As Shohei Ohtani Flirts With History, a Dodgers Teammate Is Most Likely to Stop Him

Shohei Ohtani

Getty Los Angeles Dodgers Superstar Shohei Ohtani

Just over half a century ago in 1973, the American League introduced the Designated Hitter (DH) to Major League Baseball, and the National League followed suit in 2022.

Nearly two months into the 2024 MLB season, Los Angeles Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani has a chance to do something never accomplished by a primary Designated Hitter.

No principal DH has captured a league Most Valuable Player Award (MVP) since the AL took the pitcher’s bat out of the equation 51 years ago; Ohtani could change that.

However, it’s Ohtani’s Dodgers teammate, Mookie Betts, who likely stands in the way of MLB history in 2024.

MLB's First DH Ron Blomberg

GettyMLB’s Very First DH Ron Blomberg at Yankee Stadium in 2023

Mookie Betts Could Be Shohei Ohtani’s MVP Blocker

Betts is no stranger to the MVP race.

Betts won the AL MVP in 2018 with a double-digit 10.2 fWAR and finished second on 3 occasions (2016, 2020 & 2023).

This season Betts is tied for second with Aaron Judge and Kyle Tucker at 3.3 fWAR for the MLB lead.

Consequently, Betts is currently the National League MVP favorite at +140 with Ohtani at +400 in second. William Contreras is a distant third (+800).

Barring injury, this is a highly probable two-horse race between the Dodgers’ elite duo.

Former NL President Once Called the DH a ‘Gimmick’

As the purists balked, then long-time National League president Charles “Chub” Feeney suggested the Designated Hitter was a “gimmick” – and said such was not meant to be part of baseball.

Regardless, the struggling American League went forward with the Designated Hitter, and over a half-century later, the DH is alive and well.

Strangely enough, since this position generally attracts the big-boppers, no DH has yet claimed an MVP award. However, some have come close.

The latest was Houston Astros star Yordan Alvarez, who finished third in 2022 with 6.8 fWAR and 37 home runs. Alvarez was a DH 58% of the time.

Victor Martinez of the Detroit Tigers (77% DH) was 2nd in 2014 after a cumulative total of 32 HR and 103 RBI—but posted a somewhat lean 4.6 fWAR along the way.

In total, 8 players who have spent time as a primary Designated Hitter finished in the top 3 of MVP voting.

Has the Designated Hitter Received a Fair Shake?

Over the past 50-plus years, the Designated Hitter has tried to overcome popular narratives that question the overall value of the position without taking the field (or pitching in Ohtani’s unique case).

As CBS Sports’ Dayn Perry wrote on May 24, “The reality is that DHs don’t play defense, and that reduces their overall value.”

Perry continued: “By extension, the offensive bar is higher for DHs than it is for hitters who play the field. Beyond that, MVP voters, probably in substantial numbers, may saddle DH candidates with an informal penalty when the time comes to fill out those ballots. Presumably, there’s some level of offensive production that could earn a DH the award, but we haven’t seen it yet.

“We’ve given the MVP award to pitchers on multiple occasions — including three relievers — but thus far such special consideration hasn’t been given to a DH. Heck, a primary DH has even won a Gold Glove award — Rafael Palmeiro in 1999 won the honor as a first baseman even though he logged just 28 games at the position compared to 128 as DH.”

What Is the Offensive Bar for Shohei Ohtani to Win MVP?

The previous MVP who logged the most plate appearances as a DH was Don Baylor back in 1979. He spent just over 40% of his PAs as a Designated Hitter.

Baylor’s season totals were a career-high 36 HR and 139 RBI. His overall value was hurt by outfield deficiencies, though.

The former Orioles second-round pick posted a -14 Fielding Runs Above Average and a measly 3.6 fWAR.

So what about Ohtani?

With approximately 400 plate appearances still on the 2024 table for Ohtani, reaching the 40 HR and 110 RBI plateau is entirely possible—and likely necessary.

“The voting hive mind has presumably decided that no DH in the regular season had produced at a level sufficient to make him more valuable than all of his league peers. So it’s less a case of ‘DHs are informally barred from winning the MVP’ than it is ‘no DH as of yet has hit well enough to merit the MVP,'” Perry wrote for CBS.

If Anybody Can Do It, It’s This Guy

As he slow-rolls an elbow injury that sacked his 2024 pitching campaign, Ohtani continues on pace to best some of his offensive numbers.

With a current slash line of .336/403/.621 and an xwOBA of .463, Showtime leads MLB in total bases and is second in hits.

Ohtani is also 13-for-13 on the stolen base front.

His Statcast numbers are all trending potential MVP-esque with career-top significance.

The following are all vocational highs as June 2024 approaches: EV, Max EV, XBA, XSLG, XWOBA, and Hard Hit%. Shohei is also walking more and striking out less than ever before. All this while dealing with a hamstring tweak over the past week.

He’s almost halfway to his best non-pitching influenced 6.5 fWAR. He’ll likely need something approaching the 9 (or possibly even 10) fWAR mark as Betts is on a value heater himself.

Can Ohtani Become the First Full-Time DH to Win Most Valuable Player?

Should he attain the aforementioned numbers, the big prize is obviously within reach.

It’s difficult not to have an underlying gut feeling that if it’s neck and neck, he’ll likely get the MVP nod and once again do something he’s no stranger to—making professional baseball history.

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