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OC Register: Is Angels’ Shohei Ohtani finally ready to be a two-way star again?


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For nearly three years, Two-Way Star Shohei Ohtani has been an almost apocryphal figure.

Sure, anyone can look up the numbers or watch highlights from 2018, the season when Ohtani made a jaw-dropping debut in the big leagues as a pitcher and hitter.

But ever since that June 2018 day when word came of his damaged ulnar collateral ligament, he’s been unable to repeat that performance, as a pitcher or hitter.

Over the past 34 months, memories of Ohtani at his peak might have been lost like that email now buried deep in your inbox.

Over the past 34 days, though, there has been eye-opening evidence that Two-Way Star Shohei Ohtani might be back.

“I’m sure I disappointed a lot of people the last two years by being hurt,” Ohtani said through his interpreter earlier this spring. “I am looking forward to showing everyone what I’m capable of.”

Ohtani was the talk of Angels spring training, with home runs sailing over the batter’s eye and triple-digit readings on the radar gun.

Those feats brought a vision of how much better he could make the Angels, who open their season Thursday night against the Chicago White Sox at Angel Stadium.

“It’s like you’re adding two stars,” Mike Trout said. “You’re adding an ace and you’re adding a guy to the middle of the lineup who can bang.”

Spring training showed more of the latter. Ohtani was 17 for 31 (.548) with five homers, including two 460-foot-plus blasts over the batters’ eye at Tempe Diablo Stadium.

On the mound, the results weren’t so clear. Ohtani threw 10-1/3 innings and he gave up 14 runs, with 10 walks.

Those ugly numbers were the result of a lack of command, which is perhaps to be expected after he’d pitched just 14-1/3 innings – in major league games or exhibitions – over those 34 months. Also, much of the damage against Ohtani was done when he gave up seven runs while pitching around a blister in his final tuneup on Monday.

If you can look beyond that, there are two key reasons for optimism: his arm seems to be fine and the raw stuff is still there. Ohtani demonstrated both by throwing his fastball 99 mph or harder at least once per game, including one pitch at 102. He also struck out 17 in those 10-1/3 innings, several on sharp splitters.

That’s why Manager Joe Maddon is convinced that he’s finally seeing what he’s been missing.

“The stuff that he’s doing in the box, and the stuff that he’s doing on the mound, I’m seeing with my own eyes for the first time,” Maddon said. “I saw some good performances before I got here, via television, but in person, mechanically, technically, mentally, being under control … this is a new look for me, and it’s spectacular.”

Ohtani’s recent troubles on the mound, mostly stemming from October 2018 Tommy John surgery, have been well chronicled. A physical issue might also be at least partly responsible for his decline at the plate.

A congenital condition in his left knee, one that required surgery at the end of 2019, played a role in his disappointing offensive performance that season. Hitting coach Jeremy Reed said Ohtani lacked the strong foundation of his back leg.

His OPS went from .925 as a rookie to .848 in his second season.

In last year’s shortened season, Ohtani was such a mechanical mess that his OPS cratered to .657, including a .190 batting average. He looked lost and overmatched at the plate, often bailing out like a Little Leaguer afraid to get hit by an inside pitch.

Given all of those issues that hung over him, as a pitcher and a hitter, not even the most optimistic Angels fans or Ohtani fans could have been confident in what 2021 held.

Even Maddon wondered if Ohtani should just shelve, at least temporarily, his two-way role.

“I didn’t know if he needed to be focused on one or the other,” Maddon said. “I thought maybe that might be the better way to get his feet firmly planted and have him regain his confidence.”

Ohtani had no excuses for how bad he’d been, calling his performance “pathetic” in a November interview with Japanese media.

His solution was a winter of intense work and a re-evaluation of every part of his training.

“This was Shohei really wanting to own his career, to own his offseason and do something different,” said Nez Balelo, Ohtani’s agent. “So that’s what we did.”

Balelo said Ohtani reworked his diet and his training. He had been unable to lift to his normal level in the previous two winters because both times he was coming off surgery. Pitching coach Matt Wise said Ohtani now looks significantly bigger and stronger.

As for the baseball workouts, Ohtani added more game-like situations to his regimen.

“He turned it up,” Balelo said. “It became more intense. And he really embraced it.”

This winter Ohtani also went to Driveline, the noted high-tech baseball training center in Seattle. At Driveline, Ohtani worked on both his pitching and hitting.

The changes were obvious to Maddon immediately, even before the highlights that opened everyone else’s eyes.

“It was about his physical mechanics in the batter’s box, his mechanics on the mound,” Maddon said. “I didn’t see either last year. Now you’re seeing a repeatable delivery. You’re seeing a repeatable swing. If he’s able to do that, the result is going to be pretty good.”

All of Ohtani’s physical and mechanical changes have come against a backdrop of a new freedom. The Angels were reluctant to put too much on his plate when he first came to the big leagues, and in much of the time since he’s been rehabbing. Now he’s both healthy and experienced, so the Angels have entrusted him to be the judge of what he can handle.

Maddon has said he is open to using Ohtani as much as possible, with the faith that Ohtani will be honest about when he needs a break.

Just in the last two weeks of spring training, the Angels had Ohtani hit and pitch in the same game twice. They had him hit in a game the day after he pitched. And his regular-season debut was scheduled to be on just five days rest after his previous outing.

He’d never done any of that before in the majors.

“Shohei is really enjoying this personal freedom where he’s in charge of his own day,” Maddon said. “He’s already demonstrated that a couple times. He said, ‘This is what I want to do. I don’t want to do this today.’ That’s exactly what I asked him to do. ‘I need to know how you feel. You are in a situation totally unfamiliar to a lot of us. We need your input. We don’t need to dictate this to you. Tell us.’ And he has.”

If Ohtani can stay healthy and perform with the increased workload, the Angels could conceivably get 25 starts and 450 plate appearances out of him. If he does that, at the level the Angels believe he can, it would be historic and obviously game-changing for the team.

“He could really make this starting rotation special with a lot of innings absorbed,” Maddon said, “and he could definitely make this offense special with the way he’s swinging the bat right now.”

Ohtani’s performance in the spring has been particularly awe-inspiring for those who had only heard stories or seen the highlights from three years ago.

Pitcher Alex Cobb, who was with the Baltimore Orioles in 2018, said: “It’s just incredible. You’ve never seen anything like it.”

Pitcher Patrick Sandoval was a Houston Astros prospect in 2018, so this is all new to him.

“It’s unreal,” Sandoval said. “You can’t really compare it to anything. No one’s really been able to do it at that kind of level. It’s impressive to see him go out there and touch 100 and blow stuff by people and then blow a ball over the batter’s eye in games. It’s insane.”

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Maybe the answer is easier than I think, but how can they even calculate a WAR for a guy like Ohtani when there really is no “replacement” for him when you consider he is two players occupying just one roster spot?

I mean, can’t you argue that he should get some additional WAR for the productivity that comes from the team’s ability of a team to have that “extra” player?

Edited by Dtwncbad
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56 minutes ago, Dtwncbad said:

Maybe the answer is easier than I think, but how can they even calculate a WAR for a guy like Ohtani when there really is no “replacement” for him when you consider he is two players occupying just one roster spot?

I mean, can’t you argue that he should get some additional WAR for the productivity that comes from the team’s ability of a team to have that “extra” player?

I think that's true but there's no way to quantify that, and thus it is in the category of "intangibles" - like clubhouse presence, flexibility, penis size, etc.

Meaning, what is true of Ohtani is also true--if to a lesser extent--of players like David Fletcher, or Taylor Ward for that matter.

Note also that WAR includes a positional adjustment, based on how hard the position is to play. C gets +12.5 runs above replacement, SS gets +7.5, 2B/3B/CF get +2.5, LF/RF get -7.5, 1B -12.5, and DH -17.5 -- per 162 games played or 1458 innings. I think 9 runs above replacement (or RAR) roughly equates with 1 WAR.

This is why WAR isn't a great metric for DHs, as their contribution is entirely with the bat. So a 5 WAR DH is roughly equivalent to an average 7 WAR third baseman (the difference being -15 RAR just on position). This is not to say that a 3B isn't worth that much more, but that assessing a DH purely on WAR doesn't really tell the whole picture.

Edited by Angelsjunky
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9 minutes ago, Randy Gradishar said:

The other side is that he should potentially be deducted for occupying 2 positions. 

Let's say Ohtani plays CF and puts up 5 WAR there + 5 WAR as a pitcher. A team would still be better off with a 7-WAR CF and 7-WAR pitcher, depending on salary and roster constraints. Ohtani's 10 total WAR would be more impressive than either player, but not necessarily more valuable.

I guess you miss my point.  Ohtani’s 10 total WAR means the team could end up with 14  WAR (over two roster spots) by having a 4 WAR second player Instead of needing a 7 WAR second player.

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43 minutes ago, Dtwncbad said:

I guess you miss my point.  Ohtani’s 10 total WAR means the team could end up with 14  WAR (over two roster spots) by having a 4 WAR second player Instead of needing a 7 WAR second player.

That's all very theoretical. A big issue with Ohtani is that he doesn't actually hold down any spot in the lineup. He is a part time pitcher and a part time DH. Perhaps he grows into his pitching role but as of now he is a 6th starter in a 5 man rotation and a DH that can only DH 4-5 times a week while contributing nothing on defense. He forces the team to carry an extra arm and an extra position player. His two-way nature is more of a burden than anything at this stage of his career.

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18 minutes ago, Randy Gradishar said:

Even if he did lock down two positions, I don't think the extra roster spot is that important anyway. They just added a 26th man last year; it didn't change much and that rule change technically dilutes Ohtani's value.

If he actually becomes a reliable hitter and pitcher, the real value is his salary (for now). But again, is his 10 combined WAR worth as much as Trout's?

Let me see if I can mentally walk myself through your question. Let's assume he plays to his full potential as a starting pitcher in a 5 man rotation and with minimal time off (1 game a week) from being a DH.

He's dominant and puts up 6 war as a pitcher, which puts him near the top 5 in MLB (around Strausberg, Morton and Verlander).

This leaves him about 95 games as a DH, which is difficult because Nelson Cruz was tops in '19 with 4.3 war in 123 games while rocking a .311/.392/.639 line. If Shohei can match that line in 95 games, and we can give him a little positive baserunning value he can get to 4 war as a hitter.

Only a couple of teams had full time DH's in '19, Nelson Cruz and JD Martinez (who did play in a couple weeks worth of games in LF), and only 11 players qualified as DH. This means 4 teams did not carry a DH and 9 teams used their worst defender as their main DH. Martinez had a wRC+ of 139 and Cruz 163. Average was somewhere around 118, and the bottom 4 teams were under 96. This implies that above 140 a player is worth a roster spot just to DH, and below 96 teams opt for an extra pitcher. 

So as a dominant full time starting pitcher his one roster spot is fully utilized by his pitching alone, meaning his offense utilizes 0 roster spots. So if he is going at a 160wRC+ clip he is worth 2 roster spots, under 140 to around 96 he's worth 1, and below that he's worth 0. In a 6 man rotation he loses 1. This is why his performance matters, below 96 wRC+ and in a 6 man rotation he is costing the team a roster spot. In a 5 man rotation, with a 160 wRC+ he's worth 2 (while taking up 1).

Doing a back of the envelope calculation I'd say a roster spot is worth up to a tenth of a run for every game it's utilized. That would be a max of about 13 runs (assuming Ohtani plays 130 games), but more realistically probably somewhere around 3-7 (0.3-0.7 war) since that player is the last guy on the bench. So long story short I'd say Ohtani's WAR is worth anywhere from +0.5 to -0.5 depending on good he is and how he is utilized.

 

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Hold your horses, there...

Let's be a bit cautious about predicting Ohtani to reach 10 WAR. It is vaguely possible but highly unlikely (and to be fair, I realize you guys aren't as much predicting it as employing some rosy-glasses on What Could Be).

Consider, first, that there have only been 75 major league seasons of 10+ WAR going back to 1871 (54 hitting, 21 pitching). Since 1970, or 51 years, there have been 18 - meaning, it is about a once every three year occurrence in the contemporary era.

Let's assume that Ohtani is healthy in 2020 and has 400 PA and 120 IP. It could be 350 and 150, or it could be 450 and 50. But 400 and 120 seems like an optimistic-but-doable projection. Again, assuming health - which, as we know with Ohtani, is a big assumption.

Now let's say he's at least as good as he was in 2018, but over 400/120. In 2018 he was at 3.9 WAR, 2.7 as a hitter (in 367 PA) and 1.1 as a pitcher (in 51.2 IP). If we simply add playing time to the exact same performance, we're at roughly 3 WAR as a hitter and 2.5 WAR as a pitcher...or 5.5 WAR total. Meaning, Ohtani in his rookie year as a two-way player was on pace for 5.5 WAR, which is essentially a lower tier superstar, but not quite an MVP caliber player. That, in and of itself, is quite impressive - moreso considering it was his first year.

Now let's say Ohtani improves upon 2018's performance (which seems quite possible, especially with the bat). Then we're looking at maybe 3-4 WAR for hitting, 3-4 pitching. So, 6-8 WAR, which I think represents his upward potential as a healthy, two-way player.

Either of those two scenarios would make him a top 10 player - a true superstar, even an MVP candidate in the latter scenario.

But to get to 10 WAR, he'd have to take a couple big steps forward - as both a pitcher and hitter. And, perhaps more difficult, combine the two in one season. 

Note also that the very best DH-only season that I could find was Edgar Martinez in 1995, with 7.0 in 1995 when he hit .356/.479/.628 with a 182 wRC+ in 145 games, 142 as the DH (Ortiz had a couple around 6 WAR). That was in 639 PA...adjusting to 400 PA, which is a reasonable number for a healthy Ohtani to shoot for, would be 4.4 WAR. Meaning, if Ohtani had a 182 wRC+ over 400 PA, he'd barely surpass 4 WAR. Anything over 3 WAR from him as a 60%-time hitter would be extraordinary.

Of course Ohtani has a couple edges over Edgar. One, he can run. He won't steal many bases, but he can still add a few RAR through his speed. Two, some of those games will be as a pitcher, which isn't listed in the Fangraphs article but I assume is even better than catcher. So if he starts 20+ games of maybe 100 games played, that's a few more runs added. 

But again, I think Ohtani's upward potential in 400 PA is in the 3-4 WAR for hitting. For pitching, it is more volatile - depending upon how many innings he pitches, and whether his command settles down. I'd say a range of 2-5 WAR in 100-150 IP is possible.

And again, it isn't simply a matter of adding his very best in both together, but aligning them. He could have his best year with the bat with, say, 4.1 WAR, but struggle with his command and have 1.7 WAR as a pitcher, for 5.8 WAR total. Or he could struggle with the bat and have 2.2 WAR, and have a CY-caliber pitching year with 5.6 WAR and still be shy of 8 WAR total.

So in my estimation, a healthy Ohtani produces anywhere from 5-9 WAR, with the lower half of that being far more likely. But again, if things work out as we hope, we might see one or two 8+ WAR seasons in the mix. But 10? Highly unlikely...but it could happen, I suppose.

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Randy, I think the flaw in your logic is that you're assuming that Ohtani replaces two players - he doesn't. If we max him out he's probably not going to start more than 25 games and add 80 DH games on top. That would be starting every sixth game, hitting for two-thirds of those games (assuming he averages 6 IP per start), and then DHing for another 80 games.

It is really Ohtani plus almost a half-time DH plus maybe 30-50 innings from another starter. So he's replacing about 1.5 players. 

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The fact that Ohtani is unlikely to be 10 WAR is true but then you have to acknowledge how silly it is to think you will have all these other 7WAR players.

It is also true that Ohtani doesn’t DH every single day so you can say he doesn’t really represent two full players.

I think neither of these really fairly addresses the point I was trying to make.

So let me take another crack at my angle.   All this assumes Ohtani is healthy.

A healthy Ohtani as a pitcher is a legitimate high contributing starting pitcher.  Assign whatever WAR you want to that.

But if he is the best option ALSO as DH in any particular game, he is either giving rest to a player that needs rest, or allowing an extra strategic player for the manager to to utilize in that game.

What I am saying in terms of WAR is isn’t it theoretical that (somehow):

— Ohtani should be given some WAR credit for the cumulative additional production of that additional roster spot

—or even more remotely the positive outcome of the additional flexibility in moves in games where he is DH

—or the fact that he is a middle of the order quality power hitting bad ass pinch hitter in a game he was not DH when other team are looking at THEIR starting pitcher from yesterday on the bench that can’t hit at all?

Edited by Dtwncbad
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I actually made a youtube video on this exact topic if any of you wanted to check it out! My channel's name is The 2 Seamer, but essentially, if Ohtani excels in a 2 way role, I think he can put up 7 WAR over a full season. Ohtani's rookie season offensive WAR was 2.7 so a oWAR of about 3 definitely isn't out of the question. If he's able to hit his stride pitching and have a 4 WAR season on the mound, ala a Mike Clevinger level of production, then Ohtani can reach the 7 WAR mark, even in a limited amount of at bats at the plate.

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