Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s Two-Way Star, Aims to Take M.L.B. Back to Its Future


Ohtani, who was named the most valuable player of Nippon Professional Baseball’s Pacific League in 2016, was limited by ankle and hamstring injuries this year, batting in only 65 games and making five starts on the mound. He had a .332 batting average with eight home runs, and put together a 3.20 E.R.A. pitching. In 2016, Ohtani hit .322 with 22 home runs, and he had a 1.86 E.R.A. with 174 strikeouts over 140 innings. In one notable start, he threw 31 pitches that were at least 99 miles per hour.

Many other players have been talented enough to succeed in either job. After arm injuries and control issues undermined him in 2001 following 41 major league starts, Rick Ankiel converted from pitcher to outfielder and reached the majors again in 2007. Madison Bumgarner, the San Francisco Giants ace, has 17 home runs in his eight full seasons, and it’s tempting to wonder what he might accomplish if he played first base between pitching starts.

But with millions of dollars riding on every star’s shoulders — and knees, ankles, elbows, core muscles — their employers prefer to play it safe.

“There’s been a lot of talent that currently resides in major league baseball that is capable of doing it both ways,” said Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager. “There’s some exceptional pitchers that can really hit, but from a protection standpoint, people just declare one or the other.”

Ohtani’s injuries raise some obvious doubts about the wisdom of letting him hold both jobs, in addition to concerns about his ability to do it against an even higher level of competition than he faced in Japan.

M.L.B. also has a less forgiving schedule — 162 regular-season games vs. Japan’s 143, with every Monday off — and the travel is more strenuous. The longest distance between teams’ stadiums in Japan is about 900 aerial miles, roughly equal to a trip from New York to St. Louis. And teams in Ohtani’s league use six pitchers in their rotation instead of five, as most M.L.B. teams do.

“It would take a unique skill set, both physical and mental,” Jon Daniels, the Texas Rangers’ general manager, said of the two-way challenge. “And a unique setup for those skills to play out, proper health and recovery, and all those elements, as well. I would think it’s possible.”

It’s difficult to find a recent example of a player doing what Ohtani aims to achieve. But some research, using a standard of at least 15 major league games on the mound and 15 more at a different position in the same season, turned up Willie Smith of the 1964 Los Angeles Angels.

Smith pitched in 15 games that year and played the outfield in 87. A left-hander in both jobs, he batted .301 with 11 home runs and had a 2.84 E.R.A., mostly as a reliever.

The sport’s greatest two-way player was Ruth, who began his career as a dominant starting pitcher and then did both assignments regularly for the Boston Red Sox in 1918 and 1919 as he started to transform himself into the Sultan of Swat.

In those two seasons, he hit .312 with 40 home runs and 174 R.B.I., mostly while playing left field, and he had a 2.55 E.R.A. in just under 300 innings on the mound.

Photo

Shohei Otani of the Nippon Ham Fighters pitching and hitting cleanup against the Orix Buffaloes at the Sapporo Dome last month.

Credit
Kyodo News, via Getty Images

Most other players who held dual roles worked in an even earlier era, before or near the beginning of the 20th century: Jesse Tannehill, Doc White, Harry Howell and Doc Crandall.

“The nutrition was different then, the travel was different, the media pressure — everything,” said Erik Neander, the general manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, who are letting one of their top prospects experiment as a two-way player.

With the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft, the Rays selected Brendan McKay out of the University of Louisville and gave him a $7 million signing bonus. McKay, a left-hander, was 11-3 in his final college season with a 2.56 E.R.A. and 146 strikeouts while hitting .341 with 18 home runs and 57 R.B.I.

The Rays rated McKay as the best position player and as the best pitcher on their draft board, and they told him he did not yet need to choose one position.

“We recognized that our experience managing something like this mentally, physically, emotionally is very, very limited,” Neander said. “So as important as anything else was learning from Brendan, getting a better understanding of him and how he balances his time, and then take it from there.”

McKay made six pitching starts for the Class A short-season Hudson Valley Renegades this year, while appearing in 15 games as a designated hitter and 21 as a first baseman. The player picked second in the draft, the high schooler Hunter Greene, also used his first minor-league assignment to test playing two ways, but by the end of summer he had committed to pitching exclusively.

Ohtani considered going straight to M.L.B. after high school, but he chose the Fighters because they promised him the chance to pitch and play in the outfield. If he ever opts to play just one position, it is expected to be pitching.

“He’s one of the best talents in the world,” Levine said. “I think he is clearly going to have success in the major leagues. He may need a little time to transition, but there are so many quality pitchers that come over from Japan, and when all is said and done, I think he’ll be one of the best.”

It isn’t clear whether Ohtani has a preference between the National League, where he could bat on the days he pitches, and the American League, where the option of being a designated hitter would allow him to play every day while protecting his body from the rigors of fielding.

“I want to hear what teams over there say and what kind of situations might be available,” Ohtani said at a news conference this month when he announced his intention to sign with an M.L.B. team.

M.L.B. has already made compromises to accommodate the arrival of Ohtani and his extraordinary talent. The method of buying a player’s rights from a Japanese team was supposed to change in a way that would lower the cost in many cases, but the old system, allowing up to $20 million, has been grandfathered (pending approval from M.L.B. owners) for this off-season so that the Fighters will have more incentive to relinquish Ohtani.

Likewise, Ohtani is making concessions to join M.L.B. next season. If he had waited until he turned 25, Ohtani could have received a major league contract without restrictions, for perhaps upward of $100 million. But at 23, he is subject to strict M.L.B. limits on signing players classified as international amateurs.

His 2018 salary could be no higher than the major league minimum, $545,000, and his signing bonus would depend on which team he chose.

The clubs with the largest remaining pools of international money to spend are the Rangers and Yankees ($3.5 million each), and the Minnesota Twins ($3.2 million). Virtually all M.L.B. teams, even those with smaller pools of money to spend, such as the Seattle Mariners ($1.5 million) and the Los Angeles Dodgers ($300,000), are expected to make a pitch to Ohtani, trying to sell him on their cities, their facilities, their plans for him, and even their Japanese-American fan bases. The formal bidding could start by the end of this week.

For Ohtani, there is an upside to starting without a huge guaranteed deal: Teams have less reason to fear the hazards of letting him play a dual role.

In any case, much about Ohtani will be unique and uncertain — the rules surrounding him, his recruitment and his skill set. Even his last name may require a new understanding. Many usually reliable sources have spelled it Otani, without an “h,” but his agency recently pointed out the preferred rendering on his Fighters jersey: Ohtani. Presumably, the name does not have a two-way future.

The player himself will present a complicated juggling act for his employers and his opponents alike, but one that will undoubtedly add a new layer of inventiveness to Major League Baseball.

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