Baseball announcers love to tell you the great thing about the game is that every day you have a chance, maybe even likely, to see something you’ve never seen before. That doesn’t always hold true, but it’s a lovely thought. All sports promise something memorable and awe-inspiring at a moment’s notice. That’s why we’re here, most of the time.
Shohei Ohtani promised something that most of us genuinely hadn’t seen before. A bonafide MLB pitcher — and not just some back of the rotation punter gasping 91 MPH cutters and sliders that bend instead of break at the corners through five innings, but a genuine top of the rotation fireballer who could overpower hitters — who could also be a middle of the lineup hitter. Sure, there’s Michael Lorenzen in Cincinnati, a reliever who can pinch hit here and there. We’ve seen that before with a few others. But this was a player who could DH and belt two homers in a game and then turn around two days later and throw seven shutout innings. This was the baseball version of Optimus Prime.
It may be that 12 starts is all we ever get.
Ohtani is almost certainly done pitching this year. His first two starts this season were an utter disaster. He faced 16 batters combined. He got five of them out. He walked half of them. He struck out three of them. Seven of them scored. Ohtani’s velocity was way down in his first start, and his desperation to reclaim it in his second start caused a bout of wildness that suggested he may have been infected with the thing. And it also may have caused him to hurt himself.
Now Ohtani is on the shelf with a forearm strain, and in a normal season he’d be out two months or so. Obviously, neither the Angels or Ohtani have two months in this season set to the Benny Hill theme covered by Nine Inch Nails, so he won’t take the mound again.
Which means that Ohtani will have made two starts in two seasons, and just 12 in three. It’s unfair to Ohtani, who didn’t get a full spring training to ramp up his arm after missing a season due to Tommy John surgery, nor any kind of rehab start(s) in the minors. Perhaps that’s what the Angels would try next year. To go essentially two years without pitching and then come back to anything near what you were is a mountainous task. And no one has tried it while also being in the lineup most days as a DH.
Except the Angels can’t have him in the minors for an extended period of time, because he hits. He hasn’t so far this year, but that’s greatly due to just bad luck. Ohtani’s 60 percent hard-contact rate and a mere pittance of a .125 BABIP suggest he’s hitting the ball more than hard enough often enough, it just keeps being right at someone’s glove. Over a full season, those numbers would rebound.
Offense hasn’t been the problem for the Angels so far in their 3-7 start, as subpar (though not awful) pitching has done them in. Certainly Ohtani hasn’t helped with that. But betting on David Fletcher or Brian Goodwin to continue to put up Bonds-like numbers is a good way to end up with some guy with a nickname that ends in an apostrophe breaking your thumbs. They’ll need Ohtani’s bat.
Going forward, can the Angels count on Ohtani to remain healthy through a full season? Can they continue to structure a pitching staff to six starters to accommodate him to do so? Can they afford to not have his bat in the lineup half the time (Ohtani doesn’t DH the day before or after his starts)? When he pitched full-time in 2018, they only got 367 plate-appearances from him, and that’s with piling up his September PAs after shutting him down as a pitcher. They got 425 out of him last year, and that’s with him missing most of September. He was a better offensive player in 2018 when he was pitching, but that’s mostly due to a declining walk-rate in 2019 that could be reclaimed.
It could just be that Ohtani simply threw the ball too hard. In 2018, he averaged 96.7 MPH on his fastball. The list of pitchers to average more than that is rife with injuries. Twenty-four pitchers have averaged over 95 MPH on their fastballs for their career. At least 13 of them have suffered a major arm injury, with only Zack Wheeler and Stephen Strasburg recovering to be dominant again. And Strasburg is having issues again this year.
The Angels will almost certainly give Ohtani another chance to start next year with a proper spring training and a proper arm-building program. That’s what they promised him when they signed him. And maybe he’ll make it more than a handful of starts. Moving Ohtani to the pen is a near impossibility due to DH rules and how often being on the mound would rule him out of batting at all.
But for Ohtani to balance out being a DH only half the time, he has to be a really good pitcher. It’ll have been three years since that happened when he tries again in 2021. Asking the Angels to essentially carry to DHs so they have one when Ohtani is either pitching or out of the lineup to prepare/recover from pitching is a challenge. There’s a lot of lineup flexibility needed to comfortably fit Ohtani’s unique circumstances in. And is all of that worth it when he can’t make the bell as a starter so often? Are the 100-200 PAs the Angels would miss out on from Ohtani worth the starts he’s going to provide in the future? Will hurting himself on the mound cost him more appearances at the plate?
It may just be that being a two-way player, and a plus-one on both sides at that, is simply beyond anyone.