Sunday, August 25, 2019

Newsletter Preview: "Shohei Ohtani"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for nearly 25 years.

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[From June 14, 2019]

Last night, Shohei Ohtani became the first Japanese-born player to hit for the cycle, racking up four hits in a 5-3 Angels win over the Rays. The big game pulls Ohtani’s sophomore year numbers to .281/.350/.512. He's done that over about a month since starting his season late as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery.

In 135 career games, a tick more than 500 career plate appearances, Ohtani has shown himself to be one of the best hitters in baseball: .284/.358/.550, a 144 OPS+, with 11 steals in 16 attempts. While he’s yet to play a defensive inning as a position player Stateside, his baserunning has been impressive enough to support the reports we had on his NPB work. Ohtani would almost certainly be a good, perhaps even great, corner outfielder in the majors.

It’s been just over a year now since Ohtani took his last regular turn in the rotation, a four-inning start in Kansas City abbreviated by a blister on his right middle finger. Ohtani would make a seemingly random start in September, going 2 1/3 innings against the Astros. So it’s reasonable to say that for the last year, Ohtani hasn’t been the two-way player of mythology but, rather, a one-way player. In that year, Ohtani has hit .282/.353/.556. Left alone to rake, he’s been one of the 15 best hitters in baseball, with a 146 wRC+. Here are his comps in that time.

Oh! -tani (Hitting since June 14, 2018, min. 250 PA)

                     PA     AVG   OBP   SLG   wRC+

11. Max Muncy       589    .286  .380  .551   149
12. Mookie Betts    711    .307  .416  .524   149
13. Shohei Ohtani   375    .282  .353  .556   146
14. Josh Bell       602    .299  .385  .544   145
15. Pete Alonso     277    .258  .339  .598   145

Mind you, a lot of that production has come with a torn or surgically repaired right ulnar collateral ligament. We’ve yet to see what Shohei Ohtani can do at full health.

I understand the desire to see someone do that which hasn’t been done since Babe Ruth was hitting dingers and committing all seven deadly sins before lunch. Isn’t it clear, though, a year and a half into this, that Ohtani is a potential MVP candidate even if he never takes the mound at all, and that pushing the latter task onto his desk offers more risk than reward?

Ohtani was a good, not great, pitcher last year, a Statcast darling used on a six-day schedule who still didn’t provide volume when he pitched, who walked more than 10% of the batters he faced, who left a hole in the lineup on the days before and after he took the mound. If we pick this up again in 2020, his pitching duties will once again eat into his at-bats, even as the Angels have to manage his innings. Come Opening Day 2020, Ohtani will have thrown just 77 innings in the last 3 1/2 years. It will be 2021, maybe 2022, before he carries a true starter’s workload, if ever, and the effort to put that on him will keep him out of the lineup -- keep a top-20 hitter in MLB out of the lineup -- 40% of the time.

I wrote this on April 9, 2018, and I stand by it today:

“I’m pretty sure Shohei Ohtani is a five-win pitcher, and I can be convinced he’s a five-win outfielder. I just don’t know if we’re taking those players and making them into a four-win P/DH.”

I loved what we saw last night. I want to see more of it. Maybe that should be enough.


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