The Shohei Ohtani experiment isn't just working -- it's been perfect

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 23, 2018

I just got a calendar reminder that I set a little more than a year ago, to make fun of my friend Daniel. "There's no way a major league team will let Shohei Ohtani hit," he swore to me last spring. "Zero chance. Way too risky."

At the time, that was a fairly common, if not quite universal, sentiment. It was too risky. Ohtani was a potentially special pitcher, and you don't take chances with special pitchers. Just a year later, though, a crazy, risky suggestion would be the opposite: stopping the two-way experiment.

Hardly anything has ever worked as well as the Ohtani experiment has so far. Pitching in the Los Angeles Angels' six-man starting rotation, Ohtani has made seven starts and the Angels are 6-1 in those games; playing three or four days a week as the club's DH, he has batted 90 times and outhit everybody on the team except Mike Trout. Short stretches of baseball are inherently inconclusive, but we can now say Ohtani is certainly one of the 50 best pitchers in the world, probably one of the 30 best, plausibly one of the 10 best, and there's an outside chance, a glimmer of hope, a faint possibility he's actually the best pitcher in the world and we're just waiting to find that out. And we can almost say the same about him as a hitter.

When something's working this well, it's natural to say it should be left alone -- and this is working. But working well doesn't rule out the possibility that something could be working better, and simply accepting the inevitability of the situation as it exists -- because change is way too risky -- is how you get made fun of a year later. Daniel.

So, with a solemn promise that this article is not a troll, and that as I write this paragraph I have no idea what the answer will be,and that in fact I'm ultimately going to leave it to you to decide, let's just ask the question: Is this really the best way to use Shohei Ohtani?

Caveats: We don't know what the Angels promised Ohtani when they were recruiting him, and if his decision to sign in Anaheim was predicated on this usage plan, then this is a moot point. Further, Ohtani and the Angels know or intuit millions more details about his comfort level, his energy levels, his elbow, the roster as a whole. For us, this is a thought experiment. For them, it's an extremely self-interested decision and much more complicated than adding up WARs.

This Ohtani usage plan was developed when extremely high levels of uncertainty existed around almost every detail of it. All player performance is difficult to predict, but in Ohtani's case the uncertainty is doubled, then multiplied by the uncertain costs (fatigue, injury, unavailability) of performing in two exhausting roles. A lot of that uncertainty has now been eliminated, and the range of our remaining unknowns is much narrower. We know he's a good major league pitcher and a good major league hitter. We know he's capable of physically performing both roles in the same week (though we don't know whether he'd be even better if he were allowed to focus his attention and energy on one role alone). We know, at least in the current plan, the limitations. We've cut a lot of the uncertainties.

So, once again noting the caveat that the Angels probably "consider" everything and that any change carries with it a natural friction and thus shouldn't be made willy-nilly, let's plug some assumptions into this machine and come up with a grid:

Assumption 1A: Assume Ohtani is exactly this good a hitter: He's David Ortiz. He's Joey Votto. That's what he has been so far, with a .321/.367/.619 slash line and a 167 wRC+, which means he has been 67 percent better than an average hitter. Giancarlo Stanton has never had a wRC+ that high, nor Paul Goldschmidt. Last season, Votto's was 165. In his final season, when he finished sixth in MVP voting, Ortiz's was 164. If Ohtani hits forever like he's hitting right now, he's probably the second- or third-best hitter in baseball. Absent any other data, you are allowed to assume this.

Alternate Assumption 1B: Assume Ohtani is playing out of his mind right now, but he's actually about halfway between "this good" as a hitter and the league average. So, 33 percent better than the league average. This would make him about as good as Edwin Encarnacion, Eric Hosmer, Daniel Murphy and Justin Smoak were last year.

Alternate Assumption 1C: Assume, at worst, Ohtani is at least a league-average hitter. We can rule out "he's awful." He's Lucas Duda or Adam Duvall.

(I refuse to entertain Alternate Assumption 1D, which is that he's actually an even better hitter than this. You can do that on your own time.)

Go ahead and pick one.

Assumption 2A: Assume Ohtani is exactly this good as a pitcher. An ERA 25 percent better than league average, around 3.40, something like Aaron Nola or Jake Arrieta.

Alternate Assumption 2B: Assume Ohtani is actually about midway between "this good" and the league average. He's a flashier version of Zach Davies, or what Sean Manaea has been over his three-year career.

Alternate Assumption 2C: Assume Ohtani is actually much better than this, that he'll have an ERA 40 or 50 percent lower than league average, like last year's Carlos Carrasco or Luis Severino. This is what your eyes are telling you, right? This assumption contends that his whiff rate -- only two pitchers have induced lower contact rates -- tells us more than anything else and that he's actually a fringe Cy Young candidate in a full-time role. This is bold, but if that's what your eyes and the stats tell you, that's where you are.

Pick one.

Now we can put these simple assumptions onto a grid, and we can determine, once and for all --

Just kidding! This is a complicated situation, so we need to settle on some more assumptions, which I'll dictate:

1. That, whatever pitcher you think Ohtani is, he would be 5 percent better in a full-time pitching role than in a dual role, which is really just one to three fewer runs allowed over the season. What little circumstantial evidence there is suggests there's some effect of fatigue on a two-way player, and this is how we'll handle that.

2. That if he quit pitching he'd be a right fielder and he'd be above average (but not elite) on defense, with good speed and a great arm and youth. That if he batted full time he'd be a league-average baserunner. (He has been slightly below average so far, but he has been extremely conservative on the basepaths for a man of his speed.) If he is really this good a hitter, and he's playing above-average defense in right field every day, and he's an average baserunner, he's basically Stanton in his best years, a 6- or 7-WAR player.

3. That if he were to pitch full time he could still pinch hit on a lot of his days off, and that if he were a great hitter he'd add about one win per year with those at-bats; if he were a good hitter he'd add about half a win; and if he were an average hitter he'd add about two-tenths of a win.

4. That if he quit hitting, he'd pitch on a five-day schedule instead of a six-day schedule. If he is really this good a pitcher and he's pitching every fifth day instead of every sixth, and he's getting our 5 percent bump for not DHing anymore, he's about a 4-win player, plus whatever he adds with his pinch-hitting.

OK, now for the grid:

As you see, it all depends on your assumptions. Personally, I'd probably assume he's this good a pitcher (Nola, Arrieta), maybe a little better; and he's the halfway-regressed batter (the Hosmer, Smoak), maybe a tiny bit worse. Checking the grid, that means he should stay exactly how he is. Phew!

But you can also see how what we think of as maximum usage -- batting and pitching -- can be misleading. A great hitter can play every day, and play the field, and slide around on the basepaths, not to mention live each day without the ever-looming threat of elbow or shoulder surgery. Meanwhile, a great pitcher pitches every fifth day instead of every sixth, and he can spend the other four days preparing his body specifically for those 100 pitches. Each half of Ohtani is being cannibalized by the playing-time demands of the other. And if you think that the two-way role has an overall injury-increasing effect, then it makes that center column even less attractive.

There's no simple rule of thumb here, but using Ohtani as a two-way player seems to eat about 30 or 40 percent of his value as a pitcher and about 60 or 70 percent of his value as a position player. (The worse he is as a hitter, the higher the percentage, because a greater share of his value would be in the defense he doesn't get to play.) If he's roughly equal in each role, well, you can do the math: This probably makes sense. But if he turns out to be considerably better as a pitcher -- as most of us assumed last spring -- then it doesn't. And if he turns out to be a little bit better as a hitter, a possibility that looks more and more plausible, then it also doesn't. The cost in either case starts to be clear.

What comes through in all of these assumptions is that the circumstances really do have to be just right for a two-way star to make sense. It's not enough to be good enough to be a major league hitter and good enough to be a major league pitcher. You could be the world's best astronaut and the world's best submarine captain, but it'd still be hard to do both of those in the same week. Major leaguers -- almost all of them, in just their one role -- are already pretty well maxed out. The miracle isn't just that we get to see a player who is as good at hitting and as good at pitching as Ohtani is. It's that we get to see one who is precisely this good at each so that this usage makes sense. It's perfect.