Can Shohei Ohtani Win the NL MVP Without Pitching?

Shohei Ohtani signed a record-breaking deal with the Dodgers this winter. Can he deliver on expectations and win the MVP strictly as a DH?

SURPRISE, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 28: Shohei Ohtani #17 of the Los Angeles Dodgers looks on during a game against the Texas Rangers at Surprise Stadium on February 28, 2024 in Surprise, Arizona. (Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images)

It’s been over a decade since Miguel Cabrera won consecutive Most Valuable Player Awards. Even though Shohei Ohtani signed a $700 million deal, the largest contract in North American sports history, it will take a performance of historic proportions for him to win again in 2024.

Ohtani is the reigning American League MVP after slugging 44 home runs, stealing 20 bases and slashing .304/.412/.654, not to mention posting a 3.14 ERA in 132.0 innings as a pitcher.

However, the odds are against him since he will not benefit from the prestige of being a two-way player. Elbow surgery to repair a torn UCL last September will keep Ohtani from doing any pitching this season. His efforts on the mound over the last three campaigns have been worth 14.2 bWAR and the loss of this value will have magnitudes.

If he wins the NL MVP in 2024, he’ll be only the 14th player to secure two in a row. Ohtani would become the 12th three-time winner of the award. He’d be just the second — following Frank Robinson with the Reds in 1961 and the Orioles in 1966 — to win in both leagues.

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But he’d be the very first full-time designated hitter to ever secure the honor.

Here’s what’s at stake for Ohtani to win the NL MVP Award without pitching in 2024.

The DH Dilemma 

Shohei Ohtani may easily be the most recognizable baseball player on the face of the earth, but he’ll have an uphill battle with being viewed as a DH-only.

No primary designated hitter has ever been selected as the Most Valuable Player since the position was first created for the American League in 1973.

The closest a primary DH — a player who spent at least 50% of games at the position — came to winning the honors was when Paul Molitor in 1993 and David Ortíz in 2005 both finished second in voting. While the two actually spent some time in the field in those seasons, with Molitor starting 23 games and Ortíz starting 10 games at first base.

A trio of MVPs spent a decent portion of the season as DH, but all played the field nearly 60% of the time or more: Jim Rice, 49 of 163 games at DH in 1978; Don Baylor, 65 of 162 games at DH in 1979; and Juan González, 32 of 134 games at DH in 1996 and 38 of 154 at DH in 1998.

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The advent of the designated hitter in both leagues in 2022 — not to mention the one-off shortened-season of 2020 — MVPs in the NL have barely taken advantage of the new position. Paul Goldschmidt started 23 games at DH in his award winning year of 2022, while Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman (2020) and Ronald Acuña Jr. (2023) each stayed in the lineup for two games while not playing the field.

Uncommon occurrences transpire more frequently in MLB as teams and players operate  “outside the box” in search of winning. Bryce Harper had a similar procedure as Ohtani performed on his elbow following the 2022 season. The outfielder returned to the field in late July in record time, albeit as a first baseman.

Ohtani played 64 games as a outfielder with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters between 2013-14. The Angels put him in the outfield for seven games in 2021, but only for a total of 8.1 innings. That still hasn’t stopped him from stashing a mitt for the outfield and first base inside his locker at Camelback Ranch this spring.

Then there’s his new team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, which usually sets the trends rather than follows them. Just this weekend, the team announced Mookie Betts, owner of six Gold Glove Awards for his outstanding defensive play in right field, is now a full-time shortstop for the first time since he suited up for the Overton Bobcats in high school.

L.A. played Jason Heyward at first base last season for the first time in his 14-year career. They managed to survive a season of pitching staff injuries to use 17 different starters,  including eight that started at least 10 games, and still win 100 for the third consecutive campaign. And Betts played more second base (70 games) than he had since his last season in the minors a decade ago.

“Until I hear otherwise, the only focus for me is having him DH,” manager Dave Roberts said earlier this month when asked about Ohtani playing the field. 

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Projecting 2024

One of the most accurate projection systems in the public sphere is FanGraphs’ ZiPS. Created by Dan Szymborski, ZiPS finds trends in growth and decline curves using weighted statistics to predict upcoming seasons. 

Going into each of the last three seasons, ZiPS scratched the surface with Ohtani’s potential. He outperformed those projections in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage in 2021 and 2023. While he only managed to improve upon the projected batting average in 2022, his totals for home runs and runs batted, not to mention OPS+, nearly matched the forecast.

ZiPS prescribes the same for 2024 as it did for 2023 with one major change: an increase in RBI. Since runs batted in is predicated on forces outside a player’s control such as opportunities with runners on base, a loaded Dodgers lineup will aid his leading MLB with 122 RBI, according to ZiPS.

Ohtani had a slash line of .304/.412/.654 last season in 135 games. ZiPS shows 146 games this year with a downturn across the three rate-stats: .259/.359/.545. The projection for stolen bases is on par with Ohtani’s production since the start of 2021. He’s stolen an average of 19 over the past three seasons and is estimated to swipe 17 in ‘24.

Roberts thinks this could be the biggest area of improvement over what we’ve grown accustomed to from Ohtani. 

“I think one thing he’s been mindful of, as far as the offensive profile this year, is maybe being a little bit more aggressive stealing bases,” Roberts said in February. 

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The 51-year-old skipper also mentioned that attempting to steal with so many great hitters behind Ohtani in the lineup isn’t necessarily a problem. The scoreboard and situation will dictate this. “I know that whoever we have in our lineup, it doesn’t affect them,” he added.

It’s worth noting that designated hitters aren’t well-known for stealing bases. Instead, they hardly ever do. In the era of the DH in the National League, the player with the most games at the position is Marcell Ozuna with 251 games. He’s produced exactly one stolen base. (Daniel Vogelbach, second on the list with 208 starts at DH, is stuck on zero.)

Since the advent of the designated hitter in 1973, only six times has a player recorded 30 or more stolen bases when playing at least a quarter of their games at DH. In 46 games there, Luis Polonia stole 51 bases for the California Angels in 1992. For players who spent at least half their time as the designated hitter, only Paul Molitor (31 in 1992) and José Canseco (29 in 1998) have swiped more bags than Ohtani’s 26 in 2021.

It’s worth noting that even, the most stolen bases for a starting DH in the NL is only 17. It also took Harper 191 games to amass that total. Should Ohtani break the league record by August, perhaps his MVP case will receive a small boost.

One For The History

When Ohtani finished second in the 2022 AL MVP voting, he had improved his value from the year before, up from 8.9 to 9.6 in bWAR. Aaron Judge, however, had a better all-around season using the same metric. To suggest the Yankee slugger won the award solely for breaking the American League home run record would be missing a larger point. 

Then again, it’s not every generation that a player swats 34 home runs and finishes fourth for the Cy Young Award. 

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Ohtani more than likely won’t be topping Barry Bonds’ mark of 73 home runs set in 2001. Besting Judge with 63 homers would be held in high regard and, to many of those who think the Steroid Era stole some beloved records, viewed as the greatest legitimate home run performance in baseball history.

Much more attainable is the Dodgers’ single-season record for most homers. Shawn Green’s 49 home runs, also achieved during the ‘01 campaign, remains the standard for the 141-year-old franchise. It’s also one of only six instances of a Dodger reaching the 40-homer total since the franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1958. 

Reaching 50 when playing half your games at Chavez Ravine would also be a major achievement. Only 12 times in 62 years has a home player swatted 20 or more home runs in a season at Dodger Stadium. Half of those were accomplished since the start of 2016. Only once did a Dodger hit 25 or more at home: Cody Bellinger, 27 home runs in his 2019 NL MVP campaign. (By comparison, Coors Field’s 29 seasons have produced 37 instances of a Colorado Rockie hitting 20 homers or more in Denver.)

Removing the variable of having to focus on pitching every five days seems like it would be a positive. However, Ohtani will still need to tend to his rehabilitation in order to return to the mound in 2025. Gearing up for Seoul Series on March 20 meant operating on his own schedule during the first few weeks of spring training.

To hear his former hitting coach with the Los Angeles Angels tell it, putting a spotlight on hitting may not entirely be a good thing.

“We’ve seen him do one. When he was hurt, he just hit,” Jeremy Reed told The Athletic in 2021. “This is my perspective: When Shohei thinks about two things, he doesn’t think about one thing. He’s so detail-oriented that detail can turn into a single-minded, ‘want-to-be-great’ thing. When he dedicates his time throughout the day to, ‘I’ve got to do this, this and this’ to be ready to play, I think there is less focus on one thing to be great and he’s great at both.”

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Roberts also recognizes the loss in responsibilities will be disappointing at times.

“(Ohtani’s) embraced pitching and hitting,” he said. “I’m sure he’s gonna miss not being able to go out there every fifth or sixth day to pitch, but I just really feel good just the way he is right now.”

In a year in which he’ll be more mortal than we’ve seen him in several years, Ohtani will need to have the greatest season for a designated hitter if he’s going to become the 2024 NL MVP.