Outliers make sports great. Barry Bonds bashing 73 home runs is special. Rickey Henderson stealing 130 bases is special. Even the combination of two stats can be an outlier itself. The quartet of men to have 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases are legends of the game. This applies in other sports as well. Lamar Jackson and Michael Vick did not set passing or rushing records, but they combined the two for unique seasons. The trio of running backs that ran for 1,000 yards and added 1,000 receiving yards fit the same mold.
Shohei Ohtani is the king of the outlier. He will likely never set the record for wins above replacement by a hitter. By the same token, he will likely never set the record for wins above replacement by a pitcher. However, his combination of the two is in a universe by itself. Ohtani’s exploits on the baseball diamond are the equivalent of a quarterback throwing for 20 touchdowns and recording five sacks on defense. Neither is breaking a record, or even coming within 50 percent of a record, but the two stats have historically been mutually exclusive.
The Ohtani Curve
This leads to a phenomenon that I will call the Ohtani curve. Position player WAR and pitching WAR (known as hWAR and pWAR for the duration of this article) are mutually exclusive. Since 1995, Ohtani is the only player to pitch 21 times and accumulate an hWAR over 1.5. National League pitchers occasionally crack 1.0 (such as 2013 Zack Greinke’s 1.3), but keep in mind that Ohtani generally accumulates hWAR as a designated hitter, not as a pitcher. This means that his hWAR is compared to replacement-level designated hitters for the most part. When Ohtani pitches, his plate appearances generate hWAR compared to replacement-level pitchers, but the majority of his hWAR comes from designated hitter plate appearances. (This has the hilarious repercussion that Ohtani accumulates hWAR faster when he starts.)
Side note: Max Scherzer is closing in on the opposite end of the spectrum. Through 56 plate appearances, Scherzer has yet to reach base. He has a -0.6 hWAR.
Pitchers are hilariously awful hitters, and they have been for as long as baseball has existed. Since 1901, there have been 7,515 instances of a player pitching in 21 games and recording 50 plate appearances. Just 251 (3.3 percent) have an adjusted on-base-plus-slugging of 100 or better. (Ohtani is 10th, but he has more hits than eight of the nine players ahead of him have plate appearances. His volume is unmatched).
When Ohtani inevitably hits his 45th home run, he will have five times as many home runs as the next closest high-volume pitcher (1931 Wes Ferrell). Ohtani is one of just three players to hit 40 home runs in a season that he pitched, joining Babe Ruth (1920, 1921, and 1930) and Rocky Colavito (1958). Colavito appeared in one game as a pitcher. Ruth appeared in four across the three seasons (although one was a complete game, something Ohtani has never done).
Ohtani’s 4.4 hWAR doubles all but two of the remaining 21,349 seasons that saw a player pitch 21 times. Ferrell pops up again, accumulating 2.4 hWAR in 1935. Don Newcombe posted a 2.3 hWAR in 1955, the year before he won the NL Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Awards. As mentioned earlier, this does not do Ohtani justice as his hWAR is compared to other designated hitters, not pitchers, but the feat is absurd.
At what point does Ohtani’s ability to both pitch and hit eclipse the value of players that do one or the other?
This is the Ohtani curve. When Ohtani lies above this curve, he is more valuable. When he lies below the curve, he is less valuable.
To begin constructing the curve, I took the last 50 seasons of MVP award winners (1970-2019) and averaged their WAR accumulations. Starting pitchers averaged 8.5 pWAR in MVP seasons. Position players averaged 7.5 hWAR in MVP seasons. For the sake of this exercise, assume 8.5 pWAR is equivalent to 7.5 hWAR. (Relief pitchers were excluded.)
This creates an equation of sorts to determine if Ohtani is above or below the line.
OpWAR = Ohtani’s pWAR
OhWAR = Ohtani’s hWAR
Based on Ohtani’s 4.4 hWAR, he is slightly less valuable than the average MVP since 1970. He requires a pWAR of 3.5, but he is just at 3.3.
What does this mean for 2021?
The original equation can be adjusted based on Ohtani’s competition. For 2021, Vladimir Guerrero Jr is the main competition. Instead of using 8.5 as the b-value (the y-intercept, if hWAR is plotted on the x-axis), you can plug in Guerrero’s hWAR (6.1) into this equation:
Ohtani’s 4.4 hWAR eclipses the needed OhWAR of 3.2, meaning that this metric encourages the selection of Ohtani as American League MVP.
The MVP is not always the league’s leader in WAR. A league’s WAR leader also fluctuates from year to year. For example, Mike Trout accumulated 9.9 hWAR in 2018, second to Mookie Betts. It would have led MLB in 2013-2015, 2017, and 2019.
This curve subscribes to the idea that hitters have a lower bar to clear to win the MVP. This is perhaps more an artifact based on historical MVP voting than an indictment against pitchers. Since 1970, just four starting pitchers have won the MVP. There are a variety of factors in why these four (and only these four) won their MVPs.
Contrarily, there have been several years that MVP voting has been totally off in the eyes of WAR. Nine players have won the MVP despite not eclipsing 5.0 hWAR. 1981, 1994, and 1995 were shortened seasons, but only 1995 Mo Vaughn falls into the group. WAR is not the only metric used to determine the MVP, but it is a common criterion from year to year.
Why not just add the WARs together?
This is certainly a common idea. The Ohtani curve only exists because MVP voters have historically necessitated higher pWARs than hWARs. In the eyes of an MVP voter, 7.5 hWAR is more valuable than 7.5 pWAR, so Ohtani’s combination of the two must be properly taken care of.
At the end of the day, Ohtani will never match his competitors in hWAR or pWAR. His combination of both is his greatest asset.
For 2021, Ohtani currently sits above the Ohtani curve regardless if one compares him to Marcus Semien (6.7 hWAR) or Guerrero. As such, he deserves the AL MVP.
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