Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, August 5, 2020 -- "Shohei Ohtani"

The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 12, No. 44
August 5, 2020

After walking eight of the 16 batters he faced over two starts, and throwing a 42-pitch inning Sunday against the Astros, Shohei Ohtani is done pitching for the season. An MRI revealed a forearm strain that would shut him down for four to six weeks, and with just eight left in the season, bringing him back on the mound isn’t in the cards. As Joe Maddon told, “In whatever kind of throwing program, it'll be very conservative. I don't have any projection on that other than he's not going to pitch this year.” 

Ohtani is expected to be available as the team’s designated hitter. Combined with the call-up of Jo Adell on Tuesday, this creates a logjam for playing time, locking in Albert Pujols at first base most days and forcing Justin Upton, at least at the moment, into a left-field platoon with Brian Goodwin. The Angels’ rotation takes a hit in that the projected nine starts from Ohtani would have helped them, but then again, they’re losing someone they haven’t really had in two years.

I’ve written a lot about Ohtani since 2017, when he was a star in NPB, not all of it well received. I want to walk back through some of that to see how we got to where we are today, and where Ohtani’s career might go from here. 

I did a two-parter on Ohtani in the fall of ’17, laying out my base case against the idea of him as the 21st-century Babe Ruth.

“There are two reasons to be skeptical. One is simple: baseball is very, very hard, and there’s good reason why two-way players have been left behind by evolution. It requires enormous amounts of work and preparation to be a major-league starting pitcher, and everything not part of the practice of becoming one can fall by the wayside. This is one reason why pitchers, who are often among the best hitters on their amateur teams, mostly lose the ability to hit as they come through the player-development process. They’re not selected for that skill. The same can be said for hitters; the job is hard, a daily grind, and you can’t expect an MLB-caliber hitter to take on the job of being an MLB-caliber hurler as well. This isn’t about the players; it’s about the jobs, and just how much it takes to be an MLB-caliber anything.

“Now, maybe Ohtani is that unicorn, but I don’t see it. The “two-way player” aspect of this story is a hook, but not something MLB teams can seriously consider beyond the way you might use Madison Bumgarner -- as a pinch-hitter, or letting him bat in a spot where you’d pinch-hit for a different pitcher. Ohtani may not be paid much Stateside, but he’s going to be a critical pitcher for whoever signs him, and his new team should want him focused on that job rather than trying to both hit and pitch, something no one has done successfully in the majors in almost 100 years. MLB teams draft players like Ohtani all the time, and they make them choose. The current exception, Brendan McKay, was the fourth pick in last year’s draft, and he will be on a single path by this time next year. Major League Baseball is just too hard for someone to be both a credible pitcher and a credible hitter at the same time. A team may agree to let Ohtani hit as part of the seduction, but it will not last.”

After the Angels signed Ohtani to a surprisingly small contract, I wrote about him in the context of his new team.

“Consider me a total skeptic on Ohtani’s offensive value on all counts. I’m not sure how he gets into the lineup for the Angels, I’m not sure what he hits against MLB pitching, and I’m not sure how the burdens of being a starting pitcher in MLB affect his offense. I will absolutely take the under on any projection of his playing time, and on most projections of his offensive performance so long as his primary job is starting pitcher. If Ohtani were coming over solely as a position player, I think I would have more confidence in projecting him as a hitter. As a pitcher and part-time hitter, there’s more offensive downside than upside.”

Lest you think this piece is an exercise in back-patting, let’s double down on that mixed bag with this, from April 9, 2018:

“I’ve been less convinced about whether he can be a good major-league hitter, given the greater velocity of MLB pitchers. I’ve been less convinced about whether he’ll hit enough to be an asset as a DH, whether the marginal offense is worth the roster machinations.” 

I missed on Ohtani as a hitter. His high strikeout rate in Japan had me concerned he would strike out too much to be productive against MLB pitching, especially as a DH. In 820 MLB PA, Ohtani has hit .281/.345/.528, with 23 steals in 30 attempts. His 133 wRC+ makes him a top-25 hitter in MLB among players with at least 700 PA in the last three seasons, wedged between Jose Altuve and Giancarlo Stanton. Dude can rake, and it’s that ability at the plate that made me more convinced he should not be a two-way player.

From June of ’18, after Ohtani landed on the injured list with a UCL tear:

“The more radical approach would be to employ Ohtani solely as a hitter, at least for a while, and then see if he can move back to the mound as needed late in the year and perhaps in the postseason. On a rate basis, Ohtani has been a better hitter (149 OPS+) than he has been a pitcher (131 ERA+). His playing-time upside is higher as a hitter as well; the Angels are never going to get full value from him as a starter on a seven-day cycle, whereas Ohtani can DH just about every day. If pitching is off the table, the Angels can even play Ohtani in the outfield, where he projects to be no worse than an average defender and probably a plus one. This would be an elegant solution to the Kole Calhoun (.145/.195/.179) problem, and if not that, a viable alternative to the team having to play both Albert Pujols and Luis Valbuena.

“If Ohtani’s elbow is a lost cause and he needs surgery, so be it; but if the problem is pitching, the Angels can get just about as much value out of Ohtani as an everyday hitter, especially an everyday right fielder, as they would have from him in the hybrid role. It can’t be about the stunt casting any more, about the story. It has to just be about wins.”

It’s that last line that got some pushback, essentially arguing that some cost in value was worth paying to have a player as unique as Ohtani. I think that argument had merit in a world where Ohtani was maxing out his availability as both a pitcher and a hitter. We have never lived in that world. Ohtani was a low-volume starter -- nine starts over nine weeks at 5 1/2 innings a start -- and a half-time DH at the very peak of his “two-way player” status in the majors, a stretch that lasted two months. He has thrown a total of four innings since then.

I checked in on Ohtani a year later.

“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+. ...

“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’s offense would fade a bit from that early-summer peak. He ended up hitting .286/.343/.505, going 12-for-15 stealing, and producing 2.5 wins, even as a DH. Still, it was a glimpse into what the 24-year-old could be if assigned just one job. 

We’ll fast-forward to the Angels’ offseason breakdown, from back in February.

“I have been low man on Shohei Ohtani for two years, and that doesn’t change now. MLB isn’t NPB, where the travel and scheduling burdens are far easier to manage, and where six-man rotations are the norm. MLB has generously flagged Ohtani as a “two-way player” despite him not pitching in 2019, but Ohtani has, being blunt, never been a two-way player in the U.S. He’s never batted and pitched in the same game, never played an inning in the field, and even in 2018, his batting and pitching were generally separated by days of rest even before his elbow blew out.

“I would love to see what Shohei Ohtani could do in one role. He might be Jacob deGrom. He might be Christian Yelich. The effort to have him be a two-way player is preventing him from being either.”

With Shohei Ohtani shut down as a pitcher, it means that from 2017 through 2010, over four seasons, Ohtani will have thrown 79 2/3 innings, total. He hasn’t played an inning in the field other than pitching since 2017, either. He’s lost much of one season to an elbow strain, then had Tommy John surgery, then lost almost all of an abbreviated season to a forearm strain. 

Shohei Ohtani isn’t a two-way player. He hasn’t been since 2016, no matter how much he wants to be or how much fans want him to be. The effort to become a two-way player is ruining a career that could be so much more than it has been so far. There’s a MLB superstar within Ohtani, whose incredible athleticism is wasted in a bat-only role, but he’ll only ever realize it if he picks one side of the ball and sticks with it.

I return to something I wrote in April of last year, something that holds true 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.”

It’s worse than that, of course: We’re taking those players and making them into just a DH. It’s time to admit that the two-way effort is over. Let Ohtani stop trying to be a unicorn and get on with being a superstar.