Shohei Otani: The Intrigue of a Two-Way Player

Shohei Otani is the latest phenom that is getting a lot of buzz from Japan. The 22-year-old is generating a lot of interest from Major League Baseball clubs not only because of his right arm on the mound, but also because of his bat from the left side of the plate. In 2016 for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, Otani went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA on the mound and in 382 plate appearances had a slash line of .322/.416/.588 that had him being touted as the next Babe Ruth. I’m not going there, because those comparisons are silly at this point. Besides, it’s still a big question if and when he will be posted. My first thoughts are about how useful a player with this ability could be on an MLB roster.

Pitchers can’t hit. That’s why they are pitchers. For how many years has that statement been true? Pretty much my entire life, I can tell you that much. But is it because they can’t hit or is it because teams have overvalued their arms to the point of trying to protect them at all costs. If the sabermetric movement has one key principle, it’s the fact that everything should be questioned and not just accepted because that’s the way it has always been done.

Don’t tell Madison Bumgarner, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, or Adam Wainwright that pitchers can’t hit, because they have numbers to show different. Granted, they are from some small sample sizes, but Wainwright had an OPS of .734 in 69 plate appearances in 2016. If Wainwright’s numbers were projected over 350 PA, he would have hit 10 home runs and driven in 91 runs! Yeah, there’s value in that. Obviously, he would not have received that many plate appearances with the present set up with the Cardinals, but it’s not hard to see that maybe we are missing something here that could have an upside for clubs.

Getting back to Otani, what could we expect from him outside of Japan? He is young and has averaged almost 150 innings over the past three seasons on the mound. He has a high-velocity fastball that he regularly dials upwards of 99 MPH and has supposedly hit 102 on the radar gun. The pitch shows good movement, especially up and in to right-handed batters. That alone will get him noticed in the States. His off-speed offerings still are a work in progress, but he has shown the ability to throw the curveball for strikes. His ERA has dropped consistently over the past three years and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is much improved. While it appears that his mechanics still need work, he definitely seems to have the stuff to step right into any big league rotation and have an immediate impact. Remember, he is still only 22.

Otani’s legend has taken its biggest step forward because of his ability at the plate. This past season, he put up 22 home runs and 67 runs batted in to go along with the slash line mentioned earlier. Like his pitching numbers, his numbers as a hitter have seen a similar climb the last three years. And being able to bat is a big deal for Otani. Coming out of high school, he told teams in Japan not to draft him because he wanted to sign directly with an MLB team just to have that option to hit. When the Ham Fighters made the concession that he could do both for them, he made the decision to stay close to home.

So, before giving any credence to the thought of giving a pitcher regular playing time at other positions, there has to be some context on what a player of Otani’s ability would bring and how to dispel prior notions about pitchers having to participate in any other part of the game besides throwing. For every Chien-Ming Wang who has been hurt running the bases in an interleague game and never being the same again, there is an Adam Wainwright making the bottom of the batting order a little tougher for opposing pitchers. There is also a Madison Bumgarner coming through in the clutch with a pinch-hit at-bat. Who knows how many others there might be and what their ability could produce if they had been developed in college or in the minors?

The money that organizations have invested in pitchers pushed them to protect these arms at all costs. But, if these players could provide real value with the bat or in the field, why wouldn’t they want to utilize it. Players who were developed in this manner should be better conditioned all-around athletes. Runners don’t just run. They do strength training, they do yoga, bike. In other words, they cross-train. It would seem pitchers would be far less susceptible to injury and would be more successful than by just sticking a bat in their hand occasionally and telling them, “Just don’t get hurt.”

Many have thought that Otani’s value would be highest to an American League team. This is because of the thought that he could DH on some of the days that he wasn’t on the mound. He would bring a high value to a National League team in my opinion. How valuable would a bat such as his be off the bench? On the days that he was not pitching, he would essentially be like having an extra roster player. Not to mention the at-bats he would get in his regular turns in the rotation.

How many at-bats a player such as this would receive would obviously be a result of his success. If he were to become a frontline starter, a club may try to limit his times at the plate. However, the more success he had with the bat, the more opportunity he would probably be given and not necessarily in just DH or pinch hit spots. Clubs could even explore using him as a extra outfielder, which is what Otani did up until the 2015 season.

It’s not hard to see the value these at-bats would bring.  They will not all be asked to be stars at the plate. Just being league average or slightly above has great value and gives roster flexibility that has never before been seen. Not every pitcher out there is going to fit the mold of an athlete like Otani. But, if organizations can develop players in this manner, it could add real value to their club. Just like the role and importance of relief pitching is currently undergoing a great change, other spots on rosters will adapt as further questioning of the status quo and the past move forward.

Whether Otani turns out to be the first of this type remains to be seen. Many see him as a possible $180-200 million signing as a pitcher. But if he can give you 300-350 quality at bats as a DH or bench player, how much extra value is that production worth? Does it bump him to $230 million, or even $300 million? Many will criticize and say that you shouldn’t take a chance with an arm like this. I say let the experiment begin and see what extra production can be generated from all the spots on your 25-man roster. Because isn’t getting maximum production out of your resources what it’s all about?

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