For the past six seasons, the Angels’ lineup has been fortified by the best player in baseball, but Mike Trout has never won a playoff game, and the team has won 90 games in a season just once in his illustrious career.
Now, he’s going to have a partner in stardom. Shohei Ohtani — ace Japanese pitcher, Home Run Derby–winning slugger, Babe Ruth of the 21st century — is signing with the Angels. Exactly 100 years after Babe Ruth began appearing in lineups as a pure hitter in addition to pitching, Ohtani will attempt to prove his two-way bona fides in the majors, while also trying to raise L.A. out of mediocrity and join Trout to form the most dynamic duo in the major leagues.
— Mike Trout (@MikeTrout) December 8, 2017
Since it became clear that Ohtani would sign with an MLB team this winter, the sport has been rife with rumors about what would sway the 23-year-old Japanese star — the most prized free agent in years — in his decision. Because of restrictive rules relating to the signing of under-25 international players, almost every team could realistically afford to acquire Ohtani — L.A. will end up paying a $20 million posting fee to Ohtani’s NPB team, as well as a seven-figure signing bonus and league-minimum salary to the player, whose rights it will control for the next six seasons — but in the end, it seems that he chose the Angels because of more nebulous, personal factors. “What mattered to him most wasn’t market size, time zone, or league but that he felt a true bond with the Angels,” his agent said in a statement announcing the decision Friday.
The Angels, rightly, should be ecstatic with their early holiday present, and Trout with his early wedding gift; so, too, should baseball fans more broadly. Ruth is the last player to amass both 200 plate appearances and 100 innings pitched in the same season, and Ohtani is the best bet in recent memory to forge a path as a two-way player. This highlight video is long, but the whole thing is worth watching — Ohtani can do just about everything worth trying on a baseball field.
Ohtani transforms the Angels from a team in the morass of AL clubs likely to compete for a wild card into a favorite for a playoff spot. He projects as a no. 2 or 3 starting pitcher right away, though he immediately becomes the best starter on an Angels staff full of inexperienced and injury-prone arms, and he possesses sufficient upside that acehood is a reasonable expectation; his fastball has touched 102 mph, and his breaking and off-speed pitches should yield lofty strikeout totals in the States. He didn’t pitch much due to lower-body injuries last year, but in the three preceding seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters, Ohtani posted the following combined line: 2.25 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 30.4 strikeout rate, 8.2 percent walk rate, and 0.36 HR/9.
Ohtani’s offensive future is less clear, as stats and scouts are generally split on his prospects at the plate. In his best season in Japan (2016), his batting line would have translated to a .306/.367/.512 MLB slash line, per Clay Davenport’s calculations. Hitters projected to hit in that range next season include Aaron Judge, Carlos Correa, Mookie Betts, Charlie Blackmon, George Springer, and Yasiel Puig. The statistical projections from ZiPS forecast Ohtani hovering near a 120 OPS+ for the duration of his rookie contract.
However, scouts see several gaping holes in his long swing: mainly, that he hasn’t yet refined a two-strike approach and that pitchers could exploit that swing with velocity on the inner half of the plate. Those scouts also question his ability to evolve offensively in the majors given that he’d have to divide his developmental time between pitching and hitting.
But Ohtani has already succeeded as a young player in a league whose difficulty lies somewhere between Triple-A and the majors. When Judge was Ohtani’s age, he was struggling in his first exposure to Triple-A pitching; the new Angel has already collected a 20-homer campaign and two seasons with an OBP north of .400 against Japan’s toughest competition.
It’s unclear where he will hit, or how often, in the Angels’ lineup, or how his presence will affect incumbent designated hitter Albert Pujols, who was the worst everyday player in baseball last year but also has the contract, legacy, and RBI totals to make a replacement situation awkward. Those are questions for the future, though, to be pondered all winter and answered during his first at-bat in spring training, and in Mike Scioscia’s Opening Day lineup card and beyond.
What matters now is that Ohtani is an impending star joining a team that already boasts the shiniest one in the baseball galaxy. Before Friday, his new team boasted the sport’s best player and most dazzling shortstop, and not much else. Ohtani fills the Angels roster with a hearty dose of fun and the mind with a similar surfeit of imagination; on any given day, Ohtani could drive in Trout with a crushed fly ball, or Trout could support his new best pitcher with a diving catch, or they could go back to back in the same lineup. The possibilities are vast, and could shift a paradigm in the sport, and are just downright joyous to consider. And Opening Day is just a few months away.