The hot stove has finally found some kindling. Even though spring training has officially begun and J.D. Martinez, Mike Moustakas, Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, and Greg Holland are all still free agents, some of the bigger pieces on the market have found homes. Lorenzo Cain signed more than three weeks ago. Yu Darvish and Eric Hosmer finally locked in their 2018 assignments. The baseball season is beginning to take shape.
The best move of them all, of course, was the signing of Shohei Ohtani to the Los Angeles Angels in early December. Seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? The Angels got a $250 million player for under $23 million, allowing them to trade for Ian Kinsler, sign Zack Cozart, and look like an actual contender.
Ohtani is a two-way phenom. We all know this. It is what makes him so special. But despite working in the DH league, which will earn him the possibility for more plate appearances than he would in the Senior Circuit, Ohtani is likely to focus more intently on pitching. Even when he was pitching only once a week for the Nippon-Ham Fighters, Ohtani was available to DH only three days a week. Albert Pujols is still the primary DH and Ohtani will eventually have to adapt to a five-man rotation setup, given the lack of rotation depth in Anaheim.
Projected values confirm that Ohtani should be emphasized as a pitcher. PECOTA pegs Ohtani for a 3.77 Deserved Run Average and nearly three wins above replacement in 144 innings as a pitcher. Steamer thinks Ohtani is a one-win hitter, and that’s if he manages to scrape together more than 300 plate appearances. ZiPS agrees. That’s a ton of work for a guy to put in if he’s going to start 25 games and dig into the batter’s box for another 83.
But if he can do it, why not do it? The answer: Both ZiPS and Steamer project Ohtani to be a league-average bat. The power is jawdropping, but the swing-and-miss is real. His plate discipline in Japan doesn’t paint a picture of a power-and-patience hitter who can draw oodles of walks while also drilling a bunch of doubles and home runs to offset the strikeouts.
That’s not to say there isn’t potential in the bat, but Ohtani is essentially the finished article on the mound. His fastball sits in the upper 90s with late movement and can touch triple digits. His splitter is probably the best in baseball, and he won’t throw a major league inning for several more weeks. His slider is nasty and has drawn comparisons to Yu Darvish’s. He can kick in a curveball and changeup that, at worst, give hitters different looks on his offerings.
In other words, Ohtani is an ace-in-the-making who dealt with injuries last year and had a plasma injection in his right elbow last fall before he joined the Angels. Pitchers are fragile creatures, and one never knows when the next elbow ligament or shoulder tendon might pop. Everything must be done to ensure that they stay healthy. Ohtani is more important than all of them. He represents not only the future of the Angel franchise, but also the next step in the evolution of baseball. The more he hits, the more he risks bringing that house of cards down on his head.
That’s not to say he shouldn’t hit at all; if you’re going to be the evolution of a sport, you have to do the thing that helps it evolve. It is the responsibility of general manager Billy Eppler, manager Mike Scoscia, and the entire coaching, medical, and strength and conditioning staffs to ensure that Ohtani stays on the field. If he is already a viable major league pitcher with room to grow as a hitter, and one needs to be sacrificed to keep him healthy, the bat needs to be minimized.
But anything can happen. His body may hold itself together. Pujols may get hurt and force the issue. Ohtani may close up the holes in his swing and become indispensable in the batter’s box. That’s the thing about Ohtani–nobody knows anything, because nobody has ever faced a player like him before, or the decisions he forces an organization to make.
Ohtani is the present. In order for him to be the future, the Angels must tread carefully, and acknowledge that they need him much more acutely on the mound.