Ohtani vs Soto
by Paul Semendinger
October 24, 2023
Note - This article was originally written and published for the IBWAA's Newsletter "Here's The Pitch" and was published on their site on October 21, 2023
There are two premier players that are, or might be available for the 2024 season: Juan Soto (possibly by trade) and Shohei Ohtani (as a free agent). Among fans, there is a growing debate over which of the two players their favorite team should try to acquire.
I figured I would break down the stats, and some arguments and make the determination myself.
To begin, while he is known for being a pitcher and designated hitter, it is clear that for 2024, at least, Shohei Ohtani will not be pitching. I am of the belief that while he will try to pitch again, any team that acquires Shohei Ohtani must know that, due to his injury history, there is no guarantee that Ohtani will pitch again nor, even if he can, there is no guarantee that he will be an effective or top-of-the-rotation starter again.
The team signing Ohtani has to sign him knowing that there is a real possibility that they will only be signing him as an offensive threat — not as a pitcher as well. If I were acquiring him, I would consider anything he can do as a pitcher, again, probably not until 2025, as a bonus. For this article, I will compare these two players only as hitters and fielders.
Once one starts to compare the two players as position players, one thing quickly becomes very clear. While Juan Soto is not a great defensive outfielder (through the entirety of his career, his dWAR has been negative in every season he has played) he is more of an outfielder than Shohei Ohtani.
While it might be said that Ohtani has never made an error as an outfielder in the major leagues, neither has he ever made an assist — or even a putout. In his career with the Angels, Shohei Ohtani has played a grand total of 8.1 innings in the field.
In short, while he has been a two-way player as a pitcher and a hitter, he has not been a two-way player in regard to playing a fielding position other than pitcher. This trend goes back to his days playing in Japan.
The only time Ohtani had any significant playing time in the outfield in his professional career was 2013, when he appeared in 56 games. I do not believe that the team that signs him will even consider playing him in the field.
The hope is that he can return to being an effective pitcher one day. A smart team wouldn't ask a rehabbing pitcher to play outfield. As such, when we consider Shohei Ohtani, it will have to be as a designated hitter.
In sum, a team acquiring Juan Soto would be getting an outfielder, the team that acquires Shohei Ohtani will be getting a designated hitter (but one who might pitch in the future). With this in mind, a comparison of the two players, strictly as hitters in the Major Leagues makes a lot of sense.
To begin, both players began their big-league careers in 2018. That allows for an excellent opportunity for comparison as their tenures as MLB players are identical. Soto has played more games (779) than Ohtani (701) but the numbers are relatively close.
If we look at traditional counting stats, Juan Soto, in part because he's played more games, has an advantage in almost every one except homers. Soto has scored more runs (527-428) and has more hits (768-681), doubles (148-129), and runs batted in (483-437). Shohei Ohtani out paces Soto in triples (29-11) and home runs (171-160).
While Soto has the edge across most counting stats, his edge isn't overly significant, and one must consider that Ohtani was pitching throughout much of his time adding an added component to his work that Soto did not encounter. I will assume that if Shohei Ohtani focuses exclusively on batting, that his numbers in that area will improve. In the end, by counting stats, at least, to my thinking, it is basically a toss-up.
Interestingly, where the divide between the two players becomes more clear is in regard to walks and strikeouts. Soto has struck out far fewer times than Ohtani (577 to 755) and has walked a ton more (640 to 351). The differences in these numbers is significant. So, while Soto has a slight edge in batting average, 284 to .274, his On-Base Percentage of .421 is significantly higher than Ohtani's .366. In fact, Soto is the active leader across Major League Baseball in On-Base Percentage.
Conversely, Shohei Ohtani is the better slugger. His .556 Slugging Percentage is a more impressive number than Soto's .524.
Soto has the edge in OPS (.946 to .922) and OPS+ (157 to 148), though the latter number is very close.
Again, these two hitters have very similar statistics across their careers.
The one area where Soto has a most significant edge is in age. Shohei Ohtani will turn 30 years old during the 2024 season. Soto, on the other hand, will be only 25.
If I were a general manager, while I would love to have both players, if I had to choose one player or the other, I would acquire Juan Soto. He is, if only slightly, the better hitter, he can play the field (if not exceptionally well), and he has age on his side. I believe Juan Soto's next five to ten years will be significantly better than Ohtani's, which might even be true if Ohtani can pitch again. I wouldn't bank on a pitcher with arm issues and two significant surgeries.
What a great debate to have!
Paul Semendinger is an adjunct college professor, a retired school principal, a runner (he'll be running the NYC Marathon in November), and an author. His published books are "Scattering the Ashes," "From Compton to the Bronx (with Roy White)," "The Least Among Them," and "Impossible is an Illusion." Paul's next book 365.2 will be published in March 2024. More on that special book coming soon!