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Shohei Otani AKA The Most Interesting Man in Fantasy Baseball

A look at perhaps the most interesting player in fantasy baseball history.

Shohei Otani is about to change the fantasy baseball landscape. What can we expect from the Japanese import?
Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

Shohei Otani. A name which will be heavily discussed leading into the 2018 season. The 23-year-old Japanese hitter/pitcher is the top headline heading into the MLB offseason. How will fantasy sites handle him? Is the hype real? Can he really hit and pitch at an above average or elite level? Join me as I dive in and try to answer these questions and more.

Otani vs Ruth

The first hurdle I will tackle in the Otani case is his common nickname of the Japanese Babe Ruth. This is legendary praise. I personally feel Babe Ruth is the greatest baseball player of all time. Ruth averaged 46 HR between 1920-1932 including 3 seasons of 50+ HR and a 60 HR season in 1927. To put this in prospective, 15,400 HR were hit between 1920-1932. Ruth hit 603 of those homers. That’s 4% of the leagues’ homers. Over the past 5 seasons, there have been 25,471 HR. The league leaders in each of those seasons combined for 246 HR. That’s only 1% of the total home runs hit. Ruth also had a 2.16 ERA over 1167.1 IP between 1915-1919. This was obviously a time where far fewer runs were scored but Ruth was still a great pitcher for the times.

Can Otani come close to matching what Ruth did? I’m betting against it. That being said, I understand the reasons for the comparison. It attracts the most eyes to his play and drives home the point that Otani deserves to be noticed.

What do fantasy sites do?

I’d imagine owning Babe Ruth in your 1920’s fantasy baseball league was fun. Comment below if you remember those times! For the more current crowd, we have never seen a true 2 way player. Fantasy baseball is set up in a way where pitchers’ hitting stats are not calculated nor are hitter’s pitching stats. This prevents owners of NL pitchers from having their batting average negatively impacted. But what if your pitchers gets 300 or so at bats and hits .275 with 15 HR? This is the value Otani could have. There are 3 options fantasy baseball sites, as well as league managers, can take with Otani’s eligibility:

  1. Make him a SP only player and do not count his hitting stats.
  2. Have two Otanis in the player pool, 1 hitter and 1 pitcher.
  3. Give him position eligibility at both SP and DH and let owners decide.

Option 3 makes the most sense to me. Treat him like Buster Posey who has eligibility at both C and 1B. Fantasy owners make a weekly or daily (depending on league format) decision on where to play Posey. This does mean, however, if a owner uses Otani as a SP during one of his starts, that owner would NOT receive the hitting stats for that day. They would only receive the hitting stats on days/weeks the owner has Otani in the DH spot in their lineup. This would give Otani more fantasy value in daily leagues than weekly.

It’s quite possible Option 1 comes to fruition simply because the team Otani lands on decides to keep him as strictly a SP. He is a much better pitcher than hitter and elite starting pitching carries much more value in both real and fake baseball.

Which team will Otani sign with?

This question might be just as interesting as the previous. The short answer is wherever Otani wants to sign. The CBA has placed restrictions on the amount teams are able to spend on international signings. This means we will not have a bidding war for the Japanese superstar. Rather, pretty much ever team in the league will put the max offer in for Otani and he will simply decide where to play. The 3 front runners at the moment appear to be the Yankees, Rangers, and Mariners. 2 of those 3 teams have highly favorable home ballparks. You would also assume wherever Otani lands, it will be to a team that will at least give him a run as a 2 way player. He wants to take on the challenge of playing both ways and considering he will have plentiful offers, I think this could be a big factor in his decision on where to play.

What numbers will Otani put up in 2018?

Otani is considered an elite pitching prospect. Some reports indicate he could be a top 10 arm in the league. Over 5 seasons in Japan, Otani has a 2.56 ERA 1.08 WHIP and a 10.3 K/9. This is comparable to the likes of Stephen Strasburg, Luis Severino and Carlos Carrasco. All 3 of those starters finished inside the top 10 at SP in 2017. The issue with Otani is his IP over the past 5 years. He topped out at 160.2 IP in 2015. His fellow countrymen, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, and Kenta Maeda, all had multiple seasons of 200+ IP before coming over to MLB. Can Otani have value with only 160 IP? Sure! But the top 10 potential might not be there in 2018.

As a hitter, Otani has a .286 average with .859 OPS in 5 seasons. Giving him 350 AB projects his hitting numbers to be 50 R 16 HR 56 RBI and 4 SB. Not Earth shattering but still amazing for a pitcher. Think Tim Beckham, Orlando Arcia, or Odubel Herrera. All of those hitters landed inside the top 115 hitters in 2017. To be honest, the projected at bats might be a bit too conservative as well. More AB means more stats for Otani.

Where do I draft Otani?

Finally, we get to the most pressing questions all fantasy owners will be facing come draft season. Where do I draft Otani? I feel this answer is going to depend greatly on league format and what Otani’s role is going into 2018. If we use the ESPN player rater to determine the value of a player with both hitting and pitching stats we can perhaps get a better look at his value in a standard 5x5 roto league. Zack Godley was the #30 SP and had 5.47 value on the player rater. Tim Beckham was the #97 overall hitter and had 4.07 value for his hitting. If we combine the two we get 9.54 points of value on the player rater. This would make him the #21 overall player in fantasy baseball last season! A reminder that this is the conservative approach. Otani has top 10 SP upside and might be top 75 at the plate.

Purely as a SP, Otani would rank around SP25. The uncertainty of how he will fair against MLB level hitters coupled with the potential for an innings cap leads me to this decision. If there are two Otanis in the player pool then Otani strictly as a hitter would rank around #125 overall for me. This places him right around where I’d expect him to finish given his career stats and his potential limited at bats. Otani as a duel eligible SP/DH is where things get interesting. The case can easily be made for top 50 and I’d go as high as top 30 overall. As mentioned before in my player rater example, a conservative projection for Otani makes him almost top 20. Otani would rank right around #30 overall for me if he has both positions.