Ohtani Making Noise in Two-Way Player Debate – And an MLB Team Will Listen (Part Two)

Feature Photo:  Shohei Ohtani, RHP/RF
Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters
(Nippon Professional Baseball League)

 

In Part One of my look at the two-way emergence of Shohei Ohtani (RHP/RF, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, NPB), I zeroed in on his exceptional 2016 performance, and the potential value he would bring as a possible free agent posting in 2017 or 2018. This time around, I’m going to focus on evaluating his potential impact on the offensive side of the ball vs. his high-octane talent on the mound, and the scenarios that I think best fit his skillset.

Having seen Ohtani in-person through his first five years in the NPB, Ohtani has shown me the tools and ability to be productive both on the hill and as a position player—it’s just that he is far more advanced on the mound right now than he is at the plate.  With that said, he is a pitcher first and foremost for me, because the impact potential on the mound is greater, and I think the bat still needs more time to develop.  It is going to be real hard for him to get developmental at bats in the major leagues without sacrificing potentially meaningful big league innings (unless a team wants to pay him $20+ million a year to develop the bat at the front end of the contract even though the arm is big league ready now). While he is potentially an above-average defender at a corner-outfield spot – showcasing a 70-grade run & 70-grade arm – it will be tough to run him out to left field or right field everyday between starts and keep his legs fresh if you are relying on him as a rotation piece deep into a playoff run (remember what happened with Jake Arrieta (RHP, Cubs), who’s a physical specimen, but cited fatigue impacting his performance in the 2015 playoffs after topping 200 innings during the regular season).

fighters_ohtani_batShould Ohtani be developed as a position player first, then I do think that the hit tool will eventually improve enough to where the power will contribute at a 55-grade level. But right now he has a hole on the inner half of the plate that he needs to cover up, and he has some hip travel that can make it hard for him to get his hands out front at times.  However, he can generate some bat speed, and his incredible athletic ability will allow him to make some necessary adjustments going forward if given the opportunity.  I expect him to always have some swing and miss, but with this season being his first in which he got almost full-time at-bats, his approach and pitch recognition should improve in 2017.  So bottom line is this – If I were a major league team, I would take him as a pitcher first (where he is a future Role 70, top-end of the rotation starter) over trying to max out his potential as a position player (in my new scouting report of Ohtani as a position player, I graded him as a future Role 50, average everyday right fielder).  If he pitches on a regular turn in the rotation and hits part time in between those starts, then I don’t think he’ll reaches his offensive ceiling, thus limiting the value of the bat. And the lower the value of the bat, the less sense it makes to risk negative impact on the pitcher side of the equation.

Now, another scenario (albeit and unlikely one) in which he could get more time at the plate and still contribute meaningful innings on the mound would be to use him out of the bullpen while developing him as your everyday right fielder. With the value skyrocketing for back-end of the pen pieces like Andrew Miller (RHP, Indians), Aroldis Chapman (LHP, Cubs), Kenley Jansen (RHP, Dodgers) and Dellin Betances (RHP, Yankees), perhaps Ohtani fits best as a multi-inning reliever who can shorten the game on a more regular basis. Such a role would seemingly allow him to get on the mound in 50-plus games per year instead of 25-to-30, while also affording him the additional time to focus on his development as a position player. That still doesn’t solve the problem of the bat potentially needing time at Triple-A, but ultimately there will be some sacrifice of innings pitched any way you slice it in order to really see where the bat can go.

With valuations where they are now for multi-inning, shut-down reliever types going into this offseason, it would be tough to argue that even in this type of role, the money Ohtani will command isn’t still justified. If Jason Heyward (RF, Cubs) is getting $184 million over eight years to be a defense-first right fielder, why would Ohtani not be worth $200M+ to be a lesser defender but a younger (still just 22 years old), better offensive player – AND be able to give you Miller, Betances, Chapman, Jansen-like production on the mound?

Overall, this kid is very talented, and because of that gives any club a number of different routes they can go to utilize his skillset. I expect Ohtani, like most players, to struggle in one or more facets of his game if and when he comes to the major leagues, but I choose to see the two-way potential as a hedge against the risk of whatever struggles may come. I have to assume that any GM interested in bringing Ohtani into their organization will approach the scenario with a relatively open mind, see what the kid really wants to do, and adjust their offer accordingly. Whichever way this ends up going, Ohtani is going to bring very solid value to a major league team in the not too distant future.

8 Comments

  • Eddie says:

    “I have to assume that any GM interested in bringing Ohtani into their organization will approach the scenario with a relatively open mind, ”

    I wouldn’t assume that at all. I assume some of them will be open-minded, but I assume some others are not going to see a guy that can be an ace pitcher right away, and not want to screw with that.

    Yes it’s possible to conceive all kinds of creative ways Otani COULD be used … but if his team in Japan isn’t willing to screw around like that, it’s pretty unlikely an MLB team that’s spending umpteen million dollars on an elite pitching talent will start experimenting, asking him to do things (play OF regularly) he hasn’t done in years, and/or asking him to do things (routinely pitch 2-3 innings in relief) that nobody has done in a couple of decades. I don’t think even Maddon is that much of a dice-roller.

    If Otani really wanted to be in the field every day, he’d have been there for the last four years. The evidence suggests he doesn’t. It will be interesting enough to see which teams are willing to let him DH twice a week, versus which ones tell him they just want him to pitch.

    • Dave DeFreitas says:

      Thats a fair assessment, and if I were a GM trying to sign him I want him as a pitcher first. However, there will be more than a couple teams after this kid and if he wants to be afforded the opportunity to try to play the field and pitch in the rotation then I think someone will give it to him (at least initially). Again, my take is that his talent is maximized by him focusing on pitching due to the difference in potential impact of the two roles (Role 70 as a pitcher/Role 50 as a position player).

      The Fighters eased him into the lineup this year…they have the same concerns that teams over here would have. The whole concept of a 2-way player is just as unprecedented in the NPB as it is in MLB. The fact that he hit his way into almost 400 AB’s this year is probably well beyond where the team wanted him to be when the season started…not playing the field was likely the compromise he had to make to the team. He’s 22 and has no power over whom he plays for right now. I am merely suggesting that once he does have a say that teams will need to either give him what he’s after or convince him that their plan is better…hence the “open mind” comment. As I said before, my experience with Japanese players is that money is not always the most important factor in these types of decisions.

      So how about you? Give me the team and role you see being the best option for this kid to be the best possible version of himself.

  • Jim Allen says:

    Love your analysis Dave. I’m going to guess that Otani will sign with a big league team that promises to give him a chance to do both and has something in mind to make it work. If not, he will probably stay in Japan until he tires of it.

    • Dave DeFreitas says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! I bet he leaves as soon as he can and will leverage AB’s as much as he can from interested MLB clubs.

  • Eddie says:

    Depends on what his goal is. For most things — winning championships, making the Hall of Fame, etc — his best bet would be to focus on establishing himself as a top-level pitcher and to put hitting on the shelf. If/when he’s cranked out a 3 or 4 WAR season on the mound, then and only then look to add value at the plate.

    On the other hand, he might believe enough in himself as a unique talent that he says he will only sign with teams that offer him some sort of promise about 200 ABs or whatever. That will scare off some teams, including, I suspect, the teams willing/able to pay him the most and who are closest to contention; but if that’s what he really wants and he’s willing to take less money, it will be possible. A player who’s never spent an inning in the majors dictating how he’s going to be used will be met with a lot of criticism, though. If he plays poorly, or gets injured running the bases or something, there will be a lot of people eager to lambaste his/the team’s arrogance, etc. And not without merit: if he just focused on pitching, the guy has a shot to be the best pitcher in the majors … how cocky do you have to be to say “I want more than that?”

    If this was a video game, we could put him the AL and let him DH two out of five days. If it doesn’t work, or if he blows a knee while hitting, we can hit the reset button. Since it’s not, anything other than “pitch first, then we’ll talk” would require Bo-Jackson-level of athletic self-confidence, AND a team with Al-Davis-level willingness to take a chance. I don’t know if either exists here.

    • Dave DeFreitas says:

      I’m still waiting for your evaluation on what role is best, why you think that, and what team is going to be the best fit…

  • Eddie Rooney says:

    Good analysis. What’s your best guess to when he gets posted? This year, following season? Thanks.

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