In case you were worried that Shohei Ohtani and Aaron Judge somehow forgot how to be excellent at baseball since the end of last season, fear not. The 2021 and ’22 American League Most Valuable Players are off to strong starts this season, highlighted by a shared distinction: both have gotten on base in every game thus far, extending lengthy streaks that have carried over from last season.
Admittedly, on-base streaks aren’t as sexy as hitting streaks. Nobody rhapsodizes about them or scrutinizes their mathematical unlikelihood the way they do Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak from 1941. Comparatively few people — professionals as well as fans — could tell you who holds the record for consecutive games getting on base. The answer is Ted Williams in 84 straight games from July 1 through September 27 in 1949, which makes perfect sense given that the Splendid Splinter is the career on-base percentage leader (.482). DiMaggio is a distant second at 74 games, with his more famous streak occupying games 2–57 of the longer one. Williams also owns the third-longest streak at 72 games bridging 1941 (the year he hit .406) and ’42, but as for the fourth-longest one — and the longest of the post-1960 expansion era — it belongs to Orlando Cabrera, he of the career .317 OBP and 83 wRC+. Cabrera reached base in 63 straight games from April 25 through July 6 in 2006. Go figure.
Judge ran his streak to 45 games — dating back to last August 29 — with a walk on Wednesday afternoon against the Guardians. That’s merely tied for 99th all-time, and 32nd in the Wild Card era, but it’s one game from gaining a share of fourth place for the longest since the start of 2008:
Longest On-Base Streaks Since Start of 2008
|Rk||Player||Team||Streak||Streak Started||Streak Ended||PA||AVG||OBP||SLG|
|Michael Cuddyer||COL||46||4/23/13 (1)||6/30/13||200||.348||.390||.582|
* = active.
Ohtani took Wednesday afternoon off after tossing seven shutout innings against the Nationals on Tuesday night, during which he also went 1-for-4 at the plate. That ran his on-base streak to 34 games dating back to last September 11. That’s merely tied for 60th using my admittedly arbitrary 2008 cutoff, but it’s the majors’ second-longest active streak; he’s hit .315/.383/.488 (144 wRC+) in those 34 games. If that doesn’t measure up to Judge’s .366/.505/.758 (244 wRC+) during his 45-game streak, it’s worth noting that Othani has also posted an 0.82 ERA and 2.44 FIP in seven starts totaling 44 innings during his on-base streak. Judge, Williams, DiMaggio, Cabrera… none of them did that. That pitching run is itself part of a longer streak for Ohtani: 10 straight starts with two or fewer runs allowed. Among active streakers, only Julio Urías (17) has gone longer.
Streaking aside, both superstars are off to impressive starts that recall last year’s heroics but underscore just how hard they’ll be to replicate. Judge is hitting .318/.404/.614 (180 wRC+) with four homers thus far, which may not be up to his 2022 numbers (.311/.425/.686, 207 wRC+) but is solidly ahead of his Depth Charts projection (.279/.385/.568, 168 wRC+). The big man hit his third and fourth homers against the Orioles on April 9, in the Yankees’ ninth game of the season, while last year when he set the AL record with 62, he didn’t hit his fourth until the team’s 17th game. I’ve exercised a modicum of restraint by not pestering Dan Szymborski to start calculating the odds on whether he can top 62 yet, but it’s not easy.
Below the surface, Judge’s numbers aren’t (yet) as awe-inspiring as usual. To be clear, we’re just two weeks into the season, so early that income taxes aren’t due for a few days, and hardly any statistics of interest have reached the point of stabilization. Small-sample caveats apply to all of what follows, so even if we’re squinting, the picture is blurry at best — and yet we can still distinguish some familiar patterns while identifying some that don’t fit our expectations.
With that in mind, we’ll note that while Judge’s 17.9% barrel rate is just 2.6 percentage points below his career mark, it’s 8.3 points below last year’s incredible showing, the highest barrel rate of the Statcast era. Thus far, he’s “only” in the 85th percentile, though it’s important to note that’s with just 28 batted ball events, a little over halfway to the point at which that figure stabilizes (50 BBE). The story is similar for his 94.6 mph average exit velocity, which is down 1.3 mph from last year (also a full-season Statcast record); that figure stabilizes around 40 BBE. Moving in the other direction, his 67.9% hard-hit rate is over six points higher than last year, but that one is even further from the point of stabilization (80 BBE).
Judge’s contact stats being shy of last year’s numbers is less cause for concern than his 32.7% strikeout rate, which is nearly four points above his career mark and over eight points above last year’s mark. Batter strikeout rates stabilize at 60 PA, and so with 52 PA, he’s not far off that threshold. His 17.6% swinging strike rate would be a career high; it’s six points above last year’s mark. Perhaps most alarming is his 75.8% zone contact rate, down over nine points from last year’s 85.2%. He’s got good company on the season stat grid, in that Manny Machado, Mike Trout, Trea Turner, and Matt Olson are all down about nine or 10 points from last year as well. It’s quite possible that all of this comes out in the wash with larger sample sizes; if it does, forget I ever said anything about it, but if it becomes A Thing, you heard it here first!
As for Ohtani, he’s hitting .300/.404/.575, a step up from last year’s .273/.356/.519 line; his 167 wRC+ is 25 points ahead of last year and 16 ahead of 2021. Again, we’re talking about just 26 batted ball events, but his 19.2% barrel rate is right in between his 2021 and ’22 marks, his 93.5 mph average exit velo is 0.1 below his career high from ’21, and his 61.5% hard-hit rate is about 12 points above last year. What stands out is that he’s been hitting a ton of grounders (53.8%), something he’s never done in his major league career; that rate is over 10 points above his career mark, and about four points above his career high, set in 2019. He had a 2.03 groundball-to-fly ball ratio that year, higher than this year’s 1.75, so he’s not entirely in uncharted territory. Groundball rate doesn’t stabilize until 80 BBE, so like most of what’s on display here, this counts more as a curio than anything else.
Ohtani has hit three homers, including a 447-footer off Oakland’s Ken Waldichuk (the first on this reel) that followed a Trout homer — the fabled Troutani, a game in which both Angels homer — and a 397-foot opposite field shot off Toronto’s Yusei Kikuchi that went into the rock pile at Angel Stadium:
Of course the attraction with Ohtani isn’t just that he’s a fantastic hitter, it’s that he’s pairing that hitting with elite mound work. Through three starts — against the A’s, Mariners, and Nationals, admittedly not uniformly high-caliber competition — he’s allowed just six hits and one run in 19 innings. He’s walked 12 (16%) but struck out 24 (32%) en route to a 0.47 ERA and a 3.25 FIP.
To these eyes, what’s most interesting about Ohtani’s pitching thus far is that according to Statcast, he’s thrown his sweeper 49% of the time, up from 37.4% last year and 21.9% in 2021. And why not, given that batters have hit .088 and slugged .118 against it in 40 PA, with a 29.7% whiff rate. At -6 runs, it’s tied with Framber Valdez’s sinker as the most valuable pitch in the majors thus far; it tied Sandy Alcantara’s changeup as the second-most valuable pitch last year at -25 runs but was well behind Dylan Cease’s slider (-36 runs).
One other note with regards to Ohtani: He’s already recorded a triple-digit double this year. On Opening Day against the A’s, he struck out Ramón Laureano on a 100.7-mph fastball and also scorched a 111.6-mph single off Kyle Muller. While he had 10 games last year in which he paired a 100-mph pitch and a 100-mph exit velo, in only four of those did he collect hits via such shots, and only twice did he pair 100-mph hits with 100-mph strikeout pitches, on June 9 against the Red Sox and July 13 against the Astros. Folks, you just don’t see that every day.
The 2023 season is young, and numerous surprises and disappointments await us. Still, it’s particularly reassuring that two of the game’s unicorns — the record-setting behemoth with the legendary power and bat speed and the double-duty dynamo — are thrilling us again. What a time to be alive.