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Los Angeles Angels: Evaluating Shohei Ohtani’s Rookie Season

In the study of Economics there is a term known as sunk cost. It refers to a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. In microeconomic theory, sunk costs are not contributing factors to future investment strategies. For all intents and purposes, the Los Angeles Angels’ 2018 season has been a sunk cost. The year has not been as promising as it initially seemed it could be when the team got off to a 13-3 start that featured an incredible one-two punch of superstars — Mike Trout and rookie Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani. Considering the organization’s future and how the Angels should “invest” their current assets, positioning themselves for success next year and beyond is likely their current priority because like I said, their sunk cost season needs to be put behind them.

Shohei Ohtani (17) may undergo Tommy John surgery to repair a damaged UCL ligament in his pitching elbow. Photo by: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With all that in mind it begs the question, why did the Angels permit Shohei Ohtani to pitch again this year, and based on his first MLB season, how should they manage his playing situation in 2019 and beyond? On September 2nd, the 24 year old Japanese rookie made his first pitching start since he was diagnosed with UCL damage in his throwing elbow in early June. He went 2.1 innings against the Houston Astros, allowed two runs, struck out two and walked two. At the end of the second inning there was a noticeable dip in Ohtani’s fastball velocity, and in the third he allowed a two-run home run to Astros outfielder George Springer. Reports of new damage to Ohtani’s UCL ligament came out a few days later.

Few, if any, players in baseball have demanded more media attention this season than the two-way Angels superstar. His return to the mound was a highly anticipated spectacle — one that was polarizing amongst those in the baseball community. While it was incredibly exciting to see him return to pitch again this season, watching Ohtani back on the mound had baseball fans holding their breath and questioning whether he should be throwing again so soon. After fearing back in June that he’d need Tommy John surgery, he instead elected to utilize plasma-rich platelet injections to rehabilitate his injured elbow. It was tough to believe that Ohtani had actually made a full recovery that quickly, but the Halo faithful were hopeful.

It’s unclear when exactly the elbow began to bother Ohtani during his start against Houston. In the second inning when he reached with his bare hand for a Marwin Gonzalez groundball, and in the 3rd inning when the dip in his velocity became obvious, it seemed ominous to Angel and baseball fans in general that this experiment was irresponsibly expedited — that Ohtani had no business risking his health on the pitching mound again this season.

Mike Scioscia tried to temper fears after the September 2nd game by blaming Ohtani’s dip in velocity on a stiff back and his finger swelling up from making contact with the baseball while reaching for Gonzalez’s groundball. Three days after the start, though, the Angels announced that an MRI had revealed new damage to his UCL ligament, and that Tommy John Surgery was the new recommended course of action. Not only was the news devastating for the Angels organization and its fans, but also the entire baseball community that has been collectively supporting Ohtani’s efforts to do things not done on a professional baseball field literally since Babe Ruth in 1919.

However despite the heartbreaking reports, in true Ohtani-fashion, on the same day this news broke he went 4-for-4 with two home runs — the start of a hot streak that led to winning AL Player of the Week honors. It’s crazy to think that with all of the hype around him coming from Japan that Ohtani has met and exceeded probably everyone’s expectations except his own. He turned 24 in July, and his life goals by the time he turns 25 include make $13 million (1.5 billion JPY), win 16 games as a MLB starter, earn a Cy Young award, be a member of Japan’s World Baseball Classic team and throw a no hitter with 25 wins in a season. He may not have accomplished these things he set out to do, but he’s well on his way to a historic career as a transcendent talent in professional baseball nonetheless.

With 338 plate appearances under his belt, Ohtani has a wRC+ of 155 — 8th in the MLB amongst batters with at least 300 PAs this season. For comparison, have you heard of Aaron Judge (150), Jose Ramirez (150), Juan Soto (144), Ronald Acuna (146) or Paul Goldschmidt (147)? Yea, hitter Ohtani has better average statistics than all of those guys. Often rookies will wane down the course of a long 162-game season, but Ohtani is finishing the year strong.

In September, Shohei has really hit his stride since accepting the inevitability of his inability to pitch again any time soon. This month he’s got 5 home runs, 12 RBIs, 14 runs scored, 3 stolen bases, a .453 wOBA, a 195 wRC+ and a .322/.412/.678 slash line in 68 plate appearances. When given an opportunity to receive at bats on a more consistent basis, hitter Ohtani has proven to be one of the best sluggers in the league. We’ve come a long way since Spring Training when he failed to impress anyone going 4 for 32 with the bat. The popular opinion of Ohtani coming from Japan was that the Angels would humor his ambitions to hit and pitch for some time before making him commit fully to being a starting pitcher assuming the arm was his money maker. In his rookie season, Ohtani’s proven his swing is legit.

Let’s compare Shohei Ohtani’s rookie season to that of the greatest Japanese baseball player to ever play in the MLB, Ichiro Suzuki. In 2001 Ichiro joined the Seattle Mariners at age 27. He took the league by storm winning both the AL Rookie of the Year and MVP honors — something only he and Fred Lynn have ever done. Ichiro had a 7.7 WAR throughout his 157 regular season games played and 738 plate appearances. With the way that Ohtani has hit in 2018, his 2.7 Fangraphs WAR as a batter during his 338 plate appearances puts him on pace for about 6.5 as a designated hitter if he were to get 738 plate appearances like Ichiro did in his first season. That doesn’t even include his additional value as a pitcher, though!

In his 51.2 innings pitched, pitcher Ohtani went 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA and 63/22 K/BB ratio — good for a 1.2 WAR according to Baseball Reference. Jeff Sullivan noted in an article on Fangraphs, “By ERA-, he looks the same as Carlos Carrasco. By FIP- and xFIP-, he looks about the same as Charlie Morton. Among starters with at least 50 innings, Ohtani ranks tied with Blake Snell for 12th in strikeout rate, and no one has allowed a lower rate of contact” (ERA-, FIP- and xFIP- are park adjusted Sabermetric statistics used on Fangraphs). In his first professional season in the MLB, Ohtani proved to be both one of the league’s best hitters and pitchers.

Pitcher Ohtani’s average value (1.2 WAR in 51.2 IP) was the same or better than that of the rookie years of other Japanese great pitchers Hideo Nomo (4.7 WAR in 191.1 IP), Daisuke Matsuszaka (4.1 in 204.2) and Yu Darvish (3.5 in 191.1). Ohtani has the talent to become the the greatest player to come from the island of Japan. And despite his uncapped potential, he still remains humble and respectful of the greats before him:

During his first year in the MLB, Shohei Ohtani has proven he’s both an elite pitcher and hitter, but going forward the looming question is how should the Angels continue to utilize his talents in a way that’s best for both him and the team? In an ideal world where he was fully healthy, I’m sure the Angels would like to see Ohtani receive upwards of 450-500 plate appearances to go along with maybe 120-150 innings pitched. At his current performance standards, that’d result in a total WAR of almost 6.8-7.2. For your information, anything above a 6 in the WAR category is considered MVP-caliber value. Though with his supreme ability on both sides of the game, Ohtani has the potential to eventually produce WAR totals in the stratosphere.

Since Ohtani is likely to undergo Tommy John Surgery soon after this season, while evaluating how to best utilize his skill set for the betterment of the team and himself, the Angels should consider getting creative in finding ways to maximize his impact with the bat and arm once rehabilitated. Some have theorized, and I argue as well, that Shohei Ohtani should become a relief pitcher to enable him to be in the lineup as a hitter more often and take some strain off of his arm. Imagine a player capable of impacting the team as a hitter in the way that David Ortiz did for the Red Sox and as a pitcher the way Andrew Miller did for the Cleveland Indians during their 2016 playoff run to the World Series.

Being a relief pitcher could also allow the Angels to possibly give him spot starts as an outfielder — a position he saw limited time at during his career in Japan. He’s certainly athletic enough to play above-average defense in right or left field. Keep in mind that Albert Pujols may have a difficult time playing much first base over the final three years of his contract considering his season was cut short in 2018 after he underwent knee surgery, so the designated hitter spot may end up being the only way the Angels could get Pujols at-bats eventually. If Ohtani plays outfield occasionally that could allow Albert to get more time as a DH.

A lot of things went wrong for the Angels in 2018, but the bullpen in particular has been an area of weakness for them this year. Moving Shohei Ohtani’s devastating swing-and-miss pitching ability to the ‘pen would give them possibly the best fire extinguishing reliever in the MLB. It would also let him get more consistent plate appearances, which he’s proven this season would be something extremely beneficial to the success of the team.

A decision to transition Ohtani to the bullpen wouldn’t be made easily. Shohei’s preferences seem to have been the main consideration when making strategic decisions regarding balancing his play as a pitcher or hitter. When the Angels originally signed him, they reassured him that they’d give him an opportunity to play both positions. It’s clear Ohtani has high expectations for himself — it’s certainly not easy to pitch or hit well at this level of baseball, let alone both, but his over-ambitious attitude may have been what drove the decision to rush his rehabilitation of his elbow injury this season.

LA Angels
Los Angeles Angels designated hitter Shohei Ohtani (17) jammed his ankle sliding into second base on September 16th, but didn’t miss time. Photo by: Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

It’s demoralizing thinking about having to wait until 2020 at the earliest to see Shohei Ohtani take the pitching mound again. However, the silver lining within the sunk cost of a year that 2018 has been for the Los Angeles Angels has been the discovery of possibly the greatest all-around baseball player anybody has seen since Babe Ruth. Fortunately should Ohtani undergo the surgery soon, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports reported that he should be able to swing a bat about 3 months after the operation and play in live games 4.5-6 months after. Shohei thankfully should be able to act as the team’s DH for much of next year regardless of how he decides to treat his current injury.

Ohtani’s life goals he wrote down in high school also included winning a World Series by age 26 — that’s two years from now. Also happens to be the amount of years the Angels currently have Mike Trout under contract (although there are rumors of L.A. offering him a lifetime contract). It’s possible that the organization’s success these next two years will play a role in whether Trout will decide to stay in Anaheim beyond 2020. If you’re a baseball fan you can’t not hope the best for Shohei Ohtani in his pursuit of historic accomplishments. He’s attracting new fans and generating a positive narrative for the league and its supporters to get behind. However the Angels elect to utilize his talents in the future, I think we can all agree on one thing — the more Shohei Ohtani in our lives the better.

Get better soon, Shohei. Baseball needs you.

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