Stephen A. Smith and baseball, always an incredible combination

Max Kellerman looks like all of us whenever Stephen A. starting talking baseball.
Max Kellerman looks like all of us whenever Stephen A. starting talking baseball.
Screenshot: ESPN

Just over a quarter of the way into the MLB season, it’s pretty safe to say that Shohei Ohtani has been insane. Ohtani currently leads Major League Baseball in home runs. He’s 3rd in slugging percentage, 15th in OPS, 18th in wOBA, and a partridge in a pear tree. Oh, he’s also been pretty damn good at pitching, too. A 2.37 ERA is never bad. If the season ended today, it would be shocking if Ohtani didn’t walk away with the AL MVP award.

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Well, none of that matters according to Stephen A. Smith. All that matters is batting average and team success.

My jaw was on the floor after watching this. Obviously, this man hasn’t watched a single inning of baseball in years. Batting average has become a relic in modern Major League Baseball. Do good hitters hit above .300? Yes. Does a hitter have to hit above .300 in order to be good? Absolutely not. In just the last ten years, there have been five players to win the MVP award while hitting under .300. Of the two pitchers who’ve won the award in that time frame — Clayton Kershaw (2014) and Justin Verlander (2011) — here’s how Ohtani stacks up:

ERA

  1. 2014 Kershaw (1.77)
  2. 2021 Ohtani (2.37)
  3. 2011 Verlander (2.40)

Strikeouts per 9 innings pitched

  1. 2021 Ohtani (13.4)
  2. 2014 Kershaw (10.8)
  3. 2011 Verlander (9.0)

Those are two of the most important stats for pitchers, and so far in 2021, Ohtani has kept up with two of the best seasons on the bump this century. Now, is it possible that Ohtani’s numbers could worsen as the season progresses? In terms of ERA, maybe. But of the six games Ohtani has started this season, three of them have been against top-10 offenses. We could actually see his ERA decrease if he draws the right matchups. As for his K/9, no. That’s not dropping. Major League Baseball is becoming more and more attuned to the “3-true outcome” style of play, which leads to way more strikeouts and way more home runs. Throw in the fact that Ohtani has thrown more 100+ mph pitches than anyone not named Jacob deGrom, and you have the makings of an incredibly high strikeout rate.

Back to hitting, we here at Deadspin have already published numerous articles detailing just how “Ruthian” Ohtani has been at the dish. So, I’ll make this short. Ohtani’s .271 average is not at all indicative of how dominant he’s been. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .302 — 72nd in MLB. The league average in that statistic is typically in the neighborhood of .300. Let’s put that in perspective. Ohtani is hitting .271, and the league average is .236. So, despite hitting 35 points higher than league average, Ohtani is sitting at league average for BABIP. That’s indicative of someone who has been getting unlucky at the plate, and whose average will likely climb once balls start falling at a more normal rate. Other stats that indicate Ohtani’s batting average could be on the rise soon include hard contact rate — where Ohtani ranks 20th in the league — and expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) — where Ohtani ranks 19th. Everything points to Ohtani’s average climbing from its current mark. As strange as it sounds, the league leader in home runs has actually been pretty unlucky at the plate thus far.

Finally, baseball is one of the few sports where team success should not affect a player’s value. Luckily, most people don’t think it does. The Marlins gave Giancarlo Stanton a $325 million contract a year after their team won just 77 games and finished 4th in their division. At the time of the signing, everyone believed Stanton was worth every penny of that contract. Mike Trout has reached the playoffs only once in his career. Is he not a great player? Stephen A. Smith has been very vocal about his appreciation of Trout throughout his career. When Trout was given his 12-year/$430 million contract, Smith actually had this to say:

Interesting. Trout hasn’t been on a team that finished above .500 since 2015, but as soon as another exciting player comes along, then — and only then — does winning become an issue for him. That makes sense.

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Ohtani has been a pleasure to watch thus far, and with Mike Trout sidelined for the next 6 to 8 weeks, there is a golden opportunity for Ohtani to step even further into the spotlight and become an icon in Major League Baseball. Because when Ohtani is out there hitting 450-foot bombs and striking out opponents with 101 mph fastballs, I can assure you the last thing on everybody’s mind is his .271 average.