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Let Ohtani Play Two-Way

Some have called for the Angels phenom to stick to batting. But his expected return to the team’s rotation next year won’t be good for just the team—it’ll be good for the sport.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Shohei Ohtani is on another roll. The Angels’ former and presumptive future two-way player, who’s restricted to DH duty this year as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery, started slow after missing most of spring training and returning to play on May 7, but broke out during an incandescent June that bled into a blistering first week of July. Ohtani launched 10 homers in 99 at-bats between June 4 and July 5, when he turned 25 and hit his high-water mark with a .930 OPS on the season. A mediocre month followed, but Ohtani turned it on again in August and is currently riding a career-high 11-game hitting streak that has bolstered his seasonal slash line to .307/.365/529.

If Ohtani keeps up his hot hitting and finishes the season strong, his success will almost certainly incite another round of the debate about his role that’s accompanied him throughout his career. Because Ohtani is trying to accomplish a feat that no other player has pulled off full time since Babe Ruth, he’s always inspired skepticism. Whenever one aspect of his performance seems to outstrip the other, the calls for him to focus on his supposed strength intensify. When Ohtani struggled on offense last spring training, scouts cast doubt on the idea that he could hit in the majors immediately (or ever), even though he’d been the best hitter in Nippon Professional Baseball—the highest-level league outside of MLB—at age 21. Now that he’s proved himself at the plate even as his elbow has prevented him from pitching in a game since September 2, some media members have suggested that hitting should continue to be the biggest part of his job.

In September 2018, when Ohtani mashed four homers in three games right after receiving the news that he’d have to have Tommy John surgery to replace his damaged ulnar collateral ligament, Bleacher Report’s Zachary D. Rymer argued that Ohtani should give up pitching permanently. “The bat works better than the arm,” Rymer wrote. “Take a hint.”

This June, when Ohtani was tearing up opposing pitching, Angels beat writer Rhett Bollinger asked the common question: “Should Shohei Ohtani still be a two-way player?” So did Joe Sheehan, who explored the same subject in his newsletter after Ohtani became the first Japanese-born MLB player to hit for the cycle on June 13. Sheehan acknowledged the entertainment value that Ohtani’s two-way exploits provide, but he concluded that the young star’s unique usage is jeopardizing his on-field value, writing, “Isn’t it clear … that Ohtani is a potential MVP candidate even if he never takes the mound at all, and that pushing the latter task onto his desk offers more risk than reward?” Hall of Famer Frank Thomas expressed a similar sentiment in a segment on Fox Sports.

Let’s head off the inevitable next tweet or column about the benefits of urging Ohtani to specialize. Yes, we can construct a logical case for why Ohtani would be more valuable WAR-wise as a full-time position player. However, it’s not a clear-cut case, and it’s one that likely limits his ceiling. It’s also one that asks us to evaluate a once-in-multiple-lifetimes talent by the same statistical standard we apply to other players. In Ohtani, baseball has been given the gift of a young, telegenic, personable star with international appeal and a set of almost-miraculous skills that hasn’t been seen in a century. Given how high the level of play is today, there was no reason to anticipate a player with the potential to be a legitimately top-tier hitter and pitcher, but here he is. If the Angels want to remake him in a more conventional mold, they can pursue that approach. But there’s little reason for anyone else to root for the team to clip Ohtani’s two-way wings, especially when we haven’t yet seen him do his thing for a full season with a fully operational arm.

Although the public pressure on Ohtani to give up pitching has grown since the halcyon days of last spring, when he gave us a glimpse of the intoxicating two-way experience, there’s no indication that either Ohtani or the Angels has seriously considered keeping him in a one-way capacity when his elbow is back to full strength. Ohtani has consistently stated that he prefers to pitch and hit, and his elbow rehab is progressing: On Saturday, he threw curveballs and dialed his fastball up to 85 mph in a 40-pitch bullpen session, and he’s thrown splitters and sliders on flat ground. He’s scheduled to face hitters in a simulated game by the end of the regular season, which would put him on track to train regularly over the offseason and resume two-way play by Opening Day.

At a Q&A at Saber Seminar on August 10, Angels pro scouting director Nate Horowitz was asked whether Ohtani’s success as a hitter has swayed the team’s thinking about the best way to use him when he’s fully recovered. “I think the answer when he comes back next year is gonna be just to play him as much as possible,” Horowitz said. “It will likely be a similar—like, he pitches once a week, and maybe we take the reins off a little bit on the designated hitter side, and maybe he’s hitting 4-5 times a week. There hasn’t been really much talk about creatively putting him in the outfield or anything like that, just from a wear-and-tear perspective. There also hasn’t been talk about putting him just in the outfield.”

Most of that talk has come from the media, but it’s not without merit. As ESPN’s Sam Miller explained last year and The Ringer’s Zach Kram echoed in June, doing most of two jobs saps some of Ohtani’s production in each one. Even though it’s not new to him, two-way play probably increases Ohtani’s fatigue and may also elevate his injury risk (although his elbow and blister problems are hardly proof of that in an era when so many pitchers are beset by one woe or the other). It also limits his playing time on each side of the ball. If he pitched exclusively, Ohtani could probably make more starts and accumulate more innings. If he stopped pitching, he could hit more often, and he might be a bit more daring on the bases. More important, he could play defense. Although he hasn’t played outfield professionally since 2014, his speed, arm, and overall athleticism would likely make him a force in right field.

Of course, Ohtani could still accrue more combined playing time in both roles than he could in either one alone, which would make the math work. As Miller laid out, though, the balance between Ohtani’s hitting and pitching contributions has to be just right for the stats to support continued two-way play. Only if Ohtani is very good to great at both hitting and pitching, or very good at hitting but even better at pitching, does the calculus favor two-way play. Any other combination, and a purely numbers-driven analysis would hew to one-way play. If Ohtani is a better hitter than he is a pitcher, then, the data aligns with the Rymer-Sheehan-Thomas contention that he should pick the position-player lane.

Ohtani’s career .293/.361/.545 slash line entering Tuesday translated to a 143 wRC+, which ranked 15th among hitters with at least 500 plate appearances since the start of last season. Although he hasn’t supplied the same power production this season that he did as a rookie, he’s hitting the ball just as hard: His 92.7 mph average exit velocity slightly tops last year’s and places him in the top 3 percent of the league. As Ohtani noted within the past week, he’s “just not hitting it at the right angle”; his average launch angle is down from 12.3 degrees in 2018 to 6.1 degrees this year, with corresponding declines in the average angle of his hardest-hit balls and the percentage of his batted balls clustered within the launch-angle sweet spot. If Ohtani can correct his recent tendency toward grounders, he should start hitting more balls over the fence, especially considering his contact and strikeout rates have improved.

Thus far, Ohtani has averaged roughly 4 WAR per prorated or extrapolated full season as a hitter and as a pitcher. If he hit the same and added above-average defense to his game as a full-time hitter, he could raise the former figure. On the other hand, he could also be better as a pitcher than he showed in a small sample last season. His elbow was damaged to some degree even before he made his MLB debut, he was adjusting to a different ball than the one he was accustomed to in Japan, and he seemed to be improving on the mound before he was shut down.

In other words, it’s not quite clear yet whether Ohtani is appreciably better as a hitter or a pitcher. Even if you think we’ve seen enough to establish that he’d be better as a full-time hitter than he could be in both roles, how big would the difference be? As Sheehan wrote in April 2018 and reaffirmed this June, “I’m pretty sure Shohei Ohtani is a five-win pitcher, and I can be convinced he’s a five-win outfielder. I just don’t know if we’re taking those players and making them into a four-win P/DH.” Well, what if we (or the Angels and Ohtani) are? Would one WAR per year be enough to justify turning a uniquely compelling unicorn into one of many 20-something star position players?

This isn’t a question one can answer conclusively solely by weighing the WARs. For one thing, there’s an ethical angle involved. Ohtani made his wishes about being a two-way player clear before he signed, and the Angels’ openness to that arrangement may have helped seal his signing. Granted, they did let him try it, and circumstances have changed: He blew out his elbow, and he’s proved himself to be a better hitter than the team could confidently have projected. Ohtani isn’t more entitled to dictate how he’s used for the rest of his career than any other player is, so Billy Eppler and Brad Ausmus could tell him that they’ve altered the deal.

Even if the Angels would be well within their rights to prevent him from pitching, though, they would be wise to take the player’s preference into account. If Ohtani were to harbor a grudge about the team trampling on his two-way dream, that could affect both his one-way performance and the team’s chances of locking him up long term at a ownership-friendly rate. There’s also a marketing component to the decision: Through endorsements, attendance boosts, and merchandise sales, Ohtani could potentially make more money for the Angels and himself as the sport’s sole two-way superstar.

Beyond that, it makes sense to consider the Angels’ roster construction. It’s been years since a difference of one win would have meaningfully affected the Angels’ playoff hopes, but for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that they’re about to return to contention. Where would Ohtani help most: the outfield or the mound? Mike Trout is cemented in center, and left fielder Justin Upton is signed for three more seasons. Even if the Angels buy out current right fielder Kole Calhoun’s team option for 2020 and let him walk away, the franchise controls a ready replacement in Triple-A outfielder Jo Adell, baseball’s second-best position-player prospect, according to Ohtani might be worth several wins more than a replacement-level outfielder, but he wouldn’t be as big an upgrade over the Angels’ actual outfielders.

What’s more, the Angels need starting pitching as desperately as any team. Only the Orioles have received fewer WAR from their starters this season, and even if the Angels’ active innings leader, Griffin Canning, can cross the 100-inning threshold, the Angels will join the 2012 Rockies as the only two teams in the modern era to have just one pitcher reach the century mark. Thanks in part to their use of openers, the Angels have already asked 18 pitchers to start games, the most of any team since the 1996 Pirates, and one more new name would put them close to the top of the list, above any team from the past half-century. The loss of Tyler Skaggs further strained a staff that was already thin, and only one of the Angels’ top 30 prospects, per FanGraphs—19th-ranked Luis Madero, who owns a 5.99 ERA in Double-A—is a pitcher listed with a 2020 ETA. Adding pitching is the Angels’ only path to the playoffs, and Ohtani is the safest in-house source.

There’s no pressing reason for the Angels to commit today to a plan for 2020, let alone subsequent seasons. The team can take the next six weeks to evaluate Ohtani’s offense, monitor his bullpen performance, and develop an offseason strategy, then adjust its plans for spring training based on how the winter went. Even if the Angels—who’ve given opportunities to a few lower-profile two-way players this season—stick to what Horowitz said, we won’t see Ohtani at the peak of his powers until at least 2021. He hasn’t thrown more than 51 2/3 innings in a season since 2016, so it will take time for him to build up endurance and shake off the post-surgery rust. But the sooner that ramping-up process starts, the sooner he could soar in ways no one else will.

Baseball fans and analysts who believe that the game has grown less spectator-friendly have repeatedly pointed their fingers at numbers nerds for emphasizing efficiency over fun. Going out of our way to say that a fascinating, singular, game-reframing player who could be baseball’s best story should have his attempt at two-way immortality curtailed for at most a modest upgrade would play into that stathead stereotype. If the Angels ultimately decide that Ohtani would be worth more to them that way, and Ohtani acquiesces, it might not be a bad decision for them, but it would be sad for the sport. As we’ve learned since last summer, a world without two-way Ohtani is one with a little less joy. Until Ohtani the pitcher proves that he isn’t up to the task, let the kid play two-way.

Stats current through Monday.