Well folks, it’s back. Baseball season is upon us once again. Fresh cut grass, the popping and smacking sounds of dozens of ball players playing catch on said grass. It’s regal, and majestic, and awesome.
The hot topic this season is the arrival of the multi-talented Shohei Ohtani. Touted as the “Japanese Babe Ruth,” Ohtani has fans salivating at the thought of seeing a pitcher who can hit, and a hitter who can actually pitch. Is Ohtani the real deal? A dynamic, two-way player who is destined to take the league by storm? Or is he just another import who brings nothing more than a laundry list of inflated numbers, accumulated against players who would struggle to hold down a starting spot in A ball stateside? Before you start sending me mean tweets, let me acknowledge the fact that the Angels snagged Ohtani for a relatively low price considering his high ceiling. No one is disputing that he was a bargain. I have decided however, to focus solely on his talent and how I believe it will translate to the big leagues rather than whether or not the Angels (potentially) got a good deal.
Rather than following the format I’ve used in past years, I’ve decided to devote most of this edition of my MLB predictions to Ohtani himself. But don’t worry, I’ll still throw in a couple of wild predictions for those of you who are desperate for a glimpse into the future.
Let it begin.
Those of you who are regular readers (all two of you), will remember that in last year’s recap I reserved the right to carry over a couple of predictions which hadn’t panned out due to unforeseen circumstances. They are:
Greg Bird to be Awesome
I’ve been a fan of Bird’s for a while now and despite some injury set-backs I still feel that he is on the cusp of superstardom. With the Yankees new powerhouse line-up, complete with Judge, Stanton, Sanchez, Bird, Gregorious et al, the Bronx Bombers should hit roughly 600-800 homers this season. Despite being recently diagnosed with some inflammation in his right foot (the same foot / ankle he broke last spring), I still think he’ll come good, even if he has a slow start this year.
Prediction: 30 HR, 100 RBI, .275/.360/.575, 2018 All Star
NOTE: While writing this article, Bird has been diagnosed with a bone spur in his right ankle, for which he will require surgery. He is expected to miss six to eight weeks. Let’s hope this latest surgery will provide some closure on Bird’s ever-lengthening injury history.
Jameson Taillon to win 15 Games
Taillon’s talent is obvious. When he’s been healthy he’s been extremely effective. Currently listed as the #2 starter behind Ivan Nova, Taillon is sure to amass his fair share of starts. Veteran signal caller Francisco Cervelli handles his pitching staff well, but the Pirates are noticeably light on offense after the departure of franchise player Andrew McCutchen. Taillon will pitch well and keep the Bucs in most games, he just needs his offense to do their part.
Prediction: 32 GS, 16-11, 180 IP, 170 K, 40 BB, 4.10 ERA, 1.250 WHIP, 8.5 K/9
And now, on to Ohtani. While researching this article I decided to reach out to a friend of mine from Japan in order to get her take on Ohtani and his chances of success with the Angels.
I started off by asking Narumi for her thoughts on Ohtani in general:
“Ohtani first gained notoriety when he was in high school, particularly due to his ability to pitch and hit effectively at a high level. Most Japanese fans believe he will be successful in Major League Baseball, however, some feel that he should focus solely on pitching or hitting due to the increased skill level of the players he will be competing against.”
I asked her about his struggles this spring and whether or not she, and Japanese fans in general, would be concerned:
“Most fans believe that his struggles this spring are mainly mental, as in, he is putting too much pressure on himself to perform. These high expectations, combined with all of the challenges associated with moving to a new country and adapting to a new culture seem to be affecting his play. In the past, Ohtani has shown instances where he was roughed up on the mound early on and found it difficult to regain his composure. He is still young so fans are confident that he will grow out of this as he matures.”
Trying to break down Ohtani as one player is difficult, mainly because there’s really no one to compare him to. With this in mind I’ve decided to look at him as if he were two different players.
Ohtani the Hitter
Despite his irregular plate appearances, Ohtani is considered one of the best hitters in Japan. The Angels have said that they will use a 6-man rotation and allow Ohtani to DH for two or three games between starts. This puts him on track for 27 starts and about 80 games at DH. Trout averaged just over four plate appearances per game last year leading off so let’s give Ohtani an even four. That gives him about 320 plate appearances. These are just rough numbers but it’s safe to say that if Ohtani stays healthy and remains relatively productive he should get a decent number of AB’s.
I’ve taken a look at some of the more successful players to come out of Japan (see attached spreadsheet above) and compared them to Ohtani. I’ve only included pre-MLB numbers so if a player returned to Japan after he washed out of the Show, those numbers have not been included.
Ichiro Suzuki is undisputedly the greatest Japanese hitter to play in the big leagues. In fact, he’s one of the greatest big league hitters of all time, Japanese or otherwise. He has over 3,000 hits and he didn’t even debut until the age of 27. There are currently 31 members of the 3,000 hit club. Rose started when he was 22, Cobb when he was 18, Aaron when he was 20. The second oldest start belongs to the immutable Wade Boggs, who began his illustrious career at the ripe old age of 24. Just to put things into perspective, in order to amass 3,000 hits a hitter must have 15 seasons of at least 200 hits, which would project Ichiro to reach the historic milestone at 42 years old (which is exactly when he achieved 3,000 hits.) So one could offer that when Ichiro made his MLB debut he was already 600 hits behind Boggs. Anyway, it’s safe to say that Ohtani is not going to be as good a hitter as Ichiro. In fact, Ichiro is so revered in Japan that when I asked Narumi for her thoughts on the matter, she became somewhat agitated at the mere suggestion that he had, or would one day have, an equal.
“We cannot compare him to Ichiro! Ichiro is a genius! A prodigy! Ichiro is something special.”
Fair enough Narumi, point taken!
The only other decent Japanese hitters I can come up with are Hideki Matsui and Nori Aoki but for the purposes of this, I have included some other hitters who played semi-regularly when they came to the Bigs. When we compare their NPB stats, we can immediately see that Ohtani isn’t quite as dominant as the media would have us believe. For starters, he has a worse AVG, OBP and SLG than Akinori Iwamura, who played just 408 games in the Show and finished with a slash line of .267/.345/.375. Ohtani’s plate discipline and pitch selection is also questionable – he whiffs once every 3.28 at bats, more than any of these other guys, but he does walk once every 8.70 at bats, so he’s got that goin for him, which is nice. He homers once every 24.38 at bats, good enough for 3rd on our list, but again, that’s worse than Iwamura who mashed just 16 jagaimos over 1545 MLB at bats (one every 96.5 AB’s.) Ohtani also hits home runs in Japan at the same rate that Tadahito Iguchi did. Yes, the same Tadahito Iguchi who played just 493 games in the Show and hit just 44 home runs (one every 42 AB’s) while posting a slash line of .268/.338/.401.
Ohtani’s best season as a hitter came in 2016, at the tender age of 21. Ohtani slashed .322/.416/.588, mashed 22 jagaimos and drove in 67 runs. Not bad, right? Well Ichiro hit 25 dingers when he was 21 and he is anything but a power hitter. In fact, Ichiro’s SLG in Japan was .522, 22 points higher than Ohtani’s career mark of .500. And what about Godzilla? He was a legitimate-ish big league power hitter just like Ohtani supposedly is. Matsui hit 22 dingers at age 21 and went on to hit 332 in total in the NPB, topping 30 homers seven times and hitting a career high 50 when he was 28. His best season in the Show was 2004 when, aged 30, he hit 31 homers and drove in 108 runs while slashing .298/.390/.522. One could argue that Matsui waited a few years too long to make the move to North America.
Obviously, this is nothing more than conjecture but the point I’m trying to make is that there is a lot of range when it comes to players coming out of Japan. NPB stats and past performances can be misleading due to the fact that many of the pitchers these guys are facing would struggle in the low minors in North America, making projecting their success in Major League Baseball difficult, if not impossible. Will Ohtani, with his low walk rate and high strike out rate, develop into a Matsui, or an Iwamura? This spring he’s just 3 for 28, hitting off guys wearing numbers in the high 60’s, who are just there to eat up innings and who will likely start (and finish) the season in the minors. Some analysts are even predicting that he’ll start the season in triple-A Salt Lake.
Prediction: Will be overwhelmed by MLB hurler’s fastballs and the fact that they can all throw breaking balls that actually break. Will finish the season hitting in the bottom third of the order. Won’t mash more than 10-15 jagaimos and will slash something woeful like .200/.260/.310.
Ohtani the Pitcher
Japan has produced far more MLB pitchers than it has hitters (43 to just 14) but it would be difficult to identify a Japanese pitcher who has dominated the same way Ichiro has dominated as a hitter. Nomo started off like a house on fire when he went 13-6 in 1995. He posted a 2.54 ERA, 236 K’s (led league) in 191.1 IP, 124 H and a WHIP of 1.056 on his way to taking home the NL Rookie of the Year award. A dominant season no matter how you slice it. Nomo posted a 16-11 record the following year but the cracks in the armour began to show. By 1997 Nomo, then aged 28, began to struggle, and his WHIP began to creep up from the 1.0’s to the 1.3’s and 1.4’s. He remained a solid mid-rotation guy who could eat up innings and give his team a chance to win, but the dominance he enjoyed in his maiden campaign was long gone. Nomo had shoulder surgery in October of 2003. His rehab did not go well. Nomo went 4-11 in 2004 and the Dodgers pulled the chute on their once celebrated import. He hooked up with the Devil Rays but didn’t fare much better, posting an underwhelming record of 5-8 with a 1.768 WHIP. Nomo finished with a career record of 123-109, 4.24 ERA, 1.354 WHIP, 4.1 BB/9, 8.7 K/9. Baseball Reference gives Nomo’s top Similarity Scores as; Darryl Kile, Chan Ho Park and Ubaldo Jimenez.
Okay, so maybe Darvish is the guy we should be looking at. Darvish is solid but to date has a 56-42 career record, a 3.42 ERA and a 1.179 WHIP. Impressive, but not dominant by any means. Darvish also lost all of 2015 to Tommy John surgery and has only thrown over 200 innings once (2013) during his five seasons in the Show. Hardly the production one would come to expect from a bona fide Ace.
And let’s not forget about guys like Hideki Irabu and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Irabu was touted as The Japanese Nolan Ryan, much to the chagrin of Nolan Ryan I’d imagine, and Matsuzaka started just 132 games over eight seasons (16.5 per season) finishing with a 56-43 record. He also battled his fair share of injuries, appearing in just 26 games (25 starts) from 2011-2013. In that time he tossed just 121.2 innings and posted a 6.14 ERA and a 1.488 WHIP to go with a dismal K/BB ratio of 1.69. Masahiro Tanaka has put four solid seasons together for the Bronx Bombers (52-28, 3.56 ERA, 1.097 WHIP) but he only starts about 26 games per year and averages just 167 innings. A workhorse he is not.
I know what you’re thinking, you’re wondering why I continue to talk about pitchers not named Shohei Ohtani. Here’s my thinking; at present, Ohtani is arguably the best pitcher in the country of Japan. But, is Ohtani better, or at least on par, with Nomo and Darvish in relation to their Japanese stats? If so, can we expect him to perform comparatively once he toes the rubber in the Show?
Personally, I believe Ohtani will find more success as a pitcher than a hitter. Think about it – as a hitter he’s facing pitchers who can’t make it to the big leagues, or even the minor leagues in many cases. Although I don’t believe spring training stats hold much value, Ohtani is just 3 for 28… hitting off guys most of whom will start the season in the minors. At 36 and consistently expanding in girth, I feel like even I could go 3 for 28 in spring training. Pitching, however, is a bit of a different animal. It’s based on deception as much as it is power so there’s nothing to suggest that the pitches Ohtani throws in Japan will be any less effective when he throws them in North America. A 100 mph fastball in Japan still goes 100 mph in North America.
That being said however, I do not feel Ohtani will dominate on the mound for the Angels. I think he’ll pitch better than he hits, but I think he’ll be a back of the rotation guy at best. Of the 43 Japanese pitchers who have come over, no one stands out as being an archetypical Ace. Some guys have had great seasons (Nomo in ’95, Matsuzaka in ‘08, Darvish in ’13) but no Japanese pitcher has put together a run of sustained success at the highest level. Anyone who flirts with dominance seems to be struck down with injury and quickly becomes a shadow of his former self. The Angels are obviously aware of this, thus the switch to a 6-man rotation in an attempt to mitigate the increased workload that comes with pitching in the majors. Matsuzaka, for example, only averaged 24 starts and 175.1 innings per season in Japan, despite throwing 72 complete games over eight seasons. A far cry from the 34 start, 220 inning campaigns normally associated with frontline starters in the Show. Matsuzaka seemed fine during the 2007 (15-12, 204.2 IP) and 2008 (18-3, 167.2 IP) seasons but the increased workload soon caught up to him. He threw just 418 innings over the next six seasons (69.2 IP per season) posting a 5.10 ERA and a 1.471 WHIP. You don’t need to be James Andrews to see that his arm was burnt out, and he was washed up.
By now I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. In 43 attempts (Ohtani will be the 44th), no Japanese pitcher has had sustained success in Major League Baseball. What makes everyone think Ohtani will be any different? I think the sample size is big enough now to support the claim that Japan cannot produce a Major League calibre Ace. Even if Ohtani is the best pitcher to ever come out of Japan, he will be a middle of the rotation guy at best (and no, despite what Don Nomura would have you believe, Darvish is no more than a #3 guy as well.) This is also taking into account the fact that Ohtani will only be expected to throw every sixth day, which makes him even less valuable in my opinion. Should the Angels decide to increase his workload, I believe he will sustain an injury which will lead to his eventual retirement (from pitching at least.) In December it was revealed that Ohtani had recently been diagnosed with a UCL sprain, so the writing is very much on the wall in terms of his durability. Combine that with the track record Japanese pitchers seem to have when trying to shoulder an increased workload stateside, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
The one thing he does have going for him is the lack of miles on his arm at present. Coming out of Japan Ohtani has thrown just 543 innings compared to guys like Irabu (1101.2), Darvish (1268.1), Nomo (1051.1) and Matsuzaka (1402.2), but again, he’s already got a sprained UCL, so who knows.
Prediction: Sorry folks, Ohtani is nothing more than a back-end starter. He’ll be lucky to start 25 games and throw 120 innings. He’ll post a 5.25 ERA and a 1.500+ WHIP. I’d be surprised if he won 10 games.