AL MVP or end of the two-way experiment? Debating Shohei Ohtani’s 2021 potential


We’ve all seen flashes of what Shohei Ohtani can do, both at the plate and on the mound. After lightning up spring training with his bat and entering the 2021 MLB season healthy and ready to pitch, is this the year he finally puts it all together to become the two-way star the Los Angeles Angels — and baseball fans — have been hoping for?

As a pitcher, Ohtani — limited by Tommy John and knee surgeries over the past two seasons — has made just 12 career starts, 10 of them in his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2018. His numbers at the plate also have suffered since that season. In this year’s Cactus League, though, he made highlight reels when he hit .548 and slugged five home runs. And while his performance on the mound ended on a sour note, with a blister on his right middle finger in a loss to the Dodgers, he was given the all-clear to rejoin the Angels’ starting rotation.

So is this Ohtani’s year? What would he need to accomplish to make his season a success? And how should the Angels use him to their best advantage — while keeping him off the IL? ESPN baseball writers Buster Olney, David Schoenfield, Bradford Doolittle and Alden Gonzalez weigh in on those questions and more before Ohtani makes his 2021 pitching debut against the White Sox (8 p.m. ET on ESPN)

What would a successful 2021 look like on the mound for Ohtani?

Buster Olney: If he makes 20-25 starts and has an ERA below 4.50. Given the need for pitching for all teams — and the Angels came into spring training needing more pitching than most — 120 innings of average work would be a boost.

David Schoenfield: Agreed. If he makes 25 starts, that means he has remained healthy and pitched well enough to stay in the rotation. Sure, the Angels are hoping for more than a league-average starter (in 2020, that was a 4.46 ERA across the majors), but just getting through the season would be a huge win. Remember, Ohtani hasn’t done that as a pitcher since 2016, when he made 21 starts and pitched 140 innings in Japan. He had a foot injury in 2017 and pitched just 26 innings. He made it through just 10 starts with the Angels in 2018 before going down with Tommy John surgery, missed all of 2019 and pitched just 1⅔ innings in 2020.

Bradford Doolittle: The Angels are using a six-man rotation. Over a full season, that means each slot would come up 27 times. If Ohtani can make 20 to 25 starts, that will be a successful season. That would put him in the range of how many starts he made during his best pitching seasons in Japan, though he’s not likely to throw as many innings per outing for the Angels as he did for Nippon Ham. The thing is, Ohtani’s stuff is so good that if he can simply make his starts all season, his numbers will be strong.

Alden Gonzalez: Health, first and foremost, and proving he can consistently throw strikes. At this point I don’t have much doubt Ohtani can succeed in the major leagues offensively; it’s all about whether he can be an effective enough starter to consistently turn over a lineup two to three times. And that will hinge on his ability to repeat his delivery well enough to command all his pitches and stay around the strike zone.

Angels manager Joe Maddon was so concerned about that last year that he wondered — albeit briefly — if Ohtani should scrap pitching altogether. Then he saw a cleaner delivery in the videos of his offseason bullpen sessions and saw that carry over into spring training. Now it has to carry over into games that count. A reminder: Ohtani has logged only 79⅔ innings since that improbable 2016 season in Japan.

What would a successful 2021 look like at the plate for Ohtani?

Olney: If he generates 300 plate appearances, posts an OPS over .800 and hits 20 home runs, that’s a pretty good contribution.

Schoenfield: I think a reasonable ceiling is even higher: 475 plate appearances, 25 to 30 home runs and an .883 OPS that was his total over the 2018-19 seasons. Aside from how much the Angels rest him on the day before or the day after he pitches (indications are that they might not do that as much as they did in 2018), the other factor for his PA total is how much he plays against lefties. He has a .706 OPS in his career against southpaws, compared to .893 against righties.

Doolittle: Again, he just needs to be there for a full season and everything will work out. His 162-game averages for 2018 and 2019 were 31 homers, 95 RBIs and 17 steals to go with a slash line of .286/.351/.532. Give Ohtani those percentages for 115 to 120 games with about three-quarters of those counting numbers and he’ll be one of the AL’s best designated hitters.

Gonzalez: I agree with Brad — if Ohtani can replicate the .883 OPS he produced through 792 plate appearances from 2018 to 2019, the Angels would certainly be content. Weirdly, Ohtani’s launch angle dropped from an average of 12.3 degrees to 6.8 degrees in 2019. But he still ranked in the top 3% of the sport in average exit velocity, and he did a much better job producing against lefties. The Angels want him in the lineup as often as possible, no matter who’s pitching. And they believe he’ll continue to be a major threat on the bases (Ohtani had 22 steals from 2018 to 2019).

How valuable would he be if he can pull off both roles for a complete season?

Olney: If he could pull off what Mike Trout believes is possible — 10-plus wins as a pitcher, 30-plus home runs as a hitter — then he would have a really interesting case for the MVP.

Schoenfield: Let’s do a rough statistical comparison. Let’s say he hits .286/.351/.532, like he did over his first two seasons. Going back to 2019, that’s similar to what Edwin Encarnacion did as a DH in 486 PAs (.244/.344/.531) — lower average, but similar OBP and slugging. Encarnacion was worth 2.6 bWAR that year. OK, for a pitcher … how about Chris Paddack from 2019: 140 IP, 3.33 ERA, pitcher’s park. That translated to 2.7 bWAR for Paddack. That’s 5.3 WAR, which isn’t really a strong MVP candidate, but Ohtani would no doubt get extra credit for doing well in both areas.

Doolittle: The parameters I laid out for a “successful” season aren’t outrageous in that they are based on what he has done before, only with the assumption that he does it more often. That’s a major assumption, but we’re trying to be upbeat here. Also, there is the possibility that a healthy Ohtani does better than he did before, both at the plate and on the mound. But just to keep things guarded, if Ohtani performed at that .286/.351/.532 stat line at the plate over 120 games, all as a DH, that’d land him in the neighborhood of 3 bWAR.

Meanwhile, using his rookie-season pitching numbers as a guide, if he accrues bWAR at the rate he did over 10 starts in 2018 over, say, 23 starts, that’s also right about 3 bWAR. Slap the two together and you have an overall bWAR in the 5.9 to 6.1 range. That would be fantastic, but not quite MVP level. That said, if he improved for like a .300/.400/600 season at the plate and a 2.50 ERA on the mound … then we’re getting into no-brainer MVP territory just by value stats. But Ohtani’s narrative with real two-way breakout would lower the WAR threshold he’d need to be in the conversation.

Gonzalez: He would change the game. It’s that simple. He would provide a blueprint for how this type of player can exist at the highest levels of this sport, bringing the type of excitement and intrigue that Major League Baseball covets but cannot manufacture. You wouldn’t suddenly see a plethora of two-way players emerge, but you would eventually see some. And you would see organizations be a little more reluctant to pigeonhole multitalented players who enter their minor league systems.

Ohtani has a special set of skills and an impressive level of discipline, but he isn’t a complete outlier. Think about guys like Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton, who had the talent to do both but ultimately stuck to one. If Ohtani succeeds, maybe that won’t be the case anymore. He can break the mold.

If you were running the Angels, how would you utilize Ohtani?

Olney: If he breaks down this year, then I would shift to focus on hitting. Perhaps he could still be used in a relief role, but I think he has demonstrated that the most reliable path for him to provide production is as a hitter.

Schoenfield: I’m fine with giving him one more shot at going both ways, but I’m skeptical at this point, of the pitching side, of things panning out. Besides the fact that it has been five years since he’s actually done it other than that two-month stint in 2018, he has shown no ability to throw enough strikes since he returned from Tommy John surgery, including 10 walks in 10⅓ innings in spring training. Of course, he also fanned 17 and the stuff was still electric. You never know.

Doolittle: Just as they say they are going to do this year. Let him do his thing according to his preferred routines. And I’d let him hit when he pitches, because it’s really not that hard to pinch hit for the pitcher’s slot late in the game. I don’t know if this attitude is the way to extract maximum value from Ohtani’s talent. But I do know that it’s good for the game to see a player like this. Let him show it can be done.

Gonzalez: I would try as hard as I could to preserve the pitching aspect of this, because a guy with that type of stuff is just so rare. I like what the Angels are doing — giving him another shot at being a two-way player, but making it a real shot by lifting prior restrictions and granting him the freedom to just play. If it doesn’t work this year, then I’d consider giving him a position (likely first base) and look for ways to deploy him as a reliever when needed. Ohtani is a unicorn. Reverting to conventionality with him would be a shame.

What is the single most impressive thing you’ve seen him do on a baseball field?

Olney: Strangely, it’s not hitting or pitching — it’s when he runs the bases, when he goes first to third, or legs out an extra-base hit. The other Angels say that he’s the fastest player on the team, and it’s remarkable to see somebody that big run that fast.

Schoenfield: While his opposite-field power is impressive — most of his home runs go to left-center or straightaway — I’m with Buster: Not only does he throw 99 and have 30-homer power, he’s one of the fastest players in the majors. His top sprint speed in 2020 was in the 93rd percentile of all players. Imagine him playing right field with that speed and arm — another reason to think he ultimately ends up as a full-time outfielder.

Doolittle: This wouldn’t actually rate as one of the top 200 amazing things Ohtani has done, but it stands out for me because it was the only time I’ve seen him homer in person. It was in Chicago and I wasn’t at the game in a working capacity but in the stands. I was there with someone who has been a baseball fan in the past so understands the game but doesn’t really keep up with things these days. I was trying to explain just how rare Ohtani is when he hit a high, majestic homer off Carlos Rodon that ended up just clearing the wall. Good timing, and my companion was impressed. But as I was watching him jog around the bases, I kept thinking, “He also throws 100 with command.” It’s an awe-inspiring concept. I can’t wait to see him pitch in person for the first time.

Gonzalez: It happened exactly two weeks ago, in the first inning of a spring training game in Peoria, Arizona. Ohtani led off with a sharp single against former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell in the top half, then struck out a potential MVP in Fernando Tatis Jr. in the bottom half. It was a perfect encapsulation of what Ohtani is capable of, a snapshot of why so much excitement surrounds him. The Angels will often let him pitch and hit on the same day this season. And I can’t think of anything more fun in baseball right now.

Over/under: One postseason inning pitched and one postseason at-bat for Ohtani in 2021?

Olney: I’ll take the over. I’ve bought into the Angels’ hype for 2021 and picked them to win the division, and I think Ohtani’s showing in spring training is a major reason for that.

Schoenfield: I have the Angels winning a wild card, but I don’t think Ohtani pitches that game. And, unfortunately, my prediction is one-and-done for Trout and company.

Doolittle: Under. The Angels are a fringe playoff contender and it would not be a shock to see them in October. But I didn’t pick them, so I gotta go with goose eggs for this year.

Gonzalez: I can vouch for Buster being on the Angels’ bandwagon all year and will admit I have come around on that, largely because of what Ohtani showed us during spring training. If the Angels reach the playoffs, it’ll be because Ohtani tapped into his two-way ability. And it’ll mean they use him that way in October. Over.

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