Shohei Ohtani has played as advertised in his first month and a half in the majors. Touted as the first two way player since Babe Ruth, Ohtani was the biggest story of the offseason, and for good reason. The Japanese phenom has been explosive at the plate and a bonafide fireballer on the mound. These two attributes would be a jackpot for any team to find in two separate players, but to get both in one guy, that’s a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow made out of winning lottery tickets.
Ohtani knew his worth, so his courtship was unlike any other. Teams interested in the Ruthian ballplayer were given a questionnaire to fill out to see just how they would use Ohtani. There were other questions asked of prospective suitors: what the club atmosphere is like, what the fans are like, how they intend to improve their team, how they see their club succeeding, etc. Ohtani wanted to know where he stood on a roster before getting his name on their jersey.
The Unicorn Factor
Ohtani was this unicorn type figure to the media and the league. He was mythical in scope and unbelievable on paper. The daily reports began to feel like a P.T. Barnum flyer. Can there really be a guy who pitches and hits at the same level of ability? How can that happen? What does that even look like?
First off, in the National League, the pitchers hit every game. Am I a “National League is the original game and the DH is a bastardization of that game” kind of guy? No. I’m not. I love that there’s a separation between the two leagues. I think it makes them unique.
It’s also why I thought Shohei Othani would be signed by a National League team. A National League team would be able to use him everyday as a pinch hitter or at first base and then pitch him every 5th, keeping him in your everyday lineup. Playing him the AL forces you to play him in the DH spot and remove him from the offensive lineup on days before, after, and during his starts.
If pitchers are all about rhythm and routine, how does playing for the Angels work out for both sides? Ohtani forces the Angels to figure out Albert Pujols/Marte/Rivera/Valbuena at first base and then drop their lineup down a peg when he pitches. Now the reports are coming out that Ohtani wants more playing time. If he wanted that he should have signed in the NL where he could have. For a guy with all these surveys and sales pitches in front of him, you would have thought he’d think that through.
Beyond how his talents are being utilized is the question of how long this can last? How soon until Ohtani becomes a one-way player? Years? Months? Days? What happens when he tweaks an ankle rounding first or slides hard into second base before a start? God forbid he takes a pitch off the hand with a start on the horizon.
All of these situations may feel like doomsday scenarios, but what if I told you that the majority of Japanese pitchers experience a sharp drop in performance, regardless of their position? All of the talk about Ohtani’s playing time and his performance recently, but no one’s talking long term.
On the Mound
Let’s talk about Ohtani as a pitcher, since that’s the one place he can immediately help the Angels improve. Out of the eight Japanese born players in the MLB, seven of them are pitchers, the outlier being Ichiro Suzuki. The other major Japanese import to make his MLB debut was Kenta Maeda in 2016.
Kenta Maeda – Los Angeles Dodgers
Maeda made waves in 2016 coming onto the scene with a hot series of starts. Through his first 6 starts, Maeda held a 1.66 ERA, but after that Maeda faced tougher competition. After sitting out the rest of the 2016 campaign after the all-star game, Maeda looked to rebound again in2017.
His 2017 run was met with loud hits from opposing batters and his ERA ballooned to 5.16, getting as high as 8.00. Maeda is still trying to live up to the hype he came in with and cement himself in the Dodgers rotation, rather than relegate himself to the bullpen.
Maeda’s now a part of the Dodgers rotation but still has yet to grasp the magic he once had in his first few months in the MLB. Currently, Maeda is 3-3, with a 3.98 ERA and a 1.295 WHIP.
Masahiro Tanaka – New York Yankees
Tanaka might be the exception to the rule on this one, but can anyone really say that he’s been dominant during his time in pinstripes? Baseball Reference has Tanaka listed with similar pitchers like Alex Cobb, Mark Prior, Michael Wacha, and Tanner Roark. Similar pitchers through age 28 include Clay Buccholz and Jaime Garcia. That’s where Tanaka lives, in the #2 or #3 slot in a rotation, which you could argue is not something the Yankees paid $155 million for.
Before coming to New York, Tanaka was crushing it in Japan, playing for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. For the Golden Eagles, Tanak put up some unreal numbers like his 2.30 ERA over 7 years. Those kinds of numbers haven’t transferred to the MLB, at least not in the way we all thought they would.
Tanaka’s best season was 2016 where he recorded 14 wins and 4 losses while tossing a 1.077 WHIP and a 3.07 ERA, earning him 7th place in Cy Young voting. The issue here is that Tanaka followed that season up with his worst, putting up the numbers of someone else… someone not making $22 million.
Nine starts into the 2018 season, Tanaka has posted a 4.73 ERA, and a 4-2 record, all while sporting a 1.071 WHIP. It should be mentioned that Tanaka gets a ton of quality starts, and while those don’t count for much in the tangible game, it’s worth noting. Another weird note about Tanaka is that he’s pretty bad when pitching indoors. I know, it’s weird.
Hiroki Kuroda – Los Angeles Dodgers
Hiroki Kuroda is worth mentioning here since he was a prince in the Nippon league but came over to the MLB when he was in his early thirties. He only pitched 7 seasons in the MLB, but went a solid 79-79 during that span, putting up a career ERA of 3.45. The guy was consistent, which is something that is oddly hard to find in Japanese pitchers who have come to the MLB. In the NL, he posted and an ERA of 3.45 and in the AL he tossed 3.44. I mean, the guy was as advertised. #Consistency
The more interesting question about Kuroda is whether or not he came to the MLB fully formed and a master of his kills, or if he was able to adapt quicker to the MLB than most. My money’s on his time ripening in the Nippon League. Allowing a pitcher to develop properly is a luxury most guys don’t get, due to an organization’s need. Kuroda remains an outlier, but a great blueprint for the future of Japanese imports.
Fun Fact: Kuroda and Maeda both played for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in the Nippon League, and both wore #18 when playing for the Dodgers.
Daisuke Matsuzaka – P, Boston Red Sox
This one is personal. I was all in on Dice-K when he arrived in Boston. We all were. Could you blame us? The GyroBall gave us all dreamy eyes and the thought of the Red Sox snagging the hottest pitcher coming out of Japan was HUGE.
Dice-K struggled his first year in Boston, like most players do. Boston is not an easy place to play in, just ask Carl Crawford or David Price. However, he did start 32 games in his rookie season, which would be his last time pitching in 30+ games until the final year of his career.
After his first two years of success, Dice-K imploded. He played out the rest of his contract with Boston, failing to achieve the same level of success he enjoyed in his first two campaigns. He finished his MLB career bouncing between the Mets and their Triple-A club in Las Vegas.
From Strikeouts to Home Runs
As for his time at the plate? That’s where Japanese players have really done damage. We are all well versed in Ichiro Suzuki’s career stats, and we’re all aware of Hideki Matsui’s contributions to the Yankees dynasty of the 2000s. But is Ohtani living up to that high standard?
He’s is and he isn’t. Through their first month and a half, aside from home runs, Ichiro and Ohtani have very similar numbers. Shohei comes into this week with 74 at-bats under his belt, compared to the 165 Ichiro had at the same mark. Even if you doubled Ohtani’s numbers, the only one that would put him above the Mariner’s Right fielder is his home runs, but he only beats Ichiro by 8 round trippers. Ohtani has 26 hits, 6 HRs, 17 RBIs, and a .321 average through his 81 at-bats. Ichiro, through the same season mark, had 165 at-bats, 52 hits, 2 HRs, 17 RBIs, and a .360 average. Ichiro takes the cake.
Matsui, on the other hand, is a different story. Matsui, through the same stretch, had 160 ABs, 45 hits, 3 HRs, 28 RBIs and a .275 average.
Both Ichiro and Matsui have the better numbers across the board. I can hear you screaming at your computer “But Ohtani has half the at-bats! This is stupid!” I know. That’s my point. Having Ohtani out of the lineup 2 of every 5 days doesn’t help you create momentum. If anything, it stops it.
Possibly the best and most recent comparison is Kosuke Fukudome. Before making the jump to the MLB with Chicago, Fukudome played for the Chunichi Dragons of the Japanese Central League. In the 5 seasons prior to his stint with Chicago, Fukudome RAKED. The guy was an offensive machine. In those years, he hit .313 and averaged 20 HRs, 29 doubles, 5 triples, and 86 RBIs a season. If those numbers sound familiar it’s because they are very reminiscent of guys like 2017 José Ramirez and 2017 Bryce Harper. So yes, the hype was real.
Fukudome only lasted 5 years in the majors, and in that span, he never came close to achieving the success he saw in Japan. Fukudome averaged 30 doubles, 11 HRs, 53 RBIs and hit .258 for the Cubs, White Sox, and Cleveland. To give you a frame of reference those are 2017 Jason Heyward and Yolmer Sanchez numbers.
After 5 years in the MLB, Fukudome returned to the JPCL at the age of 36 with the Hanshin Tigers. Within two seasons, he was putting up his numbers reminiscent of his younger self. The talent never left. The game just got harder.
Success in the MLB for Japanese hitters is far less likely than it is for pitchers. Consider that out of the 7 Japanese players in the MLB, 6.5 of them are pitchers. The .5 being Shohei Ohtani.
As A Rookie
On March 8th, Baseball America profiled their top Rookies of the 2018 season 21 days before the season even began. The top of the list? Ohtani. Number One with a bullet. And quite honestly, if you asked the average MLB fan, they’d probably agree that Ohtani’s in prime position to win the Rookie of the year award.
But … what if he’s not?
As of right now, Ohtani’s not even close to being deserving of any votes based on his performance, as there are other rookies tearing it up to much less fanfare. In the offensive realm, young sluggers like Christian Villanueva, Franchy Cordero, and Tyler Austin are ahead of Ohtani in home runs. Miguel Andujar has three times as many doubles, and Brian Anderson has more than twice as many as Ohtani. Yes, Ohtani leads the 2018 rookie class in Batting Average, but in 81 at-bats, his sample size is small. By the same metric that Ohtani’s hitting .321, Juan Lagares of the New York Mets, is hitting .331. Sample size is a thing, y’all.
On the mound, Ohtani still falls into the middle of the pack. Ohtani’s 6 starts, his 3-1 record, and his 3.58 ERA fall into the middle of the pack, even his strikeout numbers are not top of the pack. Where he does top the pack is with his WHIP, holding firm at 1.102. Aside from that, he’s still behind guys like Caleb Smith of the Marlins, Joey Lucchesi of the Padres and Tyler Mahle of the Reds. So while Ohtani may be the most hyped rookie of the year, his stats are not up to the same level as the other guys.
Before you yell at me that he’s not going to have the same numbers because he’s doing twice as much as the average one-way player, I know. That’s my point. Ohtani splitting his time is going to hamper his numbers, so I’m not ready to hand him the crown based on what ifs and projections. The fact of the matter is that being a two-way player, playing the way the Angels are using him, his numbers aren’t going to live up to the high standards of past winners like Judge, Seager, Bellinger, deGrom, and Fernandez. No way. No chance.
Look, I am all for Ohtani revolutionizing the way the game is played and how players are evaluated. What I am not for is the way his play has been reported. Yes, Ohtani threw Two 101 MPH fastballs. That’s great. However, he’s not the only player to have accomplished that feat. Aroldis Chapman is known for tossing gas on days that end in “y”. Then there’s Jordan Hicks, the rookie reliever on the Cardinals, who has done it SEVEN times this year. Tayron Guerrero, the young Marlins reliever holds the top spot with a 101.8 MPH pitch, but I didn’t get a notification on my phone about it.
Of course, the MLB is leaning into the unicorn quality of Ohtani, and I’m not knocking that. In a league where the perception is that the game is dying, they need to exploit their young talent and put them on a grand scale. The same thing happened with Maeda is 2016, and he went downhill after his first 6 starts.
I’m not rooting against Shohei Ohtani. I just have a bunch of questions before I sign on to the fact that he’s the future star the MLB and the Angels want him to be. The Wall Street Journal just came out and called Ohtani “The Best Player In The World”… come on.
So when the Angels come out and say they won’t discuss Ohtani hitting on pitching days until September, I counter that with “You need to get him there first.” You need to see if he can make it that far.