How long can the Shotime really go on?

Shohei Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani hitting his 32nd home run of the season. How long before his two-way life compromises him one or both ways?

Baseball’s flavour of the month, if not the season, is a 27-year-old fellow from Japan about whom The Sporting News once cited unnamed major league scouts saying he’d never be able to hit American big-league pitching. Some say that now compares to the British Decca Records executive who dismissed the Beatles’ manager with, “Groups of guitars are on the way out.”

That fellow is now half way on the way to hitting more home runs in a single season than Babe Ruth and Roger Maris ever hit. (Number 32.) He even has an outside but not unrealistic shot at hitting more home runs than the tainted Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds ever hit in a single season. (McGwire: 70, in 1998; Bonds: 73, in 2001.)

Shohei Ohtani awoke this morning leading the Show with his 32 home runs and his .700 slugging percentage, not to mention leading the American League with four triples. He also performs reasonably at his baseball hobby, pitching: he has a 3.49 earned run average and a 3.58 fielding-independent pitching rate.

That makes him the ace of an Angels pitching staff that hasn’t seen a genuine ace since the first Obama Administration, when Jered Weaver laid claim to the title. That was a decade ago; this is now: The Angels’ starting rotation has a 5.41 ERA; the entire pitching staff, 4.97. With Ohtani in the equation. Without him, the rotation would be 5.90.

So many baseball people, employees, fans, writers alike, rush to anoint Ohtani the 21st Century’s Babe Ruth. But Ruth’s career began on the mound and went from merely impressive to out of this galaxy when he exchanged the mound for right field full-time.

In five more or less full-time seasons as a pitcher, Ruth showed a 2.16 ERA and a 2.74 fielding-independent pitching rate—a period in which the American League’s ERA was 2.88 and its FIP, 2.91. Ruth’s ERA was .72 below the league average and his FIP was .20 below the league. Except for 1916, when his ERA was better than 1.00 below league average (and his only ERA title), Ruth wasn’t exactly the best pitcher in the league—or even the best pitcher on his team. (In 1916, Dutch Leonard had a lower FIP and a better K/BB ratio.)

Really, it’s Ruth’s 1919 that stirs the blood toward comparing Ohtani to him. Well, now. On the mound Ruth posted a 2.97 ERA/3.58 FIP—while leading the American League at the plate in on-base percentage (.456), slugging percentage (.657), and OPS (1.114) in his first season playing 130 games as an outfielder.

Ohtani’s 3.49 ERA thus far is .84 below the American League through this morning; his 3.58 FIP, .66 below. Like Ruth, Ohtani is a good pitcher who can be great now and then. Unlike Ruth, Ohtani can be a strikeout machine on the mound; his 11.7 K/9 is far, far, far beyond Ruth’s 3.7 from 1915-1919. But also like Ruth, Ohtani negates both that and the league hitting a measly .195 against him this year with a 4.9 walks-per-nine rate. (The Babe in 1919: 3.9 walks per nine.)

Ruth pitched in a time when pitchers were still, generally, trained to pitch to bat contact instead of trying to miss bats. (Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson were outliers in that regard.) Of course, Ruth’s entire career took place in an arbitrarily limited game in terms of the available talent pool. A young Japanese man such as Ohtani would have been persona non grata in Ruth’s Show.

But he didn’t become The Babe until he changed jobs. He was a good pitcher with very occasional moments of greatness, but if he’d remained strictly on the mound he wouldn’t have become a Hall of Famer. He was a great (in 1919), then glandular hitter (just about the rest of his career), the absolute best of the pre-World War II/pre-integration/pre-night ball era position players.

It begs a serious Ohtani question. Co-hosting MLB Now for the MLB Network a few days ago, Brian Kenny—author of Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolutionsuggested it was time to think about restricting Ohtani to one or another role. Either make him a full-time pitcher, or make him a full-time designated hitter/periodic outfielder.

That suggestion sent apoplectic the New York Post‘s Joel Sherman, co-hosting the program with Kenny. “Why,” Sherman demanded, “would you stop him from doing one or the other?” Because, Kenny replied, “one could damage the other.”

Kenny was willing to acknowledge that it’s “great” if you can get an ERA under four and a slugging percentage beyond the tenth dimension, but he reminded Sherman audaciously enough that Ruth only really became Ruth when allowed to flourish (Kenny’s word) full-time with a bat in his hands.

“So,” Sherman shot back, “you would like one of the fifteen to twenty best starting pitchers in baseball to stop starting because you’re worried about something that could happen?” You can look it up: By his ERA and his FIP, Ohtani isn’t even one of the twenty-five best starting pitchers in this year’s Show. (ERA: 34th; FIP: tied for 30th.) What could happen, of course, is an injury determining Ohtani’s future employment one or the other way.

Stop snarling, Joe and Jane Fan. It happens. It has happened. Jacob deGrom, the best pitcher in baseball for several seasons, missed time enough this season due to a couple of injuries to his side incurred . . . swinging the bat. A few years ago, deGrom suffered a hyperextended pitching shoulder . . . from a hard swing-and-miss at the plate.

Adam Wainwright’s pitching life was compromised irrevocably by a torn Achilles tendon . . . running the bases. Before Steven Wright ran into trouble over domestic violence, his 2016 was ruined when he injured his pitching shoulder . . . diving back to second base. Chien-Ming Wang’s career was compromised irrevocably when he injured his right foot, the one with which he pushed from the pitching rubber . . . while running the bases.

Who’s to say a particularly hard swing or baserunning move won’t compromise an Ohtani body part whose health is required for even one of the top thirty starting pitchers in the game this season? Who’s to say a particularly hard or off-line throw from the mound won’t compromise the parts he needs to swing and hit balls into earth orbit?

Ohtani dodged such a bullet against the Red Sox two nights ago. He got hit on his surgically-repaired left knee (that’s on his landing leg for pitching, folks) when he fouled an Edwin Rodriguez pitch off his foot. One opposite foul later, Ohtani hit one halfway up the right field bleachers to pass Yankee legend Hideki Matsui for most single-season home runs by a Japanese-born Show player.

Lucky for him that he only had to jog around the bases. You still think the risk is just speculation? That time, it was just a foul off his foot and his knee. The next time, he could get blasted upside his head or his right shoulder (his pitching shoulder) with a pitch. Or, his brains blown out by a line drive on which he can’t get his glove.

I pondered the entire Ohtani phenomenon this morning in an essay for the International Baseball Writers Association of America’s Here’s the Pitch subscription newsletter. “I get the hungering and hankering for someone like Ohtani the so-called two-way player,” I wrote therein.

I get that baseball has done such a terrible job finding and promoting its stars that Ohtani presents a brilliant opportunity entirely on his own. That’s great for the gate and the press. “Shut up and let us enjoy the ride,” Joe and Jane Fan holler at the Brian Kennys.

But it isn’t smart baseball.

Smart baseball requires the maximum placement of a player into the maximum position to do the best he has to help his team win with the least risk possible. It requires Shohei Ohtani to spend his complete days at the serious work of play at the plate. Do you really want a roll call of outsize talents ruined because the gate and the hype were allowed to override if not steamroll the game?

A man walking four batters per nine innings on the mound is a phenomenal risk that really reduces his value from eleven to seven strikeouts per nine. The same man with a .745 real batting average in 2021 so far (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) is a man who can out-hit your pitching staff’s liabilities.

Go right ahead and keep up the two-way hype if it makes you happy.

With the incomparable Mike Trout still out with a calf injury, Ohtani is indeed just about the only reason Angel fans have to celebrate what shapes up to be yet another season lost.

The Angels can hit tons. They’re third in the American League for team hitting average and OPS; they’re fifth for OBP and second for slugging. Trout before his injury and Ohtani still have a lot to do with that. But they have a team administration that still seems to think building a viable pitching staff is beyond its pay grade.

So the bad news is that Ohtani, their best among (shall we say) modest starting pitchers  and their best damned hitter period, must continue going both ways, regardless of the prospective detriment to his career. He may well end up the new single-season home run champion and the league’s OPS leader. He may even get to both pitch and hit in the All-Star Game.

Wowie zowie, as Frank Zappa once sang.

Ohtani is the Rosetta Stone at the plate. He’d be the number four or five starter on another staff. There’s danger in that thar two-way business. There usually is danger when you put the gate and the hype ahead of the game. There’s better gate when you field winning baseball than a single outlying Shoman. (Just ask the 2002 Angels—the only World Series winner in the franchise’s history so far.)

Enjoy Shotime while you can, ladies and gentlemen. But if danger becomes actuality, and it costs the Angels either the most viable starter on a pitching staff hitters pray to face, or their most dangerous hitter (or maybe both at once), don’t say nobody warned you.

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