Ohtani ready to make splash in MLB with Angels
Two-way players in baseball are a rarity in the modern era. While not necessarily uncommon at the high school and, to some extent, college level, two-way players– meaning those who excel and play full-time both on the mound and at the plate– are usually forced to specialize in one area by the time they reach professional baseball. To provide some perspective, the last true two-way Major League Baseball has seen was the legendary Babe Ruth. Yet even Ruth rarely pitched after transitioning to a full-time position player (although his prowess in both areas was undeniable).
In 2018, however, MLB– more specifically, the Los Angeles Angels– might be welcoming its first two-way player in nearly a century in the form of Japanese star Shohei Ohtani. Touted as one of the most impressive talents to emerge from Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), the highest level of the sport in Japan, Ohtani has produced mind-boggling numbers both as a pitcher and designated hitter in his five-year career with the Nippon Ham Fighters.
Very few players from NPB are considered MLB material due to the drastic differences between the leagues (schedule, baseball size and weight, etc.), and even fewer actually succeed when given the chance to compete in the Majors. Ohtani is a different story, however. He nearly bypassed NPB completely, as major-league teams were interested in his hitting skills and 100-mile-per-hour fastball when he was still in high school.
Despite the tantalizing opportunity, Ohtani opted to play several years of professional ball in his native country, and greatly increased his stock in the process. On the mound, Ohtani amassed a 42-15 record and a 2.52 ERA while striking out 624 batters in 543 innings. His best year on the bump was 2016, during which he posted a career-best 1.86 ERA.
Ohtani’s career at the dish got off to a slower start than his work as a pitcher, but he still boasts a solid career batting average of .286. He broke out offensively in 2016, mashing 22 home runs and hitting .322 in 104 games. Although his 2017 season was hampered by injury, he managed a career-high .332 average.
Ohtani utilized NPB’s schedule, which is lighter in comparison to MLB, to make his role as a two-way player feasible. He would receive rest the days before and after his starts on the mound, and then would serve as the Ham Fighters’ designated hitter during the games in between. Although more off-days will be inserted into MLB’s schedule starting in 2018, the Angels will have to determine how to best ensure Ohtani’s status as a two-way player translates to the harsh demands of the 162-game MLB schedule.
The market for Ohtani was one of the most interesting free-agent cases in recent history. Ohtani’s camp took an unusual route by inviting all 30 MLB franchises to make their respective cases as to why Ohtani would fit best their teams. Only a handful of clubs actually received face-to-face meetings with Ohtani: the Angels, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners.
Still relatively early in the process, Ohtani’s camp then announced that essentially every team not located on the west coast was out of the running, crushing hopes of teams such as the Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers who thought they had a chance at acquiring Ohtani.
It came as a shock to many when Ohtani decided on the Angels. Given their history of acquiring and having success with Japanese players, the Dodgers and Mariners seemed to be the best bets to land the two-way star. Players to smoothly transition from Japan with the Dodgers include Hideo Nomo and Hiroki Kuroda, while Seattle has had Ichiro Suzuki and Hisashi Iwakuma.
There was some doubt as to whether teams would be willing to allow Ohtani to play on both sides of the ball at the big-league level, but this was not the case with the Angels, nor any of the teams who were serious about bringing him in.
“We definitely plan on him being a two-way player,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said during Ohtani’s press conference. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Sources: ESPN, MLB.com