The derby for Japanese baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani has nearly reached its long-awaited conclusion, after the pitching-and-hitting phenom narrowed his list of preferred teams down to seven. (Notably, the list doesn’t include either the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox — Ohtani is reportedly leaning toward smaller-market and/or West Coast clubs.) If MLB’s best two-way player since Babe Ruth is on his way, we’ll know soon which uniform he’ll wear while revolutionizing the game.
On the field, scouts are sold on Ohtani’s potential (if not his durability) as a top pitcher, as well as his speed and raw power as a hitter. And the statistical projections think he’ll be very good no matter what position he plays. According to the ZiPS system, developed by ESPN’s Dan Szymborski, both Ohtani’s ERA and his on-base-plus-slugging projections figure to be about 20 percent better than league average over his next five seasons in the big leagues. For context’s sake, only 58 hitters and 79 pitchers met either of those qualifications over the preceding five seasons. Ohtani has the potential to hit both benchmarks.
Of course, there’s also a lot of uncertainty around Ohtani’s projection to the American game, as is always the case with players whose backgrounds are in the different flavor of baseball being played in Japan. To get a sense for which other players from Japan had numbers similar to Ohtani’s, I looked at Clay Davenport’s translated Japanese-league statistics for native-born players with at least 700 MLB plate appearances or 200 innings pitched. (Specifically, I used the peak-adjusted version of Davenport’s stats, which accounts for a player’s age and tries to peg how good he’ll be in his prime.) I then ran Bill James’s Similarity Scores for each set of statistics — after converting them all to a per-season format — to give us the pitchers and hitters whose body of work most resembled Ohtani’s before arriving in America.
Ohtani’s pitching numbers bore a strong resemblance to those of Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka, two of the most highly touted — and successful — Japanese imports of the past decade. Of course, they might also represent the best case scenarios for how Ohtani’s career will play out on the mound; for example, Daisuke Matsuzaka’s track record was only slightly more dissimilar, and he ended up being pretty average over his time in MLB. And the matter of Ohtani’s durability can’t be dismissed — these numbers are projected to a full season of work, but Ohtani never pitched more than 160⅔ innings in a season in Japan, and he was limited to 25⅓ innings in 2017 because of various injuries. However, my old colleague Ben Lindbergh has shown that Japanese pitchers tend to age better (and hold onto more of their value) than comparable MLB pitchers, reputation be damned. And in general, the pitchers on the list above that graded as more similar to Ohtani ended up having the better major-league careers. Statistically speaking, there’s little to quibble with in Ohtani’s pitching résumé.
As for Ohtani’s batting stats, only two hitters — fellow outfielders Hideki Matsui and Kosuke Fukudome — stand out as being highly similar to their younger counterpart, and they also represent two potentially divergent paths for Ohtani’s performance at the plate. After a 10-year MLB career spent mostly with the Yankees, Matsui ended up being the greatest Japanese power hitter ever to play in the U.S. (and the second-best position player, behind future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki). Ohtani’s power stats in Japan were every bit as impressive as Matsui’s were before he arrived stateside; in terms of translated stats, the former has the latter beat on home runs and doubles per 600 plate appearances, in addition to slugging percentage and OPS. But it’s important to note that Fukudome’s numbers weren’t too far behind, and his MLB career is largely viewed as a disappointment.
It’s also worth pointing out that few hitters who profile as powerfully as Ohtani have even tried to make the leap from Japan to the major leagues. Japanese position players have more frequently been cast from a similar mold as Ichiro, whose game was based around speed and hitting for average, not blasting monster home runs. (At least, not outside of batting practice.) So on the batting side, Ohtani will be exploring territory still somewhat uncharted by past Japanese prospects — a matter made even more complicated by scouts’ assessments that his swing needs shortening and concerns that he won’t be able to make the proper adjustments unless he gets a lot of reps against MLB-caliber pitching.
But even if he ends up being more like a mashup of Matsuzaka and Fukudome than Darvish and Matsui, Ohtani would still have plenty of value because of the unique dual role he could fill. A league-average pitcher in 150 innings plus an average hitter with 100 plate appearances would be worth 1.8 wins above replacement (1.5 with his arm and 0.3 with his bat). Those stats alone would fetch nearly $20 million on the free agent market — and that’s without even considering the ways in which Ohtani might “break” the very framework of WAR itself.
Systems like WAR are designed to judge the value of pitchers’ batting relative to other pitchers, so the total offensive WAR for pitchers in a given season adds up to about zero. (Because pitchers tend to be horrible hitters, this essentially means the per-inning position adjustment for pitchers is astronomical compared even with that of catchers, the nonpitching position that gets the biggest positional boost.) If he spends a decent chunk of time in the field and/or proves to be a solid hitter, Ohtani could force the curators of WAR at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs to do some mathematical gymnastics, weighting his position adjustment and offensive production for the plate appearances he gets at pitcher and in the field. Or maybe they’ll just calculate two separate versions of batting WAR for Ohtani — one that treats him like a pitcher and another that considers him a position player. Either way, WAR wasn’t designed with a player like Ohtani in mind.
There’s also the added benefit of Ohtani’s bat off the bench as a pinch-hitter or a designated hitter on days he isn’t starting, which would give his team extra roster flexibility. This was previously discussed when considering the ways in which FiveThirtyEight favorite Ben Zobrist frees up roster space by playing a bunch of different positions; when studying the matter, Baseball Prospectus’s Russell Carleton found that Zobrist’s versatility probably earned his then-team, the Tampa Bay Rays, a couple of extra runs per year. The value of converting a pitcher’s roster spot into a functional hitter/position-player on some of his off-days is probably even greater, and it might play into the decision of which league Ohtani ultimately ends up joining.
In the American League, Ohtani would presumably play DH to save the wear and tear on his body in between starts, though the intrinsic value of a DH is the lowest of any position (therefore raising the bar for his hitting production), and he wouldn’t get in any extra trips to the plate on days he was pitching. In the National League, Ohtani could hit for himself during starts, make better use of his above-average fielding skills on off-days and need less impressive hitting stats to produce value. (Plus, if he ever came out of the bullpen, he could even be the rare reliever who stays in the game when his lineup slot comes up.) For those reasons, it does seem like the NL would offer more opportunities for Ohtani’s unique repertoire of skills to add value.
But that’s all speculation at this point. The truth is, the MLB hasn’t seen a two-way player like this since the days of Wes Ferrell and Red Ruffing, each of whom played most of their careers before World War II. Baseball has gotten so specialized that it’s been assumed that no pitcher — not even the Carlos Zambranos, Mike Hamptons or Madison Bumgarners of the world — would ever be a viable regular hitter again. But Ohtani could prove all that wrong if his translated numbers, well, translate. No matter where he ends up signing, it’s going to be ridiculously entertaining to watch it all play out.
Ohtani might get around 55 plate appearances in the course of throwing 150 innings as a starting pitcher, so this assumes he’d also get a few extra PAs a week as a fielder or pinch-hitter.