There may not have been a bigger free agent signing this winter than pitcher-hitter Shohei Ohtani, but some early returns aren’t great.
Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani is a baseball rarity in this day and age. While the game continues to move towards specialists in the bullpen and at the dish, Ohtani is striving to break that mold in Los Angeles. The Angels are letting him be a starting pitcher while also playing the designated hitter role two to three times a week. This is unheard of in the Majors at this point but some around the game are questioning whether it can work out already.
Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reported over the weekend that scouts had serious doubts if Ohtani can handle himself at the plate. They fear that his bat needs seasoning in the minor leagues, something that is highly unlikely to happen. The talent level is too tantalizing to send to the minors, especially on the mound. It’s pretty easy to see why when he’s up there throwing this kind of a pitch.
GIFs of pretty pitches are one thing, stats are another. Right now, there’s not a lot of encouraging stats to pull from anywhere for Ohtani. He has a 6.75 ERA in just 1 1/3 innings officially, although he did strikeout eight of the 12 batters he faced against the Milwaukee Brewers “B” team. Offensively, he’s hit two singles in 14 official at-bats. That’s not going to cut it during the season but it also serves as a reminder of the last time a highly touted foreign player tried to make the transition to MLB in former Pirates third baseman Jung-Ho Kang.
In 2015, the Buccos signed Kang and it was around this time of spring that some scouts started to worry if he could make the switch. Dang was excellent overseas but had struggled mightily, batting just .200 with four walks to 17 strikeouts in 50 plate appearances. Folks around the league started to question the signing and if Kang could be successful. Once the season actually started, Kang responded well and finished the 2015 campaign with a healthy .287 batting average, .816 OPS and 15 home runs.
This isn’t an exact comparison, of course. Kang just had to play the field and bat. Ohtani is attempting to pitch once a week on top of playing offense. The pressure surrounding Ohtani is much different as well. Since he’s already such a big name, the 23-year old carries a lot of weight on those shoulders. He’s trying to change the way some think about baseball, while adjusting to an entirely new country and culture off the field. The changes in his life are enormous right now.
It truly wouldn’t be surprising in the least to see Ohtani struggle out of the gates. He’s going to need some time to find his footing in the Majors. It’s important to remember that the first few months does not a career make. Also, the Angels were able to sign him for pennies thanks to the way MLB handles international free agents. The Angels will get more than their money’s worth in due time.
If baseball fans can be a little patient, they can see a true game changer develop in 2018.