Shohei Ohtani might change real baseball, but he’s already wrecking fantasy baseball. The question of how to handle the first two-way baseball player since Babe Ruth is forcing gatekeepers to fundamentally rethink the game.
It’s easy to summarize Ohtani’s abilities: He can do everything. The 23-year-old is the best pitcher Japan has to offer. He also won Nippon Professional Baseball’s 2016 home run derby. His fastball has reached 103 mph, and he once hit a ball so high that it went into the ceiling of the Tokyo Dome.
Ohtani’s 2017 season was marred by lower-body injuries, but his 2016 statline reads like it comes from 1918 (or maybe 2118). He racked up 174 strikeouts in 140 innings with a 1.86 ERA and a 0.957 WHIP. As a hitter, he had 22 home runs, 67 RBIs, and seven steals, and batted .322 in just 382 plate appearances. As The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh noted, if you combine his 2016 hitting and pitching WAR, it’s roughly equivalent to Mike Trout’s single-season high.
Ohtani is already the most intriguing fantasy athlete in any sport. His existence will change the fantasy baseball paradigm. And that’s the problem. None of the leading fantasy sites know what to do with him.
“Hitters hit, pitchers pitch, and that’s the way we’ve operated in the 35, 40 years fantasy baseball has been around,” Brian Huss, CBS senior director of product development, told Awful Announcing last week.
Ohtani could change that system. On Thursday, Yahoo announced that it would split Ohtani into two different players for the 2018 season: There will be Ohtani the Batter and Ohtani the Pitcher. ESPN, CBS, and Rotowire have yet to decide on Ohtani’s positional eligibility, but have acknowledged that using him as a pitcher and as a hitter presents philosophical challenges (should all pitchers’ batting stats count?), and practical concerns about creating a player model that will function in leagues with different scoring and roster settings.
Pitchers and catchers report on February 13, and the debate over handling a once-in-a-century player will soon move from boardrooms to your league’s group chat. There’s a real chance that the major fantasy platforms will use different solutions to handle baseball’s 10-tool star. Here are the two paths that are emerging:
The King Solomon Approach
Yahoo has already chosen to treat Ohtani the way King Solomon wanted to treat that baby: He will be cleaved in two, giving us Ohtani the Pitcher and Ohtani the Batter as separate, draftable options in the player pool. According to Baseball America, Content managers and software engineers met nearly every day for a month to discuss how to handle the problem, and concluded that this was the best possible solution (and also the simplest for Yahoo’s software engineers). Yahoo product director Guy Lake said the creation of two Ohtanis would make for the best mix between functionality and playability.
“That’s the best gloss I can put on it,” Lake told Baseball America. “I would love it if we could say ‘No problem’ (and encompass all of Ohtani’s value into one draftable player). If it were easy, there would be one. Let’s be clear about that: It’s not easy, but we’ve come up with what we think is the best from a set of imperfect choices.”
This solution takes away much of the difficulty associated with scoring and rostering Ohtani. It also removes all of the fun. Ohtani is a once-in-a-century fantasy talent, and disassembling him destroys his unique utility. As King Solomon explained: Those who would cut Ohtani in half don’t truly love him. This approach is the best option only if:
1. You hate fun.
2. You operate a popular fantasy baseball platform, and tinkering with the fancy underlying software of that platform to accommodate a single player might not be worth the related time or expenses.
Smaller fantasy sites who don’t hate fun, like RTSports.com, are onboard for a single Ohtani in fantasy, but what will that look like?
The One True Ohtani Approach
For those who want to deploy the full skill set of the One True Ohtani, the best solution seems to be to grant him dual eligibility at starting pitcher and designated hitter and allow him to start in a utility spot on days when he isn’t pitching. Handling him during the games that he starts, however, is more complex. On RTSports, you won’t be able to collect Ohtani’s batting stats if you start him at pitcher (and vice versa). CBS has hinted that it will make the same decision.
Dual eligibility is a better solution than splitting him in half, but it still may not scratch the itch for some fantasy owners who want all of Ohtani’s numbers. Counting his hitting stats when he is slotted into a fantasy lineup as a pitcher is simplest, but it might not be fair. Rostering Ohtani would amount to an extra hitter in your lineup every time he takes the mound, which probably isn’t in the spirit of the fantasy game.
Ideally, he would be allowed to be used in two slots, not just one, as a utility player and a starting pitcher on the days he starts at both positions. Yes, it would look weird to have Ohtani slotted in twice on your fantasy team, but it will also look weird on the Angels’ lineup card. If a guy can play pitcher and DH in the same game in real life, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to in the virtual world.
In a perfect world, fantasy sites would allow leagues to choose between either of these options, but so far only CBS has indicated that a choice will be on the table. It would be sad if ESPN, CBS, and other sites chose to follow Yahoo’s lead and actual baseball becomes a more imaginative space than fantasy baseball. We have sent spacecraft to Saturn and mapped the human genome, but deploying a pitcher as a hitter in fantasy baseball may be beyond the technical capacity of the largest digital media companies in the United States. Accounting for Ohtani may be complex, but it would be worth it in the pursuit of the only thing that actually matters in the world of fantasy sports: fun.