Shohei Ohtani is like nothing this generation of baseball fans and analysts have ever seen. A player who can hit for power and consistency is of immense value, as is a pitcher with a heavy, deceptive fastball — and Ohtani is both. As all of Major League Baseball competed for his services, I found myself asking a question that really has no impact on his skill.
However, it’s a pretty interesting thought exercise: will the 23-year-old Ohtani strike out at the plate more than he strikes batters out on the mound, or vice versa? If you’re wondering why this matters, stop, because it truly does not, but join me if you’re curious here in trying to both analytically and randomly decide this.
Over at our Twitter account, @BB_Essential, you can think it over and decide in an interactive, fan-friendly poll. What will Ohtani have more of in his rookie Major League Baseball season with the Los Angeles Angels, strikeouts as a batter, or strikeouts as a pitcher?
First, we have to look at his statistics as a member of Nippon Professional Baseball’s Nippon Ham Fighters. Ohtani, in his three full seasons as a pitcher (his 2017 campaign was derailed due to injury), posted strikeout totals of 179, 196, and 174, which adds up to a yearly average of 183 strikeouts. That mark would good for 23rd in MLB during the 2017 season out of 755 pitchers who recorded at least one pitch, so Ohtani would be among the elite pitchers in the majors in a mere year.
This is compared to his yearly hitting numbers, as his five seasons as an NPB batter (64, 48, 43, 98, 63) give him, on average, 63.2 strikeouts. So, yeah, it’s not even close, right? He’s clearly going to compile more strikeouts as a pitcher than as a batter, or at least, we might think. The key to comparing NPB averages to that of MLB ranks is to keep in mind that the numbers are entirely disingenuous.
This is because MLB position players who have gone to Japan’s top league almost always fare better in the box overseas than stateside. Kevin Youkilis, Julio Franco, Cecil Fielder, Wily Mo Pena, and Tuffy Rhodes, among many other MLB players, posted better numbers in Japan than in the major leagues. They often strikeout far less at the plate, and in almost all cases, post better home run totals and rolling averages at the plate.
So, Ohtani has dominated players who historically have been less effective with a bat in their hands. If he has any stumbles with adjusting to the MLB landscape, he could see his pitching K numbers drop considerably (they almost certainly will drop nonetheless) due to the immense change in talent level he’ll look at from 60 feet and six inches away.
It’s also necessary to account for the change in hitting. Obviously, the pitching in MLB is not equaled by what Ohtani has faced in NPB play. Though home runs are up yearly, so are strikeouts, and in 2017, MLB hitters struck out over 40,000 times. To think Ohtani will be down on strikes more often than he has been in Japan is not ridiculous.
If things go, from a deployment standpoint, as I think they will, Ohtani will pitch every fifth day. If he stays healthy and averages, say, five innings per start (around 32 times), his strikeout numbers as a pitcher could reach the 120-140 range. Getting at bats will be a little difficult with as stacked of a team as the Angels have on paper, especially in Ohtani’s preferred positions. Future Hall-of-Famer Albert Pujols will likely DH mostly, while Justin Upton, Mike Trout, and Kole Calhoun man the outfield.
However, that’s what makes this interesting: Ohtani is a never-before-seen animal. We can’t project how the fireballer will perform because we have never seen anything like him on the mound, and we have no clue as to how many plate appearances the lefty slugger will get as a presumed bench player with the Angels.
Nevertheless, it’s a fun thought exercise. We baseball fans need something like this over the winter months.