Feature Photo: Shohei Ohtani, RHP/RF
Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters
(Nippon Professional Baseball League)
This is Part One of a two-part feature looking at the potential major league future of Shohei Ohtani.
Part Two can be found here.
When I last checked in on the pride of Japan in an April, 2016 feature story about the cultural depth of the game of baseball in Japan, (found here), Shohei Ohtani (RHP/RF, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, NPB), the two-way player debate was just heating up, and I was skeptical about how realistic it was for Ohtani to make meaningful contributions to a team on both sides of the ball. Since then, however, the kid has gone off, and as of September 20 he’s got 22 home runs and an OPS of 1.008—while continuing to be his dominant self on the mound (84 hits over 123 innings pitched, including 151 strikeouts and a 2.12 ERA).
So just to be clear, there is a reason that Major League Baseball has not seen an impact, two-way player since Babe Ruth (LHP,RF,LF, Red Sox, Yankees, Braves, 1914-1935) – the fact that it is really, really hard is only part of the story. Despite the fact that these guys are tremendous athletes, and are physically stronger than ever before, it is still an unrelenting schedule of 162 major league games with crazy cross-country travel mixed in. To put Ohtani’s NPB travel burdens in that context, the NPB is far less strenuous than MLB simply due to the geography of the country: there are no time changes, the majority of the travel is via train or bus, and when air travel is required, the longest flight is under three hours.
With all the injuries we see now in young pitchers, and teams going above and beyond to protect them, it still seems inconceivable to allow a top-of-the-rotation arm to trot out to a position several days a week between starts. That said, what Ohtani has been doing with the bat over in Japan this year has to make you seriously re-consider the validity of this argument. This kid has said that he wants to play both ways from day one. He’s said that he is willing to take on the work and he’s proven that he can impact an NPB lineup while still maintaining his dominance on the hill. But as we have seen with past position players that come to the United States, the offensive stats rarely translate to similar stats in Major League Baseball, and clubs usually get a somewhat diluted version of the offensive numbers seen in Japan (Ichiro Suzuki (RF, Mariners, Yankees, Marlins) being the anomaly to this opinion).
I filed a full report on Ohtani as a pitcher earlier in the year, so I wanted to follow that up with a look at his bat this season. As a hitter, Ohtani’s 1.008 OPS, .318 batting average, and .415 OBP over 359 plate appearances is nothing to thumb your nose at. He looks extremely comfortable at the plate, well beyond his years. He tracks the ball well, sees pitches, and knows the strike zone. While he is walking at an above-average rate (14%), he’s also striking out 24% of the time—which is a concern when projecting his ability to square balls up and not expand the zone versus the more consistently advanced big league stuff. He also tends to get some hip travel at times, and has to cheat a bit to get to balls inside. He does have a big load, however the mechanics are pretty smooth overall — he stays balanced, does a good job keeping his hands back and stays relatively short to the ball. He has power to all fields, but his real power stroke is to left-center field, where he can get those long arms extended and really generate some head speed. Again, though, the pitch inside is what I see giving him the most trouble, as I’m not sure he’ll be able to pull those long arms in enough to consistently get to the bigger velocity he will be seeing in the major leagues.
Make no mistake, the two-way player conversation is going to be had in earnest from now until Ohtani either proves that he can handle the role in the major leagues, or until he gets the bat taken away and is confined to the pitcher’s mound. Part of the intrigue is due to the fact that we would be talking about his posting – and a significant contract value – if Ohtani were just being valued as a position player.
He has plus raw power and 55-grade game power to go with significant on-base ability. He still has a ways to go to develop as a hitter, and he shows more loft-type power rather than back-spin line-drives–so I think some of the power numbers are aided by the smaller NPB ballparks. But at just 22 years old, he has already shown an advanced aptitude to make adjustments while competing at the highest level in Japan—so the ingredients are there. He plays average defense on the corners in the outfield, and it would not be a stretch to see him get to above average. On top of all that, the kid is a 70-grade runner, showing me 3.88, 3.86 and 4.08 run times down the line from the left side. There was some jail break in those sub-4.00 second times, but even so that is moving for a kid who’s 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds, and it’s a significant jump from the 4.25 second range I had him in the past two years. He has a very long, smooth gait for his size, and is quick to full speed. The run is just the latest example of how this kid’s body control and coordination continue to improve.
So how realistic is it to see Ohtani get 350 at-bats in a big league uniform? That depends on who you ask, but if Ohtani comes out with a repeat performance in 2017, he’ll probably get the opportunity to give it a shot. Assuming the new NPB posting regulations (to be negotiated in 2017) will allow Ohtani to pick his destination, and assuming he is still intent on hitting and pitching, it’s a safe bet that a team’s willingness to let him try to do both and not simply the dollar amount will be the determining factor for him in deciding which MLB club to sign with. And that is what may end up keeping some smaller market clubs in the hunt for his services. Historically, the Japanese players whom have had their pick of teams in free agency have focused on the situation they would be heading into, rather than solely thinking of the contract value. Junichi Tazawa (RHP, Red Sox) left several million dollars on the table to go to Boston over Texas or Atlanta. Hiroki Kuroda (RHP, Dodgers (2008-11), Yankees (2012-14) narrowed his teams to the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox and Diamondbacks when he made the jump to the big leagues as a free agent in 2008.
Clubs have become more willing to sacrifice wins now by limited their young pitchers’ innings in hopes of future longevity – with Stephen Strasburg (RHP, Nationals), Matt Harvey (RHP, Mets) being the most visible examples — so it seems that letting Ohtani be a two-way guy would play just fine within the constraints of an innings limit, while giving a team the added bonus of several hundred at-bats worth of average (or better) offensive production. The first argument against such an arrangement is likely the injury risk. Chien Ming Wang (RHP, Royals) getting hurt running the bases in 2008 while with the Yankees, and derailing him in his prime, is a loud example of the negative.
Regardless of where you put a player on the field though, injuries will happen – so letting a guy pitch and hit on a regular basis no doubt increases that risk. However, that does not mean that it can’t be managed. Since Daisuke Matsuzaka (RHP, Red Sox) came over in 2007, we have struggled with how to best get Asian pitchers adjusted to our every-fifth-day rotation style. But if the player is good enough, why not adjust back for them? Surely 24-to-27 starts of Ohtani is better than many of the alternatives—and if he gives you 300 or so at-basts worth of production consistent with that of a Role 50 corner outfielder, doesn’t that make up for the eight or so lost starts AND answer the work load worries that are sure to follow him around every time he toes the rubber? To take it a step further, if the offensive production is there perhaps you move him to a bullpen role late in the year to help ease the work load even further and give the team a massive weapon late in games—having him start in the outfield, come into pitch in a high leverage situation and then head back out the outfield. Isn’t that the holy grail of versatility that teams, like the Chicago Cubs, now value so highly?
In fact, the Cubs could be the best fit for Ohtani to do both, and much of that has to do with manager Joe Maddon, and his ability to manage just about any scenario. The clubhouse culture that team president Theo Epstein and Maddon have created is a great fit for almost any player, plus Ohtani would come in surrounded by a lot of other young, high-end talent and not bear the weight of being the face of the franchise. On top of that, both Epstein and Maddon have experience with Asian players making the transition to the U.S.— with Maddon getting the absolute best out of second baseman Aki Iwamura during his years in Tampa, and Epstein maneuvering his way through the up and downs of Matsuzaka’s tenure in Boston from 2007-12. Yes, that would mean Ohtani won’t be taking advantage of the DH option in the American League, but if anyone can figure out how to keep him productive on the mound, at the dish, and in the field— it’s Joe Maddon.
As of now, I’d say that while teams are starting to consider him as a two-way talent—and there is even some question over whether his potential offensive impact is really that much less than his potential impact on the mound—the industry opinion is still in a strong majority that he will only pitch. That said, in the end I think Ohtani will determine his own fate. If he comes out in 2017 and builds off of his 2016 offensive numbers while continuing dominate on the mound, someone will give him the chance. Clubs have ways of protecting themselves in the contract language, and what says that the kid can’t transition to the mound full time if the hit tool doesn’t work out in year one? So all in all, this is a fun debate to have, but in the end, Ohtani holds the keys here—and I’m willing the bet that when the time comes, there will be more than a few major league teams ready to give him what he wants.