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Shohei Ohtani Can Win a Triple Crown

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Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Shohei Ohtani has a tendency to make absurd things happen. When he came over to the United States, some were skeptical that his offense would hold up as well as his pitching. Then, he came over and did just fine. Whether it’s being a two-time MVP as a two-way player or making it seem plausible that he could have a 10-WAR season as only a designated hitter, Ohtani has a knack for turning fiction into fact. Now, leading the league in batting average and not trailing by much in home runs and RBI, he has a real chance at another rare feat: winning a Triple Crown.

Going into last season, Ohtani appeared to be an excellent hitter, but we always couched that excellence as partially being due to his ability to also pitch. It’s true that he chased 50 homers in 2021, but his triple-slash line from 2018-2022 of .267/.354/.532 (137 wRC+) had the look of a very good hitter, not one that could claim transcendence on that basis alone. But in 2023, he hit .300 for the first time en route to setting career highs for each of the three triple-slash stats (.304/.412/.654), wRC+ (180), and position player WAR (6.5). He was also on a 51-homer pace when an oblique injury in early September ended his season prematurely; he finished with 44 dingers in 135 games. Projection systems were naturally skeptical about last season establishing a new baseline of offensive performance, generally seeing that as a peak-type season, with a more “normal” 140-150 wRC+ likely in 2024. In fact, ZiPS’ zStats – its equivalent of Statcast xStats with a few more ingredients in the stew and more explicitly designed for predictive purposes – saw Ohtani’s expected 2023 line at .289/.377/.590 with 38 homers. A great season to be sure, but still a 99-point dropoff in OPS from his actual numbers.

And 2024? Well, that’s a horse of a different color. Ohtani’s taken another step forward, entering play Friday slashing .355/.425/.678. But this time around, zStats sees Ohtani’s performance as completely warranted by his Statcast, plate discipline, speed, and spray data. In fact, as of Thursday morning, ZiPS thinks that his 2024 line very slightly underrates him! ZiPS thinks that he ought to be hitting .354/.442/.708 considering how he’s played. I cannot possibly overstate how unusual it is for a player to be having this strong a season and still be underperforming. Usually, for even the most talented players, at least a small part of their career-best OPS can be attributed to luck. Ohtani’s 1.103 OPS, a career high, appears to be the result of some slight misfortune. His zOPS is 1.150. That’s ridiculous!

The first thing to look at it when it comes to Ohtani’s Triple Crown chances is his BABIP, to see if his current average is sustainable. Because of the volatility of BABIP, especially across smaller samples, you should bet on a hitter’s BABIP to regress toward his mean over time as luck balances out.

A career BABIP of at least .350 is incredibly rare; only 13 players in MLB history have done that over a minimum of 5,000 plate appearances, and most of those are from the early days of baseball, when BABIP was much higher than it is today. Looking just since the start of the divisional era, only 16 players have a lifetime BABIP of .340 or higher, topped by Rod Carew at .362 and Derek Jeter at .350. All of this is to say that there’s some justified skepticism when someone’s BABIP is pushing .400, and Ohtani currently has a .391 BABIP. There must be a lot of luck involved, right? Perhaps not! At .401, Ohtani’s zBABIP laps the field, and zBABIP is more predictive of future BABIP than actual BABIP. Here are the zBABIP leaders this season, along with their BABIP marks (minimum 100 PA).

zBABIP Leaders, Through 5/8

We’re less than a quarter of the way through the season, and ZiPS already thinks that only 13 of the 210 players with 100 plate appearances have earned a .350 BABIP. Yet there’s Ohtani over .400, with only a single player within 30 points. As such, factoring in zBABIP, the full model of ZiPS projects Ohtani to be a .318 hitter the rest of the way, rather than the .276 hitter that the current rest-of-season model — which does not use zBABIP — expects him to be. That .042 range is easily one of the largest differences between the full and in-season models that I can remember.

In the end, ZiPS projects a 22% chance that Ohtani will win the batting title, which is almost half the battle for the Triple Crown because home runs and RBI are highly correlated with each other.

I probably don’t need to tell you about Ohtani’s power credentials at this point, but I’m going to do it anyway. Remember that word “transcendent” from above? Well, that’s Ohtani as a power hitter in 2024. His Statcast hard-hit rate is over 60% and he’s crushed more barrels than Carrie Nation, with 30 already this season. Since the debut of Statcast in 2015, only a single player, Aaron Judge in 2022, has hit 90 barrels in a season (106). Ohtani is currently on pace for about 120, hitting one at nearly a 25% clip, which is an absurd rate. ZiPS projects Ohtani to finish this season with 45 homers and a 52% chance of leading the National League.

The trickiest part of the trio is RBI, as Ohtani currently sits 11 behind NL leader Marcell Ozuna. But the full model of ZiPS gives Ohtani a solid 22% chance of leading the NL in RBI; the model is skeptical that Ozuna is this good. He’s probably not going to slug .864 with runners in scoring position for the rest of the year, as he has so far, nor will Ohtani continue to slug .275 in such situations.

In the 52% of simulations in which Ohtani leads the NL in homers, he also leads in RBI 70% of the time – remember, they’re highly correlated – giving him a 36% chance to lead the league in both homers and RBI. Add in batting average and ZiPS puts Ohtani’s odds at winning the NL Triple Crown at 14.6%. (And, for what it’s worth, ZiPS projects Ohtani to have a 5.2% probability to lead the majors in all three three categories.)

Throughout his career, Ohtani has expanded our understanding of what is possible, so much so that accomplishing something with 15% odds seems easy for him. And that’s a pretty good description of greatness: making the nearly impossible seem ordinary.

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