Is there such a thing as too much Shohei Ohtani?
By Victor Mather
It is remarkable enough that Shohei Ohtani is the first frontline starting pitcher in generations to do double duty as an everyday player. But he is not merely filling both roles for the Los Angeles Angels, he is excelling at them. His numbers put him among the best hitters in the game and have been very solid on the pitching side.
His double act has quickly made him a favorite of fans from just about every team. This week he has brought his act to Yankee Stadium, where he homered in a 5-3 win on Monday and is scheduled to start on the mound against Domingo Germán today.
“That definitely sent a message,” manager Joe Maddon told reporters of Ohtani’s 26th homer of the season, which set the tone in Monday’s victory. “He’s so easy to speak to during the game. He never gets upset. He never loses focus. He’s able to turn the page to the next one.
But yeah, that was just the right way to start his trip to New York, with him hitting a home run.”
While there is no question that Ohtani has truly arrived, he is rapidly approaching uncharted territory as a starting pitcher. How he deals with the largest workload of his major league career will go a long way toward revealing whether he is truly a shoo-in for the Most Valuable Player Award.
Ohtani arrived in the majors in 2018. Though he played well right away, his pitching created a series of strict workload restrictions, and an elbow injury limited him to 10 starts. Even so, he beat out Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres of the New York Yankees to win the Rookie of the Year Award.
Ohtani had Tommy John surgery to fix his elbow and didn’t pitch at all in 2019. In the shortened 2020 season, he pitched a total of 1 2/3 innings as concern grew about whether he could keep himself on the field.
Many traditionalists, disbelieving that a player could defy history, applauded the decision to treat him with care and counseled that Ohtani should pick a lane and stick to it.
But the Angels and Ohtani decided that 2021 would be the season in which he put it all together and became a complete two-way superstar. The various restrictions on his workload — the so-called Ohtani rules — were lifted and he was finally allowed to truly play every day.
So far, so good.
Going into today’s start, Ohtani is 3-1 in 11 starts while leading the Angels with a 2.58 ERA. He has thrown 59 1/3 innings, which already exceeds his previous highest total in North American baseball. His most recent outing, a loss to the San Francisco Giants on June 23 in which he allowed one run in six innings while striking out nine, was the first of the season — and just the third of his major league career — in which he was allowed to surpass 100 pitches.
“I came here to do the two-way thing,” he said last month. “That’s a big motivation for me, to try to prove to everyone I’m capable of that.”
The questions are whether Ohtani can maintain this double life without it affecting his batting, where he is tied with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays for the major league lead with 26 home runs through Monday. His 1.030 on-base plus slugging percentage trails only Guerrero and Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres.
A clue to Ohtani’s future can be found in his numbers with the Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan.
He started pitching there in his rookie season, and by his second season, 2014, he was a full-time starter, making 20 or more starts for three straight years. In the 2017 season, his last in Japan, he was cut back to five starts as he dealt with injuries.
In Japan, he maxed out at 162 2/3 innings pitched in a season. He is on pace for around 125 this season, which is short of that peak workload but would be the most he has thrown in five seasons, raising some eyebrows based on the belief that pitchers can increase their innings count only incrementally.
The reality is that injuries and workload management have always been a part of the Ohtani experience. He never played in more than 104 games of Japan’s 143-game season, chiefly because he typically did not play the field on the day before or after a start.
The lifting of the Ohtani rules has changed that. He has appeared in 73 of the Angels’ 78 games so far this year.
There are, however, still a few concessions to his unique nature. The Angels have given him six or more days of rest between the majority of his starts, rather than the four or five most starters receive. And Ohtani mostly plays designated hitter when he isn’t pitching, appearing in the outfield for only a handful of innings.
That formula has worked thus far, but his success hasn’t stopped some naysayers from suggesting that he still needs to pick a role.
“Ohtani is a special player that I think everyone is rooting for,” Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz said on ESPN. “But I think the reality is, how much longer can this not take away from each great talent that he has?”
Smoltz suggested that giving up hitting could unlock Ohtani’s pitching.
“If all he did was pitch, he’d be on the trail of a Jacob deGrom,” Smoltz said, comparing Ohtani to the New York Mets’ ace who has an eye-opening 0.69 ERA for the year.
But the Angels and Ohtani seem committed to keep him going where no player has gone in decades. There are plenty of question marks, but based on his time in Japan, if the team continues to take care, it seems like he can pull it off.