Shohei Ohtani is basically a lock to win the AL MVP at this point. He’s neck-and-neck with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as a hitter this season — both have been pretty incredible — but Ohtani’s pitching numbers make it almost an unfair competition.
And it’s not just that he has decent pitching numbers. He has pretty great pitching numbers. So let’s ask this question: Could Ohtani win the Cy Young, too?
It’s not as crazy as you might think. He’s not the favorite at this point, but he’s within shouting distance with a little more than a month left in the season. He was the AL’s starting pitcher at the All-Star Game, remember, but that was largely a “give the fans who they want to see” decision by Rays manager Kevin Cash, skipper of the AL squad. So that’s just a little bonus to the conversation, not an actual check mark in his favor.
For the actual case for Ohtani, let’s start with this: He’s fifth among AL pitchers with a 3.8 bWAR, a tick below with Carlos Rodon (3.9) and behind Robbie Ray (5.2), Lance Lynn (4.5) and Gerrit Cole (4.9). That’s a good start. Remember, we’re not saying he would win if the season ended today, just that he might jump to the top of that list by the end of the year with a strong finish. And that’s just to say he needs to continue doing what he’s doing now.
His most recent start was an eight-inning gem against the Tigers, during which he allowed just one run and six hits while striking out eight and issuing zero walks. In his five starts after the All-Star break, he has a 1.36 ERA, with only 21 hits and four walks allowed in 33 innings. Really darn good. And there is one other thing to mention about Ohtani’s starting All-Star nod: Cash was able to get away with that crowd-pleasing decision because of the lack of any legitimately dominant starter in the AL this year.
He’s not competing against Peak Kershaw or Peak Scherzer or Peak Verlander. He’s “just” competing against very good pitchers having very good years.
Let’s do some comparisons. Here are the top five pitchers in Baseball-Reference’s WAR formula, plus Nathan Eovaldi, who is second in FanGraphs’ WAR calculation.
Among pitchers in the AL with at least 100 innings this year, he’s top-six in ERA, K/9, FIP, bWAR, strikeout percentage (29.6 percent), opponents batting average (.187), WHIP (1.06), ERA+ (168) and HR/9 (0.72). That’s not an exhaustive list, either. Yep, he’s in that mix. Not leading the pack, but in the mix.
But among the six pitchers we looked at above, he’s at the bottom in WAR (both calculations) largely because of one thing: innings pitched. That’s the stat that might be the most difficult for Ohtani to overcome, even with a lights-out finish. Because of his responsibilities as the club’s best hitter — oh, yeah, that little thing — he’s not starting every fifth day like most starters. He has 19 starts, while most of the others on this list have 22 to 24.
Ohtani: 100 innings
Cole: 142 IP
Lynn: 123 2/3 IP
Ray: 145 1/3 IP
Rodon: 109 2/3 IP
Eovaldi: 138 IP
Innings matter for any postseason award. It’s not that the pitcher with the most innings defaults to the award. Not at all. But let’s look at Ray and Ohtani. Both have a 2.79 ERA, but Ray has thrown 45 1/3 more innings than Ohtani. Based on that statistic, he’s been more valuable as a pitcher to his club than Ohtani has, right? At seven innings per start, that’s roughly six extra starts worth of innings that Ray has provided his club this year. That matters.
Of course, voting for the Cy Young isn’t just about one statistic, or even three or five statistics. I can promise you, as someone who has voted for the Cy Young award in the past — and I have an NL Cy Young vote again this year — everything is considered. Not just the six stats I used for the comparison above, but so many stats out there factor into the equation.
But, again, remember what we said about how he’s not competing against Peak Kershaw?
The less-than-10 inning gap between Ohtani and Rodon is basically nothing. He’s 23 2/3 behind Lynn, which isn’t nothing but isn’t unsurmountable. He’s 38 behind Eovaldi, but considering Ohtani’s sizable advantages in ERA, H/9 and K/9 (among others), he’s probably already made up that ground. The issue is most significant with Ray and Cole, both of whom are 40-plus innings ahead of Ohtani and have comparable numbers across the board.
That’s a hurdle, no doubt. But there’s a reason we keep talking about Peak Kershaw. Remember 2014? Kershaw won the NL Cy Young with 198 1/3 innings, above second-place Johnny Cueto (243 2/3 innings) and third-place Adam Wainwright (227 innings). He won because his overall numbers overwhelmed the outstanding seasons and superior innings totals for Cueto and Wainwright, helped by Kershaw’s 1.60 ERA from the end of August to the end of the season.
Think of Ohtani’s Cy Young chances like Toronto’s wild-card chances. The Blue Jays certainly are good enough to win games in October, and their deficit — 4 1/2 games, heading into Monday — isn’t impossible to overcome. But to get there they’ll need at least two of the teams ahead of them — the Yankees, Red Sox, A’s and Mariners — to falter down the stretch, because they can’t do it alone.
So, to answer our original question — Could Ohtani win the AL Cy Young, too? — the best answer is possibly, but probably not — unless he posted a sub-1.00 ERA the rest of the way, and maybe mixes in a no-hitter or 14-strikeout game. Of course, there’s also this: We’ve become pretty used to seeing incredible things from Ohtani in 2021, haven’t we?
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