Which Shohei Ohtani is the most FUN Shohei Ohtani?

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A couple weeks ago, Dan Syzmborski laid out the ZiPS projections for Shohei Ohtani as both a hitter (pretty good!) and a pitcher (close to great!). This lines up with how we talk about Ohtani, how we plan for him, how we game out the best way for a team to use him. You can have a lot of fun with this premise, and we have.

What if we've got him all wrong, though? We get players wrong all the time. Matt Harvey was an ace pitcher, and now he's awful.Aaron Judge was a good, young hitter, and now he's a superstar. We might be getting Ohtani the pitcher wrong and Ohtani the hitter wrong.

So we asked Szymborski for Ohtani's 80th and 20th percentile projections on each side of the ball. An 80th percentile projection is basically a player's Really Good Outcome, the one he reaches or surpasses in just 20 percent of our simulated universes. The 20th percentile is his downer future, the one he fails to top in 20 percent of our simulated universes.

In this case, as in most cases, these show us how broadly the potential outcomes span.

Let's quickly convert those to actual 2017 players' actual seasons to make the rest of this conversation more relatable and interesting. (Comparables are mine (not Szymborski's), are rough estimates and refer only to each player's 2017 performance.)

There are a lot things Ohtani could be. He could be an ace pitcher but a hitter who barely belongs in the majors, or he could be a star outfielder who gets named on MVP ballots but continually frustrates and/or gets hurt as a pitcher.

There are almost infinite possibilities. But let's treat these three outcomes in each role as his range. Which is the most fun Shohei Ohtani outcome?

Counting backward:

9. 20th percentile hitter (Polanco), 50th percentile pitcher (Arrieta)

This is the one that ends the two-way-player experiment most quickly. Ohtani would be a pretty valuable pitcher but pretty obnoxious as a hitter, in the same way your dumb friend who thinks he can switch-hit (he can't) is obnoxious in slow-pitch softball. Further, because our expectations for Ohtani are so high, we'd all be kind of disappointed if he ended up actually pitching like 2017 Jake Arrieta. Even though this is a very realistic expectation for his pitching, we'd assume he's distracted by the hitting and needs to give that up so he can be a better pitcher. Which he probably wouldn't be, and then all we'd have left is a pretty good pitcher who we used to think was going to be historically significant. Not that fun.

8. 50th percentile hitter (Myers), 20th percentile pitcher (Gausman)

This would be fine. He'd mostly scuffle along for the first year as a pitcher, but there'd be at least one night where he'd homer, steal two bags, throw six innings of shutout ball and then move out to left field so his bat would stay in the lineup. Then in early 2019, he'd have a sore elbow and take a few weeks off from pitching, but it would still hurt after a few weeks, and those few weeks would turn out to be forever. He'd still have a nice, little career as an outfielder. He'd hit 141 homers, steal 82 bases, make an All-Star team, get a couple MVP votes and produce a few incredible highlights that hint at but don't quite capture what it was like to watch him. Twenty-five years later, we'd all still remember that night he homered, stole those bases, threw six innings of shutout ball, etc., and nobody born after 2013 would get it. They'd wonder why we are all attached to a guy with 141 career homers. But we'd know, and we'd own something our children and grandchildren can't. They would have the future, but we and only we would have Ohtani.

There are very few ways Ohtani won't be fun, just as there are very few ways Ohtani won't be at least pretty valuable, which is why his coming to the majors is such an absurdly generous gift to baseball.

7. 20th percentile hitter (Polanco), 80th percentile pitcher (Carrasco)

This is the one that ends the two-way-player experiment the second-most quickly. Ohtani wouldn't be adding much value as a hitter, and it would start to look way too risky to let a legit ace run the bases and tire himself out just because he wanted to. His team would have to figure out how to get out of whatever promises it made to him, maybe offering to let him coach first base or fly the team plane instead of batting. He'd still pinch hit some, maybe bat for himself in the American League, but without regular action as a hitter, those skills would probably start to atrophy. Two or three years down the line, he'd break his last bat and not bother to order a new shipment.

6. 50th percentile hitter (Myers), 50th percentile pitcher (Arrieta)

This is the most likely outcome, and its intrigue levels suffer a bit for that. The one thing humans most struggle to enjoy is stasis, even happy stasis.

After a year of hearing about exactly this amazing creature, I'm already teetering on the edge of complacency about him. The first few weeks of seeing him would surely be thrilling, both to see him in action and to see the sport figure out how to handle the paperwork (do his offensive stats count in your fantasy league?) and the strategy (how does a team best deploy a pinch hitter who might be the second- or third-best hitter on the team?). After that, well, after that I hope it's fun for years, but I'm afraid we'll grow weary of him quickly, especially if we consider both Wil Myers and Arrieta to be slightly less exciting players than had been described.

I'm also skeptical that it'll work as well as we're hoping it will. There are a lot of unknowns, but I've become convinced thathitting regularly will cannibalize more of his pitching value than the equation can handle. In the Myers/Arrieta outcome, I would probably expect Ohtani to be (almost) exclusively pitching by April 2020.

5. 20th percentile hitter (Polanco), 20th percentile pitcher (Gausman)

I'm just saying, things would be a lot more interesting if Shohei Ohtani wound up being terrible. This is a kink that probably isn't universal, but there's another reason the Polanco/Gausman outcome would be really interesting: If Ohtani's ceiling came to be perceived as not that high, his team might be more willing to experiment with him in more radical ways. There'd simply be less risk. Now, at a certain point -- maybe his 10th percentile outcomes -- you run into the Brooks Kieschnick problem, in which he isn't good enough to justify the extra effort to play him. But Polanco is a major league regular, and Gausman is a major league starter. If Ohtani played like both of them, he'd be valuable -- valuable enough to want to wring more value out of, yet not so valuable that letting him hit and pitch would feel like juggling your best dinnerware.

4. 80th percentile hitter (Springer), 50th percentile pitcher (Arrieta)

This would be amazing, of course, but I fear it'd end up a little frustrating, too.

Here's why: A hitter such as 2017 Springer adds more value than a pitcher such as 2017 Arrieta, but because of the nature of each role, the pitcher does it in one-fifth as many days. That means that on each day he pitches, the pitcher is more valuable than the hitter is on each day he hits. In other words, a pitcher can produce all of his value while leaving about 130 days idle. The premise of an Ohtani is that a valuable hitter can add value on at least some of those 130 days, creating this enhanced version of the star pitcher. This doesn't work in reverse, though; a star hitter has no idle days to fill in with pitching appearances. There isn't really an enhanced version of a star player. He's already on the field all the time.

Our current premise is that Ohtani is a good hitter and an even better pitcher, and so he'll be used primarily as a pitcher. That makes sense and feels good. But even if we flip that, and he's a good pitcher and an even better hitter, I think he'll still be used primarily as a pitcher. That will make sense in a sort of complex resource-management way, but it will feel wrong. Why is the great hitter on the bench so the pretty good pitcher can pitch? Call-in radio will rage. And it'll feel really wrong when (as a pitcher) he inevitably needs surgery, and the All-Star-level position player is lost for a year as collateral damage. Still, though, it'll be amazing.

3. 50th percentile hitter (Myers), 80th percentile pitcher (Carrasco)

This would have some of the same problems as No. 6 -- if he's really this valuable as a pitcher, but not a game-altering force at the plate, I suspect his team will be looking for ways to take his bats from him. This scenario benefits, however, from not having even a whiff of disappointment about it. Ohtani would start 32 times, he'd get Cy Young votes, he'd challenge the pinch-hit home run record, he'd pinch hit as the tying or winning run a couple dozen times a year, and he'd knock a small handful of walk-off homers. It'd be rad.

2. 80th percentile hitter (Springer), 20th percentile pitcher (Gausman)

In this scenario, Ohtani almost certainly plays every day as a hitter and most likely becomes a reliever who sits at 100 mph and probably dominates. (Even middle-of-the-rotation guys, which this would represent, tend to make great relievers.) So, what, he jogs in from the outfield when he gets the call? When does he warm up? Between innings? Does he go back out to his position afterward? Does he do this only on days he DHs? Do his pitching appearances have to be planned way in advance? If they do, is there wiggle room for super-high leverage? Does he or does he not jog in from right field in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the World Series!? To the extent that solving the usage puzzle is a huge part of the fun here, star hitter/ace reliever is the most complicated puzzle. It's also the scenario that gives us the most Ohtani screen time and the most potential Ohtani screen time. Every game might be a two-way day.

1. 80th percentile hitter (Springer), 80th percentile pitcher (Carrasco)

Carrasco and Springer wouldn't be Ohtani's ceiling, by the way. In a fifth of our universes, he's this good or better. His career year as a pitcher might be good enough to win the Cy Young Award. His career year as a hitter might be good enough to win a Silver Slugger. He'd be too good on both sides of the field to waste even a single pitch or plate appearance that he could physically handle. There will never again be a baseball player as famous as this version of Ohtani would be. Mike Trout would cry from jealousy. I'd cry from the joy of it all.