10. Kris Bryant, 2016

As to Ohtani the pitcher: We did the exact same thing. Strikeout rate, walk rate and isolated power against, all normalized, then compared him to a wide pool of pitchers of similar age and general results. (Because pitcher aging curves are much less predictable, we went from age 22 to 25, and because pitching metrics are themselves less clean and tidy than hitting metrics, we used a more advanced stat -- Baseball Prospectus' cFIP -- with wider parameters.) The point is, we had a list, and then we sorted by similarity, and here's who we got:

Edinson Volq...

Oh, come on. The second guy on the list is so much better, and they're basically tied, so let's go with the second guy on the list instead of Edinson Volquez. The second guy on the list is Tim Lincecum, in his rookie season. Followed by:

3. Dick Selma, 1969

4. Matt Harvey, 2012

5. Mickey McDermott, 1951

6. Brandon Morrow, 2010

7. Tom Gordon, 1993

8. Ernie Broglio, 1960

9. Wayne Twitchell, 1973

10. Yu Darvish, 2012

Like Ohtani, Lincecum had huge strikeout rates and pretty high walk rates, and allowed very few extra-base hits. There are, obviously, a lot of differences, too (size, pitch types, velocity, and style), but statistically it's a great comp. And here's what Sports Illustrated wrote about Lincecum back then:

"Not since Mark (the Bird) Fidrych spoke to baseballs, manicured mounds and baffled hitters more than 30 years ago has a pitcher been this consistent and this captivating from the start of his career. Lincecum does not throw a baseball as much as he launches it, 98-mph rockets somehow expelled, with finely tuned kinetic energy, from a batboy's body. He scares hitters and scouts alike ... It frightens the chaw out of the cheeks of traditional baseball people that someone so lithe can throw 98 mph."

The point is this: The nature of baseball is that you can't see a guy hit like a young Boog Powell (or Jose Canseco) and pitch like a young Tim Lincecum (or even Edinson Volquez) at exactly the same time. What you can do, sometimes, when you're lucky and baseball blesses you, is see a guy hit like a young Boog Powell. And, in another inning of another game, you can see a guy pitch like a young Tim Lincecum. Both of those things all by themselves are worth stopping and watching, worth speaking hyperbolically about, worth writing floridly about in a national sports magazine.

That's who Ohtani is. And that's who Ohtani is. It didn't have to be weird for it to be worth flipping over to a lot of Angels games this year.

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