Ohtani's role as a pitcher and hitter will be revolutionary
Even Babe Ruth really couldn’t maintain what the Babe Ruth of Japan, Shohei Ohtani, will attempt for some major league team in the seasons ahead — to serve regularly as both a position player and pitcher.
Ruth was used primarily as a pitcher early in his career, leading the American League with a 1.75 ERA in 1916 and compiling 24 wins in 1917. But most of Ruth’s plate appearances were limited to the games in which he pitched, and when the Babe started playing the outfield regularly in 1918, his mound appearances diminished dramatically. He pitched in just 20 games in ’18, 17 in 1919, and had only five more outings on the mound in a career that ended in 1935.
“There have been players who have had the talent to try to do that,” said a major league manager who did not want to be quoted by name because his team, like every other team, will attempt to woo Ohtani once the Nippon Ham Fighters formally give him the chance to sign with an MLB team, likely sometime in the next few weeks. “A lot of guys in the big leagues grew up as the best hitter on their team before focusing on pitching, or vice versa. But there’s obviously a reason that no one has really done it over a long period — because it’s too difficult to try to do both.”
This will be Ohtani’s challenge, and the challenge for his MLB team — to create a workable structure that will give him the best chance to capitalize on his incredible set of skills and serve as both a pitcher and a position player.
When shortstop Andrelton Simmons and first baseman Freddie Freeman were teammates with the Braves, they used to jokingly argue about who had the better fastball, given that both threw in the high-90s range as amateurs. Before Tim Hudson won 222 games as a big league pitcher, he was an elite hitter at Auburn. Stan Musial started his professional career as a pitcher before transitioning into a hitter who collected 3,630 hits. After Rick Ankiel’s command escaped him, he became an outfielder and played seven seasons in the big leagues. Many great pitchers have been good hitters, and many good hitters had pitching talent. But no player has ever successfully worked as a starting pitcher and a position player extensively.
Ohtani wants to do both, and some MLB team will give him the chance because of his staggering ability. As a right-handed pitcher, Ohtani throws as hard as 101-102 mph, with sharp, vicious off-speed stuff, and in 2016, he posted a 1.86 ERA in 140 innings for the Nippon Ham Fighters. As a left-handed hitter, the 6-foot-3 Ohtani consistently drives the ball to left-center field with power: He had an OPS of 1.004 in 382 plate appearances in 2016, with 18 doubles and 22 home runs. He has been clocked at 3.9 seconds running to first base, as fast as Mike Trout.
Micah Owings pitched for six seasons in the big leagues, starting in 68 of 138 appearances from 2007 to 2012, and because he was perhaps the best-hitting pitcher in the NL — he went 20-for-60 with 12 extra-base hits in his rookie year — he was often used as a pinch hitter. In 2013, he mostly played the outfield in the minor leagues, and he also pitched in 14 games. In a recent conversation, Owings detailed the work and preparation to serve as a pitcher and a hitter, and he might as well have been comparing and contrasting Hawaii and Alaska — places totally unalike other than sharing the same planet.
“Position-player-wise, it’s a lot about keeping your legs [fresh and] under you,” he said. “You’d have to back off doing some of the pitcher workouts. You’d almost have to come up with a specific workout structure for his role.”
Most hitters take batting practice daily, with defensive drills specific to their position. Infielders take ground balls, and outfielders — like Ohtani — take fly balls. Then the fielders spend anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours on their feet during games, getting into a ready position for about 150 pitches every day. Some position players do any necessary cardiovascular work before batting practice, and some, particularly catchers, prefer to weight-train after games. Then there are the hitters’ meetings, the videotape review of the opponent’s starter and relievers, the conversations about hitting with a coach, the purposeful obsession with fixing a problem, in working through a slump.
Starting pitchers have a completely different rhythm to their workweek. Owings, like many other pitchers, did his heaviest workout the day after he made a start. Pitchers throw in the bullpen either two or three days after a start, to hone mechanics and pitches, to troubleshoot. Starters will play catch on flat ground on other days, and they will run, building toward their next game like a quarterback preparing for an NFL Sunday. Some starters are devoted to controlling every part of their work and develop their own pitching plan for each start, while others prefer to delegate the mental toll, and instead like to rely on their pitching coaches and catchers as they design a way to beat the next opponent.
“In a lot of ways in baseball, it’s almost like there are two different teams — you have the pitchers and you have the position players,” said an AL evaluator.
Trevor Hoffman was a shortstop in college and was drafted by the Reds as a shortstop. But he struggled to hit consistently. “I couldn’t handle the 0-for-4s,” Hoffman said, recalling how one hitless game would stack up emotionally on the next until he felt he could never keep up. The pressure to hit was overwhelming for him, and after a short time in the minors, organization officials asked him if he had ever thought about pitching. He took to it and loved it, and only Mariano Rivera has more career saves than Hoffman, who is likely to be elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in January.
So this is what Ohtani has been doing in the early part of his career in Japan, what he will try to continue to do for the major league team he picks — properly balance all of the physical and mental work well enough to pitch and to be part of the everyday lineup on most days when he does not pitch.
“I think it’s going to take a specific club that’s sold on doing this,” Owings said. “There has to be some strong trust with both parties. I think it can be done.”
Owings recalls that in his time as a two-way player, he would monitor how his legs felt, and he wouldn’t take as much batting practice. “The less that I was doing on the hitting side was better for me,” he said. “You limit the workload outside of games because of the toll it takes on your body.
“I had to teach myself to back off a little bit. I had to learn to stay out of the batting cage or, ‘Don’t go in the weight room today.’ You almost have to make yourself do that.”
Ohtani has experience navigating through these quandaries already, Owings said. “He probably already has that balance. I’m really excited to see a player like this.”
But Ohtani’s schedule will be unique. Rival evaluators expect his typical schedule could look something like this:
Day 1: Ohtani takes the mound as a starting pitcher.
Day 2: He could have the day off to recover from the previous day’s outing and to do the heaviest physical preparation of the starting pitcher’s cycle. Owings believes that in the life of a pitcher/hitter, this would be the most important day for Ohtani to be off and out of the every-day lineup.
Days 3 and 4: He could play in the field — or at designated hitter, if he signs with an American League team. The DH option is the reason some club executives speculate that he’ll land with an AL team (and the Yankees are generally regarded as the early favorites, because Ohtani could take advantage of the enhanced marketing opportunities of New York). On one of these days, Ohtani would likely hold a bullpen session.
Day 5: If Ohtani was part of a six-man rotation, he could be in the lineup on this day. If he was in a five-man rotation, most evaluators polled for this story speculated he would need this day off as well, resting in the 24 hours before his next start.
Day 6: If Ohtani was in a five-man rotation, he would start on this day. If not, he would probably have the day off to prepare.
Day 7: If Ohtani was in a six-man rotation, he would make his next start.
The AL evaluator noted the fatigue that was obvious during the recent postseason, when many pitchers threw with diminished velocity. “You see how tired the guys are, and they’re training for only one position,” he said. “Imagine doing that [as a pitcher] and trying to play a position at a high level. It tells you just how impressive he is, given the consensus that teams are going to let him try to do it.”
The manager said, “It’s already complicated and difficult, and now you’re asking a player to develop as a pitcher at the same time he’s working as a hitter. This is a kid who is 23 and he’s still learning, so his side days [in the bullpen] are important — and on those days, he’s hitting fifth in the lineup that night? How’s he going to do both of those jobs effectively? Is he going to shortchange one or the other?”
Because there are so few examples of players working as both pitchers and position players from which to draw, the manager said, unforeseen conflicts will arise; there will be collateral damage from having roster spot devoted to a hitter who is only sometimes available. The manager mentioned the Padres’ effort early last season to use catcher Christian Bethancourt as a reliever, which fell apart because Bethancourt — without much past work as a pitcher — had command problems.
However Ohtani’s schedule is structured, other parts of the roster and other players are bound to be affected. An NL club that signs Ohtani would have to account for the necessary outfield depth to cover for the days Ohtani pitched and was out of the lineup. If he starts every sixth or seventh day, rotation mates accustomed to pitching every fifth day would have their schedules altered.
One evaluator suggested that Ohtani’s best pitching role could be as a super-reliever loosely scheduled to throw a couple of innings a couple of times a week, which would make it easier for managers to work him into the lineup. This would require less regimented pitching preparation from Ohtani.
“There are going to be issues nobody has even thought of,” the manager said.
He paused, and mused again about Ohtani’s remarkable talent.
“I’d love to have that problem,” he said.