The Impact of Shohei Ohtani on the 2024 Dodgers: A Closer Look

Like Susie Izzard (Drink!) says, chiropractors “LIVE FOR THE NOISE!” I also live for the noise of the offseason. We can’t get much more than Shohei Ohtani and his reps donated to us, or at least their methods of sending the baseball press into orbit did. There should be much more to come, but the biggest move to be made is now on paper (though the Dodgers still haven’t said much), what will actually happen on the field?

It seems a dumbass question, given that L.A. just added the best hitter in the league last year to a lineup that already had the fourth and sixth best hitter from last season, in terms of wRC+. That is an utterly terrifying 1-3 for any pitcher starting a game or reliever who is going to have to navigate it with the game on the line late.

Still, there are a couple of small factors to consider here when thinking about the Dodgers going 130-32 or something stupid. One, the Dodgers actually had a pretty decent DH last season and two, was Ohtani’s 2023 something of an outlier?

Take it in order. Last summer, J.D. Martinez manned the DH spot for the majority of the season. And while he may be three days older than water, he was still pretty effective. Martinez slashed .271/.321/.579 for a 135 wRC+. Obviously, that’s not really all that close to Ohtani’s MVP season, but it’s still pretty effective. There’s certainly more wins coming from Ohtani taking the DH ABs than Martinez. But Martinez’s season is not all that far from what had been the normal Ohtani season before 2023, and this is where there’s something of a rub. Well, not a rub. A light pat, maybe.

Ohtani’s 2023, as entertaining and stupid-ridiculous as it was, is not normal in a whole host of ways. And one of them was that it wasn’t a normal Ohtani season at the plate. That doesn’t mean Ohtani hadn’t been a great hitter before, but he hadn’t been anything like the celestial being he was last season. In Ohtani’s previous full campaigns (always throw out 2020), his wRC+ outputs were 149, 120, 150 and 142. Last year it was 180. Those previous four marks are still borderline MVP numbers in some years, but obviously his 2023 is just something entirely different. Yes, Ohtani has two MVPs, but his first in 2021 was because of his dual-threat as a pitcher, as Bryce Harper, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. all had better offensive seasons than he did then.

Even the normal Ohtani season is an improvement on what Martinez did for the Dodgers last year, but it actually isn’t a massive leap. The question becomes if Ohtani’s .433 wOBA in 2023 is now the new normal.

It could be. Ohtani hit the ball harder than he ever had last season, seeing his average exit velocity jumped two full MPH to 94.4 as well as jumps in his barrel-rate and hard-hit rate. You don’t need the numbers to tell you that Ohtani spent the season turning baseballs into flubber, but that’s the data.

There wasn’t much change in Ohtani’s approach, swinging at just about the same number of pitches in and out of the zone as we’d seen previously in his career. The big difference was the work that Ohtani did on pitches high and away from him in the zone, and pitches above the strike zone. It used to be that pitchers could be somewhat safe heading for 10 o’clock in the strike zone (from the catcher’s perspective), where Ohtani only hit .305 and only slugged .385 in 2022, and .286 and .357 in 2021. Last year, those numbers became .440 and 1.000. That’s a problem for America.

Ohtani also crushed pitches above the zone, which he had never done before, slugging .704 on pitches above the zone and inside and .534 on pitches above the zone and outside. He didn’t even crack .200 on any of those measures in 2022. Ohtani just decided he wasn’t going to get beat up in the zone or above it.

Is that a strategy that works as he heads into his 30s? That’s usually when batters start to struggle with the continually increasing velocity they see from pitchers. But obviously, Ohtani is an alien and not at the mercy of normal human deficiencies. At least, that’s the working theory.

There’s also the health factor. Ohtani has only played a full slate of games as a hitter in two of his five seasons. So if Ohtani were to revert back to the “really good hitter” form instead of his “Ares on meth” of 2023 while dealing with injuries that have sort of become custom, well, it’s still an improvement by a measurable margin on what the Dodgers had last year. It’s just not leaping over Springfield Gorge.

There’s also the question of decline from either or both Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts. Freeman is entering his age-34 season, having just set a career high in wRC+. Betts had his second-best season ever at age 30. All three of these guys are likely to be in the MVP discussion, but all three might also just not be what they were in 2023 because it’s really hard to be what they were in 2023.

This isn’t meant to be something that Diamondbacks or Giants fans print out, chop up and snort. The Dodgers are going to be very good next year, and we can say that before they trade for Tyler Glasnow, sign Yoshinobu Yamamoto, reanimate Warren Spahn, clone Corey Seager from some DNA they still have lying around the clubhouse, and get the Mariners to sell them Julio Rodriguez for a lifetime supply of Reeseā€™s, and the six other things they’ll probably do. We’re just talking about a team that wins 100 games on the reg, and will do so again. That just might be all they do. Which is a pretty sad thing for any rival to hope for, but that’s where MLB is these days.

Then Ohtani gets back on the mound in 2025 and we all die.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felgate and on Bluesky @Felgate.bsky.social