Thus far in our coverage of Shohei Ohtani, we’ve hewed closely to the facts of the matter and have largely avoided hypothetical talk of how he would/could/should be deployed. But now that we’ve gotten to the point where teams are submitting written evaluations of the two-way star’s abilities, it seems like now is a good time to delve into his future MLB role and what makes the most sense for him.
The most obvious truth of the matter is that he’s going to be a pitcher first and a hitter second, unless and until his performance proves otherwise. There’s a reason pitchers don’t hit as well or as often as position players, and it’s not because they’re less powerful or athletic. Well, that’s the case for some of them, but it’s more that being a successful major league pitcher requires a full-time dedication to the craft. Likewise, you’ve got to work on hitting in order to be a good hitter.
Sounds pretty basic, but it’s clearly evident that Ohtani offers much more value as a starting pitcher than he does as a hitter. Think about it in terms of his potential mediocrity, which is a very real possibility. Who’s more valuable: A decent back-end starter who can take the bump every five days and not get shelled, or a middling corner outfielder who bats .265 with 15 homers. One of those grows on trees, the other makes $15 million per year.
Even if he settles for sweeping his floor instead of painting a fresco on his ceiling, Ohtani presents far more value as a pitcher. So the hitting is really just a value-add that allows an NL manager to have a more potent lineup and to leave his starter in even when his spot is due up in the later innings of a close game. Ohtani could also serve as a pinch-hitter and man a corner spot from time to time when he’s not pitching.
Please bear in mind that I’m not demeaning Ohtani’s value as a hitter, but am simply attempting to put it in perspective relative to his pitching. The folks at NEIFI.co provided a much more in-depth look at how Ohtani stacks up against NPB pitchers and hitters (hint: it’s very favorable) and where he projects in MLB, arriving at more or less the same conclusion I have.
It does not seem out of line to suggest Otani could be an MLB All-Star on both sides of the ball. This is more distinctly true on the pitching side than it is as a position player, where he could legitimately be a frontline starter. But Otani now also looks like he could be one of the best hitters in baseball if he focused his energy on that side of the ball. Of course, the more interesting question is what he could do in the big leagues if he didn’t have to choose, and whether he might really be a potential two-way superstar in MLB. Based on what he’s doing this year, the question isn’t as absurd as it might sound.
It seems like a given that the team Ohtani chooses will give him the opportunity to hit on his off-days, but how often is he going to do so? There’s been this assumption that Ohtani will choose an AL team* because he can be utilized as a DH, thus affording him more at-bats while minimizing overall wear. His time in the outfield has been severely limited — as in, like, totally eliminated — over the last two seasons in Japan and removing defense from the equation would help him to focus on pitching and hitting.
Thing is, the whole AL thing assumes he’s a better option at DH than a current MLB hitter. That’s actually a pretty reasonable idea, though, as that NEIFI post comps Ohtani as NPB’s version of Edwin Encarnacion or Anthony Rizzo. Okay cool, but then we have to consider whether he actually wants or, more importantly, needs several hundred at-bats. It’s possible both are true, but it’s more likely that he’s humble enough to know that he’s got some work to do before getting full-time plate appearances.
After all, it’s not like Ohtani was in the lineup every day in Japan. Even in 2016, his most productive season, he appeared in only 104 of the Nippon-Ham Fighters’ 146 games and registered only 382 plate appearances. With the understanding that the 2017 season saw him play through nagging injuries, he has averaged only 81 games and 234 plate appearances per season over five years in Japan.
But we need to account for his pitching in those numbers, since Ohtani was able to hit for himself. If we remove his 20 starts in that 2016 season, we’re left with 84 games and 308 plate appearances (assuming he maintained his 3.67 PA/game average, which we can do because he still hit cleanup when he pitched). And culling his 82 career starts and their attendant 2.9 PA/G, we see that Ohtani averaged 60 games and 174 plate appearances as a hitter in Japan
For the sake of comparison, Tommy La Stella appeared in 73 games and had 151 plate appearances last season; Albert Almora Jr. played in 132 games and logged 323 plate appearances; and Ian Happ was at 115 and 413. But what could be the most telling when it comes to how the Cubs would find room for Ohtani is that Jon Jay got 433 plate appearances over 141 games. Joe Maddon could easily give Ohtani his usual allotment while still increasing the load carried by Happ and Almora. Easy-peasy, right?
Well, maybe not. As I mentioned earlier, Ohtani hasn’t played the outfield in a while and isn’t destined for a ton of run out there. He’s also a lefty batter who can’t play center, and the Cubs already have a pair of lefty-hitting corner men. But Maddon has shown a propensity for shuffling players around with a relatively deft touch, so let’s see if this could really work.
Even if we go with a conservative estimate of 25 starts, we’re looking at about 50 plate appearances as a pitcher. But that’s if Ohtani bats in a traditional spot at the bottom of the order, which may not be the case. Convention be damned, he could bat fifth or sixth even as a starting pitcher. Now we’re up to maybe 75 or so PA’s. Throw in 45 more as a pinch-hitter and another 40 from 10 interleague road games and we’re at 160. Finally, sprinkle in 40 starts in the outfield to add in another 140 plate appearances and Ohtani’s grand total is 300 (give or take a few).
That’s all assuming Ohtani would serve as the team’s fifth starter, inasmuch as those numerical designations really matter. You may recall that Kyle Hendricks occupied the last spot in the rotation as the 2016 season opened, but he was far from the least valuable starter on the squad. Which brings us to the idea of value and how much Ohtani really needs to produce in order to justify his contract.
The short answer is that he only has to be slightly better than a replacement player, if that. Given that he’ll be on a rookie contract, his cost is quite literally that of a backup, and a very cheap one. Even adding in the bonus he’d earn from the Cubs, we’re talking about less than $1 million in cost for his first season. Factoring in pre-arbitration years and even assuming some raises, we’re looking at something in the neighborhood of $4-5 million over his first four seasons.
Basically, Ohtani only has to post a cumulative WAR of about 0.5 over four seasons in order to justify the money he’ll be paid. Even if he goes to a team that can offer him a max bonus, he’ll only need to post 0.9 WAR or so. Eddie Butler put up 0.6 for the Cubs this year alone. Hell, Mike Montgomery accounted for 0.2 WAR this season…as a hitter. What I’m saying is that it’d take a monumentally poor performance over several seasons for Ohtani to be a bust in terms of his contract.
Relative to the hype, on the other hand, he’ll need to win the Cy Young and compete for the triple crown as a rookie.
I’ll close by circling back to the idea of how he’ll best be able to create that value. While some team might try to appeal to Ohtani’s love for hitting by telling him they’ll go with a six-man rotation to make him a part-time pitcher and full-time hitter, it’s almost assured that he’ll be a rotation mainstay. As such, hitting is going to take a backseat. But since we’re talking about a 23-year-old with loads of talent and desire, he’ll do whatever he can to play both ways.
And who knows, maybe there’ll be a Rick Ankiel situation going on some point. By that I mean Ohtani flopping as a pitcher and giving it up in order to be a position player. That’s a pretty extreme example, though, and it’d require a pretty crazy turn of events. A more likely scenario would involve a shoulder or elbow injury that ends his pitching career but doesn’t preclude him from hitting.
The long and short of it is that Ohtani’s floor and ceiling are both higher as a pitcher than they are as a hitter. He can still provide serious value with the bat, but it’d be best if that part of his game serves as a bonus to, rather than the core of, his production. And in that sense, the Cubs have more than enough room to accommodate him in both the rotation and the outfield mix.
*Were I to handicap the race, I’d probably put Chicago behind LA and Seattle, but I don’t necessarily think there’s a wide gap. The Dodgers don’t have the same room on the roster as we see with the Cubs, though the Angels might be able to make something work. The Yankees don’t even have a manager yet, so it’s hard to see how they make a pitch. Above all, I think it’s a fallacy that AL teams have a decided advantage.
It’s almost a shame all this speculation has to end within the month, I’ve been having so much fun.