After a crazy 2020 and an odd start to the 2021 season, almost no story has been as interesting this year as Shohei Ohtani. But in all fairness, the story of his entire career has been an interesting rollercoaster ride. After a fierce competition between teams, Ohtani signed as both a hitter and a pitcher to the Los Angeles Angels in late 2017 from the Nippon Professional Baseball League in Japan. And while there was a lot of hype surrounding the young signee, many skeptics doubted he could truly do both. And until the start of this season, the skeptics were right. Ohtani could not stay healthy at all, undergoing Tommy John surgery his rookie year, repairing a patella issue in his left knee later, and a string of other issues. But even though he was out for a tiny bit of time with a blistering issue this 2021 season, Shohei is still on pace to set all new records doing both hitting and pitching. But while his current high-tier statistics are putting him into the AL MVP conversation, can this performance sustain throughout the season?
To begin, I want to take a look at what he has produced offensively thus far into the 2021 season. The slugger carries a .404 wOBA, 170 wRC+, and an 0.9 fWAR through his first 26 games of the season. And while some amazing early season performances can be blamed on coincidence, his stat cast percentiles justify his current rate of production. According to Baseball Savant, Ohtani is in the 75th percentile for average exit velocity, 100th for max exit velocity, as well as 100th for Barrel %. On top of that, he is in the 95th percentile for sprint speed, which is very uncommon for such a strong slugger. When he is hitting the baseball, it is for heavy, hard contact that is leading to massive success. In fact, he already has 7 HRs and 17 Runs scored, being an extra piece in an offense-heavy Angel’s lineup. Shohei has also produced at a similar rate in 2018 (.390 wOBA, 149 wRC+, 2.7 fWAR through 114 games), and for the most part maintained an above average rate of performance throughout his career as shown in the graph below. But, it has yet to be seen if he can do this throughout at least 140 games in a given season.
On the other side of the field, Ohtani’s pitching production has been somewhat productive. Through 3 games started this season, he has a 3.97 FIP, 15.15 K/9, and an 0.2 fWAR in 13.2 innings pitched. While his offensive levels are disproportionately better than his pitching so far, he has proved to be a solid pitcher for a struggling rotation. His stat cast numbers are also somewhat average, making him look like a “middle of the pack” pitcher. While the amazing K/9 rate sticks out as a plus for Ohtani, the total number of innings pitched is worrisome. Having only 13.2 innings with 3 games started is an average of 4.56 IPs/Start, not even a high enough average to be win-eligible. But while this can be looked at as an Angels staff trying to be overly cautious with an injury-prone star, it is definitely something to keep an eye out for. For if Shohei cannot get this average up over his next 5-10 starts, his ultimate longevity as a pitcher comes into serious questioning.
While his offensive stats look fantastic and his pitching numbers are closer to the MLB average, can Shohei Ohtani at least continue to be an average pitcher while also hitting at such a great rate? Although this answer may totally blow up in my face, I am going to say NO. The main premise of my argument goes back into injury history. Throughout his short career, Ohtani has not had a single season that was completely injury-free. To any GM looking at their roster, this should be terrifying. He is currently only 26 years old, and can’t play a full season, or even a major portion, without experiencing physical issues. From a UCL sprain to knee issues, his body seems to be in physical decline while it is supposed to be in its prime. And while even though he only experienced a minor blister to keep him out for a series of games, I feel it hints at what is to come - more injury. Plus, the reader needs to keep in mind that Shohei is exerting extra stress on his body by playing both positions. With no clear signs of mass muscular or physical improvement, it would be foolish to say with a straight face that he can keep this going. Unless there was an insane level of physical advancement in the 2020-2021 offseason, it is not realistic to say that he can.
Although I said that Shohei Ohtani more than likely cannot continue to produce these figures throughout the 2021 season, I want to clarify - he can continue to on one side of the diamond. While I cannot be 100% certain, his high levels of injury could be due to him trying to do both. If he were to stop and focus on one, I can imagine that he would have additional time to make himself both physically stronger and healthier. On top of that, like any focused craft, I could see his skill improving tremendously at whatever position he picks. As pitchers get better by focusing on pitching and vice-versa for batters, focusing on one could make him tremendously dangerous to another ball club. As his hitting statistics are already incredible, I would personally advocate for Ohtani to remain as a hitter only. With this potential focus, he could easily become a top 5 hitter in the entire MLB. If he decided to pitch only, I believe he would become one of the better pitchers in the league, but far from being in the Top 5, making this move not as sensible. If the Angels choose to make him specialize, we might be hearing about “Superstar Shohei Ohtani” for a long time.